Cadence Weapon is back and he’s really uncorking the music

Cadence Weapon. Photo: Mark Sommerfeld

A few years back Rollie Pemberton was visiting his mom when she pulled out some old cassette recordings of his late father Teddy.

Teddy Pemberton is considered the man who brought hip hop to northern Alberta through his radio program The Black Experience in Sound on CJSR-FM.

“I took them from her and got them digitized. I went through them and when that line came through was pretty amazing.” That line is a happy Teddy talking about his young son. It’s all the more poignant when you know that Teddy died when Rollie was a young teenager.

“I had already started making music when he died. I was into it. … When he passed away it propelled me to go harder, it made me want to make the most of it.”

“It’s not the kind of thing where I felt pressured by it. Everybody knew Teddy was my dad. I feel it just came naturally.”

Edmonton was not a hot bed of hip hop but Teddy had come to Canada from Brooklyn.

“For him it represented freedom for people coming out of communities where they didn’t have a lot of opportunity. And it also suited his personality. My dad was the life of the party. He was a very magnetic figure. He had an MC attitude that he carried into his job as a radio host.”

Rollie Pemberton has become a hip hop artist too. You might know him better by his stage name Cadence Weapon and his Polaris Prize nominations or his 2009 role as the poet laureate of Edmonton, or his performances around the world at festivals such as Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, Roskilde, Primavera Sound and the Great Escape and opening for bands like Public Enemy. His name comes from a mantra he would repeat when he started out as a young performer. “My cadence is my weapon,” he would say.

For Pemberton, “rap is the most progressive music possible.” It mixes in influences from around the world.

In Canada, the form is gaining traction, he says.

“With a lot of the stuff coming out of Toronto, it’s getting worldwide recognition. People are appreciating it more at home, but I still feel like there is not an innate understanding of the genre and where it has come from.

“I feel like there is still a lot of explaining that I have to do. I become Siri really fast when I’m talking about it.”

Cadence Weapon’s musical journey may have started in Edmonton, but it started to really blossom when he moved to Montreal several years ago.

“I was always interested in the music coming out of Montreal. There was always this mystique and excitement around it. I had some friends from Edmonton who had gone there to make music. I could see what their lives looked like and it looked like a lot of fun. So I thought I would give it a try.”

He stayed for about six years.

“I felt like I became part of the community. I was very welcomed. It was I what was looking for my entire life, a place where art is at the forefront of everything.”

In Edmonton, there weren’t a lot of people making the music he was making.

“In Montreal, every person I met was a musician. All these bands were blowing up and they were our friends … people like Grimes, who was my neighbour in Mile End. Mac DeMarco lived in my building. There were ideas all over the place.”

Even though he has left the city, his first album since 2012’s Hope In Dirt City, is built on the energy of Montreal.

“I definitely take my time,” he said. “I’m on my own schedule. I needed a new environment and a new way to focus my music.” And that has happened in Toronto.

“There is so much energy around the rap scene here. The Canadian music industry is here.” All the activity has energized him.

“I have been working on music the whole time but I kind of just shifted gears. I put out a book of poetry in 2014. I was hosting a monthly poetry event and I had a bunch of dance events and after-parties I was running. I was focussed on being a host for different things.”

All of a sudden, he says, he felt like putting out an album again.

He was signed by eOne Music Canada and got to work on the self-titled disc that mixes in influences from UK Grime to trap, house, you name it, it’s in there. That has meant touring and he’s headed to Ottawa for a show this Thursday.

“I have changed a lot. Initially, I would just come through with some raps I’d write and match that with music that I would make. I used to produce all my music.

“This is the first album where I have veered away from that. It’s a major collaborative endeavour with many different producers. The album is the result of all that collaboration,” including with 2016 Polaris Prize winner KAYTRANADA.

He has always been politically involved and his music reflects a range of issues from unaffordable housing to conspicuous consumption to race.

“(Race) is definitely a thing (in Canada). This is something I have thought about a lot. It is not as overtly racist as America can be but it is more insidious. It is deep-seated.

“A lot of people of colour in Canada when they saw the Colton Boushie case, they were not surprised by the result. So many people are outraged and they can’t believe this happened, but this is just a symptom of a larger ill; something that has been happening but hasn’t been acknowledged really until recently.”

These days, he’s even more direct on issues he cares about. “I’m definitely writing in a way that’s less obtuse. I am approaching it in a different way, weaving it into songs in a more organic way rather than with blunt force.

For example, he points to a song called The Host, on the new disc, which is about one person in the Montreal club community who had a disproportionate amount of power and he was abusing that power. It’s a #MeToo-type tune.

“I feel it is the responsibility of artists to reflect what is going on in their community and stay true to the views of the people in that community. It’s important to do right by the people who support you.”

Now that’s he back with an album, the dam has burst and, fingers crossed, Cadence expects to deliver another album later this year.

Cadence Weapon
Where: The 27 Club
When: March 29. Doors at 8, show at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.