[Interview] Cadence Weapon talks “Hope In Dirt City,” serving as Edmonton’s poet laureate, and his plans for the future

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Edmonton’s Cadence Weapon is tough to put in a box. Growing up listening to hip-hop, jazz, rock and roll, and reggae, and later being exposed to grime, techno, and house music, the Canadian emcee draws inspiration from a wide range of music, not to mention other literary sources – how many emcees do you know who read the existential works Jean-Paul Sartre? All of these influences can be found in his latest album, Hope In Dirt City. Although he now lives in Montreal, Cadence Weapon set out to capture the essence of both Montreal and his hometown of Edmonton in Hope In Dirt City, from which the term Dirt City derives. The three-time Polaris Music Prize nominee is setting out on a tour across North America, stopping in Toronto on October 12 and London on October 13th. The Come Up Show caught up with Cadence Weapon to talk about his latest album, his two year term as Edmonton’s poet laureate, and his plans for the future, among other things. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: You’ve been touring like crazy this year, whereabouts have you been so far?

Cadence Weapon: Well, you know, earlier this year, I toured with Japandroids; we toured England, played in Spain, and then toured North America. Immediately after that, I played a bunch of shows across the States, and a couple in Canada, with Liars over the summer. So yeah, [I was] keeping it moving for a few months there. Now, I’m getting ready to hit it up again!

TCUS: You’re performing in London at APK Live this Saturday, October 13th. For someone who’s never seen you perform before, how would you describe your live shows?

Cadence Weapon: It’s kind of like a new school/old school hybrid – that’s the way I like to put it. It’s me and my DJ with the turntables, [his name is] DJ Co-op, [he’s] based in Winnipeg. It’s like a mix show, in a lot of ways, too. There’s some almost Funkmaster Flex or Fatman Scoop-like elements to how hype it is, and how quick the transitions are. It’s definitely a very hip-hop oriented show.

TCUS: Now, I’m really excited to talk about your latest album, Hope In Dirt City, but first I want to get some background on you. How did you first get into hip-hop?

Cadence Weapon: I grew up in kind of a library of hip-hop – my dad was a hip-hop DJ. He was on college radio for over 20 years, actually. He was on CJSR, and he had a show called “The Black Experience in Sound”. And that’s pretty much where I got my knowledge of rap, and all music in general – I just grew up around music. I think that’s really reflected in the kind of music that I make now, just the diverse nature of the sounds and stuff. It comes from growing up in a place where nothing was sacred – any kind of music was accepted.

TCUS: What kind of artists did your dad, Teddy Pemberton, introduce you to?

Cadence Weapon: The most formative rap artists I learned from my dad. That’s the first place I heard Nas, and Brand Nubian, and Ras Kass, and a lot of these people were just like the entry way for me to listen all this other rap. I devoured everything I could listen to. [My dad] was also a big fan of Jimi Hendrix, and he was really into this reggae group called Third World. He was all over the map.

TCUS: What was the first hip-hop record you ever purchased?

Cadence Weapon: That would probably be the cassette for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie soundtrack.

TCUS: [Laughs]

Cadence Weapon: [Laughs] [It had] ninja raps on it.

TCUS: What about your five favourite albums of all time?

Cadence Weapon: That’s a hard question, but I’ll try. I’ll definitely say Illmatic. I’ll say Supreme Clientele by Ghostface, Midnite Vultures by Beck, Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, and something more contemporary… I’ll say it’s probably Donuts, by Dilla, actually.

TCUS: Oh, good choice!

Cadence Weapon: I would say that album is the album I’ve listened to maybe most over my whole life. When that first came out, it was just a total revelation for me. We listened to it so much on tour that we called our car the Donut-mobile.

TCUS: [Laughs] Before you decided to pursue music as a career, you studied journalism. What were you hoping to do?

Cadence Weapon: I’ve always been an analytical person, and I always wanted to learn more about music, and talk to musicians – I always wanted to be around music in some way. So for me, it was music journalism. I was exploring this at the same time that I was recording music. When I decided to go to journalism school, I was already working on albums and stuff. It was actually more like my parents [telling me to] give school a try, like, “I know you want to do music, but give it a try.” And I did, but what I realized is the kind of journalism they were really trying to get me to do was more like television journalism. They were trying to make people into newscasters, and meteorologists, and stuff. I was like, “this is not what I’m trying to do,” so I stopped, and I went full-on into music… and I’m really happy that I did.

TCUS: You used to work at Pitchfork, too. How did you land that gig?

Cadence Weapon: This was even before I went to journalism school… this was like ten years ago. I worked at Pitchfork before it was really the way it is now – before it was a big website. I just sent in a review – and that review was for Brother Ali’s first album, Shadows on the Sun – and they liked it. I only wrote there for about a year, and I dunno… I have a tenuous feeling about that website, and also music criticism in general. I feel like it’s actually a very reductive process, and [something] that I don’t totally agree with anymore. I feel like a lot of people miss out on good albums, because there’s this impulse to take down albums, or really make an impact in your review. And it’s so much about the self and not really about the good of music in general, you know? And also, so many reviews don’t actually talk about music at all. It’s often the reviewer talking about themselves, or the reviewer talking about what the artist looks like – what their style is, what they’re wearing – and all the accoutrements of music, rather than actually talking about music.

TCUS: Yeah, that’s something that really interested me, too. To me, it’s a challenge to try to label something as subjective and personal as music without taking something away from the artist’s work. As an artist yourself, I’m sure you understand this. You mention you don’t really feel comfortable with the concept of album reviews, when did you decide that you didn’t want to review music anymore?

Cadence Weapon: While I was doing that job, it started becoming, like, total drudgery. Every weekend, [I had to] review three albums. And they were all just very generic rap albums. And I’m feeling like even me, slamming this album, is not valuable at all. Even talking about this album isn’t valuable. It just seemed very meaningless, in the end. I didn’t feel like I was really making an impact in anybody’s life that was positive. And that’s [what I try to do] making music. When I play shows, I like to make some kind of impact in people’s lives.

TCUS: Moving in another direction, what does your name, Cadence Weapon, come from?

Cadence Weapon: It started off as kind of my mantra, you know? I had a few different rap names before that, that were really, really bad, and I just found myself, whenever I would freestyle, I kept saying the same phrase: “My cadence is my weapon, my cadence is my weapon.” And I was like “man, why do I keep saying this?” And I started thinking, it really is reflective of my sound, because I like to switch up my flow, and I like to switch up my styles sometime. So I just shortened it to Cadence Weapon, and it stuck.

TCUS: You’ve mentioned that your writing style is fragmented, and that very rarely can you sit down and write a song in one go. What’s your writing process like?

Cadence Weapon: If you were to come to my house, you would probably see hundreds of notebooks with lyrical fragments, and parts of songs. I mentally have specific themes and ideas for songs that I know I want to do, and usually I have the titles of songs before I complete a song. So what I do is, I think about all these separate ideas, and once I feel like I have enough ideas for a song, I really start fleshing it out. Usually, I make the beat, too, so I’m usually doing both at the same time.

TCUS: You served as Edmonton’s poet laureate for a two-year term, how did that experience come about and what was it like?

Cadence Weapon: I was just nominated by the city council and the arts council of Edmonton, and because of my stature from music in Edmonton, they thought I would be well-suited for the position. And yeah, once I got it, it was pretty cool! It was a really unique opportunity; it was an opportunity to focus on my lyrics, and how I could improve my music. I felt like people started taking my lyrics a lot more seriously after I got that position; they went back and looked at my old lyrics, from when I was like eighteen, and they were like “ohh, this isn’t poetry.” And I’m like “well, it wasn’t really meant to be.” So now, it’s like everything I’ve done has been totally re-contextualized. But it was a good thing, because it made me be more concise and more efficient creatively with the way I was writing, which was a good improvement for me.

TCUS: Did you find any kind of a stigma attached to the hip-hop culture as you accepted your position as the poet laureate? Was there any resentment of that background?

Cadence Weapon: Yeah, usually with older people or people who just aren’t really that familiar with rap. I feel like rap is such a big mainstream thing that you would think that people don’t consider “rap is crap” anymore; you don’t hear the kind of cliche thing anymore. But there are still people who just have no understanding of what’s actually going on in the world. So yeah, there were some people who were not understanding where I was coming from, or where Edmonton was coming from [by] selecting me. Especially being a young, black man. I think it kind of put people on edge in some ways. But generally, it was a positive response.

TCUS: Since growing up in Edmonton, you’ve made the move to Montreal. How would you compare the music scenes and creative atmospheres from the two cities?

Cadence Weapon: It’s very different. In Edmonton, things are a little more insular – you know absolutely everyone. And it was also different because I grew up there – I lived there pretty much my entire life. There are people you grew up with that you work on music with. With the hip-hop scene, I’ve always been kind of an outlier and outsider, just because of the kind of beats that I wanted to make, and the kind of things I wanted to talk about. But there’s a really good rap community in Edmonton, and there’s an awesome rap community in Montreal. There’s just a creative atmosphere in Montreal, though – it’s so amazing. I have these amazing friends that really inspire me with everything they do, and they’re everywhere. To live somewhere where everyone you meet is creative or artistic in some capacity, it’s just really inspiring. It really drives me to be better at what I do, which is ultimately the core of my life: refinement of ideas. And I find that so much in Montreal. I DJ a lot in Montreal, and I have a weekly DJ night every Thursday at this place [called] Nouveau Palais, and I was just thinking last night, some of the hottest artists in the music world came through and said what’s up – and they’re all in Montreal. It’s a priceless thing.

TCUS: Is there anything about Edmonton that you miss not having in Montreal?

Cadence Weapon: Yeah, my family – they’re all still based in Edmonton, so that’s the thing that I miss the most. Edmonton is really beautiful in the summer, and I really miss going to the River Valley, and I miss going to DaDeO’s – it’s a really dope restaurant. I miss people, mostly. One of the best things about Edmonton is the people there.

TCUS: You’ve mentioned that you’re a fan of Soulja Boy and Lil B. What draws you to their music?

Cadence Weapon: It’s more about what they represent, rather than what they’re actually doing. It’s a revolution in how music is put out. That’s what I like, it’s this sense of freedom. Maybe it’s less about quality control, but I really appreciate that they’re just free in how they put things out. And that’s really inspired me to put more music out, and work faster, and just be more creative in general. It’s cool to see loads of people like music that I think is kind of out there, because there was a long time when there was nothing that was remotely as weird as what I was putting out. Now, it feels like there’s a lot of somewhat mainstream, beloved music that has more creative ideas.

TCUS: Prior to your latest album, you’ve released Breaking Kayfabe and Afterparty Babies. What musical influences went into each album?

Cadence Weapon: Breaking Kayfabe, I would say, at that time I was listening to a lot of English grime music. [Artists] like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley were really influential to me. When I heard The Streets and stuff, that was the first time I really heard music that sounded like what I was making. I was like “wow! This guy is a total kindred spirit,” and it was really inspiring to feel like I wasn’t alone. So yeah, those were very influential on my first album.

At the time of Afterparty Babies, I had first started learning to DJ, and I think that really affected the music. I started realizing how music can connect, [and] how different songs fit better together. I also got into techno and house music for the first time, so I wanted to use aspects of those sounds in my music, and that’s reflected in a lot of the beats.

TCUS: My first introduction to your music was a roundtable of 8 Canadian emcees talking about the history of Canadian rap. It was you, Saukrates, Shad, D-Sisive, Muneshine, Buck 65, Famous, and Maestro. What was it like being a part of that group?

Cadence Weapon: It was cool to be invited; I feel like just being at the table is a dope thing. But it’s like so many different generations and perspectives of music. You see all those people, and you realize how deep Canadian music actually goes – how many different personalities, and cultural backgrounds, and styles there are to Canadian music. I wish you could show that video to people in America, so they really understand where we’re coming from. It isn’t weird that there’s Canadian rap, it’s its own thing, and it’s valuable, too.

TCUS: The verse that you performed for that roundtable was actually the first verse off of your song “Hope In Dirt City”. That video was from a long time ago, what prompted you to hold onto that verse until now?

Cadence Weapon: Well, I really liked that verse. I always did. That’s the thing, during that period of time, I was still working on the album. It was kind of fresh for me at that time, and for me, that was a meaningful verse. It was really setting out how the conditions in Edmonton were for me and my friends. I had to rep for where I’m from on that verse.

TCUS: Let’s talk about your latest album, Hope In Dirt City, which came out on May 29th. What was the concept behind this project?

Cadence Weapon: For me, a lot of the conceptual nature of the album is based on how I made it, which is kind of unique for making music. The process really influenced how it sounds, and how I wrote my music. Basically, I started off making beats as I would traditionally do with computers and stuff, but then I took those compositions and I had a band basically replace all the samples with live instruments. I jammed with a band in Toronto for over six months, just refining these songs. And then once we recorded it all together in Toronto, basically live, off the floor, I took those compositions to Montreal and re-sampled them. So basically, the idea I had is that I wanted to sample myself, and make it kind of ambiguous as to where a sample ended, or whether something was a sample or not. I wanted it to be like some of those Roots albums that have samples in them – I love how they mix it in, and I wanted to attempt that. Or just how you listen to some of the newer DJ Quik productions, and how he’ll make these live compositions, obviously live-based on keyboards, still sound hip-hop.

TCUS: In your lead single “Conditioning”, you say “I live in bad condition, but I got my conditioning.” Can you elaborate on this?

Cadence Weapon: Yeah, the idea of that song is a play on the idea of conditions. I’m talking literally about weather conditions, in this case – in Edmonton, it’s real bad weather. And where that song originates from is I used to go with my friend Smokey in Edmonton to the Kinsmen Centre and work out in the dead of winter, and we were using this absolutely shitty car – sorry, pardon my french – that was obviously going to break down. And I was thinking “man, this is so crazy that we’re just trying to work on our physical condition and mental condition, and feel better about where we are, in these horrible weather conditions.” I started thinking about how your physical environment affects your actual personal physicality, and I wanted to talk about that in [“Conditioning”].

TCUS: I also read that you drew from Jean-Paul Sartre in your latest album. How, specifically, has his writing influenced you?

Cadence Weapon: At the time of making the album, I was reading Nausea, and I was finding a lot of weird parallels with the protagonist, whose name is Antoine Roquentin. Originally, that’s what I was going to call the album: Roquentin. The way they described things, it was just really weirdly connected with my world view at that time. But then, things started changing for me, and I started writing different songs [that went] in different directions. I didn’t want to tie it too much to this existential theme… but it’s still there. Basically, it’s the idea of considering the meaning of life, and that’s really reflected in a song like “Small Death”, and also in “Conditioning”.

TCUS: One song from your album that really stood out to me was “Cheval”. What was the inspiration behind this?

Cadence Weapon: I wanted to just get fly, I felt like I hadn’t really done [any straight-up] slick talk. At the time, I was listening to a lot of UGK, and I’m really super influenced by UGK, the weight of their words, and how they make them sound. I wanted to just drop a fly record, you know? I received a beat from my dude Melee, who’s from California, and I just went in on the beat, thinking “how can I represent where I’m living now, Montreal, in a way that is equally as fly as how they might talk about Port Arthur, Texas?” I was dropping a lot of French references, and for some reason, this theme of horses kept coming up, and I just went all the way with it. And that’s what it ended up being. Also, the first line [goes]: “My girl’s like Lizzy Mercier Descloux.” I was very influenced by her, the production of her album Mambo Nassau is very influential on the production of this album. So that was like my tribute to her – rest in peace, Lizzy Mercier Descloux – but yeah, she was very influential to me on this album.

TCUS: You’ve released three studio albums now, and all three have been nominated for the Polaris Prize. What does that recognition mean to you?

Cadence Weapon: Well, I mean, it’s one of the highest distinctions you can get in Canadian music. For all of my albums to have been considered, I feel very honoured and very proud, and I feel just amazing about it. This year was very special, because I worked very hard on this album. I spent a few years working on it, and to be shortlisted for it… I was amazingly happy about it. And it was a really cool experience, just because my mom came, my grandma came this time, both my sisters were there… my whole family was there. It was really cool to be able to rock for them onstage, and that really connected everything for me. From the beginning, working on this album in Edmonton in the winter, and then seeing the culmination of it up on the stage, in front of everybody in Canada, it was a good feeling.

TCUS: You’ve mentioned that one of your next projects you want to do is a book of poetry. Can you talk about this?

Cadence Weapon: Yeah, it’s definitely a work in progress, and I definitely want to put it out next year. I’ve always wanted to put out some kind of collected works – I’m very influenced by Leonard Cohen, and I’d love to have that kind of duality, to be able to drop a book, and then drop an album. That’s definitely something that’s coming up soon.

TCUS: Aside from that, what other goals do you have for yourself heading into the future?

Cadence Weapon: I want to do everything. I love media in general, and I feel like in my future, I could see myself making a film of some kind. I want to make several different kinds of books, and with every album, [I want to improve] And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this listening to other people’s music, but it seems like they’re often trying to refine certain themes. Like, their albums have certain repeating themes. This is how I feel: when I’m listening to an album, I feel like I’m listening to an artist trying to refine themself. So hopefully, with my future albums, I’ll continue to get better at making music, and get closer to what I consider to be a perfect album. Eventually, that’s my ultimate goal. I want to do something that’s just an undeniable musical masterpiece.

TCUS: And maybe win the Polaris Prize too, eh?

Cadence Weapon: [Laughs] Yeah, sure, sure! Among other things, hopefully.

TCUS: [Laughs] Well, that’s all from me, is there anything else that you wanted to say to the people out there?

Cadence Weapon: Yeah, I wanted to say that I’m stoked as hell about the show in London, and I want to shred really hard, and I hope to see everybody there.

TCUS: Thank you very much for your time, and I’m looking forward to seeing you on Saturday!

Cadence Weapon: Yeah! Right on.