Published Feb 01, 2006Inside Toronto's church-turned-club Revival, a sold-out crowd of next-big-thing seekers has arrived en masse to UK grime queen Lady Sovereign's coming-out party. Her support acts are clearly not the draw and the scenesters sip beer and chatter amongst themselves, generally paying little attention to the emergence onstage of a next-small-thing, a young black man by the name of Cadence Weapon.
On this December night he's still best known for remixing Sov. Cadence scans the room, readying himself for the challenge. As the 19-year-old Albertan rapper/producer also known as Rollie Pemberton runs through his repertoire of wordy rhymes and dense digi-rhythms, he unexpectedly brings the crowd onside.
"It's corrupt where I'm from, Edmonton," he raps, to laughter and turned heads. Soon Cadence Weapon jumps down into the crowd, weaving through bodies without slowing his flow and even grinding with a couple of fat white girls busting moves near the stage.
His set climaxes with "Everyone Is Trying To Sell Me Something," a floor-filling electro track so new it's not on his debut album, Breaking Kayfabe, released only days earlier. As he puts down his mic, people gather around him, clapping him on the back like a victorious athlete.
"I've never been to a show where a rapper will come offstage and start high-fiving people and shit," Pemberton says a few weeks later from Edmonton, known in local hip-hop circles as E-ville. "I really like to have that one-on-one interaction with the crowd. You pay for a show. You don't want to see some guy standing behind a podium dictating the album to you. It's not a book reading."
In other words, Cadence Weapon is hungry an attribute that once ruled hip-hop before being sadly replaced by greedy or preachy. But it still works, especially when your music comes blasting out from the fringes, both artistically and geographically.
Edmonton is known for many things oil, Gretzky, Biggest! Mall! Ever! but the prairie province's blue-collar capital has never been known for hip-hop. Hell, Cadence Weapon even had his Wikipedia entry deleted last summer after a user of the open-source encyclopaedia questioned the merit of his inclusion by snarking, "Alberta rappers?"
"There is a rap scene, but it's in its incubation period. People are just starting to put out records and make things happen on a national scale," Pemberton explains. "It's a lot easier because there isn't a defined regional style. It's not like in Houston or Atlanta where people have a certain style of rapping and production, so you can really come out of a vacuum and create some sort of independent vibe."
That rock-centric Edmonton isn't a complete hip-hop black hole can largely be attributed to Pemberton's late father Teddy, a pioneering disc jockey on University of Alberta station CJSR, who passed away a couple years ago from kidney complications. The Brooklyn native launched his flagship show, The Black Experience in Sound, in 1980, back when hip-hop was even harder to come by on Albertan airwaves.
"Teddy was huge, a staple. Everyone knows the Tee Eee Dee Dee Why," exclaims local rap stalwart Touch, who appears on Kayfabe's hidden track and has his own album due later this year. "He played a plethora of revolutionary music. I couldn't go to Sam the Record Man and pick that stuff up [at the time]. You'd only hear it when Teddy would play it."
Rollie eagerly absorbed whatever he could from his father while also gravitating to the alt-rock and electronic music of the 1990s, a mash-up that led to his current sound. But though his father was a local legend, Rollie was adamant when he started to not trade in on his last name.
"People think of him as the godfather of Edmonton hip-hop," Pemberton says. "A lot of people didn't know he was my dad and I didn't mention it. It's the same reason why Nicholas Cage changed his name from Copolla you don't want to have these assumptions put on you. And when people find out, they're like, Holy shit! Well, that makes sense.'"
Inspired by his father, Rollie started rapping when he was about 13, but didn't take it seriously until a few years later. His mother still didn't take it seriously and convinced Pemberton to go to an all-black journalism school in Virginia.
"I didn't like the whole all-black thing. Ultimately I felt really alienated. I'm used to being around all sorts of different cultures. I'm sitting in my room playing Aphex Twin and people are like, What the fuck are you doing?' It's like you're used to being on an all-range farm and they dump you in a chicken coop."
But though Pemberton gave up on J-school, he didn't give up on journalism. If you think his album sounds like crack-for-critics, well, that's because he is one himself. He still writes for local alt-weekly See but quit penning reviews for webzine Stylus six months ago and was famously fired from Pitchfork, receiving an emailed pink slip from Pitchfork honcho Ryan Schreiber letting him go because his reviews lacked "clarity." Rollie just laughs. "Pretty ironic, right?"
Having abandoned music writing to write music, Pemberton claims he never considers critical appeal but does wonder if his old reviews may come back to haunt him.
"It's always been in my nature to call people out on their shit so I feel like it's going to be karma. I spent a couple years writing reviews about people, totally dashing hopes. One time I'm going to get a review that is so bad that it's going to balance everything out. I feel like I'm due."
Maybe so but not yet. Thus far his praise has been pretty universal. Pitchfork sucked it up and gave him high grades for last year's self-released mix-tape Cadence Weapon is The Black Hand, which showcased early versions of several Kayfabe tracks plus bootleg remixes of Beastie Boys, Gwen Stefani, M.I.A. and Death From Above 1979. By the artist album's release, even Macleans and The Globe & Mail had cottoned on.
"I never thought I would be so successful so quickly in the mainstream. I thought I'd have to sell out in three or four years when I need money."
There are several factors playing into Cadence Weapon's sudden emergence. If the maxim holds that many critics are frustrated musicians (hey, don't look at me) then some could be vicariously enjoying Pemberton's success, and even if that's not the case, his connections in the critical community haven't hurt. As well, Pemberton signed to Toronto-based Upper Class Recordings, a well-respected indie imprint known for genre-blenders the Russian Futurists and the Cansecos.
Then there's the impact that K-OS has had on Can-hop, with his success opening the doors wider for non-traditional rappers.
"I respect that he has allowed this to happen. Before, Canadian rappers that were successful were only coming from a really commercial place and he made it possible to have some sort of fringe idea and take that to the mainstream.
That's cool, though I don't like all the stuff he's doing. I have certain questions about his lyricism," says Pemberton, loosening his tongue some.
"He's successful for the same reason that Arrested Development was popular. It's very positive, it's very warm, it has really smooth sounds and it's something you won't be uncomfortable hearing in a supermarket. I'm not sold on the whole guitar-plus-rap warm fuzzy vibe. That's something I've never been into."
Clearly. His sound is more akin to Dizzee Rascal minus the indecipherable accent. Pemberton actually started out rapping over other people's beats before realising that other producers weren't able to craft backing tracks suited to his style. "I had to go out and make my own thing. Your beat becomes just as important as your message. You've got to make it your own no matter what."
Touch first heard Pemberton back in 2001 and was impressed initially by the teenager's mic skills and later by his ascendance into a Kanye-style double-threat, a rarity among E-ville MCs.
"There's a certain kind of production that's industry standard," says Touch. "If you're a rapper then you tend to be very creative, but if you're creative then you tend not to want to create industry standard music. Therefore it's a lot more risky. It's hard to be good at both, that's the bottom line. He's got pretty unique production and you have to have something that stands out. He stuck to a particular style and mastered it."
Cadence Weapon's update on electro, as inspired by IDM as by Timbaland, can sound equal parts dirt-caked and club-oriented, mixing buzzsaw synths with turntable scratching, Atari bleeps, sound washes and sub-low bass lines. His tendency to heavily layer samples comes courtesy of Prince Paul, whose work with De La Soul also inspired Pemberton's "Stakes Is High" arm tattoo. His flow comes more from a Freestyle Fellowship-meets-Nas vibe, with the rapper changing his style repeatedly. "That's where my name comes from my cadence is my weapon. I'm Cadence for a reason, because I switch it up."
Like many leftfield rappers, Cadence Weapon's audience has come, so far, largely from the indie rock crowd. "White guys with glasses are my main demographic," he kids. "I feel like the kinds of beats and wordplay I'm using appeal to a broader audience and that includes indie rock people. That doesn't surprise me but it doesn't bother me either."
It shouldn't. After all, he was signed by Upper Class after they heard his scene-setting single "Oliver Square" posted on indie MP3 site Fluxblog. "People think Oliver Square is an important place. It really isn't. At all. It's a strip mall.
My first job was at the Oliver Square McDonald's. It really is a harmless area," he laughs.
"I say a lot of Edmonton-centric things. I'm talking BusLink numbers. It's like when people listen to the Streets and have no idea where these places are or what he's talking about but they still find it interesting. I like that local identity in music. That's why I feel like I've been successful."
But aside from the odd ill incident, Pemberton doesn't focus on faux drama just to fulfil a perceived hip-hop requirement to "keep it real" by making thug shit up. It's a position he lays out in his very album title, pro wrestling slang that means going off-script and revealing your true self to the crowd.
"Breaking Kayfabe means to break character. To actually keep it real. To be honest with people. And that's what I'm trying to do. Not just with this album but with my whole career. I've always been honest about where I'm from. I'm only rapping about shit I know about. I'm not going to all of a sudden start rapping about chains and cars and stuff. I don't have a license and this is my only job so I can't imagine I'll have the rim budget one might need."
Not yet, anyway. But his profile just keeps rising and in April Kayfabe will be released in the U.S. Though not yet boasting a Kanye-sized ego, he figures it'll be "relatively easy" to make a similar impact down south.
Then it's on to his follow-up record, which Pemberton has already titled Urban Sprawl in North Texas "A paranoid future vision thing with a little oil rig humour tapped in there. It's going to be a very Alberta-centric album, even more than this one" and hopes to have the new, punchier record ready by October.
"When you follow up on things pretty quickly it's about building that pressure and getting more and more people interested. It's all about timing. I could get shot tomorrow, right? Living in Edmonton," he laughs, "it's such a dangerous place."
Everyone's a Critic
Plenty of music writers are frustrated rockers from legendary Creem scribe Lester Bangs to the writers and editors in Toronto's Two Koreas but you might be surprised by how many famous musicians began their careers, like Cadence Weapon, by picking up a pen.
Long before getting his money for nothing, the Dire Straits guitarist was earning it as a journalist for the Yorkshire Evening Post in the late '60s, covering Jimi Hendrix, the Isle of Wight festival and Leonard Cohen.
The former Brian Warner was a journalism student and assistant entertainment editor for his college paper. He later wrote for the South Florida magazine 25th Parallel, during which time he interviewed some dude named Trent Reznor.
If Smith has often been called a "rock critic's dream" that could be because she spent considerable time as one herself reviewing Todd Rundgren for Rolling Stone and critiquing Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground for Creem. She even drafted music writer Lenny Kaye as her guitarist.
Before making his own as a Pet Shop Boy, Tennant wrote for British pop magazine Smash Hits, informing teenage girls about Malcolm McLaren and Kajagoogoo. During an assignment to interview the Police in New York, he met hi-nrg producer Bobby Orlando, who would record their first version of "West End Girls." Tennant quit the magazine only after signing to Parlophone Records.
While leading Britain's chill-out scene in the 1990s, the DJ/producer covered the rise of electronic music for NME (writing about Orbital in 1991) and later for Mixmag and i-D Magazine. He writes on his website: "I do reviews because I care passionately about music, and interesting music is always marginalised by the commercial steamroller."
Yo La Tengo's singer and guitarist started out as music columnist for the Soho Weekly News and later as editor at New York Rocker. He's prone to annoyance at the frequency with which the topic comes up during interviews, saying: "It's no more significant than James and I having previously worked in parking lots."