Home is an elusive concept to Roland Pemberton. For the 25-year-old rapper/producer – stage name Cadence Weapon – arts journalist and, until July 1, the City of Edmonton’s Poet Laureate, home is both physical and abstract, a permanent place on the map and a constantly shifting idea.
The physical part of Pemberton’s home is easy enough to define. He was born and raised in Edmonton and has a homegrown legacy to go with it. His late father is Teddy Pemberton, the DJ credited with introducing hip hop to Edmonton airwaves in the 1970s, and his grandfather, and namesake, is Eskimo hall-of-famer Rollie Miles.
It’s the idea of Edmonton that is more difficult to define.
“This is something I was talking to [filmmaker] Trevor Anderson about,” says Pemberton over a mug of tea at a downtown Internet cafe. Relaxed but excitable, he enthuses about Anderson’s short film The High Level Bridge, which played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “What he’s doing with that movie is really valuable. It’s a permanent document about Edmonton, and there’s not a lot like that.
“You think about New York. There are untold amounts of tributes to it – books, movies, everything you can imagine. But Edmonton is not as exciting, and has less people in an artistic discipline who have the insight to talk about it. So I feel required to be that person with a lot of the things I make.”
When, as Cadence Weapon, he raps about Edmonton, he doesn’t go in halfway. “Oliver Square” is the opening track off Pemberton’s first album, Breaking Kayfabe, which was written, produced and recorded when he was just 17, and subsequently nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, an annual award that goes to the best album recorded in Canada regardless of genre. It tells of drunken nights on the town, and it’s filled with references to local landmarks so specific, you could chart the lyrics on Google Maps. “We Move Away,” from the follow up, Afterparty Babies, is a meditation on all of the friends he lost to other cities. On a recent free-for-download album, Tron Legacy: The Mixtape, he brings the music to a sudden halt to deliver a monologue in favour of closing the City Centre airport. (It’s worth pointing out this piece is equal parts political and playful; Pemberton loves nothing more than to disorient his listeners, and he delights in imagining outsiders’ reactions to his Edmonton-centric skit.)
“If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” he asks. “This is us! This is Edmonton! If I can be as regional as possible, I will do it. It’s very amusing for me, but it’s also very valuable. I get a real kick out of doing shit like that.”
Thomas Quinlan, a hip hop writer and record-label owner based in Toronto, has followed Pemberton’s music for years. He says that Pemberton’s love for his city is palpable from across Canada. “I’m a strong believer that you should rap about what you know,” Quinlan says. “And hip hop has always been about repping where you’re from. I bet most of what I know about Edmonton I learned from Cadence Weapon’s music.”
It’s perhaps no surprise then that Pemberton has taken his passion for creating “permanent documents” about the city and pursued it just as fiercely during his two-year stint as poet laureate.
He’s also trying to upend assumptions about what poetry is – what it looks and sounds like, how it engages with its subject matter and the basic medium through which we experience it. The result is an energetic mix of hip hop, spoken word and performance art that is dense, intricate and littered with linguistic somersaults and local knowledge.
One poem, “Dirt City (New Strathcona),” has bleak but pointed lines such as “Colours mock the Oil City Roadhouse” and “City Market Apartments punctured, frothing incursions.” Yet the poem is not an indictment; it argues that the dirt gives Edmontonians some added character.
Then there’s this summer’s flag project organized in conjunction with The Works Art & Design Festival. As one of his last poet-laureate duties, Pemberton has arranged for three of his poems, laid out on colour-coded flags, to run down Jasper Avenue in three different directions. Each flag in Monuments (The City in Three Parts) will have just one word, meaning you’ll have to wander down Jasper to read the poetry. “Basically the poems are a way of tricking people into hanging out downtown,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, come downtown and check out this poem – ha! You’re downtown!'”
Pemberton thinks of the poet laureate as a general “arts ambassador” and stenographer for the city. His highest-profile performances so far have been during the Vancouver Olympics, where he performed at what is now the Rogers Arena, and on Parliament Hill, where he performed for 200,000 people last Canada Day.
Pemberton’s appointment was praised all across Canada and he’s since made some friends in the traditional poetry world, too. Alice Major, who served as Edmonton’s first poet laureate, from 2005 to 2007, says that Pemberton is in fact tapping into one of poetry’s oldest traditions. “Hip hop uses many of the tools of rhyme and meter that were de-emphasized in 20th-century poetry, in favour of the free verse tradition,” she says. “That’s been one of the components in people drifting away from it [poetry] as an engaging public art form. What rap plugged into, in a big way, was that love of the patterns you can make with words.”
As Pemberton’s stint as Edmonton’s poet laureate comes to a close, he’s starting to look beyond the city while planning his next moves.
The third Cadence Weapon record, Roquentin, is due this month. It’s a departure for Pemberton in many ways. It’s more conceptual, drawing its title from a character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential novel, Nausea. As well, the album was recorded almost entirely in Toronto with a full, live band and mostly without electronic samples.
He says his influences this time around have changed too, from booming house music and electronica, to ’70s pop acts like Harry Nilsson and Steely Dan. “I have some extremely uncool-sounding songs on this next album,” he says. “They’re downright dad-centric.” But he scoffs at any suggestions of feeling nervous. “I’m just going to do what I’m going to do. I’d do it whether people were listening or not.”
He previews one of the new songs, tentatively titled “Jukebox,” on his iPod. It’s a lush, propulsive track that is a far cry from Breaking Kayfabe’s glitchy minimalism. It even features saxophone work from Pemberton’s uncle, Brett Miles, leader of the band Magilla Funk Conduit. It’s still unmistakably a Cadence Weapon song, but he’s managed to square these new influences with his more hard-edged sensibilities.
Along with this musical departure comes a geographic one. Pemberton has already started to split his time between Edmonton and Montreal, and entertains the idea of relocating to somewhere completely new. He also continues to tour, as a rapper. When Roquentin comes out, he expects to be on the road for eight solid months.
But what happens when the guy who wrote “We Move Away” moves away?
It’s a question Pemberton has been anticipating. He partly attributes his absence to wanting to let some new local artists have a chance to enjoy the opportunities he’s been given, and partly to pure wanderlust. Or, now that his tributes to Edmonton are built, maybe he’s just ready to aim his artistic eye elsewhere?
And, as he points out, it’s hardly the first time he’s been outside the city limits.
“When I put out Afterparty Babies, I was gone for almost all of 2008,” Pemberton says. “And people used to give me shit anyway, like I went to too many [local] shows or something. They were tired of seeing me around. Now they’re like, ‘He doesn’t even live here!'”
Brent Oliver has many fond memories of Pemberton. Oliver, who was an Edmonton concert promoter for 20 years before moving to Winnipeg to join talent agency Paquin Entertainment Group (which does not represent Pemberton), landed him his first gig, back when the underage rapper had to cross his fingers that the venue wouldn’t ID him. He’s proudly watched Pemberton quickly find success, but he’s not surprised. “Rollie built all of this on talent,” Oliver says. “That’s what’s great about this new music industry – talent wins out above everything. Every crappy band has a MySpace page or has music available online somewhere. But Rollie is so talented.”
He lists off many of Pemberton’s accomplishments. “And to do all that by 25?” he deadpans. “What a jerk.”