“I Want to Be the Guy That Put Edmonton On the Map”: An Interview with Cadence Weapon

Thomas Johnson speaks with Cadence Weapon about the Edmonton Oilers, becoming an old rapper, and his extended time off between albums.
By    February 28, 2018

Around the time Donald Glover was conceptualizing Derrick Comedy sketches and milo was first flipping through Nietzsche, Cadence Weapon, in a Gretzky jersey, was politely paving their lane. Amongst a crop of rising Canadian rappers, Cadence stood decidedly apart with dual-edged subversion. In 2005, the Edmonton rapper released Breaking Kayfabe, essentially the Canuck rejoinder to Boy In Da Corner. It was trenchant commentary disguised as video game sampling dance-rap, serrated in both production and lyricism.

The follow-up, 2008’s Afterparty Babies, found itself even further down an 8-bit rabbit hole, sounding at times like a soul and video games sample collage El-P would have made if you replaced his Blade Runner tape with an Atari. After relocating to Montreal, CW released Hope In Dirt City to the tune of his third consecutive Polaris nomination. HIDC followed his two previous efforts closely, though the new environ imbued it with the funk he found inherent on Montreal’s walkways.

For over a decade Cadence has championed the erstwhile City of Champions. Despite the vibrant culture that has spawned Cadence, Purity Ring, and Mac Demarco among others, Edmonton became colloquially referred to as Deadmonton (or Dirt City) after a handful of years ranking near the top of Canada’s per-capita murder rates. Coupled with abominable winters and a hockey team that really, really needs to step it up, Alberta’s capital has often found itself unfairly down nose of the passing eye.

Under both his birth name (Roland “Rollie” Pemberton) and nom de plume, Cadence has made it his mission to right YYC’s space in the public eye. In 2009, at a ripe 23 years-old, he inherited the role of Edmonton’s poet-laureate from a literary critic fifty years his senior. Throughout his career, he has brilliantly painted Edmonton in as colorful a light as any Gothamite depicts New York, replete with arm-breaking cabbies on Whyte Ave and chrome-wielding boyfriends in Old Strathcona. Edmonton has craved a star since the dissolution of the greatest on-ice dynasty the world has ever known. While carving a nook in that void, Cadence has quietly staked himself a respectable claim: Canada’s greatest rapper.

Since Dirt City, Pemberton has moved to Toronto, narrated a series on Viceland, published his first volume of poetry (Magnetic Days, 2014), and furiously recorded his fourth album. Cadence Weapon, released this past January, is his greatest departure from prior releases in that it’s the most approachable music he’s ever made. Cadence was thrust into relative anonymity after moving to Toronto, and after being denied entrance to a club (a reference he uses to cleverly bring the album full circle), decided his alter-ego was due for rebirth.

He took a workmanlike approach, studiously dissecting flows and, *ahem* cadences from rap’s current All-Stars and storied lyricists across all genres. Future Hendrix and Leonard Cohen, Whodini and Lou Reed. The result is a palpable mix of satire and metropolitan ennui, delivered with a nimbleness he previously lacked. It’s brilliantly conceptualized, terrifically produced, and, I’ll dare to say, and early candidate for Album of The Year. I spoke with Cadence about his time in between albums, his sonic/literary influences, and whatever the fuck is going on with the Oilers. Shout outs to the Funky Pickle. —Thomas Johnson


This one felt a little bit different than the rest of your albums. It looks a little more outward.


Cadence Weapon: I guess you could say it’s more accessible, right? That was a conscious decision because, something that I wanted to do with this new album was make useful music. When I say useful I mean music with the audience in mind, thinking about what they can be doing while the music’s playing. Whether it’s cooking dinner or going to the club, before the club, whatever. [I was] thinking about the setting in which the music is heard. I wanted it to have a purpose.

You listen to techno because you want to dance; it has a specific function. I didn’t use to do that with my older music. I’d just make the craziest shit that I could, and that’s what that was. This is probably the first album I’ve made with the audience in mind.


This is the first time you used outside collaborators too, as opposed to handling it all yourself.


Cadence Weapon: Yeah, that’s a major change, too. Previously the only feature artist I ever had on a song was Buck 65 on my last album. That was another big decision that I made. I produced all my other albums but I wanted to come at this focusing on my lyrics a bit more. I wanted to focus on my songwriting. I wanted the music to have a different vibe. It wasn’t a solitary experience.

In the past people have referred to me as a ‘bedroom rapper,’ and that to me suggests someone who’s totally alone. I guess I wanted to get away from that. It was really fun to work with people like Kaytranada, FrancisGotHeat. In a couple instances, the tracks that I did with Jacques Greene (“The Host” and “High Rise”), we hung out together a bunch, jammed out and came out with two tracks. That experience is very different for me. Typically I’ll just do everything myself.


You can tell the writing took precedent. It’s more conversational, less of a rumination. Each word has more impact.


Cadence Weapon: Sometimes it’s about how you say things, not necessarily using the biggest word or trying to hit someone with an onslaught of verbiage. Sometimes less is more. That’s part of my approach on this album; making sure every line belongs. Making sure every line is meaningful in some way. I don’t want to have any throwaway lyrics. Especially being poet-laureate, people put more pressure on my songs. There’s this expectation that, ‘Oh, he’s a poet.’ These lyrics have to be outstanding and poetic or whatever. This funny thing happened when I became poet-laureate. It was in the National Post. They took a bunch of Shakespeare and compared it to my lyrics.


You’re serious?


Cadence Weapon: Yeah, kinda making fun of me. Taking some lyrics from a party track I made. It was like that meme you see, you know; Kanye lyrics put up against Chaucer. Or up against “Bohemian Rhapsody” lyrics like, “Music was way better back then.”


You always see that Migos and Beatles juxtaposition.


Cadence Weapon: Yep. They tried to play me like that. That made me want to be bulletproof with the lyrics.


Releasing Magnetic Days, too. That was 2014. Did that help streamline how you write?


Cadence Weapon: That was a really cool experience, writing that book. It helped me delineate between what I want to do with a song and what I want to do with something that’s purely written. In the past I didn’t really make any major distinction between poetry and lyrics and how each was written. That really helped me organize my mind. ‘Okay, I want to write a song in this certain style.’ Studying poetry and other writers and their forms.

I would say this whole album is inspired by a lot of research. I went through pop and rap music history and analyzed lyrics. I looked at different structures of Paul Simon songs. And Harry Nilsson. Just seeing how they could write songs that were accessible to a broad audience but had multiple levels of meaning.


I saw you mentioned in an interview that this album was a combination of Harry Nilsson and Future.


Cadence Weapon: [Laughs] Right, right. The contemporary flows of Future with the songwriting style of Harry Nilsson. But it’s rap. I don’t know, I haven’t heard a lot of stuff that mines those things. I look at music in a weird way that I don’t think a lot of people do. I can draw from so many different genres and it’ll still come out as rap. I’ll DJ a whole techno night, and then the next day I’ll be rapping. And the next day I’ll be hanging out with a bunch of experimental pop musicians. They all serve my music in the same way despite being in different genres.


Do you experience that more from living in Toronto? More than Montreal? Edmonton?


Cadence Weapon: Not really. In Montreal it happened much more often where I was mixing in with scenes and cultures that maybe I wouldn’t have. When I was in Montreal my whole crew of friends was Grimes, Blue Hawaii, TOPS, Sean Nicholas Savage. All these kinds of pop artists. Here in Toronto I find the more people I’m meeting are rap producers and DJs. It’s definitely brought me back towards making concrete rap music.


What poets or literary influences do you have?


Cadence Weapon: Ta-Nehisi Coates. James Baldwin. Junot Diaz. Paul Davey. Definitely a lot of black authors. That’s another aspect of this album too. Approaching racism in a different way than I would have in the past. My old music doesn’t really touch on it that frequently but as I’ve gotten older and gained more knowledge of myself, I’ve become more equipped to rap about these things. I think that’s a major theme on this album. Knowledge of self and self-reliance. It’s a recurring theme in the first five or six songs, these positive affirmations of ‘Yes, I can do this.’ I hope it makes other people feel the same way when they listen to it.


It starts with that great clip of your dad.


Cadence Weapon: I had to start the album with that. My dad was a DJ on CJSR [Edmonton] for over 20 years. Guy named Teddy Pemberton. He had a show called “The Black Experience In Sound.” He used to play funk and rap. He was the first person to play rap on the radio in Edmonton. I was hanging with my mom a few years ago and she happened to mention she had these old tapes of my dad on the radio. One of them was from days after I had been born and he’s talking about me being born. I couldn’t believe it. So I digitized it and got the sample of it. Hearing him say, “If I don’t get you, my son will,” that was too iconic. I had to put it on the album.


It’s a great way to start off the record.


Cadence Weapon: This is my first album in five years and I feel like it’s a rebirth, a reincarnation. It’s a reintroduction to my music. And what better way to do that than my dad talking about me being born?


Did you feel you needed a rebirth record to get a fresh start?


Cadence Weapon: I didn’t think of it that consciously when I was making it. The whole time between albums I’ve been working on music, but it’s only been since I moved to Toronto a couple years ago that the scope of it started coming together and I started realizing what I wanted to talk about. Once I get the vibes to put out an album, it just starts coming together. I’m trying to keep the momentum up so it’s not as long of an absence after.


In between you recorded a ton of songs?


Cadence Weapon: Yeah, over 80. The majority of that was when I lived in Toronto. I just have a really good infrastructure for recording right now so I’m trying to keep that up. I’m already working on new stuff.


You didn’t get the warmest welcome in Toronto?


Cadence Weapon: Eh, it was a little overblown. When you come from another place in Canada to Toronto, there’s gonna be a certain level of skepticism about you. That’s always, it doesn’t matter if it’s music or anything else. People from Toronto are Toronto-centric. They don’t really think abbot the rest of Canada. It’s the same thing for music. When I went into a room with people for music I didn’t get the same response I would have in other parts of the country.

You really have to earn respect in Toronto. You have to make something worth looking at without a doubt. Often times people aren’t gonna fuck with you. Inherently in Canadian rap you know that. They used to call Toronto the ‘Screw Face Capital’ and that’s still there. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.


Does the fact that you’re from Edmonton have to do with that? Because Edmonton artists, there’s you, Mac Demarco. Homeshake is coming up.


Cadence Weapon: Homeshake, that’s my homie. Everyone knows each other. In Edmonton, it’s super close knit. Purity Ring came out of Edmonton too.


Is there an inherent bias with Edmonton? Dirt City, Deadmonton. It’s not necessarily a creative capital.


Cadence Weapon: That’s the funny thing. Despite the perception, so many great artists come out of there. Maybe not everyone is super aware, but it’s a great place to work on music and a great place to come out of. There’s a great music community. Hopefully everything I’m doing—and Mac and Homeshake—hopefully it changes that perception. But it’s becoming known. But there’ll always be that thing.

When I tour the States, people don’t know where Edmonton is. When I tour the world, people don’t know its location, Alberta. They’re not aware of it the same way they are for Toronto. That’s really important to me despite the fact that I may live in Toronto, Montreal, whatever. I’m repping Edmonton. If it’s not me that who’s gonna do it? When all’s said and done, I want to be the guy that put Edmonton on the map.


You’ve said that Breaking Kayfabe and Afterparty Babies are the most Edmonton-oriented albums ever made. Listening to Cadence Weapon, it’s very much a Toronto album. It’s dealing with metropolitan issues, but there are still references to Edmonton all over.


Cadence Weapon: There’s always gonna be reference to Edmonton regardless of what the sonic focus is. But I am definitely influenced by the setting I’m in. There is a Toronto vibe, but I also feel like it’s something relatable to anyone who lives in a big city anywhere. Songs like “High Rise” talking about gentrification and condos taking over and destroying communities, that’s something people can relate to all around the world. I’m trying to make music that can be appreciated by multiple people on multiple levels, rather than just making something for my friends in Edmonton.


A good example is “The Host.” It’s probably the most biting song you’ve ever made. Are sleaze bags in the music industry something you’ve had to deal with more in Toronto?


Cadence Weapon: That’s my experience in the afterparty scene in Montreal, where there are all these people that run these venues and they have this disproportionate level of power that they use a lot because they control the music scene. I would DJ at these events and you’d see the social politics around DJ’ing and the way women are treated and the way people of color are treated and not being given the platform that other people are. I think it’s kinda weird that I happened to write that song that would appear on this album pre-Weinstein.


You wrote that before?


Cadence Weapon: Yeah, I wrote it last summer. Before all this stuff dropped. Once that happened and it became this global conversation in every field, it made me feel like I really tapped into some feelings that a lot of people are having.


That’s long been one of your calling cards. On Afterparty Babies, “Do I Miss My Friends” was millennial ennui a decade before people started thinking about those effects from social media.


Cadence Weapon: I have this thing about getting into themes before they become popular. It’s happened so many times throughout my career. For instance, you look at Afterparty Babies and it’s a whole album of me rapping over electronic music. It came out in 2008 and people were really not fucking with that at the time. Now it’s normal. Now you hear it on the radio. There’s an expectation that you’ll have a rap song with an electronic beat. I’ve always done that.

For me, the challenge is to keep being creative and keep doing different things. I have such a different view of the music nowadays. I used to get mad when I would make something and I’d hear something so much like it. I used to get so mad. I don’t know. Now, the way I see it…I tweeted about this the other day. It made me think about Elon Musk and the hyper-loop. He came up with the blueprint for it, but once you create that blueprint, all these people around the world are going to try to make their own hyper-loop. They’ll race to be the one with the dopest hyper-loop. That doesn’t take away what Elon Musk creative with the blueprint. Everyone knows he’s the one who started the idea. There are all these people putting their spin on it. Some will succeed, some will fail. It just furthers the conversation, and that’s what I want to do with my music. I’m gonna try to look at things from different perspectives, show different ways of doing it. If people want to follow in my footsteps, its great because it furthers the conversation. I used to be like “Fuck all biters!”


“Sharks!”


Cadence Weapon: “Sharks.” I literally had a song about it. But now, bite away.


In 2005, especially with the crop of Canadian rappers coming out—Buck 65, K-Os, Kardinal, Shad—you sounded so much different. They had the classic boom-bap, soul sampling. But Breaking Kayfabe was a sharp-edged, electronic dance album.


Cadence Weapon: Maybe it has something to do with where I’m coming from. In Edmonton, there was a rap scene but it wasn’t as defined as the one in Toronto. There weren’t hundreds of rapper. There wasn’t a lot, so I actually found myself more in line with the other scenes. The club scene, or the experimental-electronic scene. The dance-rock scene. I used to go to noise shows. I used to go to hardcore shows. All that music put it together. That’s my background, but I’m a rapper. That’s why I ended up making the music that I made, it was the environment that I came out of. It’s possible that if I came from Toronto I’d have made the same shit as everyone else. I guess that’s why I stood out the way I did.


A combination of the weird Edmonton scene and Whodini’s “Freaks Come Out At Night.”


Cadence Weapon: Oh man. Now that I’m reminded of that song, that’s so the root of what I do. It’s so funny. That really old school rap is actually the root of my shit. I listened to that, I listened to someone like LV too. That kind of rap, with the vocoder voice, mobster sound. Man, that’s me. That’s where I come from.


You think your dad gave you that?


Cadence Weapon: My dad helped a lot with that. I grew up in a library of rap music. I heard it all growing up. For me, I always just had that impulse to want to know everything about rap. Some people collect stamps and rocks and shit. I listen to rap. I studied rap from an anthropological level. I really break it down. I’d be listening to Freestyle Fellowship’s Inner City Griots as a kid, looking at everybody’s flow and why they were doing that. What is it that excites me about this, and how can I do it in my own way? That’s the way I listen to music.


Apart from the book, you’ve been busy. You narrated Payday for Viceland?


Cadence Weapon: That’s right. That’s something that happened since I lived in Toronto. I got into doing voice-over and narration. Also hosting Redbull Music Academy when it came to Montreal. I did some interviews with Alex Tumay and Mike Will Made It. In the future I’d love to host my own talk show or something. I feel like that’d be dope.


Any poetry or books in the works?


Cadence Weapon: I’m kinda still in music mode right now. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff for this album, but I’m keeping the energy going. I’m already working on another EP that will hopefully come out by the end of the year. It’s with one producer and it’s really, really cool. I don’t want to say the producer yet, but it’s really sick shit. [Laughs] It’s so dope. I’m so excited for people to hear it. I’m gonna be touring this year too. I’m doing SXSW and touring with this bands called Too Many Zooz from Brooklyn. We’re playing a few shows around Canada.

I’m just happy I have something new out there. It’s weird. As years went by, I still am aware of all the rap that’s been coming out and I’ve seen so many things that have echoes of things that I’ve made in the past. It didn’t make me mad that other people were doing it, it’s more that I felt a little bit left out. I wanted to come out and play too. It just feels good to be back on the playground.


I know you don’t read a ton of fiction, but do you think you’d ever do a novel?


Cadence Weapon: Definitely. I’ve actually already talked to people and had meetings with literary agents. It’s in my mind. I still want to put out a couple more albums and really master that form. I feel like there will definitely be a novel in my future, for sure. Fiction or not. I’ve always thought I could write a really good book of rap essays. That should happen one day.


That would be great because so much rap writing comes from the major American cities, and eventually the opinions become cyclical. Edmonton, especially, is such an outside perspective to the core of rap coverage. It would be a totally different perspective.


Cadence Weapon: That’s how I’m able to make the music I make. I wasn’t beholden to the traditions of Chicago or New York rap. I’m just this outlier that gets to absorb all the rap that comes out around the world. Listening to grime, growing up listening to Illmatic, but also listening to Souls of Mischief and Del [The Funky Homosapien]. But I can also listen to Aphex Twin. There are no borders because of where I come from. My music really represents that level of freedom.


You want a few more albums out before you’re 35? Don’t want that ‘old rapper’ stereotype?


Cadence Weapon: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s funny that you mentioned me writing a book. Books are really good by old people because they have all this experience, time to reflect on it. ‘Oh, this guy’s got a beard. It’s gonna be a good book.’ In rap, it’s starting to change. Jay-Z changed that stereotype with 4:44.


Nas too. Life Is Good.


Cadence Weapon: Life Is Good was good. Typically you turn 35 and it’s a cascade of wackness [laughs]. Just in case that happens to me, I need to jam out a couple albums.


Just don’t do a collaboration with Brad Paisley.


Cadence Weapon: Brad who?


Brad Paisley. He did that LL Cool J collaboration from a few years back.


Cadence Weapon: Really?


Yeah, it was the definition of an old, back rapper. So out of touch.


Cadence Weapon: [Audibly snaps fingers] Oh! Was that “Accidental Racist?” I remember that. I tried to erase that from my mind [laughs].


Sorry, I brought it up.


Cadence Weapon: Imagine if that came out today. Things have changed so much, people are so woke now. That song would have been totally destroyed. It wouldn’t have even come out.


It got absolutely lit up when it came out, and that was in 2014 I think? [It was 2013]. Imagine in 2018.


Cadence Weapon: That’s the All Lives Matter anthem.


So last year you released “Connor McDavid,” and I’ll never get to ask a rapper this again: What the fuck is going on with the Oilers? It’s embarrassing.


Cadence Weapon: No one expected them to regress.


They made it to the second round of the playoffs last year.


Cadence Weapon: It’s stuff like that that makes you wonder if you’ll ever get back to that level. You need to win when you get the chance. They had so much momentum. Especially with the way they lost, it make you think they’d be back for sure [The Edmonton Oilers lost to the Anaheim Ducks in a controversial seven-game series]. They made a lot of changes. I was really happy when they got [Todd McLellan], and I trust him. Part of me feels like we don’t truly have a good goaltender, really. We never did in my opinion. It would be cool to have a marquee, well-known goalie that we could trust.

I also feel like that trade for Taylor Hall [to the New Jersey Devils] was really shortsighted. You don’t want to thin out an offense like that. A lot of people said he really clogged up things and that there were too many offensive players together, but I don’t know. He’s been doing great.


They seem lethargic this year.


Cadence Weapon: I’m wondering if it’s just a bad year? I’m not the kind of guy to blow shit up prematurely, so I’m not gonna fire [Mclellan]. I think consistency is really good for young teams. That’s why they kept losing before, they had no consistency. But then once they got McDavid they were like, ‘Okay, we can’t fuck up anymore. Let’s get our shit together.’ Maybe it’s just an off-year. It happens. Young players hit the rookie wall. He’s not a rookie anymore so it doesn’t even make sense. Ugh [laughs].