Rollie Pemberton describes himself as a “student of the game” – a well-worn expression, but one that fits the young Canadian better than most. A one-time journalism student, Pemberton supplemented his education by penning rap album reviews for Stylus and Pitchfork, drawing upon his near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre while outlining his appreciation and criticisms of some of hip-hop’s modern greats. Even in conversation, he regularly compares and contrasts his own music against that of Jay-Z, Ghostface Killah and others, analysing his output like a hip-hop academic.
“I want to keep abreast with what’s going on because I do have a pretty good knowledge of hip-hop history, especially for anything that’s happened while I’ve been alive,” says Pemberton, speaking over the phone from his adopted hometown of Montreal. “I’ve kept a pretty good mental journal of trends and songs and others aspects of hip-hop. I guess I have kind of an archival mind of the music.”
While Pemberton is never reluctant to tip his hat to those at hip-hop’s summit who have inspired his music, he has still managed to forge one of the most singular careers of any young rapper working today. From the thin, electro swirls of his debut album Breaking Kayfabe or the house-influenced Afterparty Babies to Hope in Dirt City, an album that forges interesting new production techniques, Cadence Weapon has never done anything “obvious”.
“It’s something I say on [Hope in Dirt City] – on the title track actually – I say I ‘sleep above trends’,” explains Pemberton. “When I say something like that, I mean I am not at the mercy of whatever the cool Internet trend is or whatever sub-genre is going to be hot for the next three months on blogs exclusively. I create music that exists in a vacuum. Whenever I drop an album I want people to know and expect from me that when you come to a Cadence Weapon album you’re not going to have something that has a sense of obsolescence or planned obsolescence. I try to create something with a sense of permanence.”
To create a sound brawnier than his previous work, on Dirt City Pemberton focused on a whole new production process. Starting out by recording each track in his traditional manner, with samples and drum machines, he then took the demos to Toronto where a Cadence Weapon-led team of musicians jammed out each song live, creating new versions of the compositions. Pemberton then took the recordings from those sessions back to Montreal, where he re-sampled them to create most of the album’s instrumentals.
“Basically the process was making my own samples, but presenting them in a way that makes it somewhat ambiguous as to whether it was a live take or a sample mixed in with a live take,” he says. “I wanted to keep people on their toes.”
Dirt City is a departure from the lean, electronic beats of the first two Cadence Weapon albums but lyrically Pemberton leaves his familiar stamp on each track. He has always been one of the deftest rappers out there when capturing the subtle nuances of young relationships, whether it be the ecstasy, agony or the plain, post-love bitterness. Those hallmarks are all present on Dirt City, but the album is far from being confined to one idea. One of the most striking songs is “Hype Man”, an ode to the hip-hop sidekick from the point of view of both the hype man and his employer. According to Pemberton, the track stemmed from a fascination with the cliques that surround hip-hop’s biggest superstars.
“Originally I read this article in GQ, talking about Rick Ross,” says Pemberton. “It was like a fly-on-the-wall kind of thing — a day in the life, you know? I was very fascinated with the hangers on, the handlers and the driver and the guy who makes sure everyone gets into the strip club at the time Rick Ross wants to be. I started thinking of this whole shadow economy in rap. So I got the idea to make a song that’s from the perspective of the hype man, but also from the perspective of the rapper in regards to the hype man. It seems like sometimes it can be a thankless job. I guess it was kind of my attempt to make a Randy Newman-style satirical track, except in rap, not pop, style.”
The track’s eerie ‘drip drip’ beat reflects the hype man’s tragedy, descending into the eventual severing of his relationship with the rapper which is presented like the firing of a low level employee from a menial job.
“It seems like a de-personalising job to have,” adds Pemberton. “Often it seems like the hype man is just a guy in waiting. There are so many times when you see labels and they have all these tiers of rappers and others artists. Sometimes you have rappers who are just waiting forever to put out their album, but in the meantime they are doing all this, like, they are doing backup vocals, or they hype up the crowd, or do all these things that are not the thing they want to do. [It] makes me think of Memphis Bleek. He seems like the quintessential hype man I’m talking about, a guy who was always waiting in the wings and Jay-Z was, like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll put out your album’, or whatever, and it ends up not doing what he wants it to do for him. I just always found that dynamic pretty interesting.”
Dirt City is also significantly more melodic than Pemberton’s previous records, and he frequently veers from rapping into a half singing, half crooning style, a vocal method he claims came about organically.
“It wasn’t a thing where I was like, ‘Oh I’m going to sing more’ or ‘I’m going to scream more’,” he explains. “It was just what I felt was right for the compositions for this album.”
This hard-to-define style is something Pemberton brought into the sessions almost unwittingly from the music he was digging at the time.
“I was listening to a lot of seventies pop music,” he says. “Disco, stuff like Island Records, Compass Point, Grace Jones records, Talking Heads records. Obviously those are somewhat indefinable records, and I guess I was inspired by those kind of compositions. Basically I’m at the mercy of the songs I write, so I just do what I feel like the song is telling me to do.”
This almost spiritual feeling that he can communicate with his own work emphasises that music is in Cadence Weapon’s blood. His father Teddy Pemberton was a DJ who is credited with introducing hip-hop to Edmonton, his vast collection of vinyl providing young Rollie with a collection of beats and rhymes to draw upon.
“I came into a family that was very musical,” he acknowledges. “My father, he was a rap DJ, so I grew up with a library of music. I think that was one of the major reasons I got into making music. My uncle was a funk musician, my other uncle played drums, my mom played piano.”
Unlike his dad, a native of Brooklyn, Rollie didn’t grow up in one of the traditional hip-hop cultural centers. Unable to engage with the lifestyle in the same way as the rappers he grew up listening to, he turned to the fledgling Internet to immerse himself in records. In that respect, he’s a member of the first generation of hip-hop artists who grew up with significant exposure to the web, a factor which has shaped the genre over the past few years.
“Being able to go on the Internet and being able to find out about these different, niche, underground rap communities and rappers, I feel like I came at a very singular time,” says Pemberton. “Being separate from the epicentre of where something is, you have enough distance to really perceive it unbiasedly. Because I’m from Edmonton I can, from a distance, absorb every rap record that came out of New York for the entire nineties or whatever and really think about things without the regional context attached to them.”
Stepping back from his budding journalism career to focus on music full-time, Pemberton released his first effort in 2005, the mixtape Cadence Weapon Is the Black Hand, later signing to Toronto-based label Upper Class Recordings and releasing his first full-length album that December. The album was released to positive reviews and earned a nomination for the first Polaris Music Prize in 2006, an award which recognizes the best Canadian album of the year.
“It’s what they say about your debut album – you spend your entire life before that working on it,” remembers Pemberton, who still looks at his first record with great affection. “I listen back to it and obviously there are things I’d consider mistakes that kind of bother me, but overall, I think it was a really strong, very creative album, and I feel like there’s nothing that sounds like it particularly.”
The dinky nature of his full-length debut reflected its lo-fi creation. Such was the lack of production sophistication that a hard-drive crash actually set Pemberton back from completing the album.
“The way I made Breaking Kayfabe, it would really drive someone crazy today,” he laughs. “The beats I made, they were very disjointed in the way that I constructed them. I lost the actual skins of every beat on the album, so I had to record these weird versions of different snippets that I sent to people, and instrumentals that I sent my ex-girlfriend. Eventually, taking all that into a studio with a really talented dude, Nik Kozub, on the boards and then I actually recorded the whole album in one day. It was such a weird way of doing things. It was probably the complete opposite of how I constructed Hope in Dirt City, but I think it turned out good.”
Released in 2008, his next full-length, Afterparty Babies, had more of an autobiographical feel than his previous work. Pemberton cites the success of Breaking Kayfabe and his subsequent touring schedule — which led to brutal home sickness — for this turn in direction.
“Every song, I feel like it represents a specific different setting in Edmonton,” he says. “The beats [on Afterparty Babies] are often reminiscent of the setting the story takes place in.”
In addition, Pemberton beefed up the production on the album, drawing upon a new interest in DJing and an evolving taste in music.
“I started getting into house music and techno at that time, so that’s reflected in the sound of these beats,” he says. “It was like I was making these rap beats – they were still rap beats – thinking they could be mixed into a traditional house set. Whenever I get into my head to make something and I think it’s going to be a specific genre or a specific way, it ends up being totally mutated by the time I’m done with it. It goes through the Rollie lens.”
Pemberton’s releases to date have, by and large, been warmly received, but the former music critic actually tries to avoid reading reviews of his own music, calling himself “really sensitive”. Still, he maintains journalism is a viable career, should he ever decide to return to it.
“When I was doing it more on a professional level, with different websites, at the same time I was making music,” he explains. “I was making music before I ever publically published everything. Music always was the number one thing for me. But, yeah, for a while, I went to journalism school. Over this entire period of time, even as I’m putting out this album, I still have people who ask me to write articles and I’ve been warming to the idea of doing some writing about, but I feel like my focus has been music for so long and I feel like it’s more important to me. It’s always something I can come back to.”
Clearly other interests will have to wait, as Cadence Weapon still maintains a burning desire to create new music. In fact, despite all his success, Pemberton still sees himself as the little guy. Recently he described himself as the “underground king of Montreal rap”. But does he still feel his music is that subversive?
“I still feel like I have that underground aesthetic despite how popular I get,” he muses. “I still feel like an underdog. I feel like there’s still ground to be made. Maybe not so much in Canada anymore. I’m kind of a known quantity now. But I feel like there’s still a lot of work to be done and a lot of people to convert.”