Rollie Pemberton is best known by his stage name, Cadence Weapon. The Edmonton-born rapper won the 2021 Polaris Prize for his album Parallel world. But Pemberton is also an activist, former hometown poet laureate and writer, whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, The Guardian and Hazlitt.
his memoirs, chamber rapper, mixes his personal journey in the music industry with an in-depth exploration of the history of hip hop. From recording beats in his mother’s attic to the gestation of American hip hop with British grime and niche scenes from the Canadian prairies, Pemberton offers a fresh perspective on rap journalism.
The award-winning musician spoke with CBC Books about writing chamber rapper.
Go with the flow
“I was working on my album Parallel world at a time. So I would go to the studio at night to record and find stuff for the album. And then I got up in the morning and worked on the book. So my process would basically be, I wake up, get a big glass of water, and shred for as long as I can.
“And you know, writing a book rather than making an album – obviously I have a lot more experience making albums – when you’re writing a book, every day is completely different and that’s was something I didn’t really expect.
You know, maybe I have a day where I’ve written a thousand words, 2,000 words, and then I have a day where I can’t write anything.
It was just going with the ebb and flow of where creativity would take me day to day.
“These days are also valuable because maybe I’m organizing ideas or doing research or there’s some other aspect of the process going on.
“So I think it was just going with the ebb and flow of creativity that would take me day to day.”
LISTEN | Rollie Pemberton on Q:
Q12:43Cadence Weapon Reflects on Winning 2021 Polaris Music Prize
Trust the process
“I had an outline of the different topics I wanted to cover. Some of the general themes that developed in the book happened organically. I had ideas for different chapters and vague outlines of what they would look like , but as I would actually write them I was starting to see connections between them all and a lot of it was doing research, going through old emails to corroborate what happened and that was incredibly embarrassing. Have you ever had to go back and look at an email you wrote, like 15 years ago?
“It’s not pretty.
“I didn’t have a dedicated writing space. My partner and I live in a one-bedroom apartment and we just shared the same desk. But I think a lot of it was just walking around, to go for a run, brainstorm and take notes.
The moments where I can delve into specific topics that focus on something in my career are the moments I’m most proud of in the book.
“I think my thing was that I didn’t want it to just be an overview of my career. I also wanted it to really expand on specific topics. For example, I talked about being Edmonton Poet Laureate, but in this chapter I’m also just talking about lyricism and poetry and what that means to me.
I feel like the moments where I delve into specific topics that focus on something I have in my career are the moments I’m most proud of in the book.”
“I think one of the big things for me was to be as vulnerable as possible. I didn’t want to write a book that was just settling scores or just self-glorifying. I wanted to write something whose people might take something away from it. I really wanted to be candid about my career in a way that I really haven’t had the opportunity to, whether it was talking about situations with my old label or my experiences with racism in the Canadian music industry.
“These are things that I don’t usually get asked about, so this is an opportunity to develop those ideas.
I feel like people like me don’t really get to write memoirs that often.
“But also, I feel like people like me don’t really get to write memoirs that often. – you know, people with my past. I’m a black man from Edmonton who was a child rapper.
“It’s a very specific thing that people might have said was too much of an idea to make a book out of. But I realized, just from the response of everyone who read it until present and people I’ve spoken to that people are really excited about this book and the new perspectives in this specific space.”
LISTEN | Rollie Pemberton on Edmonton AM:
8:51Edmonton rapper Cadence Weapon credits his unique sound to growing up on the Prairies
“There were a few things that inspired me when I was working there. I definitely read a lot of essays. I was really influenced by Advance to Bethlehem by Joan Didion because I feel like there are good examples of her writing on specific scenes, like in the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco. I really liked the way she built different characters.
It’s about the importance of being in a strong musical community, and then the importance of really knowing yourself as an artist.
“The other book that really inspired me is How Music Works by David Byrne. I felt like it was probably the most influential book I’ve read before this because it does a really good job of talking about broader musical topics and ties it in very well with its own career in a way that is neither corny nor self-aggrandizing. »
Know its history
“I feel like there’s a guideline in the book of exploiting artists and foreshadowing events that arise. But I really wanted to write something that felt like a guide for artists. A lot of the book isn’t just about me — it’s about the importance of being in a strong musical community, and then the importance of really knowing yourself as an artist.
“I feel like I really wanted this to be an alternative history of Canadian music, and I hope people come out with new artists that they’ve never heard of, and maybe a new perception of what they think Canadian music is.”
Rollie Pemberton’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.
WATCH | Rollie Pemberton wins 2021 Polaris Music Prize:
For more stories about the experiences and stories of Black Canadians, check out CBC’s Being Black in Canada. You can read more stories here.