Books·How I Wrote It

Rollie Pemberton's memoir Bedroom Rapper uncovers the hidden history of Canadian hip hop

The Edmonton-born musician and writer, best known as Cadence Weapon, discusses the creative process behind his memoir Bedroom Rapper.

The Edmonton-born musician and writer, best known as Cadence Weapon, talks to CBC Books about his new memoir

Rollie Pemberton is an Edmonton rapper, poet and author. (Steph Montani)

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, the former poet laureate of his hometown and a writer, whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, The Guardian and Hazlitt. 

His memoir, Bedroom Rapper, intertwines his own personal journey in the music industry with an in-depth exploration of the history of hip hop. From recording beats in his mom's attic to the gestation of American hip hop with U.K. grime and niche scenes from the Canadian Prairies, Pemberton offers a new perspective on rap journalism.

The award-winning musician spoke with CBC Books about writing Bedroom Rapper.

Going with the flow

"I was working on my album Parallel World at the same time. So I would be going to the studio at night recording and coming up with stuff for the album. And then I'd get up in the morning and be working on the book. So my process would be basically, I wake up, get a big glass of water and just shred for as long as I can.

"And you know, the thing about writing a book versus 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 was something I didn't really expect.

You know, maybe I have one day where I've written a thousand words, 2,000 words, and then I have one day where I can't write anything.

It was just going with the ebb and flow of where the creativity would take me from day-to-day.

"Those days are also valuable because maybe I'm organizing ideas or doing research or there's some other aspect of the process happening.

"So I think it was just going with the ebb and flow of where the creativity would take me from day-to-day." 

LISTEN | Rollie Pemberton on Q:

This year's $50,000 Polaris Music Prize prize went to Edmonton-born rapper Cadence Weapon for his album Parallel World. He joined Tom Power the morning after his big win to talk about the honour.

Trust the process

"I had an outline of the different topics I wanted to touch on. Some of the overarching themes that developed in the book happened organically. I had ideas for different chapters and vague outlines for what they would be like, but as I would actually write them, I would start 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. Do you ever have 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. Me and my partner live in a one-bedroom condo and we were just sharing the same desk. But I think a lot of it was walking around, going for runs and getting ideas and jotting it down.

The times where I get to go deeper into specific subjects that are focused on something in my career are the moments that I am most proud of in the book.

"I think my thing was, I didn't want it to just be an outline of my career. I wanted it to really expand on specific topics as well. For instance, I talked about being poet laureate of Edmonton, but in that chapter I also just talk about lyricism and poetry and what it means to me. 

I feel like the times where I get to go deeper into specific subjects that are focused on something I have in my career are the moments that I am most proud of in the book."

Getting vulnerable

"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-aggrandizement. I wanted to write something that people could take something away from. I really wanted to talk plainly about my career in a way that I really haven't had an opportunity to, whether it's talking about situations with my old label or my experiences with racism in the Canadian music industry.

"These are things that I don't typically get asked about, so it's an opportunity to expand on these ideas.

I feel like people like me don't really get an opportunity to write a memoir that often.

"But also, I feel like people like me don't really get an opportunity to write a memoir that often — you know, people with my background. 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 about. But I've come to realize, just from the response of everyone who's read it so far and people I've talked to about it, that people are really excited about this book and about new perspectives in this specific space." 

LISTEN | Rollie Pemberton on Edmonton AM:

2021 Polaris winner Cadence Weapon wrote a first-person piece about how growing up on the Prairies shaped his music for the ‘Place Edition’ of CBC’s Black on the Prairies. It’s an ongoing project that looks into the past, present and future of Black life in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Literary inspiration

"There were a couple of things that inspired me when I was working on it. I definitely read a lot of essays. I really was influenced by Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion because I feel like there are some good examples of her writing about specific scenes, like in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene. I really liked the way that she built up different characters.

It's about the importance of being in a strong music 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 that was probably the most influential book I read leading up to this because he does a really good job of talking about larger musical subjects and ties it in really well with his own career in a way that isn't cheesy or self-aggrandizing."

Knowing your history

"I feel like there is a through-line in the book of exploitation of artists and foreshadowing of events that come up. But I really wanted to write something that was like a guidebook for artists. So much of the book is not just about me — it's about the importance of being in a strong music community, and then, the importance of really knowing yourself as an artist.

"I feel like I really wanted it to be an alternate history of Canadian music, and I hope people come away from it with new artists that they 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 the 2021 Polaris Music Prize:

2021 Polaris Music Prize Winner: Cadence Weapon

1 year ago
Duration 4:17
Cadence Weapon wins the 2021 Polaris Music Prize with Parallel World.

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.

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