Roland Pemberton—better known by his nom de rap Cadence Weapon—straddles many different worlds. He's arguably Canada's most inventive hip hop artist; he's Edmonton's Poet Laureate; he's equally comfortable improvising with acts like Holy Fuck or writing his column for Vue Weekly or doling out sports commentary on Twitter. For Maisonneuve's Spring 2011 issue, he also contributed a set of poems called "Monuments: The City in Three Parts," which he will read at the issue's launch party on April 5 at Divan Orange in Montreal.
Drew Nelles: What can you tell me about "Monuments," your poem that appears in Maisonneuve's spring issue?
Roland Pemberton: It's a complex poem, and it's very regional. It's very Edmonton-focused. The first element of the poem is talking about the idea of the city versus the concept of a city—the big city versus the small city. Edmonton can have this defeatist way of seeing itself. A lot of people refer to Edmonton as "Deadmonton," and a lot of people have taken to using this self-deprecation as a positive thing. We call it Dirt City, too; it hasn't been the City of Champions for a while. The point of my poem is that other cities weren't always big, and you don't get there until you believe in yourself as a valuable place for ideas. But that frames the rest of the poem, which is about accidental monuments and planned monuments in Edmonton.
The second part, "The End of the World," is about a place in Edmonton that's locally called the End of the World. It lands in a part of town called Keillor Road, and in the early nineties there was a referendum during the mayoral election about whether or not to keep this road open or closed, because people were complaining about the traffic. They did close it in the end, and slowly it became a bike path, and then it became a pedestrian walkway, and then it became just nothing, and it degraded and fell into the river. And now it's just a huge hole with no purpose that nobody's dealing with.
It's an accidental monument that's more interesting than anything that was purposely made in Edmonton. It's a part of our actual cultural fabric, rather than a made-up part, which is what has actually happened with a lot of monuments in Edmonton. The third part of the poem, "The Leaning Tower," is about that. A few years ago there was a monument built in a part of Edmonton, a large baseball bat. For some reason nobody understands, that neighbourhood has been perceived as an athletic area, but there was this big debate recently, and they were like, "No, we're an artistic community, we don't like sports, we don't like this big baseball bat here." And that thing cost millions of dollars to make. It's this huge eyesore. It has no purpose.
The poems originated as a project for the city. They will be strung up word by word on individual flags on Jasper Avenue, and I'm organizing a walkabout, where I'll show people the poem walking around the city. That's another self-reflective element of the poem: I present it in a way that gets people to hang out downtown.
DN: What's growing up in Edmonton like?
RP: Growing up there was interesting because I think the outside perception of it is so different from what it really is. I grew up in a suburb called Mill Woods and it has this dangerous reputation, but really I never experienced anything bad. I had a fairly normal childhood upbringing. Growing up I moved a lot, in maybe fifteen different places in Edmonton. I've probably lived in every part of the city at one point. Seeing all these different sides, never feeling totally rooted—but maybe in a more tenuous way to the city as a whole, rather than any specific part—has really contributed to me having some kind of insight into it.
The main focus in Edmonton is really the people. People who come from Edmonton have this very unique outlook that's different from anywhere else in the world. I've always said it's like someone picking on your little brother. You always make fun of being from Edmonton and you talk about all the shitty things about it, but if anyone else talks about it, you're like, "Back off."
DN: I'm wondering what it's like to be made Poet Laureate as a hip hop artist.
RP: When I was appointed Poet Laureate, I never thought it was weird. Once I realized what it actually entailed I was like, "This is perfect for me. I'm already doing this, just with songs." But when I hear people say, in 2011, that rap is crap, or say that rap's not poetry, I'm like, "Are you a real person? Is there anybody who actually thinks this anymore?" But maybe I give people too much credit. Coming from Edmonton, making what I was making, I was still an anomaly there, but people generally embrace me. Even if people didn't understand it, they appreciate it.
DN: With the hype surrounding books like Decoded, do you feel like hip hop is being taken more seriously in literary circles?
RP: I feel like, "It took that long for a book like this to come out?" To me it's always seemed so obvious that there are poetic elements in this music. It's the same to me as David Byrne lyrics or something. Why wouldn't you consider that poetry? I think it's about time.
DN: Do you feel like there's any kind of tension in that kind of academic, mainstream acceptance?
RP: Rap used to be seen as this street, dangerous music that's based on stealing from other forms. Nowadays I think about rap and I see a fucking Kia commercial with a fucking rapping hamster or something. It's either taken seriously academically or not taken seriously at all. It has mostly lost the danger and the things that were exciting to me initially. I'll go to the doctor's office and I'll hear a rap song. It's just muzak. It's lost its teeth.
DN: Is it a matter of either being taken seriously taken too seriously or just being ignored entirely? Is there some comfortable middle?
RP: Different groups take it in different ways. The rap community is so myopic. It generally takes itself more seriously than ever, but the outside perception of it is generally not as serious. If I talk to somebody about rap, they jut know about the things that are silly. The stuff I'd consider some of the most serious, well-written experimental music out there, like Madlib—people just don't know about it.
I was reading something recently that was looking at the entire timeline of when rap was first recorded—things like "Rapper's Delight" and "Personality Jock." That was in 1979. But that was just when rap was first recorded and had any popular success. It existed long before that, and then it took another ten years before it was socially accepted and considered a major genre, and then another ten years for it to be everywhere and totally saturated in culture. So what's going to happen in the next ten years? The only real hope for it is that it's just got to change. The same way that people don't make classic rock anymore—there's going to be a new name for whatever everybody's doing. It's going to happen real soon. Pretty soon what I do is going to be called something else.
DN: What do you think it's going to be called?
DN: Like, twenty-minute atmospheric rap songs?
RP: You got to think about like that. It seems so pretentious when I say it. [Laughs] It'll be my rap suite.
DN: It often seems like, especially in music criticism, hip hop is almost written about as if writers have something to prove: that they can stretch beyond indie rock. They almost take it too seriously, especially older general-interest magazine writers.
RP: Nobody wants to be left out. Nobody wants to be outside. New music is always coming out. I think critics have too much over-eagerness to embrace things they don't totally understand, in order to not be left behind. There are so many times when I read reviews of Lil B or something-some of the more blog-rapper-type people—and it's really over-intellectualizing what they do. He's made a thousand songs where he's repeating somebody's name for two minutes and he shits out all these albums, and it's this brilliant postmodern statement? You're trying to squeeze blood from a stone. It's just not there for me.
DN: You've said that your next album represents a bit of a departure.
RP: Sonically, it's very different. Completely live instruments. I recorded it in Toronto and in Brooklyn. I sing on it, do some spoken word, some rapping. The songs I had been writing needed to be live—they needed that live energy—but I wanted to do it in a way that was still in the pocket, still club. So I ended up gravitating toward this specific studio, Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, and a lot of the songs are heavily influenced by the musicians who recorded there, like Grace Jones and Talking Heads. It's hybrid music—not just funk or rap or disco. It's probably the album that's the least lyrically intensive. It's more about the feel and the overall vibe of the music, rather than what I'm saying, which, being a rapper, used to always be at the forefront. It's a very pop album—seventies pop. I'm curious about what people will think, because it's pretty out there.
To read "Monuments: The City in Three Parts," pick up a copy of Maisonneuve's Spring 2011 issue or contact us to order it. Pemberton will read the poem at Maisonneuve's Spring 2011 Issue Launch, which takes place on April 5 at Divan Orange and also features the Youjsh, Flow Child and Wind-Up People.
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