While writing The Never-Ending Present, I knew I’d have to talk about Gord Downie’s lyrics as poetry. His peers and other poets were happy to chime in on Downie’s relationship to Al Purdy’s work, or on whether or not Bob Dylan should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. But if we were going to be discussing lyrics as poetry, I knew I had to talk to some rappers as well.
One of my favourite writers and performers of recent years is Rollie Pemberton, a.k.a. Cadence Weapon, who spent two years as the municipally appointed poet laureate of his hometown of Edmonton, shortly before he relocated to Montreal and then Toronto. Cadence Weapon didn’t put out any new music in that time; the last time we heard from him was 2012’s Hope in Dirt City, shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. In January he released his new self-titled album, and it’s a huge step forward both musically and lyrically.
He and I spoke last September about poetry, Dylan, Downie, slam poetry and much more. But first, here’s my review of the new Cadence Weapon, which ran in the Waterloo Record on Jan. 19. He plays in Vancouver this weekend for JunoFest, on a bill with Maestro Fresh Wes and Clairmont the Second, and opens a series of dates for Too Many Zooz in late March, up and down the 401; he plays a free solo show at the University of Guelph on March 28 at noon.
Cadence Weapon – s/t (EOne)
Six years is a long time in the rap game. But that’s how long Cadence Weapon has been out of the visible (or audible) action, after spending time as the poet laureate of his hometown of Edmonton, moving to Montreal and collaborating with beatmakers Kaytranada and Jacques Greene while DJing loft parties, and finally relocating to Toronto, where he met the producer Harrison and the singer Brendan Philip. That journey through time, through cities, and through experiences is abundantly evident on his fourth album, one on which the former solo bedroom producer invites plenty of talented new friends into his process.
Cadence Weapon has always had a fascinating ability to absorb influences and emerge as a singular, unique talent. He doesn’t take his art for granted, and his judicious output illustrates just how much care goes into every track, every line, whether it’s traditional hip-hop braggadocio, avant-garde wordplay, or cinematic scene-setting. His fourth album is self-titled, a designation normally reserved for debuts that introduce an artist to the world. In this case, it’s a summation of his musical career to date, and he claims it’s also his most autobiographical. Cadence Weapon claims that he’s never bonded with other rappers, instead finding kindred spirits in electronic and experimental scenes—if true, that’s hip-hop’s loss. As both a producer and a rapper, Cadence Weapon gets better and better with age.
Stream: “My Crew (Woooo)” feat. Kaytranada, “Destination” feat. Deradoorian, “The Host”
Sept 6, 2017
Loveless Café patio on Dundas Street West, Toronto
Are you a Tragically Hip fan?
I appreciate them just on a Canadiana level. I’d be lying if I said I was a fanatic. I watched the big performance on CBC. I played a Virgin Festival in Calgary, probably in 2007, 2008. That was my first time seeing them play. I was blown away, and I didn’t expect that. I had an idea of what they were, like good-ol’-boy Canadians, literate. Seeing that performance, it was very physical, which I didn’t anticipate. I was gripped. I knew “Ahead by a Century.” That was the era when I thought they were poppin’. I really like that song. The more I listen to their music, the more I connected with the lyrics. It’s all these Canadian references, but not cheezy. It’s considered and researched in a cool way. It’s so nerdy, in a way that is specifically Canadian.
It’s never flag-waving. He’s quite resistant to that.
They resisted that for so long: “We’re not like this.” But then you listen to their music and look at them, and you think, “You are the most Canadian people who ever lived!”
Part of what fascinates me about Gord Downie is his relationship to poetry and the written word, which is why I wanted to ask you about your experience as the poet laureate of Edmonton. How long has that position been around?
There had been two before me. It’s a two-year position.
As we saw with Bob Dylan’s Nobel, there’s a lot of resistance to the idea of a songwriter as a poet. I can only imagine that there’s even more to a hip-hop artist.
I caught a lot of flak. A lot of people thought it was weird that I would be nominated. It was a filmmaker, Trevor Anderson, who did it. In the arts community of Edmonton, it didn’t seem weird to me at all. At that time, I was arguably one of the best-known artists coming out of Edmonton, so who better to represent the word coming out of Edmonton than the rapper, right? But the interesting thing is the backlash I got from that really pushed me to be a better lyricist. I went way harder after that. The Globe and Mail had this piece comparing me to Shakespeare. They put all my lyrics beside Shakespeare’s, but my lyrics would be from one of my party tracks. I’m like: “This is totally not fair! Why don’t you get one of Shakespeare’s scribblings on a napkin? Let’s be fair here.” That was 2009-11. It made me be extremely considered about words I write, which was reflected in my last album.
Was a lot of that negative reaction from punters, or were actual poets or academics offended?
The previous poet laureate, this guy Ted Blodgett, he thought it was a joke. I never met him. He didn’t come to my appointment. The other previous poet laureate, Alice Major, did come, and she was very supportive. Some people get it, some people don’t. Even at the time, 2009, I felt this was such a dated, tired way of seeing rap. I didn’t think anyone in the world still felt like that.
Is poetry a precious thing only certain people can do on the page?
I’m very open. I published a book of poetry in 2013, Magnetic Days, with this company called Metatron. They are an alternative poetry press; they have people publishing their tweets as poetry. That exposed me to a lot of different things I didn’t know about, things that other people might not consider poetry. I started hosting these poetry events called Street Level in Montreal. I’m very open to what can be considered poetry. To me, there’s no manual, no test you have to pass before you listen to a Nas album. Writing words in general is the most creative expression you can have, and I think rap is the most creative genre for that reason. You can do literally anything, and as long as it rhymes, it’s rap. Even if it doesn’t rhyme! And the music itself is a self-referential genre, it’s constantly a meta thing, sampling other songs, or song structures from other genres. It’s a mutating creature of a genre. That’s what I loved about it. I feel the same way about poetry. Whenever I hear about somebody doing something different and other people claim it’s not poetry, I find those people are very scared and protecting themselves. The only time I could imagine rejecting somebody doing something new in a form would be if I was afraid I won’t survive.
How would you compare Gord Downie’s lyrics to other rock/pop/folk songwriters?
I’m a big Dylan fan. But it’s not the same. Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell—they’re not the same as Gord. They’re all in a similar continuum of pop songwriting, but they all have different styles.
This might seem like an odd question, but how important do you think lyrics are in hip-hop right now?
For some people it’s about having the right producer at the right time; it doesn’t matter what they’re saying at all. Rap right now is heavily led by production. If you don’t have dope beats, you can’t survive. There’s no underground rap world where people want scholarly lyrics. There are outliers like Kendrick, but to me he is satisfying this urge people have that’s similar to the rock bands who sound like old rock, like the White Stripes or something, a retro thing. “Look at him, he’s rapping really well—like they used to in the olden days!” It’s quaint, or something.
What are your writing influences beyond hip-hop?
One of my No.1 influences right now is Martin Newell. He’s a poet, but he’s mainly a musician. His group is the Cleaners from Venus. I became obsessed with this band six or seven years ago. All his albums were originally self-released, recorded on cassette in the early ’80s in England. He’s really prolific. I think he’s one of the best songwriters of our time. He had a lot of issues with labels. Eventually all his albums were reissued a few years ago, and people are starting to hear about him more. I think he’s an unheralded genius. He does a lot of character sketches, which are a big thing with me lately, writing stories about characters and creating worlds that way. He’s really good at that.
Dylan is a really big one for me. That was one of my gateway artists for pop music and folk music. I think he is for a lot of people. Obviously he has this public persona of being a cranky guy and keeping people on their toes, but his book Tarantula is super obtuse and impenetrable. That was very inspiring to me. It was something I’d never seen before. I knew beat poetry, but I’d never seen something that was so openly hostile to the reader. I really appreciate his openness to trying different things musically: going electric, country rock, he’s always moving, iconoclastic. That was very inspiring to me.
But a lot of that is his persona. What about his words?
He comes up with the illest lines. He has great kiss-off lines equal to any rapper’s. He has so many nasty tracks like that. All of Blonde on Blonde. It’s very much in the real world, but it transforms the real world into something outsized and mystical. Maybe it was all the speed. It’s this woozy funhouse mirror of real life. He illustrated that in such a cool way. He’ll say something really simple, but say it in a way that makes it unforgettable to me. On “Million Dollar Bash,” he says, “We’re going to get a little bit drunk.” The way he says “drunk” is the drunkest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Neil Young is another one. Leonard Cohen. These guys made me very stoked to be Canadian, to realize we had this foundation of artistry. That was some of the first music I listened to that wasn’t rap. I grew up with rap. My dad was a rap DJ. My entire formative years were rap. Then it was Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots and grunge shit that led me to Neil Young; obviously there’s a connection there with Pearl Jam. Young is not dazzling. He isn’t going to come through with some crazy long words, or metaphors, or get complicated. But it’s self-assured and concise, very imagistic in a way. I was studying some of his lyrics, listening to After the Gold Rush. The title track and “Cripple Creek Ferry” were written for a soundtrack, for a movie that didn’t come out, and these lyrics have this weird narrative that nobody has picked up on. Neil is a bit corny, but I love that about him. I love that he sticks to who he is and doesn’t waver with the times.
My favourite songwriters change musically over time, because you have to do that to survive and to try different things, but they don’t change the core of what made them special, or how they operate. They remain true to themselves. A lot of people who do not do that, the public can sniff it out pretty easily. Another one is Walter Becker; I love Steely Dan. That to me is my ideal music: super literate, nerdy, but it’s funky. It’s hyper technical but doesn’t read like that. How do you get people who can shred like Van Halen, but get them to stay in the pocket? Usually you’re hyper technical but can’t write a song a human would like, or the opposite: you don’t have the chops, but you can appeal to a broad spectrum. Steely Dan had both. That to me makes them the ultimate band.
When Dylan won the Nobel, one of the arguments against the choice was that lyrics are not poetry because they are meant to be sung, that because they demand another medium they are not inherently poetry.
Ah, but we only say they’re meant to be sung because we know they’re sung. Right? If I were to pull someone off the street and show them Dylan lyrics, they would read it as poetry. They wouldn’t know it’s music, necessarily. A lot of people are splitting hairs. When something is different in a structure we’re aware of, even just a little bit off, everyone gets so up in arms.
[Next to the patio where we’re sitting, a man suddently starts slamming the door of a Toronto Sun newspaper box repeatedly in frustration]
This guy is a great example of that. He’s used to that box opening up, and now he’s freaking out. There wasn’t even a newspaper in it! It’s different from what he’s used to. “So if that’s not true, then what else is not true in my life?”
The world of poetry is small stakes. Poets are maligned, ignored. When someone who has an existing career in another medium says they’re going to publish a book of poetry, poets’ backs are necessarily going to stiffen.
But why do people get mad? [To those people, I’d say], don’t you love poetry? Want more people reading poems? Well, don’t get mad because someone else is successful. If you were so dope, you would have sold all those books. We live in a capitalist society. Nothing is holding people back from popping your book. And people wouldn’t buy it if it wasn’t good.
Sure they would. If it’s by a celebrity.
Not necessarily. I’m going to look first. If it’s “tic-tac-toe, ABC,” I’m not going to fucking buy it!
I don’t think Billy Corgan’s book did that well.
That’s what I’m talking about!
But Gord Downie holding the position he did in Canada, he could probably have sold anything.
He should have put out a sneaker.
I’m sure many people who bought his book have never bought another book of poetry in their life, but for others it can be a gateway into poetry.
That’s what Tarantula did for me. It made me seek out the history of poetry. At that time I was just writing poetry in my high school newspaper. I’d never read any poetry, really. I was just basing it on the hundreds of hours of rap I’d heard, and trying to say some fly shit. Now I have a background of knowledge that informs what I write today. That balance is really good: not being too scholarly, but not being too novice.
Until researching this topic, I’d totally forgotten that slam poetry was a thing in the ’90s. Where do you think that fits into this discussion?
There was a minor rift between people who considered themselves “page poets” and the slam poetry world. I remember Def Poetry Jam. That was cool. Dave Chappelle would come on and do a poem. That was great. I interviewed a guy for TIFF, he’s a screenwriter for this film Bodied. It’s about freestyle battle rap. It’s a fictionalized account of his life; he’s a battle rapper from Toronto. The way you picture it is not the way it is. It’s not 8 Mile. There’s no music. It’s like aggressive slam poetry, directed at an opponent with a boxing atmosphere. There’s a lot to unpack with that. Ultimately, words are very powerful. We idolize people who put them together in the right order.
Isn’t it more challenging to make poetry translate musically?
That’s something I’ve noticed change over time for me. I used to write in a different way than I do today. My first two albums, I didn’t have music first. I’d write lyrics and make music around that. Now I consider that an opposite way of doing things. It informs the way the music sounds: I didn’t marry these words to a beat. It has a jerky sensibility to it, but it also made it different. In terms of flow, people thought I was being willfully obtuse or not trying to rap properly. I lived without rules when I first came out.
I was Tarantula the Rapper, out to piss people off! Now, the way I put things together, they’re very interconnected. I rarely write without music. I’m also writing with an audience in mind. I didn’t used to do that.
Because you didn’t have one yet?
No, that’s not why. I was antagonistic toward the world. I was 19. Some of that stuff I wrote when I was 17, 18. I’d be in my dorm room, listening to Aphex Twin and freaking out. Now, I have way more of an appreciation for the audience. Music should be a shared experience. It’s not just about me. When I listen to some of my old stuff, it sounds selfish. As you write music over a span of years, your philosophy changes based on your experiences. Maybe it’s from learning to DJ, or meeting more musicians and collaborating more, but now I feel music is meant to be shared. This is a way we can communicate without even understanding the words being said. It’s very powerful, very special. It’s one of the coolest things on earth. It made me want to do it justice.
Amid all the celebration of the Hip’s final show, there was also a backlash that claimed it was really kind of a last gasp from a certain kind of Canada, that this was a merely moment for “white Canada” and not the rest of the population. Did that resonate with you at all?
It did resonate with me. It crossed my mind. I saw it from both ways. Perception changes over time. The Tragically Hip, at one point in time, were a new band coming out of nowhere making these literate rock songs. They were not the establishment. But if you last long enough, you become the establishment figure. Last year, it was this shrine to the fading years of the white man, or something. I can see that, especially for people who are relatively new Canadians. They don’t get it at all; it doesn’t speak to them. I have this nostalgia for it. I feel it’s something you should experience, whether you know the music or not. I had a respect and appreciation for it, especially the bravery of the performance. I heard that he barely made it through some of these shows, physically. It’s hard for me to by cynical about it.
There’s this expectation of pop culture, that because it speaks to so many people that it must somehow speak to me. There is this illusion that any cultural thing will speak to everybody. This assumption that we all have to watch the SuperBowl: that’s the hive mind, “we have to like this.” There’s a sense of not wanting to be left out of the cultural conversation.
Here’s a reason why people felt the way you’re talking about. The Hip’s music didn’t exclude them. The band didn’t exclude them. The average person who appreciates the band, the person at the show wearing a Tragically Hip hockey jersey, those are the people who, in a way, exclude people of other races from that conversation and that experience. But you can’t help you your fans are. Your average Canucklehead driving a truck and rocking that jersey—which is, to me, one of the funniest merch objects there is, because it’s so not Tragically Hip—that’s who makes other people feel like it’s not something they need to be a part of. [Those other people] associate the people they see watching that show with the experiences they have with those people on a daily basis, where they are excluded—daily. You go into a Tim Hortons, and there is a certain segment of people who look at you a different way. Those people might be Hip fans, too.
Where did you watch the show?
Me and my girlfriend watched it on TV [in Toronto]. I have a friend back in Montreal, who is from New Brunswick, and he loves Canadiana. He’s the most Canadian guy I can think of. We were texting each other during the show. He was crying. My girlfriend was watching it just out of respect; she’s not a fan whatsoever. She doesn’t get down with any big public events; she doesn’t care. We had three different perspectives on the show. For him it was this defining moment. For her, she couldn’t give less of a shit. For me, I felt a kinship and a need to be a part of it, as a fellow songwriter. I had some tug of Canadianness, but I didn’t have a personal stake in how the show went. There was a wide cross-section of people who watched it for different reasons.
Speaking of final performances, what did you think of Phife Dawg on that last Tribe Called Quest album?
It’s a fresh record. It did him justice. It was a perfect send-off. It really brought him back in people’s minds. His solo stuff isn’t that good, and we hadn’t heard anything from him in a while. He had some cool flows and moments. It was really gratifying for a lot of rap fans.
I heard it took a lot out of him, physically, to finish the album. Same with Leonard Cohen, who made his entire last record while sitting in a chair in his house.
Look at what we call musical objects: records. What a perfect word to capture where you were at a particular time. Whether that’s your formative years when you’re spry and virile, or whether it’s your death knell. Music is such a reflection of life, and moments in time.