Cadence Weapon

Cadence Weapon (CP Images)

Cadence Weapon, whose new album, Hope In Dirt City, is short-listed for the 2012 Polaris Music Prize (to be announced Sept. 24), spent two years from 2009 as Edmonton's Poet Laureate incorporating poetry into official and informal city activities.

It came on the heels of the hip hop artist's second album, 2008's Afterparty Babies, and his first Polaris nomination in 2006 for his official debut full-length, 2005's Breaking Kayfabe.

The government-bestowed honour didn't make him step up his game poetically because of the high expectations that came with receiving such a title, but rather the occasional jab.

"It was more like once I became poet laureate, people started taking my words a lot more seriously and, as result, they went through all my own albums and were like, 'Oh this isn't poetry; this isn't poetry; this sucks,'" recounts Cadence Weapon, whose real name is Rollie Pemberton. "It made me a little more self-conscious about making sure everything I write is at least thoughtful in some way.

"But, as I've said before, I'm a rapper. I feel like I'm part of the pop music tradition and within that world, I'm not going to try to write a book on tape. It's pop music. So I don't want it to be totally impenetrable lyrically. I want something that's easy to yell back at me."

Pemberton is also known for his creative, out-of-the-box beats, but took a different approach to get there for Hope In Dirt City. He created the beats himself on computer, then took the songs to live musicians -- Jered Stuffco (DVAS) on keyboards, Ian Koiter (Shad) on bass and string arrangements, Eric Lightfoot on drums and percussion, Paul Prince (The Cansecos) on guitar; and Brett Miles (Magilla Funk Conduit) on saxophone) -- recorded them, and then sampled the results.

"You listen to my previous albums and they are based on manipulating sound pretty extremely and they [the musicians] are people that I knew so they know what they were signing up for," says Pemberton. "I don't think anyone went away from the recording process thinking I totally mangled their work. At least I hope not [laughs]."

Pemberton grew up surrounded by music. His dad was a deejay, who spun funk, rap and electro. His uncle, Bret Miles, of funk band Magilla Funk Conduit, was a major influence who would let him join in shows when he was still underage. Before settling on Cadence Weapon, he had a few other MC names. His first, in grade 7, was Payroll, a play on Rollie; next came Antagonist, which he shortened to Antagon. But it wasn't until he started spitting "cadence is my weapon" in his songs that he adopted the truncated version for his rap moniker.

He began putting out original tracks when he was still a teenager, releasing a couple of hundred copies of The Black Protagonist EP a decade ago and then Cadence Weapon Is The Black Hand in 2005. He put out his first official album, Breaking Kayfabe, via Upper Class, which garnered positive reviews in Canada, the U.S. and over in the U.K.

Pemberton has said before that while he approaches every beat differently, lyrically, "I am trying to frame my words." He still feels that is true.

"Ultimately, the way I make music is I usually start with the words. I have lists of just song titles or themes or ideas and I just add onto those individual themes until I collage together a song," he says.

"That's the same with this album, but I found as the process went along -- even though I come off as Poet Laureate of Edmonton and having a very high focus on lyricism and writing -- I feel like this album is my most accessible and most pop-oriented album. As a result, there are songs that are meant cumulatively, not just as a lyrical exercises but just as a whole."

Interestingly, following his fulfillment of the municipal government's Poet Laureate position, Pemberton relocated to Montreal. He went to Toronto off and on at the beginning of 2010 to record Hope In Dirt City, but now Montreal is his new home. He says there is a whole side to the album connected to the city, several songs that naturally evolved from the people he met in the Montreal music scene, particularly the underground DJ circuit.

"I like to DJ these after parties in Montreal and I met a lot of producers and people who make beats," he says. "'Get On Down,' I actually completed that song on my birthday. I was really drunk and the beat is by Doldrums. I invited everybody over after my birthday and played them this weird track that me and my friend Airick [Woodhead, a.k.a. Doldrums] made and I knew it was going to be interesting when the rest of the world could hear it. I think the energy matches up with the circumstances of the recording."

"It's a different vibe," Pemberton says of Montreal. "I would say the number one way of putting it is a sense of friendly competition. I feel like everybody I meet is a musician or in some kind of creative business line or everybody is creating alongside each other. What it feel is a very supportive environment, but you see a band like Braids, they come out with an amazing album and a guy like Sean Savage - all these people making these great records so it's okay step it up. It's good to be in an environment with that."

Did he not get that in Edmonton or had he simply been there so long, the creative well had run dry?

"Well, there was a couple of people, but it feels like they're less bands; there's less people overall and less people in creative [areas], who make music and even less people who make experimental music, like I feel I do. So sometimes it can feel kind of lonely. I feel like Edmonton has a great creative scene," he makes sure to add. "There are a lot of great bands there."