On November 6, while most of Washington D.C. (and the world, really) had their eyes glued to election results, some music fans escaped the city’s politically-charged environment to watch Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon give his second D.C. performance of the year in support of his latest album, Hope in Dirt City, which made the short list for Canada’s Polaris Prize. Drawing heavily from both his experiences growing up in working class Edmonton and the experience of leaving Alberta’s prairies behind, the album sets rap verses against dance beats with jazz flourishes. While skilled at incorporating multiple genres, Cadence, born Rollie Pemberton, is best known for the strength of his writing. A journalism school dropout and former music writer, he’s adept at dropping profanities and polysyllabic words like “lugubrious” in the same breath. Adding to his wordsmith cred, he recently served as his hometown’s official Poet Laureate. Weeping Elvis sat down with Cadence before his election night show to find out what it’s going on in the Canadian rap scene and just what a poet laureate does.
Weeping Elvis: Did you intentionally plan to play Washington, D.C. on the night of a presidential election or is that just the way your scheduling worked out?
Cadence Weapon: No it’s just the way it worked out. So far I’ve noticed a couple people on Twitter saying, “Oh well I’m just trying to ignore what’s going on since I’m so stressed out about it.” I hope people want to celebrate — I hope it turns out like that. It’s kind of like in Edmonton when we were in the Stanley Cup a few years ago — everyone would be really stoked if we won but the entire city would be so depressed if we lost.
WE: In the last few years you transitioned your home base from Edmonton to Montreal. How do you think the Montreal music scene has evolved from Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade to more electro-based acts like you and Grimes?
CW: I was around when it was shifting over. I mean, just being part of the Canadian scene in general I met people from that first wave. I feel like that [first wave] is when Canadian music started getting real creative, started getting world renowned, became innovative, world class independent music or whatever. I remember when I was much younger it was really slim pickings — in the ‘90s there wasn’t a lot of good shit. I was there for the transition and I really got in with a lot of these electronic acts, like, I knew Doldrums for a while even before I moved there. I met Claire [Boucher, of Grimes] kind of like earlier when she was putting things out initially. Getting to know all the people and the latest records, collaborating with different people, like Karneef who drummed for me for a while, or Riley Fleck from TOPS – he drummed for me at one point. Interacting with this very vibrant community and being part of this larger shift in style – it still is very exciting.
WE: What is the life of a poet laureate like?
CW: It was no different than my daily life — not like I had to sit at a desk at city hall and read poetry that people send in or something. It was pretty in-step with the rest of my life. I’d be touring around doing poetry events, like, I read a poem at the [2010 Vancouver] Olympics and I read a poem when the [Olympic] torch came through Edmonton. I did a few things at city hall. And then I went to the Poet Laureate Conference in Halifax where all the other poets laureate in Canada talked about how the program could be better in the different cities. So it was really just a learning exercise, not only in my own poetic abilities but also learning about different creative perspectives from other peoples’ points of view.
WE: Your music is quite lyrical and poetic but is very emphasized by the beats and melodies you back it up with. What was it like switching to a format that’s just words, with no other sounds to back it up?
CW: It made me think about the way I wrote my songs. It made me feel like being more concise and specific in everything that I said. I never wanted to waste any space with my words. That’s something I learned from focusing on poetry over those couple years. And I think that really translates on this album because you know I used to do songs that had three verses with long tonal breaks, whereas now I’m really influenced by a poetic discipline called Imagism. Ezra Pound is an Imagist. It’s basically about getting to the core of an idea with as few words as possible.
WE: How do you translate lyrically complex albums that use words like “lugubriously” into a fun rap show?
CW: I try to write things that are lyrically complex but the whole point is that I also want to play fun shows. I want people to get whatever they want out of what I do. I don’t want it to be like coming to my show is like going to a spelling bee or something. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a party, ultimately. That’s the juxtaposition that people don’t really totally understand. Maybe I’m writing something that’s a little more literary than a totally dumb rapper but I also occasionally talk about more base subjects or swear or do regular rapper things because I am a rapper ultimately. So yes I do say things like “lugubriously” but I’m not saying it to be actively clever. It’s just who I am, it’s part of my personality. I’ve always been a word man. Even when I was a kid, I always liked English class. I saw so many parallels. I’d read Shakespeare and then listen to Nas and be like, “Oh, this is the same thing to me.”
WE: Although you’re primarily rapping on your album you incorporate a lot of other genres. Is that a conscious decision or does it just happen?
CW: It just happens naturally. All my albums are different and I feel like a lot of my songs are different from each other. Basically when I write the song it tells me how it should sound, what music it should go with. It’s a very organic process. I never think, “I’m going to make a reggae song,” or “I’m going to make a techno song.” It’s just whatever goes with the theme and the mood.
WE: Who are your biggest artist or genre influences?
CW: I’m influenced by everything. When I was growing up my dad was a DJ. I grew up in a musical library so I had access to almost all rap that had come out up to that point. I grew up obviously on Nas, Organized Confusion — more technical, rappy rap. Ras Kass, Freestyle Fellowship. I was also influenced by some non-rap things. I was really into Nirvana growing up. Aphex Twin was a big influence on me when I was younger. Even now I’m more into singer-songwriter music lyrically — things like Randy Newman or Harry Nilsson, Beach Boys… I’m really influenced by all music though. I’m really into Japanese electro. Yellow Magic Orchestra is very influential to me right now.
WE: How has your aesthetic evolved over the course of your albums?
CW: I feel like I’ve just matured as a person, not just sonically but in every aspect of life. When I was younger I had less of an idea of how I wanted to present myself to the world because all I knew was I wanted to make this music and I wanted to put it out. I didn’t think about the fact that I would have to tour around and that I would have to play shows, or that I would be making videos and people would perceive me a certain way based on what I was wearing. I never thought about any of those things starting out. I was just about music. And obviously music is still my focus now but I feel a little more thoughtful about how I present my ideas. I feel like I’ve refined my ideas…I want people to appreciate what I’m feeling and feel like they’re on the same level as me as a creative person. So I am more conscious of how I present myself. I used to want to be a punk, and now I’m getting older, I want to make more friends.
WE: I already heard one person compare you to Drake in the five minutes I’ve known you. Does that get old?
CW: Well it’s the only other Canadian rapper they know. I’ve got a lot of dope rap friends from Canada, it’s a great place to be. OG Buck 65, lots of people on the Prairies actually — Touch, Factor and all those people in Saskatoon, all my friends in Winnipeg that people don’t know about as much. All those places have rap scenes.