Cadence Weapon, aka Rollie Pemberton, is an MC and former poet laureate from Edmonton, Canada, who has made a name for himself via his creative flow and multi-genre approach to production choices. His third full-length album, Hope In Dirt City, will be out May 29 on Upper Class. Recently, CMJ got a chance to talk with Pemberton on the phone about the Great White North, machetes and post-punk, among other things.
So, Edmonton. Is that the “Dirt City” you’re referring to in Hope In Dirt City?
Yeah, that is Dirt City. I mean that literally, but I also feel like the feeling of Dirt City can be transferred to anywhere. That’s the thing: It’s kind of an open-ended concept, but it’s specifically about Edmonton.
Your song “Oliver Square” makes it sound pretty rough.
Well, a lot of people thought that song was like a joke or something when I put it out. But I’ve always stuck to the fact that what I’m talking about, it’s real, all real things that happened to me. I did have house parties where people broke the windows and tried to kill people with a machete. But uh—
Hold up. A machete?
Yeah, there were some street kid gangs having a machete fight in the front yard of this house party. That was like normal. [laughs] Or we’d be driving somewhere and people would just run up to you and try to open the car and break in. It may seem like Edmonton is an unassuming place, but it does have this weird underbelly.
Was that your inspiration to start writing poetry and rapping, or did it come from the music you were listening to?
It’s a combination of both. Because coming from a background of listening to rap my whole life, I would always listen to Nas and Jay-Z and hear them being highly referential about where they’re from, and I realized that there was no such thing for somebody from Edmonton or even somebody from Canada. There’s not an equivalent. So once I started getting into writing more in junior high and realized that I could fill that void, I started doing it.
I like your fellow countryman Shad a lot, but I’ve noticed he doesn’t seem to rap about Canada all that much.
I like to be very specific but in a way that appeals to a lot of people. I always take the Streets‘ Original Pirate Material or the first Dizzee Rascal album as great examples of this: They’re talking in very specific regional slang about very specific things to them, but they’re relatable even if you don’t totally understand the nomenclature.
Your production tends to be all over the place in terms of genre, but the press release for Hope In Dirt City says you’re looking to “return rap music to its essence.” What do you mean by that?
Well, I don’t know if you heard the new song “88” I put out where Grimes does the beat, but it’s this idea of old-school sensibilities with new-school music. The new album has the energy and feel of old-school rap, the kind of danger and excitement I get when I listen to rap from the early ’80s when it still wasn’t concrete what the genre was yet. Some songs had live instruments, others had interpolations of other songs, others were just a patchwork of all these ideas. It’s like post-punk; it used to be a bunch of different types of music that are put into different categories like New Wave or No Wave, but it existed before the distinctions. That’s the way I see my rap.
How was working with Grimes?
Well, we’re part of the same crew, the Arbutus Records sort-of periphery. But for “88,” I literally just got the instrumental for “Eight” off of Visions and rapped over it. However, that’s not envisioning that Claire and I aren’t gonna do a proper collaboration at some point. It’s definitely going to happen.
You were poet laureate of Edmonton from 2009 to 2011. How did that happen?
Being poet laureate was really a way for me to sharpen my writing because having your writing put out there totally bare when you’re used to rapping over musical accompaniment was a very different experience for me. It took me to all these different places I never thought my writing would go. I ended up doing a poem for the Olympics in Vancouver where I just read a poem about Alberta in front of thousands of people. It was basically a way for me to take writing more seriously because up to that point, like on my last album, Afterparty Babies, a lot of it was very insider-y, very Edmonton-centric. So I thought maybe it was worth it to expand my writing to something of more permanence.
So you think it has informed your music?
Definitely. Some of the songs on the new album are specifically inspired by my poems. Like the title track comes from a poem I wrote called “Dirt City,” which is basically a rallying cry for young Canadians. Canada has a lot of small towns, and there are a lot of places where people feel like having a creative pursuit as your job isn’t a really realistic thing to do. It can be very hard to succeed that way. But I’m trying to be the voice that says, it’s reality, you can actually do it if you work at it, and despite how dark things may seem sometimes, creativity is very important.
Like Celine Dion.
[laughs] Yeah, right. If you work hard enough, one day you can own Schwartz’s.