Keepin' it Cazwell
Hip hop's sexy stud's in Oakland & Sacto
by Jim Provenzano
With an almost innocent openness that counters a streetwise attitude, Cazwell has steamed up the music world with his amusingly sexy songs and videos. He'll be performing live at Oakland's Club 21 on Friday, November 22, and on Saturday, November 23 at Sacramento's Badlands.
"I never defined myself as gay, or even came out," said the popular hip hop singer-composer and DJ in a phone interview from New York City. "I just always was."
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, a young Luke Caswell moved to Boston as a teenager. "When I first started rapping, it was with Morplay, a girl rapper," he recalled. "We were just always out. We had a gay circle of friends in Worcester, and started playing at parties. We were kind of in the punk circles, so we would play keg parties. When we wanted to take it seriously, we moved to Boston."
Asked if he faced any difficulties as a new, white openly gay rapper, Cazwell considered.
"I wouldn't say there was difficulty to our faces," he said. "I haven't gotten straight-up bashed. It always has to do with your attitude. I think your attitude about how people treat you is how you treat yourself. I don't go onstage with doubt. So, everything I do, I give it my all. I feel like that's been empowering to me, and I've been able to connect with my audience."
As he made the transition from Boston to New York City in 1999, Cazwell found a rift between the rap and gay communities.
"At first, no gay clubs in the late '90s would book me," he said, adding that there was no context for gay rappers. "I couldn't get a gay club gig, because everybody was booking divas and drag queens. At first, every place I booked was straight, and I never had a problem."
Cazwell referred to the tough audiences of the day. "There's this notorious six feet between them and the stage, where the audience stands with their arms folded. Boston and Washington, D.C. are the hardest crowds. If you can do it there and still make it, then you have a future."
In recalling any problems he faced while trying to balance the disparate worlds, Cazwell said, "I've had some assholes, people who try to take the mic or throw food. But the first time I recall getting any real negative attitude was at my first Gay Pride show in 1999 in New York. We got a gig to play on the pier in the West Village. The MC says, 'Here's Morplay!' and all these butch dykes up front were like, 'What?' Plus us being white didn't help. They wanted 'real' hip hop. So we weren't even given the chance."
Despite such initial setbacks, Cazwell pressed on.
"It's been a lot of spurts," he joked when referring to the song and accompanying music video for "All Over Your Face," the featured single on his 2006 album Get Into It. The lyrics reference multiple forms of gay sex in an amusingly assertive way, and the video features Amanda Lepore and other nightlife celebutantes whom he'd known for years as a nightclub DJ in New York.
"I would say that was my first breakthrough, like career-changing, when it went viral," Cazwell said. "That's when I started getting a lot more gigs...and my rates went up!"
While there had been a few out gay rappers in the music world at the time, "All Over Your Face" asserted a deftly rhymed sexuality comparable to that of mainstream straight rappers. It was so blunt that the gay TV network Logo banned it.
Aside from that prudishness, Cazwell considers the song a breakthrough.
"I think it gave some gay men a chance to feel sexually empowered," he said. "I am just as entitled as any other guy to enjoy sex, and talk about it, as much as straight guys can talk about tits and ass. The whole point is not that I fuck a lot of guys or call them ho's. It's the fact that I have the right to talk about it. I am just as cool as a straight dude who objectifies a woman. I can do that with a guy. I like to talk about sex and feel good about myself without shame."
Among his witty themes are the totally downtown tune, "I Buy My Socks on 14th Street," which features Cazwell in his Lower Manhattan neighborhood, citing self-parodying lyrics as he struts and brags about "the coll-ogg-knee I just sprayed on me."
As Cazwell continued to find new collaborators in music and film, he was signed to West End Records, which to him was a perfect match.
"It was once one of the biggest disco companies of all time," he said. "So I had lots of classic samples to use. A gay rapper over disco music is perfect. I gave it a raw energy, not trying to be Sylvester or anyone else."
As his music developed, Cazwell worked with video directors Francis Legge and Bec Stupak, as well as his former roommate, photographer Michael Wakefield. His look grew into a stylish yet funky style.
In 2008, another musician influenced Cazwell's next viral hit, "I Seen Beyoncé (at Burger King)," a lighthearted tribute to the strange world of celebrity worship.
"That was definitely inspired by Johnny Makeup," Cazwell said of his collaborator on the song. "We had these long monologues we shared, and the idea that Beyonce would be shopping like anyone else struck us as funny. I mean, everyone loves her. She's the personification of perfection and beauty, and multi-talented. To picture her in the most lowbrow environment; to me that's hilarious. We didn't use someone like Britney Spears. No one would laugh, because she does that!"
You Scream, Ice Cream
But it's probably one short, sweet and very sexy song and video that introduced Cazwell to, well, more than a million new fans in 2010. Directed by Marco Ovando, "Ice Cream Truck," features a herd of hunky, sweaty, booty-shaking young men. It became instantly super-popular, with more than a million views in that first week after its premiere.
So, how did that happen?
Cazwell, said with a chuckle, "From what I understand, a lot of people masturbated to it. I don't know anyone who told me they watched it once. That helped."
The performer understands the trajectory of a song that seemed to have sprung out of nowhere, But it wasn't without his prior years of work.
"This video was so different," he recalled. Loosely inspired by an unreleased Beyoncé song about an ice cream truck (the lyrics and melody differ completely), Cazwell recalled a hot summer New York night where, after hours spent recording and producing other songs, he was asked to make a new song.
"My producer said, 'Just do something really simple, make it really child-like.' So we hear the sound of an ice cream truck, and think of the Beyoncé song, and it was literally me and the engineer, getting over a Chinese food coma. In my state of mind, I just thought, 'I am just gonna do this silly.' My whole mentality changed from 'Nobody's gonna like this' to 'Who gives a shit?' We wrote the song and the beat in 45 minutes."
The now infamous accompanying video was shot in and near a cramped East Village apartment, where photographer Michael Wakefield painted walls, stretched fabric, which helped create the saturated, brightly colorful tone of the video.
Not that many people pay attention to the décor.
"The oldest trick in the book is to use gogo boys," Cazwell added. The cluster of nearly naked hotties sent the video into overdrive as they and Cazwell suck on popsicles.
"And we had no air conditioning, so it's basically my life; just hanging out in my boxers shorts," he said. "The whole thing was shot in a few hours. What I didn't pick up on is that it jump-started the gay-boy twerking movement, with gay guys showing off on YouTube the way girls have done."
At a July 2010 cast party when the video was released, Cazwell recalled hoping for 50,000 hits in a month. "And then we hit a million in two days." The video's now up to more than 3 million views.
He explained the phenomenon. "What comes naturally to someone in New York City; someone in Lawrence, Kansas doesn't see that."
So, after years of working, recording and performing, the song and video that were the easiest to create became his biggest success.
Well, not exactly.
"It's actually harder to write something simple," said Cazwell. "I come from a competitive environment, rapping, where it's always a competition, even onstage."
Another variation on his work is producing and creating music with others, where he can be more of a "ghost musician," feeling other vibes.
But his favorite music video takes on cinematic and anthropological subtexts, along with sexy moves by some hot dancing guys.
In "Get My Money Back," Cazwell said, "Marco and I got exactly what we wanted."
He explained the inspirations, where, included in the fun dancing, are sub-tribes with varying costumes.
"The Bonomo chimp is known for its hypersexual activity," Cazwell explained. "The females are dominant, and the males are bi and homosexual. The gay monkeys will break off and form a Bonobo gang. I combined that idea with imagery from Fight Club. They're in a gang together, a bunch of guys in a dark shadowy, communal environment, like a Brooklyn warehouse. There are crews among the crews. I wanted gay men with an empowered tribal feeling."
When he's not creating music and collaborating on videos, Cazwell also DJs weekly at a few New York clubs.
And although he has been in a five-year relationship, he is single right now. "I would like to be in a relationship again," he said. "I would stay out of trouble."
As to the burden of dating a man like him, being known for his sexy music, Cazwell is clear. "I'm not into secrets and I'm really straight up with everybody, so that would not be a problem."
For now, he's enjoying his own company. His latest single and video, "No Selfie Control," pokes fun at social media narcissism gone wild.
"I just wrote that one quickly," said Cazwell. "I shot a selfie and thought of the title. I just recorded the vocals over nothing. Then [producer] Dizzy Bell put down the music, and we just did it."
The accompanying video, which features a shirtless Cazwell shooting self-pictures, was made in three days at the ultra-cheesy Comack Motor Inn on Long Island.
"They have this '70s banjee look, with heart-shaped water beds, and leopard-print bedspreads. It was perfect," he laughed.
For his Northern California shows, expect a bit more sexy when he performs. "I think I'll be wearing a lot of clothes, then I'll take them off. How's that?"
Cazwell performs at Club 21, Friday, Nov. 22 at midnight, with a meet & greet, drink specials and gogo guys galore. 9pm-3am. 2111 Franklin St., Oakland. (510) 268-9425. www.club21oakland.com
Cazwell also performs on Saturday, Nov. 23 at Sacramento Badlands, 2003 K Street. (916) 448-8790. www.sacbadlands.com
Check out his music on the new Club 21 Oakland app on your Iphone or Android.
Visit his website at www.cazwell.com.