Charles Thomson

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The Ice Cream Man Cometh
Charles Thomson talks to US rapper Cazwell about homophobia in hip-hop and the inspiration behind this summer's raunchiest music video.
September 2010, Sawf News

Cazwell isn’t your average rap pin-up. He wasn’t raised in the ghetto, he wasn’t a pre-teen drug dealer and he’s never been shot. He’s also gay.

Raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, he had fairly a comfortable upbringing. It wasn’t all fun and games – Worcester was riddled with drugs – but Cazwell says he managed to steer clear of trouble.

“There were a lot of heroin overdoses,” he reminisces. “But I was in a nice neighborhood. I mean, I wasn’t rich. I was a little below middle class.  I felt safe in my neighborhood and everything but Worcester has a reputation for being kind of tacky.”

He’s not Brazilian, and he’s not 38 years old – somebody’s been messing with his Wikipedia page. He’s of Polish descent, but born in America, and his real age remains a mystery – Cazwell and his rep both dodge the question. He’s a laid back kind of guy, describes himself as a closet health freak and is surprisingly easy to speak to. His lyrics give the impression of a sex-crazed, no-nonsense Alpha Male but offstage he is soft-spoken, polite, good-humored and unintimidating.

He was the only member of his peer group to finish high school, although he says he wasn’t studious – “I was fucked in high school. I got all Ds. But I didn’t drop out.”

He came out as gay in his mid-teens and soon found gay peers, managing to avoid the problems that many gay teenagers face both in and out of school.

At 18, as soon as he left high school, he began pursuing a career in music. He initially wrote on his own but soon joined forces with a female friend, moved to Boston and formed the rap duo Moreplay.

“At first we used to rap at keg parties and stuff,” he recalls. “If there were bands playing we would grab one of the drummers and tell them to play, then we would just start rapping along with them. Once we got to Boston we got a little more sophisticated and went into the studio. But at the time it was like, impossible to get noticed or break into the industry so we just did a lot of shows. I learned a lot in Boston about the music industry and how to keep a career going.”

After a couple of years his friend grew weary of trying to crack the industry and moved to Seattle with a partner, but Cazwell wasn’t quite ready to give up on his dream. He stayed behind and kept working, never regretting the move from Worcester to Boston.

“They both suck,” he explains, “but one has money and one doesn’t.” 

Since going solo, Cazwell has become an international star. He is often described as one of America’s leading exponents of homo-hop (gay hip-hop) but Cazwell says he turned his back on hip-hop while he was still in Boston, when the industry rejected him on account of his sexuality.

“I don’t think of myself as hip-hop at all,” he explains. “That’s basically because if I have it in my head that I’m hip-hop, then somewhere in my head I have to apply the rules of hip-hop to what I do, and one of the rules of hip-hop is you cannot be gay –and you certainly can’t be gay, out and proud about it.

“When I was in Boston I tried to be accepted by hip-hop – there was a big hip-hop scene there. I remember there was a record company in Boston called Brick Records and they represented 7L and Esoteric and Virtuoso – great rappers – and at the time I really wanted to be down with them because that’s all I know. It never happened. I would send them demos and I knew I was good live, and I basically came to the conclusion that no matter how good I am, straight people just don’t wanna hang out with gay people in hip-hop. They just don’t.”

Indeed, the hip-hop industry is famously homophobic. Eminem and Busta Rhymes have both released tracks attacking ‘faggots’. When Kanye West urged rappers to drop anti-gay lyrics in 2006, 50 Cent attacked him over the comments, suggesting they meant Kanye himself must be gay. Outkast star Andre 3000 once said, "One of the worst rumors I heard about myself was that I was homosexual. Especially in the hip-hop world, that ain't a cool rumor to hear."

Unwilling to live a closeted life, Cazwell rejected hip-hop, moved to New York and set about creating his own sound, effectively defying genre.

“At the same time that I was coming to the conclusion that hip-hop would never accept me, I was travelling a lot between Boston and New York because I had a demo and I was trying to meet people. I met Larry Tee, who started the whole electroclash movement, and his point of view was, ‘Do what you gotta do and let people come to you. Start your own scene.’ I moved to New York City shortly afterwards with a fresh perspective and things started to get better for me.”

Cazwell soon became a fixture of the New York club scene, known for his uncompromising lyrics, rambunctious performance style and larger than life image. His unique style, which he has described in the past as ‘cartoon like’, is very much a pastiche of hip-hop fashion. In a comic take on the genre’s bling culture, Cazwell has been known to perform wearing an enormous cardboard diamond around his neck, or huge chains decorated with gold-painted water pistols.

“There’s an element of pastiche to it,” he says, “but it also has to do with the environment that I come from now, which is the club scene. In the club scene it’s not so much about what you can acquire as it is about what you can create. That’s where respect comes from. It’s not about how much money you have because nobody has it. It’s just about your eye for fashion and your eye for irony. If you can tell some kind of story with your clothes, that’s cool.”

Cazwell’s loud, confident image – often taking the stage shirtless as he delivers graphic lyrics about his sexual conquests – seems at odds with his offstage persona. In previous interviews he has said that he rarely, if ever, thinks of himself as sexy. However, his lyrics paint a picture of a man oozing self-confidence and raw sexuality; in the song ‘All Over Your Face’ he raps, “I’m a greasy, grimy, two-timey, butt-sniffing animal/And if I want it, I get it, I eat that ass like a cannibal.” So is Cazwell the performer effectively a supremely confident alter-ego?

“Of course,” he says, “I think that’s how it is with everyone. But plenty of unsexy people think about sex all the time, don’t you think? I think the three things I tend to rap about the most are sex, money and food and that’s probably what’s on people’s minds the most, no matter what they look like, you know?”

In 2006 Cazwell released an eight track mini-album, ‘Get Into It’, on West End Records. Slant magazine described the album as “the queer-eyed rap cousin to Justin Timberlake’s blue-eyed soul,” adding that at his best Cazwell evoked Eminem. Eric Durcholz from likened Cazwell to a gay Prince, commenting that although his lyrics were graphic, coming from Cazwell they sounded “fun at worst, life-affirming at best.”

Capitalizing on the flurry of publicity, Cazwell toured to support the album and continued to release singles over the next two years. The 2008 release ‘I Seen Beyoncé’ became a club favorite. A comic take on the traditional hip-hop ‘diss track’, Cazwell raps about encountering Beyoncé Knowles in a Burger King restaurant and lending her $10, only to wind up chasing the diva for repayment in a series of chance encounters. Knowles was reportedly a fan of the track and particularly liked the video.

In 2009 Cazwell released ‘Watch My Mouth’, his first full length album. Borrowing several tracks from 2006’s ‘Get Into It’, the package was described by Slant magazine as radiating “resolutely masculine pheromones and solid genderqueer credentials. His rhymes and flow are loose, but that's okay, because so is he. Caz might be filling a niche, but it's an incredibly well defined and specific niche. He represents the creative underclass, the homo-punk post-Palahniuk mob for whom blood is an aphrodisiac, and the booger-flinging, fast-food-chowing, greasy-grimy demographic.”

While he is lauded as having ‘solid queergender credentials’, Cazwell says he is also wary of being pigeonholed as a ‘gay rapper’, explaining that in his music videos he shows things from a gay point of view rather than just using gay imagery. For instance, in the music video ‘Do You Wanna Break Up’ Cazwell is surrounded by irate women, but all is not what it seems.

“Every single female in the video is transsexual,” he says. “There’s not a born woman in it. I wanted to have a big girl fight in the video but I know more trannies than I know girls, at least on a professional level. It was just something interesting, aesthetically. I wasn’t trying to come across as straight or anything.

“Once you make a video that’s just a gay video, like let’s say I put a guy in there, then all it would be is a gay video. That’s how people would see it and I know that. Rather than expressing your sexuality by showing people you’re attracted to the same sex, you can express your sexuality by showing things from a gay point of view. For instance only a gay person would use loads of trannies in their video.”

Conversely, Cazwell’s latest video, ‘Ice Cream Truck’ is easily his most homoerotic to date. An internet phenomenon, it attracted more than a million hits on YouTube in its first week online. The video is another sideways swipe at the hip-hop industry, Cazwell says, objectifying men in the same way that hip-hop videos objectify women.

The track – written for the upcoming movie ‘Spork’ – is simplistic and upbeat, using xylophones to emulate an ice cream truck jingle. Approached by the film’s director, J B Ghuman Jr – a friend of the rapper’s – Cazwell submitted numerous tracks that didn’t with Ghuman’s approval.  “I need something with a 1980s hip-hop feel,” the director told him. “Something summery – like going to the ice cream truck.” His deadline rapidly approaching, Cazwell took to the studio and wrote and recorded the track ‘Ice Cream Truck’ in two and a half hours.

“I think there are some benefits to keeping it really simple,” he says. “I kept the video really simple too. We just used color backdrops and did the whole thing in one day. That wall – the kind of Mexicana rose color – that’s my apartment, and when we’re outside, that’s my block. Me and Marco [Ovando], the director, we both work in clubs so we know all the hot dancers. So all those boys from the video are just dancers from the clubs.

“I wanted it to be sexy but I wanted to be very cute, too. My mission whenever I make a video is, ‘Let me make a video that looks like how I think the song sounds’ – and that’s what the song sounds like to me. It’s cute, it’s summertime. I also wanted to dedicate the video to hot Latin boys of New York.”

Conceptualizing music videos is one of the things Cazwell enjoys most about working in the music industry, he says, but he’s so enthusiastic that it can end up wreaking havoc on his personal life.

“What I have to do is spend hours and hour and hours and hours thinking about it, so much that my boyfriend is pissed off at me,” he giggles. “I get consumed by it, just needing to know that it looks just right – and I think about little details constantly.”

After the success of Ice Cream Truck, Cazwell is plotting a sequel. The video, set to accompany the release of ‘Get My Money Back’, will feature the ‘Ice Cream Truck’ dancers and many more. But Cazwell already has two videos recorded and ready to release in support of his imminent EP with Amanda Lepore.

“The EP is two songs. One of my songs, ‘Get Into It’, that Amanda’s featured on and her song, ‘Marilyn’, that I’m featured on. The EP also comes with a couple of remixes and a video of each song. It’s basically to get you ready for Amanda Lepore’s full album, which we’ve been doing together for years now.”

An online trailer for the Marilyn music video offers an intriguing glimpse of what looks like an ode to 1950s cinema. Directed by photographer Leo Herrera, it features smoky interiors and grainy black and white footage of Lepore dressed as a Hollywood starlet.

“We went to San Francisco to shoot it,” says Cazwell. “The whole vibe and look of the video is San Francisco and also connects with what it was like being gay in the 1950s. The video kind of reflects on Marilyn Monroe killing herself, you know; the difficulties of being famous. It’s not homoerotic in the same way [as Ice Cream Truck]. But I would definitely say that this video looks like the song. Without a doubt. It’s kinda artsy, kinda dark and kinda sexy.”

In the slightly more distant future, Cazwell hopes to have a brand new solo album out in time for Valentine’s Day. At the moment, he says, it’s about 70% written – and his DJ work in recent years has helped him hone his style.

“I think that the sound will be more consistent. Hopefully this album will be almost like one long track that you can play all the way through. This album is much more dancefloor inspired. I’ve been doing a lot more DJ work so I have a better idea of what people actually want to dance to and what people will respond to. A lot of tracks I’ve tested out on the dancefloor to test whether the audience love it or feel it, or whether they don’t. If people keep dancing to a song they don’t know, it’s generally a good sign.”

It was during a DJ set several months ago that Cazwell experienced a mini disaster. His laptop died, containing both old and new music. “Most of my old music was on there,” he laments. “They pulled nothing out of data recovery so some of it could be lost forever. But I’m all about the future. My new stuff will be much better anyway.”

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Charles Thomson - Sky News