Name: Roland "Rollie" Pemberton / Cadence Weapon
Nationality: Canadian-American
Occupation: Rapper, producer
Current release: The new Cadence Weapon album, Parallel World is out April 30th on eOne.
Recommendations: What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez; Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra

If you enjoyed this interview with Cadence Weapon, visit his website, Facebook account or Instagram profile for more information, updates and music.   

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started rapping when I was 13 years old. I used to write raps with my friend Devin in math class, we’d slip pieces of paper with bars on them back and forth. Soon after that I started rapping online on message boards. My influences back then were Nas, Jay-Z and Ghostface. My dad was a radio DJ in Edmonton so I grew up with all this funk, hip-hop and R&B playing around the house. Some childhood favourites for me were “Word Up” by Cameo and Whodini’s “Freaks Come Out At Night.” I was inspired to make beats by NES video games like Mega Man 4 and Double Dragon 2. I wondered why I never heard emcees rapping over music that sounded like that.

I’ve always found myself attracted to synthesizers and electronics. I loved ‘80s music like “Blue Monday” by New Order, Gary Numan’s “Cars” and Soft Cell’s version of “Tainted Love.” I’ve always loved raw computerized sound. Aphex Twin was a big inspiration to me as a kid too. Music represented the magic of conjuring something otherworldly out of thin air.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

I studied rap extensively when I was younger. I read the Source, XXL and Vibe, listening to any album I could get my hands on. When I first started writing raps, I was imitating Eminem. Particularly the multisyllabic rhymes he would use. I tried to be deep, dense and poetic like Aesop Rock after I discovered his music. I tried to come up with unique flows like Pharoahe Monch.

After lots of research and practice, I eventually came up with my own style. I think deciding to make my own beats was a turning point for me because it emboldened me to take more ownership over my songs. It really felt like it was my music once I was making the beats. Once I tapped into something that sounded like nothing else, it was very liberating.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

It’s crucial to my music. For my whole life, I’ve felt like an outsider. I always saw the world differently than other people and felt excluded ever since I was a child. That outsider feeling is probably why I started making music in the first place. Being from Edmonton and Canada has figured into what I write about, where I’m from is important to me. My black identity has deeply informed my last couple albums and I see that continuing more and more in the future.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

I don’t know how to read music and other than a couple guitar lessons I received as a child and playing baritone sax in music class in elementary school, I have no musical training. Never had vocal lessons. I taught myself to make beats just by deciding what sounded cool to me. Through trial and error, I started to figure out when something was out of key.

I’ve listened to so much music since I first started that my lack of training has become less of a detriment. I used to have trouble making music that sounded like what was in my head but not so much anymore.

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?

I started off with FL Studio as my main DAW and Cool Edit Pro as a sequencer on an old desktop PC. There were no video tutorials back then, I just figured it all out through trial and error. In 2009, I moved onto Pro Tools LE and that was my primary DAW for Hope In Dirt City. Nowadays I’m back on FL Studio when I do make beats but I’ve shifted over to using outside production and focusing on my vocals for my last two albums.

I’ve only ever had a passing interest in learning a real instrument, briefly taking guitar lessons as a kid. Making music with my computer felt intuitive and natural.

Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?

I probably would’ve never made music in the first place if it wasn’t for personal computers and the internet. They gave me more access to music and information that influenced my lyrics. The internet connected me with a likeminded online community and gave me more access to the music industry that I wouldn’t have had otherwise coming from Edmonton.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

On my first two albums, I wrote and produced 95% of the songs completely alone. I didn’t trust other people to properly translate my vision back then. I was reluctant to let others into my process.

Living in Montreal and joining a creative community where I might take part in an experimental noise jam during the day, perform with a friend’s band at night and then DJ an afterparty until 5 AM really opened me up to the idea of collaboration. Since then, I’ve gotten more into doing sessions in person and jamming with people I don’t know at all to see what might happen.

My new album Parallel World has several featured artists, there are outside producers on every track and it was made mostly remotely through sharing files and talking about ideas over messaging apps.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I manage myself so I typically work on lots of admin stuff during the week. I wake up around 8:30 am, make breakfast and then consult my massive ever-growing to-do list and try to knock off as many items as possible. Some days will be admin days, some will be recording / writing days, others will be more organizational. I just go with the flow and let my mood dictate what I work on at a given time.

There’s structure to my day but it’s very open-ended. Later in the afternoon, I might rehearse or work on a new song after I’ve dealt with other time-sensitive requests. At around 5 pm, I try to shut everything off so I can focus on cooking or working out. I try to keep my nights as phone-free and computer-free as possible while spending time with my partner.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

Opening for Public Enemy in Dublin in 2008 was one of the biggest moments of my career. I was heavily influenced by the Bomb Squad and Chuck D when I was younger so it was amazing that I got an opportunity to share the stage in Ireland with one of my heroes. It also felt significant because by that point, I had played with most of the giants of alternative rap: De La Soul, Mos Def, Kool Keith, Busdriver, Jurassic 5, Questlove, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Fatlip from The Pharcyde. The show with PE felt like confirmation that I was becoming part of that lineage.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

When I’m coming up with lyrics, I’ll listen to the instrumental repeatedly for a few hours and get into a trance until the words start popping out at me. I like to enter a flow state where ideas can come out unimpeded. I get ideas when I’m going for a jog, cooking or doing anything where my mind is allowed to drift in the background. It’s important for me to be physically organized in a clean space to be creative. A clean room is a clear mind. Eating healthy, being rested, it really helps my process.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

Music is a major trigger for memories for me. So that can be negative or positive, depending on what comes to mind. Music is extremely powerful. It can heal by shifting negative ways of thinking. It’s one of the greatest tools for organizing in human history. I try to be respectful of that power by being intentional, writing meaningful songs and hopefully leading people in a positive direction.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

Music is a conversation. I think it works best when everyone speaks with the voice that comes most naturally to them.

In hip hop and black culture, the role of cultural memory is vital. Those callbacks to old songs, samples, dances and spirituals are what makes rap music such an important example of oral history. I don’t want to put a boundary on who is allowed to be part of the conversation, especially because these symbols are destined to proliferate and spread beyond the culture they came from. When it doesn’t come from a place of truth, people can tell and it doesn’t function properly anyway.

Real culture has longevity. The copy gets forgotten over time.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?

I like how hearing music can generate a physical sensation. Getting chills from hearing certain songs. Songs as markers for memory. Live shows are a theatre for that physical response and it’s interesting how humans crave that form of euphoria.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I try to make art that speaks to the era that I’m in. I want to make useful art. I want what I make to have purpose and meaning in people’s lives. I like the possibilities for creating positive change through music. I believe it’s the responsibility of the artist to speak truth to power and to challenge authority.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Music is evocative and can capture a depth and specificity of feeling that can’t be expressed with just words. Music is a good tool for examining existential thoughts, a great platform for navigating the unknown and the unspeakable.