Anyone who’s ever sat down with an album for which they could only muster indifference and tried to come up with 400 words to say about it, knows how cold the game can be to an artist’s labor of love. Yet Rollie Pemberton still decided to leave his career as a critic behind and embark on a career in music, as word and beatsmith Cadence Weapon. Three well-received albums and countless shows later, Pemberton is still at it with his latest rap inverting release, Hope in Dirty City. Bullett spoke to the MC about his latest album, the difference between rap and poetry, and of course, Soulja Boy.
What were you up to in the three years between Afterparty Babies and this record?
I became Edmonton’s poet laureate; basically I was the literary ambassador for Edmonton which is the city I’m from. I did that for two years and I was also part of a bunch of different artistic projects such as the national parks projects–basically I ended up doing field recordings in a place called Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta with a couple of other musicians. I did a bunch of recordings of water and animals and also got to sample a Blackfoot Indian tribe drumming, and I made a beat out of that. I was also on this literary debate show called Canada Reads on CBC Radio. I was doing a lot of non-recording things, I guess, but I eventually did record another album, and now it’s out.
Have you ever thought of producing a record entirely for someone else?
Oh yeah, I’ve always wanted to do that. I can see myself being an old Quincy Jones style dude, just producing for people. Then get fat and get bald on top, and keep all the hair in the back. But I’ve always wanted to produce for other people, particularly pop artists and stuff. I’ve always wanted to do an aspect of what I do, but for somebody who you’d never expect would perform over that kind backdrop. I’d like to do a new album for Neil Young or Leonard Cohen or something.
You’re a pretty verbose guy. How do you negotiate the trade-off between the value of a song as a piece of pop and the ideas in the lyrics?
I kind of draw a lot of influence from ’70s and ’80s new wave music, because I feel like that was a really good balance of having something to say, and saying it artistically but also being firmly entrenched in a pop tradition. I feel like an example of that would be maybe Richard Hell with Blank Generation; it’s music that was obviously influenced by beat poetry, but still is very accessible and very immediate. When I say something in a very articulate way or in a verbose way, I’m not actively trying to do so. It’s not like I’m trying to be overly clever or something, it’s just the way I am and the way I speak. I just can’t help wanting to be analytical about everything I do, but I have tried to make it so that you’re not just listening to a book or something. I don’t want to put out a podcast, I’m not trying to put out a TED talk for people via a record store. At the end of the day it’s pop music.
So the ideas are kind of incidental to the creation of the song as a thing to listen to?
Well I wouldn’t say totally incidental; the way I think of it is I’ll have an idea for a song and I’ll have all these sonic fragments and little words and asides and things that I want to use to be a part of that subject, but ultimately I want to put it all together in a way that can form pop.
Are you hostile towards the idea of the hype man?
I wouldn’t say hostile, but I don’t feel like I need one. I mean for me that song I’m written in– it’s weird to say this– but I think of it as kind of like a Randy Newman song. A lot of his songs are meant to be catchy pop numbers, but if you really listen to it, he’s really just ripping into this subject that he thinks is maybe coming from a more base perspective than his own, and that’s what I’m trying to do with that song “Hype Man.” I guess I just wanted to talk about something I find kind of irritating, but it’s not something I have total contempt for. Basically, I’m just tired of paying like 40 bucks to see some rapper, and there are like ten other guys on stage and you can’t even hear the artist.
What does a hype man do for a rapper that you don’t need anyone to do for you?
I feel like the idea of a hype man is to help emphasize what the rapper’s doing, but in most cases I feel like that doesn’t happen. I feel like the role of the hype man is rarely accurately performed. It’s supposed to be a supplementary thing, whereas I feel like most hype men today get in the way of the main performer. Just because of the nature of rap performances where you have lot of sound men who don’t necessarily know how to mix multiple rapping voices, it just feels like extraneous. I would be shocked if Jay-Z had a hype man. I would be shocked if Nas had a hype man, bcause these people are singular performers. Like Bruce Springsteen doesn’t need a fucking hype man. This is the way I’m thinking of it.
“Hype Man” is followed on the record by there we go, the track that seems to nod the most to mainstream rap, in terms of construction. Is that intentional?
Definitely. I really like Soulja Boy, which I think people would be surprised by, listening to my music. I’m really into Soulja Boy and Travis Porter and girl music. These are really young just totally pop rappers that totally don’t give a shit about what they’re saying, but it’s about fun and just the experience. It’s like the idea of exuberant youth. I wanted to make a track that was kind of in that style, the kind of track that I could maybe play in a mix with a Soulja Boy song. I kind of wrote it in the mind of “let me try to do this, but talking about what I do or talking about the experiences of my friends and people around me.” S it is in that current pop-rap framework, but then when you listen, it is still a little bit askew.
So what is the difference between Soulja Boy and Cadence Weapon?
Think of it like this: you go to 7-11, Soulja Boy would be like skittles– it’s like fast food candy, like junk food. It tastes good, it’s fun to eat, but maybe it’s not good for you. Whereas I feel like I’m trying to be like Toblerone. I’m trying to make refined club bangers, I’m trying to make a refined party song.
Have you ever looked at any unfavorable reviews of your work and been tempted to respond to the writer, as a former critic?
I’ve been reading reviews for the album, and thankfully it’s been really positive so far. I just feel like I’m me, so I know what I’m trying to do and I know what I’m trying to represent and I know all of the background behind what I’m doing. But you know, every reviewer from Virginia or whatever doesn’t know what I’m doing. Actually, one of the main things that really bothers me is just poor editing, that really bothers me. Seeing spelling mistakes. The album title is incorrectly named, they’re saying I’m from Winnipeg, just very basic fact checking things. And also when people question my motives, thinking I have some kind of sinister plan.
Do you think working as a music writer has made you more or less cynical about the hype cycle than if you’d focused purely on music?
Being a musician has made me more cynical about it. Like my time playing music festivals and being exposed to the backstage inner workings of music has made me more cynical than I was when I was a writer. When I was a writer, obviously I would have to go shovel through tons of shitty albums and only occasionally experience some records that I was invested in, but coming from some of these festivals and the kind of sycophants that you come across it’s much worse when I was just at home filing reviews and stuff. That said, I could never totally be discouraged from making music or loving music, because it’s pretty much the guiding light of my life and always will be.