Stormzy’s ‘Rainfall’ video was built inside a video game
Doja Cat and her crew are in the UK during one of a series of storms (this one is ‘Gareth’) and the fire alarm in her hotel is going off. We’ve been evacuated in an undignified scene that could be an outtake from The Office, with staff in hi-vis jackets shouting at us to go to the evacuation point. It’s 6°C outside and the LA rapper is stuck in the middle of North London wearing a skin-tight dress and platform boots, and she really, really wants fried chicken and waffles.
On stage at Shoreditch’s XOYO the next day, she announces she’s unwell in the most Doja Cat way possible. “Bitch I have a fever,” she yells into her mic: “I was all fucked up… then I had a shot.” Despite this, she seamlessly runs through hits from her debut album, ‘Amala’, 2014 favourite ‘So High’ and the GameCube start sound-sampling ‘Nintendhoe’. “We never plan anything,” Doja explained the previous day of her performing style. “And I never rehearse. I show up to soundcheck and I do my set, and that keeps me sane. But I don’t rehearse. It’s really just me up there on the stage.”
Writing, producing, rapping, singing and art directing everything herself, Doja Cat is doing what most artists couldn’t lay claim to. “I don’t have a stylist,” she says, sat in the tired-looking hotel lobby while flicking through Deliveroo’s fried poultry options. “I don’t have a hair stylist. I don’t have a makeup person. I don’t have anyone who directs my aesthetic. I have nothing like that. It’s really just me. I like to do it on my own. It would be great to work with somebody, because I know there’s really talented people who know way more than I do out there.”
Doja Cat’s infamous Instagram Live broadcasts fuel this 360-degree approach to creativity. Shot in her pink-painted bedroom, they’re an opportunity for her fans to watch her bring ideas from inception to conclusion, and even add their input. ‘MOOO!’, the viral track that now sits at 42 million views (and counting), caught the ear of Chance The Rapper and saw her profile shoot skywards, was made during an all-nighter in her room. For it she stuck bedding to her walls as a makeshift green screen.
Sampling jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery’s ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’, the bovine bop includes enough sharp, funny double entendres to make a golden era MC green with envy. Although the word ‘viral’ is often synonymous with ‘throwaway’, ‘MOOO!’ is a creative masterpiece of a track that’s just meant to be fun, and the crowd at XOYO agree.
Born Amala Zandile Dlamini in Tarzana, Los Angeles, Doja moved to Rye, New York before living on an ashram (a Hindu monastery) for four years. Despite all of the singing and airbrushed pictures of gods that she loved there, she missed being a normal kid who went skating and ate cheeseburgers, and moved back to LA.
“It’s definitely genetic,” she says about being visually-minded. “My mom paints and my grandma paints. They’re so, so good. My grandma actually opened a gallery and sold paintings. I used to draw and shit. I used to make… this is so useless, this information – but I used to make laptops out of paper. When I was super little I would put keys on it with tape. And I would make pages that were different. That shit was fun. That was so fun. I even made a cursor…”
She taught herself music composition using software, though she’s typically humble when I ask her about it. “It’s like I cheated,” she says. “The thing about Logic is that it’s literally just GarageBand but with more stuff on it. GarageBand is for people who suck. And I used to work on GarageBand – I made ‘So High’ on GarageBand and then I moved to Logic because my ex told me I should, because he knows more about music. He’s an engineer kind of guy, a huge music nerd. So I downloaded Logic and I’m like ‘What? This shit is easy.’ I don’t like to try very hard when it comes to beats.”
Despite this, her red-hot beat is the bed for her collaboration with D.C rapper Rico Nasty, ‘Tia Tamera’, which has just dropped when we speak. A love letter to female friendships, ‘00s kids TV show Tia & Tamera, and boobs (“I thought that was really funny and ran with that”) the Doja-Rico link-up is as multi-coloured on record as it is in the high saturation video. “The first thing to come to mind for me was black women and ’90s stuff,” she says of the track’s creation. The link-up between the two happened, as things do these days, in the DMs. “We knew each other for about a year but kept procrastinating on doing songs together.”
Doja Cat and her peers Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack and CupcakKe are easily the most exciting voices in hip-hop right now. Unafraid to make things weird and explore the boundaries of a genre that can be elitist, they’re all women who talk about sex in a way that’s as unapologetic as it is fun and clever. Though she’s never claimed to be ‘political’, Doja Cat’s tracks like ‘Juicy’ champion women (and the female form): “I keep it juicy juicy, I eat that lunch / She keep that booty booty, she keep that plump”, while ‘Go To Town’ is, on the surface, about men giving head, but pushes a deeper message about female empowerment.
With Doja’s rise (catalysed by ‘MOOO!’) came a fall: someone dug up an old tweet of hers that used homophobic language, and she put out a clumsily-worded apology. At the mercy of a Twitter mob, there have been various attempts to cancel her, but none have succeeded thus far. She’s an artist who’ll happily retweet posts like ‘How did Roc Nation sign you? You’re absolute trash’, although she often doesn’t read the comments underneath videos of her, she tells me – when I ask about how a large amount focus on the female form she’s attempting to reclaim from the male gaze.
Though her album came out on Sony subsidiary RCA, you can tell that creative independence is central to Doja Cat’s ethos. “I think these days a lot of artists – I hate to believe it – have their songs written for them,” she says. “They just sit back and perform. They don’t really get into the technicalities. I think it’s interesting when you’re listening to someone sing a song and you know there’s something behind it. It’s a personal thing. You’re watching someone’s story happen. I feel like there’s a lack of that with people who have ghostwriters constantly.”
“Especially with rap music,” she continues: “It’s a turn-off for me when people aren’t writing their own raps. But it’s because I get a kick out of the competitiveness about it. I think it’s kind of cool to see people push. And I don’t see a lot of push these days.”
So what’s next? “We’re finishing the album, which I’m very excited about. I’ve never been this excited about an album in my life. We’re finishing that and then we’re gonna do a few tours, probably one or two more, then we’ll finish the album, and then I go on tour again. And I just bought a house. The first time I have my own place. I’m trying to get my dining room together. Fuck it, I can’t even sit down and have a sandwich for five minutes. But it’s fine.”
I hope you manage to get to eat your sandwich soon, I say. “I will,” she replies. “I eat so many damn sandwiches when I’m there. I fucking love sandwiches. Not all sandwiches, just this one shop that I go to. I get the same thing every single time. They do these giant amazing sandwiches – it’s like bacon, turkey, avocado, balsamic, mayo, sriracha and tabasco sauce…”