With the attention-grabbing All Over Your Face and the viral smash Ice Cream Truck, rapper Cazwell dragged hip hop kicking and screaming into the LGBT community.
Known for his steaming-hot videos and frank depiction of gay sexuality, Cazwell is also arguably the most famous gay rapper in the world. And yet, for all the sensational click-baiting of his song titles (2011’s Unzip Me with Peaches), this Worcester-born artist has astute things to say about male entitlement and the importance of pride.
Cazwell hosts a hip hop party every Thursday night at the Ritz bar in New York City. On June 10, he visited Boston’s Club Café to judge the Queen’s Voice talent show alongside celebrity drag queen JuJubee. He also recently dropped the single Downtown and is about to premiere the video for his song The Biscuit.
Spare Change News interviewed Cazwell exclusively for its PRIDE issue and learned all about his Massachusetts upbringing, his love of Missy Elliott and his take on LGBT life.
Q: What can we expect from your Club Café appearance?
Well, I think I was asked to judge—which gay people are very good at doing. I’ll probably feel out the moment and see what they want. They can expect a lot of cocky commentary but also heartfelt suggestions.
Q: This issue is the PRIDE issue of Spare Change News. What does pride mean to you?
I feel like pride means something different to me now than when I started out. You needed a sense of pride to survive when so many people were invisible. I think you still need a sense of pride even though gay people find themselves less and less in those kinds of situations compared to the ‘80s and ‘90s. I think pride is knowing who you are, not just in terms of being gay but also in terms of what you look like and having a sense of your authentic self.
Q: You’ve talked a lot about straight men feeling entitled to talk about sex. Do you feel like you’re helping to shift the balance and let gay men claim that entitlement too?
That wasn’t the original goal but I saw it happening. My first single was All Over Your Face and although I wasn’t gonna write a song about [censored] on someone’s face, the lyrics of the sample I used were “Is it all over my face?” so I went with it. I had a show in Portland, Oregon, and when I flew out there, I lost my luggage and had to perform in the clothes I was wearing on the plane. I got on stage and looked around and saw all these gay guys with beards lip-syncing to my song. I was like, “Wow, this is a good thing.” Gay men should feel the same entitlement to express themselves sexually as straight guys. Not that you have to be vulgar, but men are men. I think women should do it too. In order to fight repression, you have to be loud. I hope it strikes a chord like, “oh, this is normal,” not like it’s too much or vulgar.
Q: Have you always been naturally outspoken?
Yeah, I mean I live in New York. I’m actually from Massachusetts. I grew up in Worcester and lived in Boston. Having a cocky attitude and being fierce with words is what I used to protect myself growing up in Worcester. As soon as I moved to New York City, I was working in the club scene and had to build up a persona on the stage. I’ve always had an underlying Worcester attitude. It’s what I grew up around, so when I’m on stage, it comes out. I don’t really plan it.
Q: What’s your relationship with Worcester today?
I don’t go back. My mum and dad don’t live there anymore. The last time I went there, I had, like, an anxiety attack and had to leave. The whole place had shifted and everyone I knew was on heroin. I feel like Worcester was a good place to go to school and build my personality and I have fond memories but I always felt like it’s a town where people go to settle and I don’t mean “settle down,” I mean “I’m settling for this.” I always wanted more than what Worcester had to offer.
Q: You’ve collaborated a lot with Amanda Lepore, the transgender performance artist. How did that relationship come about?
Amanda and I were in the same scene. She saw me perform at Joe’s Pub and she asked me to perform at her birthday party. After the show, I was walking around the club and she was sitting on top of a booth. She had this glass of champagne in her hand and she looked so glamorous. I was like, “Wow, I’ve never seen someone represent champagne so well.” So I went home and wrote the song Champagne for her. I got some musicians and we practiced the track. The more I worked with her, the more I wrote things down she said. She’s like my favorite person. She’s really inspirational. She’s the kind of person everyone should know. So I decided to do an autobiographical album with her [I… Amanda Lepore].
Q: What would you say to a gay person who thinks hip hop is for straight people?
I mean, it is [laughs]. You go to some hip hop clubs and there’s not a dose of gay friendliness. I think you can create music originating in hip hop but relatable to gay people. I’ve done that. Leif has done that—and Mykki and Dipper. People who are deep in hip hop culture don’t really feel a connection to the gay community. But I think that gay people can use hip hop to create something that tells their story. When I first started doing this, I couldn’t even get a gay pride gig. Everyone was a drag queen or a diva vocalist. There was no connection at all and it wasn’t even a concept that [gay hip hop] could happen, but now I’m doing gay prides all the time. Before straight people can accept gay hip hop, gay people have to accept it sonically.
Q: What’s your least favorite thing about LGBT culture?
I think gay culture has a hard time accepting senior citizens. I hope it improves for people but I feel like senior citizens get disregarded. There are a lot of divisions in terms of race in the gay community. I don’t know if that’s just because the gay community reflects the way things are in society. Whenever I look at a circuit party, it’s all white people. It’s not as bad in New York City. I throw a hip hop party on Thursdays and I try to get a mix of people and I typically accomplish that. I also think that gay men are too hard on themselves with their bodies. I did a video for Guess What and I knew I was going to be shirtless the whole time, so I prepared for like eight weeks. I was crouching down in the video and, because of that, my stomach wasn’t as flat as it would be. People were leaving fat comments like: “Cazwell’s been hanging out by the ice cream truck.” At first, I was really hard on myself but then I was like, “What the f–k is wrong with me? I look amazing.”
Q: Would you consider your videos hyper-masculine? And do you think the LGBT community has become too hyper-masculine?
When I’m making a music video, something I keep in mind the whole time is that I’m creating a fantasy. I try to use guys who are my fantasy and who I’m super-attracted to. Granted, most of them are gay, but they exude this bro mentality. I like to switch it up too. For instance, in my video Tonight, my lover is a trans girl and hyper-androgynous. And then in my video for Dance Like You Got Good Credit I play a straight guy. When I want to be sexy I choose guys I think are magnetic. Like in Ice Cream Truck the reason it did well was not because the guys have hot bodies but because they have magnetism.
Q: Who or what do you consider your biggest cultural and artistic influences?
I’m really influenced by Instagram and Tumblr. For the Downtown video, I sat down with my intern and we pulled up this picture of a guy on Tumblr holding ice cream with cigarettes in it and stickers on his face. I was like, “I wanna do something like this.” Missy Elliott is a huge inspiration. Her videos and sound changed the face of hip hop. Her Rain video is probably one of my favorite music videos. Everything at the time was hyper-gangsta and she totally changed it. I love her. She follows me on Twitter and has gone at me a couple of times. I started cheesin’ when I saw that. When people are like, “you’re not a real rapper,” I think of her, because she was more about a hook. I’m not trying to prove I’m the best rapper in the world, but I’m really f–king good at writing catchy songs, making hot beats and making you pay attention.