Cadence Weapon Is Here to Fight the Power
The Edmonton-hailing, Toronto-based MC talks about his new LP Parallel World, on which he speaks out on Justin Trudeau's blackface scandal, among other issues.
Image via Colin Medley
On top of getting props from Chuck D in Dublin (more on that in a minute), Cadence Weapon also wants to carry on the legacy of Public Enemy, Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Clash, and other power-fighting artists, making himself a rarity in this flashy TikTok age. He explores facial recognition’s hidden evils over the chirping synths of “On Me”—a key track on the Edmonton-hailing, Toronto-based MC’s new LP Parallel World, out April 30. On “Skyline,” Cadence (born Rollie Pemberton) describes slums alongside glitzy Toronto condos, before needling mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Doug Ford. And as synths snarl and muffled percussion thuds on “Play No Games,” Cadence lobs a head-spinning punchline at an unscathed target: “My Prime Minister wears blackface, but he don’t really wanna face Blacks.”
“Most of Canada now seems to be ignoring it, but I’ll never look at him the same way,” Cadence Weapon tells Complex of penning that politically charged lyric about Justin Trudeau in the wake of his 2019 blackface scandal. “Especially when he said he’d done it often enough to forget the exact number of times. Are you fucking kidding me? So how can I now believe any of your gestures, when you’ve shown who you are so many times?”
Such issues compelled Cadence to speak out on the mic, even though it seemed like he was breaking an uneasy silence. “I feel like a lot of musicians, especially rappers, are afraid to get political, to mess with their brands or TikTok following,” he says. “They don’t want to take chances like my heroes did. So, I’m trying to bring back the energy of Public Enemy, or be the new Clash, and hold the powerful accountable.”
That being said, Cadence doesn’t “begrudge any rapper who” would rather stick to their “personal expression, or whatever.” He nevertheless hopes to see more MCs leap into deeper dialogues—not only for the listener’s sake, but also for their own, adding: “I’ve seen a lot of rappers come and go. The best way to stay relevant is to make meaningful music.”
That sentiment made working with an all-too-rare fearless up-and-comer all the more special for Cadence. Backxwash—the boundary obliterating, proudly out trans rapper from Montreal, who won last year’s Polaris Prize with her heavy metal indebted take on hip-hop—was not only the right fit for Parallel World track “Ghost.”The collab was also ahigh point of Cadence’s career.
“I see myself in her. She reminds me of when I first came on the scene and got nominated for the Polaris in 2006, its first year, for making this out-there, weird rap music. So, to see Backxwash win last year just makes me happy for the future of rap in Canada,” Cadence says. “As soon as I heard her last record, I knew I needed to get her on a track. And what she spat [on Parallel World’s “Ghost”] was so amazing. I really had to go harder than normal because of the intensity of her verse.”
Another rising talent recruited for the new album: producer Jacques Greene, who Cadence befriended during their days DJing in Montreal’s afterparty scene. “It was a pleasure to craft beats for Parallel World highlights like the sleekly eclectic ‘Senna,’” says Greene. He goes on to call Cadence a “thoroughly ‘cerebral’ lyricist,” but one who always “has the greater context and use of his music in mind, so it never feels clinical or alienating.”
“I feel like a lot of musicians, especially rappers, are afraid to get political, to mess with their brands or TikTok following. They don’t want to take chances like my heroes did.”
Korea Town Acid, another burgeoning Canadian producer, was equally enthused about working with Cadence on “Play No Games.” She kept “the energy of when I saw him perform live” in mind to provide “the perfect playground for him to rap on and have fun with.” Cadence, meanwhile, marveled at her ability to make such distinctively detail-rich soundscapes by “using her hardware to record it like a jam. When you hear one of her productions, it’s possible that she recorded it almost in one take.” He says that suited the album because “I like beats that feel alive.” Korea Town Acid credits that quality to her years of improvisational live performances, along with her subtle post-production touch. Her work on “Play No Games” was so dynamic that Cadence laughingly recalls spitting his verses for it immediately after receiving the music. From there, he excitedly and proudly “called my girlfriend and rapped it to her.”
Before finalizing those collabs, Cadence swapped ideas about UK grime and drill with both Greene and Korea Town Acid. Their shared love of those genres gives the songs familiar yet fresh tones that would easily win over England’s finest. In fact, Cadence teamed up with none other than Manga Saint Hilare for “On Me,” saying he was elated to work with such a “grime legend,” (one who was also dubbed “grime’s overlooked MC” by The Guardian. Hilare calls such a shoutout: “Love, it’s always love. I’ve been here since the birth of grime. So, with that type of time spent, it’s great to have made an impact.” And while Cadence is quick to cite Hilare as an influence, the British MC reciprocates by describing parallels in their “fast paced syllable heavy” deliveries, adding they “each tell our stories honestly. Very similar, actually.”
Impressive as all that sounds, Hilare is by no means the only grime titan in Cadence’s corner. At his career’s outset, circa 2006, the then 19-year-old Canuck rapper opened for Lady Sovereign, arguably the genre’s empress, winning over an initially indifferent crowd at club Revival.
What’s more: Greene recalls bonding with Cadence because they “are both Canadians that have spent our entire musical lives somewhere between curious and obsessed with UK sound culture. I’ll hear it in some patterns Rollie will hit while rapping. He’s not putting on an accent, of course, but the head space is there. At times I’ve been the same with drum patterns and so on.” Working on “Senna,” however, helped Greene delve deeper into one of his favorite music styles. “Rollie coming by the studio and having this general vibe in mind got me out of my comfort zone, but right in a musical space that I love.”
However, grime was only a jumping off point for Parallel World, rather than its primary sound, as Cadence is quick to point out. He also cites UK drill, along with “straight up acid house,” techno, and a number of other styles that make up the LP’s mosaic. “I don’t see borders between genres,” he says of his eclectic tastes, which converge with his high standards and ceaseless curiosity while selecting beats. “A track needs to be specifically compelling” for Cadence to pick it, and its unique space between genres needs to “light up for me, to glow.”
Eclectic and unique as the album may be, Cadence can’t deny its UK leanings. Another touchstone: Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Jamaican-British dub poet long considered a forebearer of political rap thanks to his pointed take on his homeland’s tradition of “toasting.” Johnson famously called his lyrics “cultural weapons,” so his impact on Cadence Weapon is in keeping with that of The Clash or Chuck D. It’s also something the MC doesn’t “feel like I hear from anyone else these days.”
And while he has yet to meet those other heroes, Cadence will always treasure his encounter with Chuck D. Backstage at a gig in Dublin, Ireland, the then Canadian up-and-comer was struck by the elder rapper’s pre-show routine, including push-ups and sprints up flights of stairs to “get hyped.” It made Cadence sheepishly take stock of his fondness for backstage beers. After snapping a selfie and signing his autograph, Chuck D told Cadence to “keep doing what I was doing. Now we follow each other on Twitter and everything.”
“I need to get him on a track,” Cadence adds of his aspiration to have the Public Enemy MC featured on his next album, upping the ante on his already impressive list of team-ups. He adds: “People nowadays want to get J Cole on a track. But I want to get Chuck D.”