No pot to piss in, a rhythm in his soul, a devil in his head, and an angel on his shoulder: Cole James Cash finds salvation through beats and big-bodied women
Cole James Cash’s story reads like a bar room joke: did you hear the one about the homeless recovering drug addict who produced a hip hop album in tribute to full-figured porn stars? In this case there’s no punchline; only a story as improbable as it is inspiring and an album that is less gag than visionary. Cash’s story is one of talent undercut by inner turmoil, tragedy paved over by an ultimate redemption. As with all stories of redemption, his is filled with nearly unfathomable lows, soul-crushing losses, and healthy doses of love and luck. As deft a producer as Cash is, his greatest and truest hip hop song might just be his life.
People saw great things in me… but I fell apart.
Although he couldn’t have foreseen the value of it at the time, Cole James Cash learned to turn hunger to sustenance, loss to gain, and life’s proverbial lemons to lemonade when he was 13 years old. His father abandoned him and his mother, completely and forever. The pain and loss Cash felt was mitigated somewhat by an enormous, diverse record collection that would feed his early musical inclination, and eventually inspire his most important work as a producer. While he now counts Madlib, Alchemist, and DJ Krush as significant influences, he honed his ear for arrangements and melody by playing and replaying the records of artists like Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Roy Ayers. From Q-Tip to Havoc to Dr. Dre there’s a long and well-worn hip hop tradition of young, prodigious producers being born from inherited crates. Cash was cut from that familiar cloth.
“I was a house music DJ at 13. Shit, I was already playing the sax too.” Cash recalls this period of time with the same infectious energy that marks his production. There’s also a naked honesty that colors everything Cash says, and the combination of that sincerity and his defiant enthusiasm in the face of personal turmoil make him easy to take at his word, and even easier to root for.
The only time Cash seems reticent and put off is when he discusses – briefly – entering the armed services in 2001. He’s reluctant to expound on a time that one can only assume would be incredibly significant to an individual’s formative years. The only detail he’s willing to let slip is he incurred an injury while in the service, which is how he began a relationship with prescription drugs that would gradually shift from ameliorative to destructive.
He quickly steers the conversation back to music, explaining why he moved from house music to hip hop despite his passion and relative success on that scene. “I saw it back in ‘03,” he says in mournful tone as we discuss the shift in house music from soul to electronic. “Dance music went away from the soul, the gospel. It got stripped down.” He talks astutely about the changing demographics of the audience, but thoughtfully qualifies his musings. “It’s not a race thing — there were dope ass white dudes putting it down. But when you lose the soul of any form of music…”
He went back to listening to a wide variety of music, especially jazz fusion. That’s when he made his way to hip hop. His friend Dobad was a rapper, and Dobad’s friend was Killer Tay, who ran a label in the Bay Area. They recognized in Cash a natural instinct for creating music and gave him the idea to produce. He had saved up a enough money for a trip to England, but instead invested in a new computer and an MPC. It seemed the prodigal son was finally on his way to fulfilling his promise.
But as his injury got worse he was taking prescription pills in greater amounts, and more frequently. “Within a few years I was a full blown addict.” His voice is somber as he pronounces this self-assessment, and he almost sounds surprised by the memory of that time, as if it were a long lost dream of which he finally recounted a crucial detail. What began as a way to cope with physical pain evolved into a self-perpetuating cycle of creating inner-torment to cope with inner-torment. Cash eventually lost his apartment in San Jose, then his car. “Having my own apartment allowed me to isolate myself, which was bad. But I still didn’t want to lose it!” His laugh is thick with an ironic sadness. When he lost his computer drive, it plunged him deeper into drugs while bringing his music-making capabilities to a halt.
For three years he made no music at all. He was going job to job, apartment to apartment. He lost his ambition. “My entire focus was feeding my habit, man.” Around this time of bottoming out, his girlfriend gave birth; determined not to revisit the sins of his own father on his child, Cash maintained a consistent presence in his son’s life. Then in 2012 he got a break: a financial settlement for his injury. “I blew most of it on drugs, but I also made sure to get a new computer.” That’s when he made The Price of Glory. It had been 4 years since he last even tried to make music. As an artist he decided to stop showing his face. Not as a nod to MF Doom, but to reflect his reclusive nature, and his feeling of having an identity at odds with his environment: his sound was deemed “east coast,” and he found it difficult to garner Bay Area support.
Still, the drugs persisted, the eviction notices piled up, and the mother of his child lost patience with him. Sure, he was around for his son, but he couldn’t financially support the child. He lost his ambition, moved back home, continued to flounder. As he reflects on this time, Cash’s honesty and self-awareness border on heartbreaking. “I became a disappointment.” He pauses for a beat and his voice turns wistful. “People saw great things in me… but I fell apart.”
I had to be my own man.
In September of 2013 Cash’s struggle with drugs had meshed his life with his music. He made an album Eternal Punishment during this time, and the beats were as grim and haunting as his soul had become. “At the time, I thought I was going to go to hell and burn because I was such a horrible person.” His music was being forged from a collision between his natural ear for music, his tortured soul, and an ever-darkening mind. But his music was garnering attention, and in November 2013 he went to work on a demo for BabyGrande Records.
Unfortunately, it was as if he’d become karmically removed from progressing: his computer shorted out, and he lost everything he’d been working on. He was devastated. He plunged deeper into drugs, and reached a new low point — he was 6'2, but only 137 pounds. “Breh… I was Eating once a day, stealing roommates’ food. Somehow I worked as a teacher for special ed students in Oakland. All I did was take pills and play video games.” That is, until he sold the games along with his musical equipment for drug money. The only things he didn’t sell? His record collection and comic collection. It was proof that he still had some principle, some attachment and anchor to this world, however slight it might’ve appeared to someone else.
In late February of 2014 — on his birthday — he took his last dose; the next day he went to detox. He was there 7 days.
“You don’t think you look like an addict until you’re surrounded by other addicts.”
Someone close to him put him up in a hotel when he got out of detox; the next day he began admitting to his family his problem with addiction. Their sympathy wasn’t exactly a wellspring: everyone shunned his requests for financial assistance. Even his mom said no. He was in his early 30s, without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. He had squandered his talent, and failed to provide for his child. He took stock of himself and engaged in some overdue soul-searching. “I knew one essential truth: I had to be my own man.”
Cash went to a homeless shelter, where he shared living quarters with 100 other down-and-outers. “The crazy thing is I had money in my pocket.” He had $80 on him. “A homeless shelter is a dangerous place for an addict, but I looked at that money and looked in the mirror and told myself, I’m not gonna go back.”
I felt a connection with Cash here, a common despair. When I was 7 my mother lost everything she had, and we were in and out of homeless shelters and welfare hotels in 80's Times Square. What I remember most clearly is the dreadful aimlessness one begins to feel internally: when you have no real foundation, no stability, each moment is simultaneously ripe with potential for anything, yet empty of everything.
Cash sighs in agreement as we delve into that feeling. “When you wake up in a homeless shelter it’s like a bad dream. You wake up at 5:30 in the morning and they kick you out – it’s like what am I gonna do? 5 years ago I had my own apartment… what the fuck happened?”
He didn’t let his bewilderment and despair stultify him. He investigated rehabilitation programs; specifically outpatient rehabilitation, so he could see his son. He confessed the full extent of his drug addiction and his living situation to his mom, after keeping her in the dark for years. She immediately drove to the shelter, picked him up, and put him in a hotel for two nights. Cash chuckles while describing the contours and minute details of the room. “I’d never been so happy to be in a hotel my entire life.”
The outpatient program was difficult. He experienced severe withdrawals, had no appetite, couldn’t sleep. “Prescription withdrawal is just like heroin withdrawal.” He dealt with a roller-coaster of emotions, serious depression. He found posting on internet message boards cathartic, but little else brought him joy. He needed his music back. He asked one final favor of his mother: a laptop. And that’s when he began producing the album that became Saigon.
Alchemist had recently released a gospel album, and that inspired Cash to find his own improbable theme. “Saigon is actually about the evolution of the capital — every song has to do with that evolution.” This was a significant step in his own evolution, his comeback. Robbie from Unkut came across his album, shared it with readers, and interviewed him. “In some ways Robbie was my salvation. He was the angel on my shoulder.”
Karma was suddenly back on Cash’s side. He gained a little traction, made connections. Meanwhile he went through 3 halfway houses — kicked out of one for fighting (“I have a bit of a temper” he regretfully confesses), leaving another because of corrupt management. Amid all the turbulence he found his Zen through music.
After Saigon he co-produced a remix album with Tek Beats called Rap Republicans. Dallas Penn, Byron Crawford, and Ego Trip all took note of the project and reviewed it favorably.
Then came his biggest break yet: Robbie from Unkut had acapellas from Doo Wop and Tony Touch, which he passed along to Cash, who matched the vocals with his own production. The song ended up on the mixtape Counterstrike II alongside work from Marco Polo, Wille the Kid, Agallah, Almighty Sam Hill and Lex.
I remember reading about a letter Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son – who died in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center, an alcoholic transvestite – wrote him around his 21st birthday.
“When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway’s third wife], Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?”
The letter stayed with me for many years, as it elucidated a notion about art I’d been puzzling over myself: does the artist’s distillation of the human condition in his work inevitably cause pain in his own life, and for those closest to him?
Cash’s story is a direct rebuttal to Hemingway’s. His pain was transformative – he was making great music, and forging a path from addiction and homeless, positioning himself to provide for his son again. The connection between his life and art was redemptive, curative.
All because of music. All because of music.
When Complex posted the Counterstrike II mixtape, Cash’s momentum became a figurative avalanche. That major exposure allowed him to attract bonfide M.C.s to his production. He finally had the sort of spitters who could appreciate and match his beats. “I love G Rap,” he exclaims excitedly. “I wanted niggas who could embody that.”
Cash linked up with an M.C. from Queens named Lex, who was connected with Mayhem Lauren. He knew he wanted Lex to contribute a verse to his next project, but he wasn’t sure what shape the project should take. Then he remembered a half-serious idea he’d had in the Summer of 2013: an entire tribute album about BBW porn stars. People had done porn and sex themed albums before, but as Cash put it, “nobody had the nerve to do a fat girl album.” It was, in a peculiar way, subversive and empowering.
The first song he recorded for the project was “Karla Lane” with Lex. Cash admired Lex. “He was a family man. Everything he has… that’s what I want.” His affinity for Lex is made all the more obvious by the tone he takes when discussing him. “Listen, he supported my music and he supported me as a person.”
Cash asked Lex to put out the word about his BBW project. Lex reached out to a bunch of associates and received a healthy response. Cash began assigning different M.C.s different BBW porn stars. He’d give them background information on the women, and they’d work it into their lyrics. One imagines the research process went in…uh… interesting directions.
I think of Cash as the Prince Paul of BBW porn. When I tell him as much, he downplays the comparison out of humility. “Maybe we’re similar in that I just like to have fun, I don’t take myself too seriously.”
Once Cash had the first track with Lex done, he reached out via twitter and let Karla hear the single. She liked it. So much, in fact, that she shared it with her friend Kacey Parker – who asked if she could get her own theme song. Cash’s response: “Shit, you know… sure! Of course!” He asked Parker to be on the cover, and she agreed. Suddenly the project had legs. And an ass, and breasts, and a face.
The Karmic avalanche continued. A rapper named Dubwerth contacted Cash — he wanted him to come out to both Dallas and Austin, Texas to produce his entire album. Dubwerth offered to pay for travel on top of the album fee. He also booked a hotel in L.A. so Cash could do a photo shoot with Kacey Parker. “Kacey Parker welcomed me and treated me really good — she treated me as a friend. No judgement. I will always be grateful to Dubwerth and Kacey for what they did for me.”
Barely months removed from roaming the streets of Oakland with no Earthly possessions and no direction in life, Cole James Cash was in Los Angeles doing a promotional shoot with a porn star. The improbability – as well as the absurdity – is not lost on him. With genuine wonder and disbelief in his voice, he waxes on his Phoenix-like ascent from the ashes of addiction and homelessness: “All because of music. All because of music.”
And the music itself is fantastic. Cash’s talent is obvious and impressive. He produces with the uninhibited zealof someone who makes music because he wants to. The range of music he samples is Mablibbian: a soul riff here, a Spanish horn there, a rock and roll guitar looped pristinely and perfectly. Some of the sounds on the album were impressed on my ear so intensely that they returned to me in my dreams the night I first listened to them.
Cash’s style of production reminds me of something a close friend once declared to me about old R&B: “they don’t make this music anymore, where it feels warm and human and the blood is in every note.”
Cash appreciates the observation. “I stuck with traditional production — breakbeats. I didn’t compromise anything.”
At a time in music and general culture when the notion of the Avant-garde is no longer populist or progressive, and seeks understanding and lauding only from a narrow circle of the pseudo-elite, Cash counters with a warmth, empathy, originality, and integrity rarely apparent in supposedly important albums these days (think Yeezus).
There are two versions of BBW: A Pornographic Opera. The free version has 21 songs with all the rappers involved and the interludes; the purchasable version has 28 tracks, including instrumentals of every song, as well as 30 exclusive pictures of Kacey Parker and her masturbation video, for $6.
As for the future? It’s bright and interesting. Cash has a free EP coming out: Black Man; Brown Child. The EP features 8 songs, each of which is a message he wants to impart to his son. “In the wake of the Michael Brown killing, people kept saying there’s nothing you can do about it. Yes there is. This is my way to give my son a set of messages, a foundation for living and surviving in this country.” On the album there’s a dedication to Michael Brown rapped by Crew 54.
In December he has a mixtape coming out called Street Fighter “and yes, it’s based on the game.” Cash will be enlisting another slate of M.C.s to rap about different aspects of the game, and metaphorically to rap about competition in rapping. “I’m trying to get AG Da Coroner on this one, and I’m bringing back some familiar voices from the BBW album.”
In just a few months, Cole James Cash has moved a long way from the spiritual desolation and deadbeat lifestyle that plagued him for years. He recently hooked up with a management group called AMUA. The group is shopping him around for potential production deals. “That was also made possible because of Robbie from Unkut. The guy is an angel on my shoulder for real.”
Cash is still in recovery, still in a halfway house with 18 other people, most of whom have no idea what he is doing musically. He has launched a promising career from rehab – further proof that the race of life is really just a walkabout. And long. With many odd turns. The total of it can’t be fathomed until it’s too late to hold it, like the glint of sunlight off a watch-face. Cash responds sheepishly to this idea, his voice like a audible shrug. “I guess.” Then his infectious enthusiasm returns: “I work my ass off. Honestly? I’m living the dream.”
He insists there are a handful of things he wants clarified in my profile. “Make sure you spell Kacey’s name right; she’s a wonderful person. Make sure it’s clear how thankful I am to Dubwerth and Robbie. And make sure it’s clear that I make no excuses for my struggles, that I assume all blame. Drugs took hold of my brain but even worse it took away my dignity. But I have that back now; even in this halfway house, I have that back.” Cash sits with that thought for a moment, and the emotions he sorts through are palpable. Then, just like that, the immutable energy is back: “People say ‘I can’t.’ I say you can’t because you don’t want to. If you’re not dead or in jail, there are no excuses. I made all this shit happen without a real home address.”