A Conversation With CupcakKe, Whose Explicit Sex Raps Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

CupcakKe talks growing up in Chicago, transitioning from poetry to rapping, and getting freaky on wax.

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Complex Original

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CupcakKe burst on the scene with "Vagina" in late 2015, a song which could easily be taken for a novelty record. And certainly, that's no doubt been a part of its appeal to a part of her burgeoning fanbase of "slurpers." True, her fame originates in provocative, sexually-charged shock humor—placing her well within a storied hip-hop tradition dating back to the days of Slick Rick and Eazy-E. But on her debut release, Cum Cake, she displays a versatility that suggests there's a lot more to her than meets WorldStar. 

The real heart of her project is a song like "Exceptions," which explores—with surprising sophistication for someone only eighteen years of age—the narrative of a failing relationship. "Darling" is its conceptual opposite, a song of devotion (or a hopeful fantasy of it). Meanwhile, "Pedophile" seems destined to become the most-talked about song on the tape, a bold anti-abuse record that shines a light on a subject often avoided—or even romanticized—​in song. Despite its heavy subject matter, it's so well-rendered that, rather than being simply depressing, it's at once a dark reminder of an immoral status quo, and an affirmation of humanity and resilience.

I spoke with Elizabeth "CupcakKe" Harris by phone in late March, who talked about her writing process and love of poetry, her upbringing—she attended Dulles elementary with Chief Keef—and a surprising wishlist of future collaborators.

What was your first introduction to music as a young kid?
I actually grew up listening to music as like—church music and stuff like that. Around 10 years old I started being into church and being around the church. I started doing poetry—I was doing all clean poetry, totally clean. No bad language, violence, or anything like that. I was doing that for like two years straight. While I was doing the poetry, I had pastors requesting I come perform at their churches. I did shows all over for two years straight, from 10 to 12, just writing poetry. 13 years old I went to church and there was this guy there and he said basically, "You could turn your poetry into rapping." I went home and flipped it, and from that moment on I never gave up, just all rapping. No one in my family did music, I'm the only one.

When you started rapping, who were you listening to? Were there artists you looked up to?
I always heard 50 Cent, Da Brat, Lil' Kim, all that in the house. My mom's playing them—50 Cent, Kanye West. Lloyd. All them back-in-the-day artists. My momma listened to that and I loved them.

Where did you grow up in the city?
I grew up in—they call it Parkway Gardens, Wiic City, Calumet building. It's basically across the street from Parkway Gardens. It's 63rd and King Drive in Chicago, so it's the ghetto, it's the hood. I grew up with Chief Keef and Lil Reese. We all lived in the same environment, I went to school with them and everything.

Do you have any memories of what they were like before they were younger, before the fame?
Yeah, I can speak on Chief Keef—he was a great guy. I don't know what he is now, but before the fame he was a really great guy. He was sweet, he was really popular. We went to a school called Dulles. He was really nice, sweet-hearted guy.

What was it like to see that happen so suddenly, when those guys took off?
It was amazing because I feel like anybody that comes from where we come from, it's a blessing. 63rd and King Drive, that's Chicago hood. It's so violent. To see them blow up, it was like, wow. Not the fact that I just knew him, but because he was a kid coming out from right where we were coming out of, and I salute him. I talked to him a couple weeks back. He remembers me. I don't know if he quite listened to my music, but he hit me up and was like, "Ain't you the girl from Dulles?" 

Did their success inspire you at all? Was that part of what inspired you to pursue this?
I always wanted to do poetry, and I still do the poetry. When I pushed it over to music, I just got noticed for rapping. But now that I'm into music, I just can't stop.

I got noticed off the freaky music and the sexual music. That's what I got noticed off of. But I've got over 50 songs out. Out of those songs, only three is freaky. You see what I'm saying?

When I first heard the first two singles, I got why they grabbed so many people's attention. Hearing the tape itself though suggested there was more to what you were doing. Can you tell me about putting that project together?
You know, so many people doubted me. And I just feel like—I've been doing music for so long. And the thing about it is, I got noticed off the freaky music and the sexual music. That's what I got noticed off of. But I've got over 50 songs out. Out of those songs, only three is freaky. You see what I'm saying? I decided for this project, I wanted to do all—I wanted to touch on pedophiles, on abuse, I want to touch on being poor. On this project I wanted to touch on everything. Including being sexual. It's 18 songs and only three is freaky. I touched on street music, I touched on violence, I touched on cops killing, I touched on a lot of situations. It's very versatile. 

After "Vagina," "Deepthroat," and "Juicy Coochie" came out, people kept requesting [a mixtape]. I was like, OK, I've got these songs sitting here, why not make it a mixtape. I think it showed talent, because people weren't expecting that. I strategized the name, because I wanted to trick people to think they were getting something, but they didn't get what they thought they was gonna get—a full freaky mixtape. I play with them, and it was for the good. How it came out, the result, that they see I can do this that and the other, it really turned out good.

When you were first recording, were there people who mentored or guided you in the recording process? Is there anyone you collaborate with?
No. Recording I started off—we had $50, me and my mom. And that's the only $50 we had. I said, "I want to record my first demo." And she took her only $50 and went to a studio. Right now we've got upgraded. We have sessions that go for $20 and $30. But it's crazy because that session was $50 and that was all she had in her pocket. I put that demo online and it just got so many responses and views and that motivated me to keep going. I got a job and it was a shampoo job right here in Chicago, in Hyde Park. I've been working there since. Any check I pay for studio time, if I have to pay for beats. And I was young, I'm talking about 13 with a head on my shoulders.

What does your mom do for a living?
She was one of those telemarketers. She'd talk on the phone.

Were there any poets you liked to read growing up?
I didn't really read poetry, I just liked to write it. I just liked to write, period. I had the knack for writing when I was nine, 10 years old. Then I started forming words together and doing poetry. When people started liking it and requesting me at different churches—that's when I was like, OK, there's something different about this. With the rapping, the rapping just went through the roof. 

Have you done any live shows as a rapper?
I did a couple shows right here in Chicago. One coming up next month—in two months [I'll be] in the UK. That's my first big big show. I've done a couple in Chicago, but that's my first humongous show all the way across the world.

I don't know about the labels that hit me up—I know who they are but I'm not digging what they're talking.

I assume some labels have approached you. 
Two or three hit me up, but I'm really—like I said, I came from nothing, so I know the value of a dollar. And I'm really not stupid. I don't know about the labels that hit me up—I know who they are but I'm not digging what they're talking. For the moment I'll stay independent.

When it comes to the success of your more sexual songs, do you worry about people approaching you inappropriately in real life?
That's why I made the song "Pedophile," because people were creepy before that. It doesn't take a song to make a pedophile approach you. You have regular young girls, straight-A students just trying to walk down the street and a pedophile will stop them. It doesn't take a song to make someone approach you. It just don't. With the songs—it has been outrageous with the fans, but not with creepy guys. I was getting creepy guys way back before.

When did you first realize "Vagina" was taking off bigger than all the other records you'd done?
I knew it was taking off the first day it dropped, actually. Because usually when I drop a song it'll do like, 5,000 to 10,000 views within a month's time. It did 40,000 views in one night, and I was like, "What is this?" And I'd dropped it late in the day. Then the next day it was on WorldStar. It was beautiful. "Vagina" wasn't purposeful like, "Let me do this for some views." It wasn't like that. That's how people took it. But I was actually in a sexual moment, and I took it out on a sheet of paper. Put the song together, went to the studio, and everyone was like, that's a hit. You've got to put that out.

What does your mom think of the music you've been putting together?
She's definitely supportive. She feels like, the world is gonna judge, and they're going to say what they want. People don't understand, like how I was saying earlier. You can have a female who writes songs and they're really explicit, and you don't know what she wants in her life. On the other hand you can have a schoolgirl and she's doing what's going on in my songs. People judge, that's all I'm saying. People will judge.

Tell me about your writing process. Are you coming up with the stuff in your head, are you writing on a pad and pencil, do you do it in the studio?
My writing process is everyday all day. If I'm in a store and I feel something, I'll always write it on a notepad on my phone. I don't really carry pen and paper around. I just write it on my phone. If I'm in the studio and I'm feeling something, notepad on the phone. If I'm out to eat and I'm waiting and eating and I see something, I write it down. Everywhere I go.

What are you listening to lately? Are there artists you like to listen to right now?
I like Young Thug. I'm just now getting into him, because I be with friends and they blast him in the car. But who would I want to collab with is J. Cole, because I think he's really really talented. I listen to J. Cole a lot, Justin Bieber. All the way from London, Lady Leshurr. 

People are probably very curious to what degree your songs are autobiographical or stories about people that you know.
Some of the songs are about me and some are about just people in general. I write songs people can relate to. That's why when I write the freaky songs, I read some of the comments on YouTube and people are like, "This is inside me! This is me inside!" People are so scared to bring that out of them. People feel afraid to say, "Oh I suck dick." They feel like, "Oh my gosh, he's gonna judge me, she's gonna judge me," but I don't. When I write, I'm free and I don't care. And I know that's what we need now in this industry. Everybody is so scared to say this. That's the reason why I think I'm just better off right now working independent. A label will be like, "Hey, you've got to sugar coat this line, you've got to sugarcoat that down." I'm not sugarcoating nothing.

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