What do Canadian rappers and Neil Young have in common?
Just as his name suggests, Cadence Weapon is more concerned with making his music sound good than smoking weed or sporting bling. So far, judging by his track record, he’s been successful in this pursuit: in 2006, by the age of nineteen, he was named one of Canada’s "15 Artists to Watch," and in 2009, he was appointed poet laureate of his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta. His latest release, Hope in Dirt City, delivers and is already being hailed as a genre-bending masterpiece.
In my chat with him, Cadence Weapon revealed rap’s magical capabilities, like allowing him to do two of his favorite things at the same time: play music and tell stories—“It’s kind of like I get to play basketball and drink beer simultaneously.” We also discussed the fact that rap is becoming an extinct form of poetry, no thanks to modern music-making devices such as autotune and an Orwellian machine that producers use to judge whether or not a song will make them money.
Hey Cadence Weapon! I want to start off by saying congratulations on your latest release, Hope in Dirt City! I watched the video for “Conditioning” this morning, and it shook the sleep right out of me and got me jazzed for the day.
Oh, that’s great. You know, I don’t drink caffeine or anything because I get easily agitated, so maybe my song provided you with that natural caffeine.
Definitely. No stimulants here, just beats. Was the video shot in Edmonton? I know that’s where you grew up, and what a lot of your raps are about.
No, the video was shot in Montreal, where I’ve been living on-and-off for the past three years now. I roamed my neighborhood with producer Tim Kelley looking for footage, and the video ended up looking a lot more badass than I had anticipated. The song is about working out and bad weather conditions, and Tim got a lot of joy out of forcing me to run in the rain and spraying me with water even though it was already raining. He said, “You have to look like you’re running around and sweating,” and I was like, “But, I AM!”
Toward the middle of the song you start screaming—was that a reaction to Tim’s abuse?
Haha, no, no. It goes back to my belief that genres don’t exist in music. To me, everything is pop music. I started out wanting to make a Bo Diddley/Chuck Berry bare-bones rock 'n' roll number, so the song originally was just me sort of screaming over a drum machine. But then I thought, “I’m a rapper, I should probably rap a little on this song,” so I doubled back and added the rap.
Yeah, a lot of people who reviewed the album called it “genre-bending.”
The album was a way to pay homage to all the different kinds of music I listened to growing up. My dad was a radio DJ in Edmonton, and he showed me every kind of music funk, rap—I’ve probably been listening to rap since I was in the womb.
Rap since you were in the womb? That’s impressive!
So back to Edmonton—In 2009, you were named Edmonton’s poet laureate. I imagine that becoming a poet laureate is a rare honor for rappers, although maybe it shouldn’t be?
I’m the only rapper I know that’s a poet laureate, and I hope there aren’t others, because then I’d feel less special. [Laughs] At first, I was skeptical about it, but then again, I have a history with poetry and I’ve always taken writing seriously. Since becoming a poet laureate, I’ve created the deepest literary word puzzles I could come up with and have served them up to the world. [Laughs]
Who are some of your rapper/poet influences?
I think that most rap has its poetic elements, but some big influences are Saul Williams, and one rapper who doesn’t get enough credit is Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. He has this line, “I’m a black intellect but unrefined.” That’s a great line.
Q-Tip’s a poet for sure! In “Excursions,” doesn’t he even rap about Shakespeare at one point?
I think so!
One of your concerns on Hope in Dirt City seems to be that rap music today isn’t poetic enough, and rappers seem to be more concerned with getting blog hits and smoking weed than making good music. You address this specifically on your song “Hype Man.”
Yeah, with that song, I wanted to be very satirical; I think that is an approach that hasn’t been broached in rap music. A lot of my music is hyper-referential of the genre in general. And I like putting myself as “the other,” I like the concept of representing myself as the alternative. With the song “Hype Man,” I represent that argument that hype men at shows just seem to be distracting people from the lack of depth of the songs.
And in the song, “The Machine,” you show dissatisfaction with how music these days is produced, citing autotuning as your nemesis.
That song is double-pronged in its methods. It talks about sonic manipulation of the voice, but it’s also related to an anecdote I was told by someone in the music industry. They said that they went to a studio where there was an actual machine that producers put songs into, and the machine gave songs a rating based on whether or not it scored well on a 1-100 scale of “goodness.” If the song didn’t score well, it wasn’t put out.
How would that even work? How is there only one type of “good” song?!
So you’re trying to keep it real despite the BS that infiltrates the music industry?
Exactly. If there’s one thing about Canadian rap, it’s that it’s earnest and soul-bearing; it doesn’t try to be something that it’s not. We just hang out in the cold for a long time and think about our feelings. We’re like Neil Young.
Ha, I just tried imagined Lil Wayne aligning himself with Neil Young.
Yeah, that would never happen! But that’s what I’m like. What interests me most is the rap before it was “rap,” when it was in its period of experimentation, when people wore weird outfits, and put graffiti in galleries. I’m interested in rap as an art form.