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Cadence Weapon: A Poet Hones A Musical Personality

May 26, 2012
Originally published on May 26, 2012 9:52 am

Rollie Pemberton is a poet — in fact, he was poet laureate of his hometown, Edmonton, Alberta, for a couple of years. That meant he was expected to write three poems a year about events in a town sometimes nicknamed "Dirt City." But outside of Edmonton, Pemberton is better known under a different name: Cadence Weapon, the hip-hop artist.

In poetry and song, Pemberton finds inspiration, tough and otherwise, in his Edmonton roots. The latest Cadence Weapon album, his third, is called Hope in Dirt City.

"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," Pemberton tells NPR's Scott Simon. "You know, we're famous for having a mall. It's hard to reconcile that as an artist."

Pemberton has been rapping since age 13, when a friend in math class asked him to collaborate on a rap he was writing. He says the content of his first rhymes was "lame" — but that he liked the experience well enough to keep at it.

"I always liked words growing up," he says. "I've always been kind of obsessed with words and how they connect to each other. It became kind of an exercise. I used to go on the computer and I'd be on these online message boards — you know, RapMusic.com. And I'd be battling people, text-style. I'd be writing battle raps to some stranger on the Internet, and that's how I was honing my musical personality."

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ROLLIE PEMBERTON: In Dirt City, the hobo king sunbathes at the mission. In Dirt City, the leafy concrete trampled by new plastics and the animal in the building. In...

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Rollie Pemberton is a poet.

PEMBERTON: In Dirt City...

SIMON: In fact, he was poet laureate of his hometown, Edmonton, Alberta, for a couple of years.

PEMBERTON: In Dirt City, the clay is every day...

SIMON: That meant he was expected to write three poems a year about events in a town that sometimes nicknamed "Dirt City."

PEMBERTON: With gusto, with chutzpah, with some guts. In Dirt City, you can see yourself.

SIMON: But outside of Edmonton, Rollie Pemberton is better known under a different name: Cadence Weapon, a hip-hop artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PEMBERTON: (Singing) Nobody (unintelligible) flight in the single-engine Cessna, where the propellers are still more electric than Tesla. I'm effervescent, no second guessing, you better bet it, my special weapon is (unintelligible). You get the message. I keep it dirty (unintelligible).

SIMON: In poetry and song, Rollie Pemberton finds inspiration, tough and otherwise, in his Edmonton roots in his new album - his third - "Hope in Dirt City." Rollie Pemberton joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

PEMBERTON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Now, the city of Edmonton is demonstrably proud of you. But "Hope in Dirt City" doesn't strike me as the kind of thing that the Chamber of Commerce might play.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE IN DIRT CITY")

PEMBERTON: (Singing) I'm from the city with the malls and (unintelligible) dropouts. Retail celebrities, but getting back, yeah, he works at AA, but (unintelligible) as he goes to AA.

SIMON: So, the first AA is a reference to American Apparel?

PEMBERTON: Yes.

SIMON: And the second AA is...

PEMBERTON: Alcoholics Anonymous.

SIMON: What do you want people to understand about Edmonton?

PEMBERTON: Well, 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, you know. And sometimes there's a dissonant feel. You know, we're famous for having a mall. It's hard to reconcile that as an artist.

SIMON: You mean the mall and being an artist?

PEMBERTON: Yeah, yeah. I mean, having to work at the record store in the mall is not as inspirational as you might think.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, but a lot of artists have worked with what they would consider for their times boring jobs.

PEMBERTON: Oh, certainly. I used to work in the shipping department of a high-end clothing retailer in Canada. And during that time, when I wasn't throwing boxes around and tagging fur coats, I used to do a lot of thinking and a lot of writing, mostly about the class issues that I was experiencing being the bottom rung of a clothing store.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PEMBERTON: (Singing) I work in (unintelligible) I got my current issue. I (unintelligible)...

SIMON: What are you think rap opens up in people?

PEMBERTON: Rap is, to me, physical response music. I've always seen it as being black pop music, you know. And I feel like when that physical response is reached, you're open to the ideas that are said in the words. You know, like, I feel like once you get through the first barrier for that, which is at the sound of it and the hypeness of it and the immediate rhythmic structure of it, then comes a time when you can actually really focus on the words. I want people to be able to listen to my album and, you know, when you hear it on the radio or something, you're just like, OK, that sounds cool, whatever. But then you listen to it on your own and other things are unveiled to you. Different connections between words, you know, different styles of music. I wanted it to have depth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PEMBERTON: (Singing) (unintelligible) but I got my gun (unintelligible), I use my provision with no physical (unintelligible)...

SIMON: So, the beat, the beat opens the door and then opens the mind and heart and then you decide what goes in there?

PEMBERTON: Yeah, definitely. I mean, although when I'm making songs, I have this weird habit of I like to write a list of titles. Like, I write or I plan out all the song titles for my songs before I make any of the music or write any of the lyrics, usually. They're almost like themes for each song and then I walk around with them for a while. And then, like, I get, you know, idea here and there. It's like collage-style of making songs, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PEMBERTON: (Singing) I live in that condition but I got my condition where I know my numbers almost up, it's over, but I'm so broken up. Well, as you already know...

SIMON: Can we talk a bit about your father?

PEMBERTON: Sure.

SIMON: Your father created a radio show called Black Experience and Sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) ...with your crew's master in general overseer, me. And my name is Teddy.

SIMON: He's credited with bringing hip-hop to Edmonton. What kind of inspiration has your father been?

PEMBERTON: Well, huge. I mean, the music he would play on his radio show totally inspired the work that I make now. And his personality, I mean, you can tell from listening to him talk, he was famous for the way he talks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

TEDDY PEMBERTON: Check it in town. It's been a rock down.

PEMBERTON: He's a legend, you know. He was the first person to bring rap, you know, and funk music really to radio in most of Western Canada, you know. He was always the coolest person in the room. He always was the center of attention pretty much everywhere he went.

SIMON: What's it like having a father who's always the center of attention in the room?

PEMBERTON: Well, it was weird when I was younger 'cause I didn't have a lot of friends growing up but the ones I did have were my friends to hang out with my dad. You know, like I'd have kids coming over in my house 'cause I would get to listen to rap at my house. Like, my dad was just playing it, you know, and people, they were really envious. They thought I had just the coolest dad. You know, it was so different, especially in Edmonton, you know.

SIMON: Well, did you have the coolest dad?

PEMBERTON: I think had one of the coolest dads, you know. I mean, Leonard Cohen's kid was probably pretty stoked.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PEMBERTON: (Singing) Like an old gold record, all...

SIMON: You seem to be a lot of different kind of sounds on this album, almost kind of early hip-hop beats, a suggestion of disco sometimes, saxophones, all from times that kind of predate you or at least your consciousness. You were born in 1986, right?

PEMBERTON: Well, yeah. That's the music that was around the house. I mean, my dad being a DJ, you know. The saxophone on the album is actually my uncle playing saxophone - my uncle Brett Miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PEMBERTON: He was one of the first people who influenced me to perform live, you know. I joined his funk band as a youngster. I was like 15 years old. And he'd sneak me in clubs in Edmonton. And I was like the honorary member of his band. Definitely that melange of influences, I feel like that's expressed in the music I make. And I've always felt like genre is just - it shouldn't really be a problem. You know, there shouldn't be these separations between different kinds of music, unless it's Mozart or something. It's pop music to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PEMBERTON: (Singing) My girl's like (unintelligible) a clue, come in your house with a mic like leave the room. A van makes a cappo(ph) when he's the capo(ph) to (unintelligible)...

SIMON: Do you think there are youngsters who hear you who will feel a creative tug because of that and say, look, this is something I'd like to try?

PEMBERTON: I mean, I hope so. I have experienced a few instances though, especially in Edmonton, when I was poet laureate. I did a tour of schools, of elementary schools. I'd read poetry and I would talk about my life experience, and people would come up to me. Kids would come up to me and show me things they'd written because they had found out, yeah, it's possible to be a creative person in Edmonton and be young, you know?

SIMON: Like they were the only ones who were thinking in those terms.

PEMBERTON: Yeah. 'Cause, you know, I felt like that when I was younger, you know. I feel like I want to make music that inspires people to do creative, strange different things.

SIMON: Mr. Pemberton, awfully nice talking to you. Thanks so much.

PEMBERTON: Hey, thanks for your time.

SIMON: Rollie Pemberton, Cadence Weapon. His new album, "Hope in Dirt City." Speaking from New York but he always speaks from the heart about Edmonton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PEMBERTON: (Singing) I papa told me that you gotta bet on the right one, or else just spend life having to fight one. Keep the stables stable and don't listen to the fables. You know what it is...

SIMON: And you could hear more from "Hope in Dirt City" at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.