Cadence Weapons talks the best flow of all time and where he was on the night of the 2016 election
Cadence Weapon, aka Rollie Pemberton, is an iconoclastic Canadian rapper from Edmonton, Alberta. His first three records — Breaking Kayfabe, Afterparty Babies, and Hope in Dirt City — are all entirely self-produced, featuring production well ahead of its time inspired by club music and chiptunes. Listening to them in preparation for this interview was a bracing and exciting experience. Hope in Dirt City, in particular, sounds like nothing else — Pemberton produced the tracks, then arranged them for a live band, recorded them, and then chopped and remixed the live recordings. The end result is odd and compelling — a beguiling android mix of the organic and inorganic.
Cadence Weapon’s new record (entitled Cadence Weapon) sounds different, largely due to the fact that none of it is produced by Pemberton. Instead, Kaytranada provides the squelchy, spooky beat for “My Crew (Woooo).” Casey MQ supplies the ethereal sounds and the soaring vocals on “Infinity Pool,” and Blue Hawaii does the same for “Five Roses.” Gibbs and Jacques Green each put their stamp on a couple tracks — and that’s just the beginning of the list of collaborators. The result is Cadence Weapon’s most diverse album, and also his smoothest. I called Pemberton in Austin, Texas, where he was wrapping up his visit to SXSW to talk about the new record, the best flow of all time, and contemporary politics.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Will Wellington: This album, Cadence Weapon, is really being pitched as a new mission statement for you, or a rebirth, and it does sound really different from your other records. I want to ask you, right off the bat, who is the new Cadence Weapon?
Rollie Pemberton: I still consider myself to be the same individual, but I feel like this album is a total refinement of what I consider my music to be. It’s different because it has all the outside production, [and] this focus on how all the songs are written that I think has allowed me to really fully embrace what it means to be Cadence Weapon. That’s me just being myself, writing weird from other people’s perspectives, rapping about stuff that people don’t typically rap about: gentrification, conspicuous consumption. All that stuff is so me, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it.
WW: On your other records, do you feel like you were being less you?
RP: Not totally. I just feel like I have a better understanding of myself now, being older. Part of it was that I produced all the records myself, doing so much that I really didn’t have a clear idea of how I wanted to present myself. On this album, I really feel like I do.
WW: I wanted to specifically ask you about your three previous records, Breaking Kayfabe, Afterparty Babies, and Hope in Dirt City. When you look back on them now, how do you feel about them?
RP: I feel like there’s a lot to like about all my past albums. Breaking Kayfabe still sounds great to me today. It’s super raw — there’s nothing out there that sounds like it. Listening back to it, I’m instantly flooded with memories of where I was at that time. I was just this maverick teenager wiling out, just trying to make the craziest shit I could. Whereas [on] Afterparty Babies, I had toured around, I had learned about club music, I got influenced by all these different experiences I was having and grappling with people knowing who I was. I particularly think the production on [Afterparty Babies] is really good. Rapping over electronic music or club music — that wasn’t really happening at the time. It’s like an everyday thing now. But at the time, I was in my own lane. As for Hope in Dirt City, when I listen back to it now, it’s definitely bittersweet. The period in which I was making that album was very challenging for me. I was back and forth between Toronto and Montreal and Edmonton. The people I was working with at the time, my label, our relationship wasn’t good. It’s definitely hard to listen back to, but there were some really interesting things with the production on that album, using the live instruments — it’s something I’ll probably look at again in the future.
WW: When it comes to your live show right now, do you incorporate a lot of the older material still?
RP: Yeah, I play a couple of the older songs. I gotta play a couple of the old jams. It’s mostly focused on the new stuff though.
WW: What are the top old jams for you?
RP: I think “Conditioning” is one of my best songs, and I still like to play “Sharks” a lot.
WW: What does your show look like these days? Is it still you and a DJ?
RP: Yeah, it’s me and a DJ using either CDJs or a controller. And I’ve lately been using a Voicelive 3 vocal effects pedal to try and incorporate a lot of the different voices I’ve had on the album and be able to do them in real time live.
WW: There’s quite a bit of variety in your vocal timbres on the new record — you go intense like you do on some of your older songs, but there are also a lot of smoothed out, more electronic sounding vocal effects.
RP: Yeah, and I’m just trying to be more melodic. That’s something that people have criticized me for in the past, sounding similar throughout an album. It’s definitely a point of emphasis for me to come up with new flows, new ways of rapping, and do things that people haven’t heard before.
WW: How did you actually learn to rap when you were just a kid starting out?
RP: I pretty much taught myself how to rap. My dad had a radio show where he played a lot of rap music. It was just always around. Then it went from there to me just being obsessed with rap music and just listening to it all the time. I would just be in math class with my friend, and we would just be writing raps on pieces of paper, showing them to each other. Then I started freestyle battling. I would also battle people online, on some early-Internet type shit. We’d be sending files back and forth — rapping over an instrumental dissing somebody. [Laughter] It’s kind of funny to think back now. My uncle Brett Miles had a salsa band and he let me join the band. I would be rapping with like an eight-piece funk band, and those were my first live performances.
WW: Where did you go to battle in Edmonton?
RP: We used to battle everywhere. They’d have like open mic nights and stuff at different bars — Liquid Lounge, they’d let you jump onstage and rap a bit. I remember I was in a battle at a car show at a giant convention centre. Or it was battling outside, just rapping with people and trying to say the illest shit, you know?
WW: You’re known as a bit of a hip hop scholar. I’m wondering if you have an all-time favourite flow or verse or track?
RP: There are a few that stand out for me as being really influential. One song I would say is Organized Konfusion, which is Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po. The song is “Thirteen” — both those verses by Pharoahe Monch are just incredible. It was like a stylistic revolution for me to hear those verses. And I would also say Myka 9, “Life or Death” — his fast rapping on those songs is very inspirational to me. And I think that my all time favourite verse is actually Pimp C on “Big Pimpin’” by Jay-Z. I feel like it is the essence of rap. Like, that is rapping. That’s what it is. It’s super raw, and every time I hear it I feel the same way, this energy, this hypeness. I want to jump on a table whenever I hear it. So, yeah.
WW: You mentioned that you’re really trying to take the songwriting to the next level on this record. And I know you take inspiration from a lot of ‘70s pop songwriters. Studying those songwriters, in terms of the nuts and bolts of songwriting, what did you learn from them, what did you try to apply to your own songwriting?
RP: Paul Simon is really good at doing this thing where the song will, at face value, be about one thing, but if you listen to it more it’s about another thing. That’s really cool that you can have a song that works on multiple levels. I was just thinking about the song “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor.” Seemingly he’s talking about living in apartments in New York and how you’re all jammed up to each other, but it’s also a metaphor for success. I love shit like that. [I’m also] listening for really cool insights, maybe talking about a specific feeling in a way that I’ve never heard expressed before. Those are the things that make me love a song, those intangible things that just feel good, whether it’s a turn of phrase, or just the way somebody says something. Harry Nilsson is definitely a big influence on me lately. He has this one song called “The Ivy Covered Walls,” and it’s a really weird song. It’s like an old barbershop quartet ballad kind of thing, but he’s talking about doing acid. There’s this one line at the end, where he’s like, “And one of us had scribbled something sort of silly on the walls,” and the way he says it is perfect. That’s my shit. The inside-the-song shit, the performance shit, that is my shit with songwriting.
WW: You mentioned in an interview a few years back that you think the best hip hop in Canada has come from Western Canada. Who do you see as the rap artists from Western Canada who really deserve to be in that Canadian rap pantheon?
RP: Oh yeah, there are so many. I mean, there are a bunch of rappers in Winnipeg and Vancouver — Peanuts & Corn is the label — Pip Skid, John Smith, mcenroe. Birdapres was a big influence of mine. Epic, coming out of Saskatoon. There’s a lot of rap out there that people don’t know. The west was really good for underground rap. Toronto is more of the mainstream style. You don’t get a lot of the strange music that you do in the Prairies.
WW: Speaking of the Canadian rap pantheon, you recently performed in Vancouver with Maestro Fresh Wes, Clairmont the Second, and Lou Phelps?
RP: Yeah, hell of a show, eh?
WW: It’s a crazy bill. I was wondering if you could speak to those particular artists.
RP: Maestro I’ve played with in the past. He gave me one of my favourite nicknames. We were playing in Edmonton at this thing called Ookfest at NAIT [Northern Alberta Institute of Technology]. He saw me perform, and I was just going crazy and getting wild, and he went, “Man, you were just going so hard, you’re like the black AC/DC.” I actually just wrote a song called “Black AC/DC” about that. He’s just a legend and it’s really cool to have the opportunity to share a stage with him.
WW: You mention smartphone addiction on the new album — almost falling off a cliff taking a selfie. I’m curious what your media diet looks like. Are you on the phone or the computer a lot, are you trying to cut back?
RP: [Laughter] I am addicted to using my phone. I use it all the time — I need to get one of those apps that tells you how much you use it. I’m constantly checking something. I’ll look at the ESPN app countless times a day, and sometimes I’ll just look at the standings in the NBA, and start thinking about who the Raptors will play in the playoffs, and what the probability of that is — it’s easy to get lost in the phone. The song “Infinity Pool” is [about] trying to be more mindful. That’s something I’m trying to do more in my life in general. I don’t watch a lot of TV, thankfully. But I’m definitely on my computer for hours, whether I’m writing songs or doing whatever. It’s important to me, once the weather gets better, [to] have X amount of time where I walk around outside, be around nature. It’s important to do things that remind you that you’re human, that you have a body. I like to cook a lot. It’s just a time where I’m not on the computer, not looking at the screen. Maybe I’ll be engaging with whoever I’m making food for — that’s the kind of shit I’m trying to be more active and mindful about. I live with my girlfriend, and you don’t want to wake up and look at your phone before you look at each other [Laughter]. Because that can happen.
WW: You mentioned that you might one day be able to write a great book of hip hop essays. If you were to sit down and write about a particular trend in hip hop today, whether that’s related to production, or flow, or persona, or whatever, what would you write about?
RP: I’ve wanted to really delve into the etymology of flows. I want to learn where a lot of these flows come from originally, and really chart their evolution over the past few decades. The Migos flow that everybody does nowadays, or even the Lil Pump or Lil Uzi Vert flows — they all come from recent rappers, but there were people who were doing them before, you know? I’d love to do something like that where I really chart the history of the flows, but also I’d like to get a linguist involved and learn about what makes these flows so compelling. Why is it that choppy, syncopated flow is so interesting to everyone today?
WW: Yeah, it would be super interesting to hear whether it hits the brainwaves in a certain way.
RP: Yeah, people love it! It’s not even just the flows, but that syncopated hi-hat, that specific style of trap hi-hat. It’s become the rhythm of life today. Just being at South By Southwest, you can’t go anywhere without hearing those rolling hi-hats. I’m wondering how long that’ll go on for. These things come and go. But it’s funny — every person on the street here at South By is a rapper, and they all sound the same. It’s crazy!
WW: Did you see any rappers or artists that really blew you away at South By?
RP: Yeah, I saw JPEGMAFIA. He’s amazing. He’s so dope. He’s a rapper from Baltimore. And, yeah, it was like seeing Bad Brains or something. It was awesome. I saw Maxo Kream from Houston, he’s one of my favourite rappers. It’s all just a blur. I saw so many shows. It’s crazy. I saw a lot of Canadians here, actually. I saw a lot of Canadian friends. I saw Lido Pimienta, and my friend TiKA. And I saw Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. Lots of friends. South By was really fun.
WW: The last song on the record is partly about contemporary politics. I read that you were in Washington the night of the 2012 election — where were you the night of the 2016 election?
RP: [Laughter] Oh my God. I was actually in Toronto, and I was cautiously optimistic. I was with my girlfriend, and we went to Café Diplomatico. We got some pizza, having beers and hanging out, thinking that it was a foregone conclusion that Trump would not win. But then as time went on, this sense of dis-ease swept through the restaurant [Laughter] until it was like, “Holy fuck, he’s president!” I think the whole thing has been a wakeup call for everyone on earth. It was just a seismic event that made people more politically engaged than they ever have been, at least since, I don’t know, the ‘60s. We’re seeing this wave of wokeness, people being more thoughtful about where they get their news from. I try to have a positive spin on it, despite the fact that — you know, I’m in America right now and I know people are hurting. You can see that it’s not the same as in Canada. But I definitely feel like this mindfulness and appreciation of where we get our information from — that’s going to be the most important takeaway from this presidency. Because we kind of stopped thinking about it. You have a leader you like in Obama, and seemingly everything’s going your way, so you don’t think that critically about how information is getting to you. But it’s become really the conversation of our time, fake news: who can we trust? Those are some of the themes in that song, “The Afterparty.”
Thanks for talking, Mr. Weapon.
Excerpts from this interview previously appeared in The Ontarion: “Cadence Weapon stresses connection in a divided time”
Photos by Will Wellington