Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon is out to prove ‘the prairie’s got something to say’

Cadence Weapon performs at Gabe’s in Iowa City during Mission Creek Festival, April 2022 — Jason Smith/Little Village

“One thing that people maybe don’t know about Canada is that the places above and below the border are similar to each other,” said Rollie Pemberton, a Canadian MC who performs as Cadence Weapon. “I live in Toronto now, and we definitely get kind of Detroit vibes over here, whereas Alberta, where I’m originally from, resembles Montana, the Dakotas and Midwestern places like Iowa.”

Pemberton’s dynamic set at the 2022 Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City consisted of just him, a mic, laptop and some assorted audio gear — a DIY approach that echoes the way that he makes his music and has forged a career as a writer and critic. This single-minded, can-do approach was shaped by growing up in the geographic and cultural margins, a place that many people in Canada don’t even think about except when it’s the butt of a joke. Much like Iowa.

“I see parallels between those places,” he told me. “You know, the whole time I was in Iowa City, there was a sense of familiarity, a kind of friendly Midwestern sensibility. Where I’m from, Edmonton, it’s a prairie city, and it’s also a little more country. Coming from an environment like that, and making a Black art form, and trying to be respected by other rap fans and artists, it was a challenge.”

As a ’90s kid, Pemberton’s form of recreation and escape was to connect with others on the newly emerging internet, which was a portal to like-minded hip-hop heads throughout the world.

“When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware of any local rap scene,” Pemberton said. “So, for me, the internet was like an online version of a street corner cipher. That was where I learned how to rap for real. I’d be writing lyrics and sending them to people and having them critique them.”

This led him to writing about music on early music blogs and websites like Pitchfork. And file-sharing gave him the software tools that helped him start making his own music — a career arc that culminated in a string of accomplishments over the past two years.

In 2021, Pemberton released his critically acclaimed album Parallel World, which won the prestigious Polaris Music Prize in Canada. This was followed closely by the release of his debut book, Bedroom Rapper: Cadence Weapon on Hip-Hop, Resistance, and Surviving the Music Industry (May 2022; McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House Canada).

“It’s something that I worked on over the entire pandemic, basically, for a couple years, and it was at the same time as I made my last album,” he said. “So, it was a process where I would be writing during the day in the morning, and then I’d go to the studio at night, so I was just insanely productive at that time.”

Parallel World’s title holds a few different meanings for Pemberton. He wrote and recorded the album while in quarantine, which made him feel very trapped, so he wanted to create something that was a kind of gateway into an alternate reality that listeners could relate to as well.

“That’s where I started thinking of the idea of a parallel world,” he said. “But then the more I thought about it, writing about themes like structural racism got me thinking about how one can walk down the street and see another person and then realize, ‘OK, we are on the same street, we live in the same neighborhood, but our lives might be completely different, depending on our race.’”

The glitchy, experimental electronic beats and futuristic textures on Parallel World exude an alternate reality-like vibe, but its lyrical concerns are grounded in very real-world concerns, like surveillance and racial profiling. “All geotagged, got brands on me, got ads on me / Not asking me but they’re still on me, got scams on me,” he raps in “On Me,” the album’s second track. “Got my name in registry so they stay on me, won’t let me free.”

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Pemberton’s critical perspective is, in part, the product of being different than most everyone else while growing up.

“When I was in elementary school,” Pemberton said, “I was the only Black student in the entire school, and then in junior high, there were like six other Black kids.”

He grew up surrounded by a library of music, and he spent much of his time as a kid daydreaming about what his music would one day sound like. It took until the turn of the century before hip hop became more entrenched in Alberta, thanks to mainstream rappers like Eminem and 50 Cent, but Pemberton had already been heavily schooled in the genre by his father, Teddy Pemberton, who was from Brooklyn, New York.

His son remembers Teddy bringing back albums from record stores in New York City — lots of funk, R&B and soul, though hip hop was his main passion — and he had a long-running show on a local college radio station.

“He was a DJ who had a radio program that started in 1980, and he was basically the person who brought hip hop music to Edmonton,” Pemberton said. “His show was extremely popular, and there have been so many people who still tell me about how his show was appointment listening every Saturday night.”

Pemberton also learned a lot from his father about being an uncompromising artist.

“Believing in yourself and marching to your own drummer,” the MC said. “Musically, that’s something I got from him that I took to heart throughout my career.”

As Cadence Weapon exclaims in “SENNA,” another highlight from Parallel World, “I’m not afraid to be who I am. You know, I always tell people, ‘Be yourself,’ that’s the number one shit I tell people. I don’t follow anybody else, I never did. Idiosyncratic and iconoclastic — I am me, motherfucker. Be you!”

After spending his childhood imagining the kinds of hip-hop songs that he would eventually make, Pemberton realized that this was easier dreamed than done.

“I was living in a place that, even in Canada, people don’t really think about, so it’s not somewhere that you would associate with rap music. So, basically, my entire career is a very unlikely thing given where I come from.”

YouTube didn’t exist, and there were no beat-making tutorials he could access. Pemberton began teaching himself through trial and error in an attempt to make the music that he heard in his head — and often failing miserably, though Pemberton still learned something every time that he came short of the mark.

“I was going on torrent websites downloading cracked versions of Fruity Loops and Cool Edit Pro with that Wild West mentality, like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna make this music.’ I was just a kid who was working at a record store, HMV, and I didn’t have the money or aptitude to use anything other than my mom’s crusty old Hewlett Packard desktop computer, but then I ended up just making this music that actually resonated with people.”

Pemberton dropped out of college because he had a nagging feeling that he needed to get his music into the world, so he went home to Edmonton and lived with his mom, who gave him an ultimatum: “If you don’t make something happen within a year,” she said, “you gotta go back to school.” That lit a fire under him. The fledgling rapper made a mixtape and burned CDs that he sold around Edmonton, and he also circulated his music during the music blog era’s imperial phase, when his songs began gaining traction.

Cadence Weapon’s first breakthrough occurred after the release of “Oliver Square.” In 2005, Fluxblog posted the song, which led to an album deal with the label Upper Class Recordings. Opportunities snowballed from there (along with many headaches — see A Tribe Called Quest’s Industry Rule #4080: “record company people are shady”).

“Oliver Square” was named after an ordinary mini-mall in his neighborhood, because he wanted to represent Edmonton.

“We’re kind of hardscrabble, do-it-yourself, overlooked, underrated kind of people,” he remembers thinking, “so let’s make an anthem for that.”

During his 2021 Polaris Prize acceptance speech, Pemberton made an homage to something that Outkast’s André 3000 uttered, when the Atlanta-based group won the 1995 Source Awards at a time when rap was dominated by the East and West Coasts: “The South got something to say.” For Pemberton, music is a conversation — especially hip hop, which is a highly self-referential art form — so he felt that it was important to highlight where he was from in that speech.

After dissing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his long history of wearing blackface, Pemberton told the Polaris Prize audience: “The prairie’s got something to say!”

Kembrew McLeod’s summer project is finishing his prog rock concept double album, ‘Who Let the Prairie Dogs Out?’ This article was originally published in Little Village’s June 2022 issues.