Literary Canadian rapper talks about his love for grime, conceptual art and how to do a great live rap show.
On the first date of his May UK tour, Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon jumps on Skype to speak to me during a spare hour in his pretty hectic day. He’s in Brighton and the support band Japandroids are sound checking. The feedback is terrible, so he apologetically dips and weaves into different corners trying to speak over the noise. When he manages to find a quiet room, he gets comfortable and dramatically whispers “I think we’re alone now” – and bursts into a fit of warm giggles.
Cadence Weapon is in high spirits, and deservedly so. He’s touring the UK to promote his great new album ‘Hope In Dirt City’, his first full-length release in three years. For a rap release, it’s an intriguing and explorative record. It dips into disco, funk and synth pop as much as the straight rap elements, so I’m unsure what kind of rapper I’m about to speak to.
He studied journalism at university and wrote for Pitchfork until he decided that music making was the thing, and left school to concentrate on his more personal work full time. He was Poet Laureate of Edmonton from 2009 to 2011, and the time allowed him to draw together his love for The Word and his hometown in a way that has directly influenced his style and subject matter. Over the years Cadence Weapon has developed a rich sense of poetry in his music, which really stands out on Hope In Dirt City. It’s a very personal, touching and at times sombre album, but it always has a fire in its belly – much like the man himself.
As we began to nerd out over rap and swap anecdotes (like the fact that he heard The Pack’s Vans on the radio so many times that he was inspired to buy several pairs of Vans) it became clear that he’s as articulate and intelligent as his exploits would suggest, and his style is always tinged with a sharp sense of humour.
One track on the album that totally stands out for me musically is There We Go. It sounds like you’ve sampled old eski beats or Ruff Sqwad – do you listen to grime?
Oh yeah. Grime is a really big influence on me, especially on my first album. I was really into Roll Deep Crew, JME, Skepta, Jammer, Trim. I was really into the Streets when they first came out too. They were like my gateway act into grime as it were, especially Lets Push Things Forward. That really spoke to me. One of the first times I came to the UK I became friends with Jammer. He would come to my shows sometimes and jump up and down a whole lot, ha. I actually ended up going to his grandma’s house with him in this legendary basement in his neighbourhood! I went down there and they filmed me rapping, and I tagged my name in the basement like this sort of rite of passage thing. I’ve always kind of thought of myself as this Canadian grime guy.
But I should say, the beat on that track is not by a UK grime artist. It’s by the LOL Boys. When we made it we didn’t necessarily have grime at the forefront of our minds, or think of it as grime influenced. We’re both DJs (Marcus from the LOL Boys and I) and we’re both really into Soulja Boy and Lil B and stuff like that… that kind of raw, stripped-back, rap instrumental style. Maybe that’s where grime feeds into the rap side of it. I’m a total grime nerd. Actually, I have a question for you – how is it to see grime artists go mainstream and cross over in the UK?
Well, there’s something of a catch 22 in that the initial fire is fuelled by your immediate surroundings and life experiences, and when grime MCs get a chance to make it big there’s a real chance that fire can be lost, and they eventually end up making pop records that are really removed from their original sound. That divides the fans opinion a whole lot.
Oh, for sure. They have such an amazing music culture in London. It seems that for people who are making grime, it’s plausible for them to cross over and become popular for what they do. For Canadian rappers to go mainstream it’s nigh on impossible because there’s just not the same kind of infrastructure. In the UK there’s all these examples of it – like Wiley and Dizzee Rascal – so why not try it?
Saying that though, you’re right about the pop angle. It’s kind of an ironic thing. Where they draw that creative energy from originally can become abandoned whenever they get the chance, but then if they were to stick with the same – keep it ‘hood’ or ‘true’ or whatever you want to call it – that’s what is the really exciting thing about their music. The realness of it.
I think it’s the same thing with rap in the states. Once a mixtape rapper gets a chance to cross over their style can change almost immediately. And it’s almost always like that. I mean, Wiz Khalifa brought out a mixtape that’s one of my favourite records of the year, and it’s almost equal in quality to that of an album.
The way I see it, the format of the rap album is in something of a state of uncertainty with the growing quality of free mixtapes. I don’t think the album is at all redundant – I mean in the sense that mixtapes are becoming of a much higher standard. They’re as good as if not better than albums sometimes! Like the last Rick Ross mixtape for example. What do you think about the rap album when considered alongside mixtapes?
That’s interesting to me. I think about this a lot actually. I really believe in the traditional album format. It really stems from my upbringing. I like to have my album on vinyl. Just something about it, it’s nostalgic to me. But that being said my first release was a mixtape and that was how I got my exposure. The way I see it, the high quality mixtape is definitely the way of the future for rap. I want to put out a mixtape at the beginning of next year that is an album quality mixtape. I realise that’s the way things are going.
Take someone like The Weeknd. All of his releases have been for free, and the listeners have come to expect this sort of thing from the artist. Something high quality for free and then maybe somewhere down the line they’ll come pay for a show, or buy a tee shirt at the show, you know? People don’t approach music and buy music the same way that they used to. I think it’s necessary to move with the times. Websites like DatPiff.com are the main place that I get the majority of the rap that I listen to today, and it’s where most of the exciting rap is happening.
What’s cool is that there are also no rules with mixtapes; this totally exciting Wild West scenario where people can pick and choose. They can say, “Oh cool, I like this song from the Drake album, so I’m gonna rap over that”. Its kind of getting back to the roots of what made rap exciting – a freeform energy that is not dictated by record labels or focus groups – and it’s just about what the artist wants to do.
Yeah, I think mixtapes have absolutely stepped up in recent years, and they’re as big a deal, if not more so, than albums. I mean, the new Meek Mill mixtape got nearly three million downloads in less than a fortnight on DatPiff. It’s huge.
Exactly! It’s crazy, but it’s an amazing marketing resource. You put out a tape for free that’s actually very good, three million people download it for free, they listen to it, the majority will probably like it. Not only is that good for developing a fan base but it’s also good for shows and the next concrete release you put out. If you have that many people listening to the stuff you’ve given away for free, and a fraction of those people buy the physical release, then that’s a pretty good fraction.
One thing that is often discussed about you is the fact that you were Poet Laureate of Edmonton. You make your hometown a big part of how you present yourself. Not that that’s too unusual for rap – the hometown prefix is applied to rap way more than other genres – but you’ve made Edmonton and Canada generally a pretty integral element of your image. Do you consider yourself a ‘regional’ rapper?
I definitely think that regionalism in music is a pretty cool thing. That’s a big part of why I liked grime. When I listen to grime I don’t necessarily know where exactly they’re talking about, or what some of the slang or colloquialisms mean, but that kind of thing is exciting. That sense of The Other. I think that’s a big thing in rap culture. On a more personal level though I feel that there aren’t many cultural documents about Edmonton. It’s not like being from New York or being from London, where people make films and the streets become iconic.
For me, being so centred in that regionalism prefix is a way for me to create a concrete history of where I’m from. It’s part Edmonton and part Montreal (where I live now) but it’s also more about the story of the place rather than the regionalism of the place itself. Some of these songs may be about very specific instances and specific people, but I want to be more about The Song. A lot of the best pop songs do this. I was drawing a lot from 1970s pop songs, some singer songwriter kind of things. Like Paul Simon songs; how they’re seemingly about one thing but are really about something else. A song that you think is about a girl is actually an extended metaphor for something else. I want to do great pop songs like that.
Watching the ‘Conditioning’ video and listening to the albums title track, there’s a real sense of natural pessimism about your brand of regionalism, but not in a derogatory way.
Like, a malaise?
Yeah, yeah that’s the right word.
That’s a good observation. It’s about the fact that you may feel bad about your setting sometimes, but you do what you can with where you are. The whole idea of Hope In Dirt City is finding a silver line in the darkness.
It seems like you’re more sincere about everything on this record too. It feels like your sense of humour is a bit darker and more grown up.
That was a very conscious decision. When I was younger I didn’t give much thought at all as to how I was perceived. I didn’t think about how I visually represented myself. I was totally just into making music and having fun, but then I started to catch onto this outside perception of me as something of a ‘backpack rapper’, or a ‘bedroom rapper’, and that made me start to refine my image. It’s also a refinement of my music in order to make it closer to my immediate reality.
I feel that I was very much playing a character before in previous years. I’d dress up as a real estate agent or a video game character in videos, and have people dressed up as animals or whatever. Like I was anxious about really expressing who I was. I feel that the ‘Conditioning’ video is much more representative of me in that respect. That’s where I live, that’s where I hang out, the people in the video I know personally, it all feeds into that rap axiom of ‘keeping it real’. That’s how I fulfil that on a personal level.
Back then I felt I was much more insular in what I was joking about, like I was being purposefully ironic and joking all the time, but it wasn’t a conscious decision to be ironic. It was more about being honest about my perceptions of the world around me. Now I have a clearer vision of who I am and how I come across. I don’t want to be seen as this serious, insular, navel-gazing loser, hahaha.
Do you feel that you approach hip-hop in a different way to your contemporaries in that respect then?
Oh yeah. I feel like my song ‘Hype Man’, which is more of a UK bass sounding song, is about that. I wanted to play a bunch of characters when you have this one very mean rapper guy who is just totally treating his hype man like shit. The hype man doesn’t really see it like that and thinks the rapper is going to give him a chance to become a rapper in his own right, but it never happens for him. There’s something about hip-hop culture and the specificity of it all, the little nuances and funny unspoken relationships… The big picture stuff doesn’t interest me as much.
How did you go about making this album? I’m interested to know how it translates into a live show.
First off, I made my own beats out of samples in my studio. Then I took those productions to Toronto and I started a band with some local musician friends of mine, and we jammed out the tracks in the studio to replace all the sample parts with live instrumentation. Then we went into the studio and recorded sessions that were just totally live, and then I took those tracks and sampled them again back into beats. Most of the tracks of the album are various layers of beats made out of live instrumentation.
That sounds really cool, almost like how the band Holy Fuck sound. One my pet peeves about rap is that so many live rap shows are really below par and lazy. It’s so important to translate that passion and physicality.
The physicality is so important. I have played live shows with a band but right now its me and a DJ called Kuhrye-oo. He’s triggering different samples and freaking different elements out of them, so it’s a lot more active and live than your typical hip hop DJing. I really wanted it to be like an old school/new school approach. Yes, I’m an MC and he’s a DJ, and I’m doing call and response things to keep it hype, but at the same time I want to put a spin on the live DJ thing. That’s why he’s doing drum programming. I’ve always prided myself on having a good live show because like you said, I’ve seen so many shitty rap shows in my life.
Tell me about it. There’s nothing worse than a sloppy live rap show.
I’ve seen rappers do shows and if they have lots of hit records, they’ll do thirty seconds of each song in a super quick medley, and it’s just the track with the recorded vocal over it. It’s terrible. There’s nothing I hate more than going to a rap show and seeing a guy rap over his own voice. There’s something so physical about listen to just rap, like, Rap with a capital R. It’s that physicality I love and that’s the balance in my approach. Yes, I could be talking about serious or sentimental things in a more analytical way than your average rapper, but I still want to have banging beats. I still want it to be hype and fun. For a while I experimented with using a Chaos pad but I came back to the fact that rap is the thing, you know? That’s what people come to see. A rapper. So I’ve gone back to this kind of purist element of trying to be the best technical rapper possible.
When I was making the album I wanted it to be somewhat ambiguous as to what you were listening to exactly. Is this a sample? Is this an instrument? Is this a synth? I want to continue that into the live show so it has that futuristic electronic approach, but with an organic, human feel to it. That’s the thing that you can take away from the album and the live show together.
I feel that rap has the highest potential of all music genres. Honestly. For the level of experimentation, just…. everything. Rap is a music based purely on other music. It’s endlessly referential of pretty much every other genre of music, so I feel that people limit themselves more than they should. I can sample anything I want, I can create a sound that is so close to what is in my mind, and there’s no constraints or rules. Rap is a free enterprise.
Your use of samples has been pretty broad – you’ve taken on beats from Gucci Mane, but you’ve also sampled Grimes and Arcade Fire. Where do you find the balance between just straight rapping over pop or indie songs, and sampling them? I find lots of rappers fall into a trap where they just pick an obvious pop record to rap over and it comes across as a poor mash up.
When I picked the Grimes track or the Arcade Fire track it was very much my own way of keeping with the tradition of rapping over the hot new track. I come from the school of flipping beats rather than just straight recording vocals over them as they are. Prince Paul and RZA, people who take something and totally mutate it, influence me. I prefer a more subtle approach. It’s about being tasteful.
I’m curious about your Sartre concept album. What happened to it? I thought it was pencilled in for a 2010 release date, but I didn’t see it surface?
This is the same sessions. It’s really the same album. I think there’s this major misconception that I totally dumped an album, which I didn’t. The album was originally called Roquention, which is a reference to Sartre’s Nausea. I just got sick of the name as I was working on it and decided to change it. The content is still very much tied in. There are songs that have direct quotes and references to the book. I wanted it to have this dark feel but still be upbeat. I guess that’s a way of describing grime music as well… Nausea fascinates me. The main protagonist Roquentin is a guy writing a book about another guy inside of a book. I love referential media so I just couldn’t resist, to be honest.
Sartre, and Nausea especially, is pretty heavy for a concept album
Yeah, I mean, I am fascinated by death but don’t think that I’m all seriousness and doom. I wanted to make songs that were accessible from a pop perspective, but if you start listening to the album a lot and what I’m saying then the wordplay comes up and different sonic elements pop out. I always want to make music that rewards people for their listening. I give the audience credit. This is who I am and these are my interests, so I’m just being totally honest about it. It’s like, when Swizz Beatz makes a reference to Basquiat, nobody thinks anything is weird at all – I mean, he actually owns a Basquiat. But when I reference Basquiat on the track ‘88’ people might say, “Oh he’s just a hipster”.
I know I stand to receive some trepidation but it’s not going to change the way I do things. I believe in the album as an art form and I want to keep being respectful of that. I feel that I can make an album that satisfies my interests in conceptualism but also make music that people can dance to. I feel it’s possible to do that. The perfect example of that is Talking Heads. I want to be like David Byrne. He’s somebody I idolise. He was able to have popular albums with commercial hit singles, but he was also able to speak in his own voice and present his ideas in a way that was intellectually satisfying to him. That’s what I want to achieve, really.