Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Pre Folk Fest Interview – July 21 2022
When music can bring you back to life it is a sign that there is something real there.
Cadence Weapon played the National Stage on Friday July 22, 2022 for Calgary Folk Fest as the closing act of the evening. After the artist (born Rollie Pemberton) having graciously accommodated a zoom interview with me the day before, I was not going to miss this show. Let’s just say regardless of the interview I was pretty dead set on experiencing this performance. I had seen Cadence Weapon live at Olympic Plaza in February as a Blockheater performer and had been very much bitten by the bug, listening frequently since. Long story short, Friday evening arrived, the workday finally ended, and a significant energy crash took hold. After some mental negotiations I made it down to the grounds with my heavy backpack full of cameras under the rainy sky.
My struggle ended abruptly as Pemberton (Cadence Weapon) hit the stage. Moving around like a lightning bolt, delivering rhymes like thunder, suddenly the rain lost its potency…the storm had moved to the stage, or it indeed felt that way.
It is both exciting and challenging, capturing a performer photographically who is so dynamic, travelling rapidly about the stage through flashing lights, jumping, on the ground one moment and front stage delivering vocals direct to the eager crowd the next. Further elevating the sound and ambiance, Cadence Weapon was joined by Jayem (@jayemkayem) on the turntables, stationed in front of a large screen playing bold engaging visuals by Anthony Piazza (@anthonypiazza). Any exhaustion I had been feeling was replaced with a feeling of adrenaline and that deeper thing that happens at genuinely killer shows. You may know the sensation – where the very air becomes charged with the synergy of audience and performer, as though you can taste the ions moving in both directions.
Upon meeting the artist, you might expect a fair-sized ego considering how Pemberton brings it onstage, embodying both of the words in his stage name equally. The stage presence combined with accolades like being named Poet Laureate of his hometown of Edmonton in 2009 and being awarded the Polaris prize in 2021 for his album Parallel World are impressive. However, what I experienced during our interview was an extremely genuine open person. Confident, and centered in the work that has gone into knowing himself, perhaps, but Pemberton has no hesitation towards generosity, and the willingness to share with those interested in his work.
If you have listened to Rollie Pemberton’s music, which I would highly recommend, you will be aware that he does not shy away from tackling socio-political topics, such as capitalism and racial discrimination. I started off with a heavy question, asking if the artist could make a list of ways in which our social landscape could change for the better what would be high up on his register. After acknowledging the scale of the topic, he responded, “I don't know, especially at a time like now it feels like everything is in upheaval. I do think that
there needs to be in general more equal distribution of resources. I feel like one of my biggest issues is disparity and distribution of wealth right now. I feel like ... especially I'm getting to a point like I'm getting older. We're experiencing all this inflation and it's harder than ever for people to think about potentially buying a home or ... Young people, the next generation after me doesn't even think about the possibility of doing that. I think that needs to change for sure.”
"Skyline" especially is a song, on Parallel World, that deals with economic disparity.
I was curious when writing, how much a priority or a conscious mission it is for Pemberton to spread awareness and fight for changes like this in his music, versus the content being more of an instinct or catharsis of things he is experiencing in the world. His reply was, “It's a mix of things. When I'm creating music I don't go into it thinking, "Okay, I want to make a song about race today." Really, I draw from my personal experiences, and I just try and seize in on things that are compelling to me about them. I feel like I see different connections that maybe aren't as apparent to other people. I feel like I try to highlight those things.” Speaking about the album Parallel World, “These things that have been in my mind for a long time, I felt really emboldened to talk about in my music for the first time. After George Floyd's murder and all the protests that came with that and just seeing everyone's social consciousness raised to another level that I'd never seen before. Seeing the news talk about microaggressions and see them talk about things like different levels of racial discrimination that they'd never talked about before.”
Expanding on the effects of how social awareness has leveled up in the last couple years, Pemberton explained, “That in a weird way was very inspiring to me because it made me realize that more people had the language to really understand what I was talking about. So yeah, I guess that's the thing. In a lot of ways, I approach things almost out of humor. It's to laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes it's just the absurdity of certain situations that appeal to me.”
The Canadian rapper and writer is encouraging of the growth that people have been exhibiting interest in, “that's a cool thing about life. There's always more time to learn about things you don't really know. I feel like I'm always learning. I feel like that's a big part of my artistic process in just trying to make music. Music is like a journal of what I've learned.” Not one to sit back and watch the world go by, Pemberton continues to pursue active participation, as he noted, “I feel like the new stuff that I'm working on now just kind of continues on some of those themes, particularly about technology and social media's effects on our lives. Yeah. I love to learn. So, I'm just constantly trying to learn more.”
Of course, "On Me" comes to mind immediately when we are speaking about technology. The piece on facial recognition technology alone is eye opening. He affirmed, “Totally. Yeah. It's like you don't realize what biases exist in things that were created by other people.”
Though Pemberton is very deft at delivering lyrics that flip the script in intelligent and bold ways, he does not want it all to feel so heavy, “I still want it to be fun. That's the thing. I don't want anyone to ever feel like what I'm doing is like medicine and it's like, you got to eat your vegetables. It's not really like that. For me, it's still trying to make it fun and compelling and futuristic and interesting. But there's also a message there too.”
Not only a wordsmith, the artist has a passion for comedy and has begun incorporating some stand up-esque elements into his stage banter. At this year’s Folk Fest performance this included a story about an experience as a greener artist, involving being on a bill with Rhianna. The lesson learned was “when you say something into a mic it sounds like you are saying it to EVERYONE”, rather than the guy who was being rude to you…faux pas often are learned the hard way - I think we all know that pain in some sense. In respect to his music Pemberton explained, “I'm a glass half full kind of person. So, it's like, yeah, maybe I'm rapping about these subjects that are bleak. It's realism to me. It's just life. It's just my reflection of life. I approach them in the same way that a stand-up comedian or something would. A lot of people have told me Parallel World, it's like a dark
journey or whatever into racial discrimination. To me it's similar to watching a Chris Rock comedy special or Richard Pryer. I actually studied a lot of stand-up comedy when I was making the album and I really wanted to employ some of the techniques that they used. These ideas of having a very concise, incisive punchline about race that exemplifies a really big picture idea in a short amount of time. I wanted to do that with my music.”
Always intrigued about not only the content, but the process as well, I inquired as to what comes first in writing, the lyrics or the beats. Pemberton began, “It depends. When I did my first couple albums, I would always write the lyrics first and then I would make the beats after based on the themes and how the songs feel. But nowadays what I do is I'll work with other producers, and I'll get the music from them. Or I'll be in the studio with a producer, and they'll be making it while I'm writing at the same time. I feel like there's a certain kind of immediacy that comes from making music that way.”
Creating in a way that feels like it has a natural flow holds importance, as he continued, “I feel like I found what works for me best now. I think my thing is I really like to be in the room with somebody and catch a vibe with them and talk to them and have a conversation. And everything that we talk about ends up often coming into the lyrics that I write. Or something like I'll go for lunch with somebody before and a conversation we had earlier that day will give me an idea. The closer I draw from life in my music, I feel like the more organic and the more powerful it is.”
Another exciting recent development in Pemberton’s career is having published a book with Penguin Random House Canada. While in town in Calgary he had a book launch at Shelf Life Books with Vivek Shraya. Definitely sorry I missed that event, but I wasted little time in making my way down to Shelf Life to pick up a signed copy of Bedroom Rapper: Cadence Weapon on Hip-Hop, Resistance and Surviving the Music Industry, by Rollie Pemberton. I am looking forward to reading what promises to be a fascinating and thoughtful music memoir.
Rollie Pemberton is no stranger to writing but this has been his first foray into writing a work of this length. In terms of composing a long work in prose, as compared to writing music, he expressed, “It's a very different process. Music is something I'm very used to, and I know how to make an album and I know all the stuff that it takes to get to that point where you can put out a record. Whereas writing a book was a very new process for me. I had a lot of experience writing previously. I wrote for Pitchfork back in the day. I've done a lot of music journalism, but the actual idea of writing a full book ... It took two years for me to write.” Pemberton continued, “It was over the pandemic that I did it. I think there's something about the sustained level of focus you need to write a book that is really crazy to me. I would wake up in the morning, I had to write nine to five. I tried to make it like it was a job. Some days it would be really productive. Other days I wouldn't write anything. It would just be something where it's like maybe I'd just be reorganizing ideas or just thinking of other things or doing research. But it was fun because it was different every day.”
I have deep admiration for writers who commit to a work of this magnitude. Writing does take high levels of commitment and organization, sometimes even on shorter pieces. A book is a significant achievement. Having read in the book description that Bedroom Rapper looks at the genre of Hip Hop from an international perspective got me thinking. Remembering the Much Music days of the 90’s where it was a big deal if a Canadian Hip Hop act gained notoriety, I asked the artist, what is his perspective of contemporary Hip Hop coming out of Canada? Per Pemberton, “I think it's changed. I think it's changed a lot recently. Canadian rap has really become like a worldwide leader nowadays with Drake and Tory Lanez and all these other artists who are putting it on the map. I feel like we really found our voice in a way that it wasn't like that when I was growing up. It was just only some rappers from Toronto and it was still the era where people were trying to sound like they're from New York. But now I feel like we've really found our own identity. I think it's a really strong time for Canadian rap. But yeah, in the book I talk about Canadian rap, but I also talk about how interested I am in a UK rap, grime music and drill. All these different genres that influence me from London.”
For anyone who wants to take a deeper look at artists in some of the Hip Hop sub-genres Pemberton enjoys, I asked if he had any recommendations, which, not surprisingly, he did. He enthusiastically launched on a bit of a list, “Yeah. I got some recommendations: there's this artist, President T that I think is really good. He's a very interesting sounding rapper. There's a guy on my song, "On Me" - Manga Saint Hilare - who's a part of Roll Deep crew in the UK. He's a legendary grime rapper. He's awesome. Jme I think is a really clever artist. He's one of my people that I would want to collab with more than anybody. He's just one of the most clever, thoughtful rappers in the world. Yeah. I could go on and on about UK rap and grime. It's the best.”
Being back in Alberta for Calgary Folk Fest, I asked the artist how often he gets out West, now being located in Ontario. He expressed his excitement to have recently moved to Hamilton, which he described as a “working class kind of city”, but he comes out to visit family in Edmonton as often as he can. According to Pemberton, “Alberta's always going to be an important part of my life and no matter where I live, I always come back home.” He warmly described the people here as “salt of the Earth.”
I wanted to get the musician’s feelings on what he was most excited about regarding playing Calgary Folk Fest 2022. To that he replied, “I'm really excited just to get in front of a big crowd and feel the energy of a big audience. Yeah, it's always a special time when I get to be back in Alberta. I'm really excited for people to see my full stage show where I got my DJ with me. I've got crazy lighting and just visual presentation that I think is going to really blow people away. I'm really excited to just bring the heat.”
Bring the heat you did Sir. I was in that crowd, and we all felt it.
Thank you very much to Rollie Pemberton for taking time out of your busy festival schedule for an interview with a small independent publication, but I get the feeling that is just the type of person you are. Such a lovely character in a powerful artist is inspiring.
Listen to the music, read the book, here are the links!
Look up Cadence Weapon at: