Rollie Pemberton - aka rapper Cadence Weapon - is the former poet laureate of Edmonton, Alberta. Kicking off his North American tour Thursday, he reveals his love of New York radio, existential philosophy, and -yes - Randy Newman.
On the line from Montreal, the rapper-poet-artist is in a thoughtful mood, but that might just be his normal mode of being. His third album, Hope in Dirt City (Upper Class) released this past May, made the Polaris Prize shortlist back in July. It's the third time his work has been nominated for the prestigious award.
“It's cool,” Pemberton says of his position as one of Canada’s foremost rappers. “It's an opportunity to do something that nobody's done yet, to be a pioneer, I guess.”
It's this penchant for fearless exploration and discovery -and the lack of fear -that has garnered the young artist critical acclaim. His first album, Breaking Kayfabe, was released in 2005, earning him much positive notice across the music world; along with extensive touring, he played three shows at the fabled South By Southwest festival in 2006, and his first Polaris Prize nomination. March 2008 saw him release his second album, Afterparty Babies. In May 2009, he became Edmonton's official poet laureate, serving a two-year term during which he both created original works, as well as served as the prairie city's ambassador for literary arts.
Hope In Dirt City sees Pemberton at a sort of creative crossroads -embracing some aspects of hip-hop, and outright ignoring others. Employing a diverse group of musicians, including his saxophonist uncle Brett Miles, Gordon Lightfoot's percussionist son, Eric, and DVAS' Jered Stuffco, the album embraces an intoxicating blend of sounds, from the jumped-up Basement Jaxx-like "Crash Course For The Ravers" (featuring a stunning solo from Mr. Miles) to the gently dreamy "No More Names (Aditi)", even as it embraces traditional hip-hop most skillfully embodied in "Hype Man", a scathing parody-meets-manifesto coming from an artist whose wisdom soars far beyond his twenty-six years. Even as he spits, "I don't need a fuckin' hype man..." one senses he isn't simply talking a big game to entertain his listeners, much less appease those who might question his hip-hop credentials.
They're credentials Pemberton comes by honestly. The titular "Dirt city" is a reference to Pemberton's home town of Edmonton -not exactly a mecca for aspiring rapper-poets. He told NPR this past spring, "The Edmonton I'm talking about is young Edmonton. It's my Edmonton. I'm trying to translate my experiences and relate the way people my age feel living in Edmonton, and sometimes there's a dissonant feel... (y)ou know, we're famous for having a mall. It's hard to reconcile that as an artist."
Artistry is always at the forefront of Pemberton's endeavors. In his song “Small Deaths” he raps about "my exaggerated diary of several half-events" -a line rich with both history and meaning.
“I should explain, it's a literary reference to (Jean-Paul) Sartre," he says. "I love the idea of recontextualizing (literature) into rap -it’s the same thing Jay-Z does when he uses a Biggie line, he’s changing the context of something.”
The line is based on one from Sartre's 1938 epistolary novel, Nausea. Ask about the resonance the French philosopher's ideas have, and you’ll get a deeply honest answer. “This is me getting a bit older and having a few existential struggles in my life, and thinking about the idea of value: is anything worth anything? What is the point of money? These economic systems? Writing this? Saying this?”
While he's working out the details, Pemberton has kept himself busy. In addition to preparing for a North American tour (it kicks off Friday in Toronto), he recently remixed the Liars' earworm-ish "Brats", transforming the EDM-flavoured tune into a sexy, synth-inflected dancehall number punctuated by his own aggressive rapping. Pemberton works similar remix magic on the balls-out rock of Aussie garage duo DZ Deathrays' "Dollar Signs", shifting the fuzzy guitar chords and crashing drums of the original into a gorgeously minimalist, Kraftwerk-like piece of cool electronica.
This eager embrace of sonic eclecticism can be traced back to Pemberton's early exposure to New York radio, in all its wild diversity. The rapper has family roots in the Big Apple, and notes (in a Tumblr entry) he feels "intimately connected" with the city. Young Rollie was regularly exposed to the urban culture that permeates so much New York life -radio included (and Hot 97 especially) -at a young age. “The radio has been established (in NYC) longer and there’s an infrastructure for rap radio that is only starting in Canada,” he notes.
Pemberton recalls being in New York City this New Year’s past, and hearing “the weirdest music. (legendary DJ Funkmaster Flex) played the Super Mario Brothers theme, and then he would cut it and play “I Kissed A Girl” by Katy Perry, then he played Kings Of Convenience... like what? Am I dreaming?”
“The excitement, the hype-ness of (New York City radio)... the internet can't replace that," says Pemberton. "It’s not the same as, “Oooh, so people downloaded this mp3 today!“ Like, okay...”
Ideas about the Canadian music scene being full of arena-rock types are slowly fading, something Pemberton acknowledges. As he told Spinner back in July, American audiences have been forced to sit up and take notice because of Drake's success. “More and more guys - like Drake -are mainstream and popular, showing people rap can be cool from Canada,” he says, adding that “(Drake) definitely helps out a lot. They aren't totally weirded out by a Canadian rapper now."
What about a Canadian rapper who's a huge, unabashed fan of Randy Newman? It hardly seems surprising, considering the wry, cutting tone of much of Pemberton's work; the young rapper's output, rather, feels deeply aligned with that of the snarky elder statesman's. “What he sings is very true,” Pemberton observes, “and often satirical, often wrapped in a funny story or a joke but it's done in a way that is really understandable but also has multiple layers of depth, something I try to do in my writing. I try to approach it from that angle.”
"Hype Man" is a tune that Pemberton says was inspired by the work of Randy Newman -and for all of its hip-hop theatrics, it's still steeped in an originality and humane authenticity that haunts much of Pemberton's canon. That tension -between who Pemberton is, as a person, and who audiences want him to be, as Cadence Weapon, is something he struggles with. It's a battle that's common in the music industry, especially in the hyped-up, deeply theatrical world of hip-hop.
“I've come to think the audience wants people to be characters," Pemberton says thoughtfully, "they want them to be larger-than-life, they want them to be more than themselves… they want the musicians they see to be third versions of them or something.”
Isn’t that a lot of pressure? “I feel it often,” he confesses, “and I, personally, relate to ‘everyman’ musicians and writers -I know a lot of people do -but I feel like rap, at least in the last fifteen years or so, (has held) this idea that the character has to be outsized, in some way.”
Ironically, the Globe and Mail's Dave Morris insightfully noted in his review of Hope In Dirt City, If he would just stop being himself, Rollie Pemberton's dazzling rhymes and chameleonic flow would be lighting up the charts. But Cadence Weapon likes skronky saxophone solos, nerdy references (e.g. Louis Theroux on the subtly devastating Cheval) and skewering rappers' follies (Hype Man, where he dramatizes both sides of hip-hop’s favourite master-slave scenario) too much to consider dumbing down.
But "dumbing down," or playing the larger-than-life gangsta -being a cliche of his chosen genre -isn't something Pemberton feels comfortable with. He mentions listening to the work of rap artist Gunplay recently. "Talk about outsized character!" he exclaims. "He’s covered in tattoos, he has monster dreads, he’s so crazy-looking... he’s the craziest, scariest-looking dude, and has a great rap voice. But I was watching this video and it was so over-the-top offensive, it didn't feel like a joke...it was, 'This guy is so sketchy.'"
So while it's exciting in the short-term, drama isn't always a good thing for artists. And certainly, it doesn't necessarily match the output of others, Cadence Weapon in particular. That doesn't mean Hope In Dirt City avoids honesty. “I feel like on this album I’m trying to talk about my life and aspects of it that are darker sketchier or whatever,” he says, “that's just who I am. I feel like people … even those things I talk about, after-parties, whatever, people are still like, ‘At least you’re not a horrible monster, as many of these rappers portray themselves to be…'"
"My whole joint is depth," he continues, "everything I’m looking for is depth, the layers of music and care I put into making this album… I understand this is my cross to bear" -his refusal to be pigeon-holed, that is -"and I understand it takes (listeners) a long time to get into it, to get into the songs or understand where I’m coming from, but my hope is that people will keep trying. There is something deeper there that is ultimately more satisfying for people.”