Rapper Rollie Pemberton reveals what it takes to survive the music industry in his memoir Bedroom Rapper
Rollie Pemberton, best known by his stage name Cadence Weapon, is an award-winning musician. The Edmonton-born rapper won the 2021 Polaris Prize for his album Parallel World. Pemberton is also an activist, the former poet laureate of Edmonton and a writer, whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, The Guardian and Hazlitt.
But, as his memoir reveals, life as a musician hasn't been all awards, titles and recognition. Bedroom Rapper documents the challenges and triumphs of the rapper's journey in the music industry alongside a two-decade deep dive into the history of hip hop.
From recording beats in his mom's attic to documenting the rise of American hip hop and highlighting often overlooked music scenes in the Canadian Prairies, Pemberton has made a career out of defying expectation and staying true to his roots.
Let me start with a picture on the cover of you as a little kid in a room with shelves full of albums. What was it like for you growing up in Edmonton?
I grew up in a library of music. My dad was a DJ and he was one of the first people to play hip hop music on the radio in Edmonton. For more than 20 years, he produced and hosted The Black Experience in Sound on CJSR-FM 88.8. He made seemingly impossible segues and valued every kind of music.
My mom played piano. My uncle was a saxophone player and jazz musician. I grew up around music and I had a lot of Black culture around my family. Other than that, it was a very country and Western-oriented white Canadian culture growing up.
Your dad, Teddy Pemberton, was a pioneering Black Canadian radio DJ in Edmonton. What did you learn about music from him?
There should be no barriers between genres. I realized how arbitrary those things really are from my dad. He would open up a show with the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme and then he would play Nas and then Phyllis Hyman and then he plays Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. For him, it was just all music.
[My dad] lives through the music I make. He lives through that legacy. I feel like he's standing there beside me when I'm doing what I'm doing today.- Rollie Pemberton
That uncompromising way of putting different styles of music together inspired me.
What was DJing with him like?
It was exciting. I talked about one particular time in the book. It was a very snowy night and he let me pick the songs and it was just an impromptu thing. But it's an important moment in my mind. Probably one of the first performances for a public audience that I can think of.
It has been hard not having him in my life, but I think he lives through the music I make. He lives through that legacy. I feel like he's standing there beside me when I'm doing what I'm doing today.
You talk about how started writing your verses on the Internet before you started performing them. How did working on your skills in a digital environment influence your songwriting?
I feel lucky to be a part of the initial wave of the Internet. I had an opportunity to access all this information and all these records that maybe would have been totally inaccessible to me if I didn't have the Internet. Instead of having to go to different record stores and learn about music that way, I had it at the tip of my fingers. I feel like I took advantage of that to the fullest extent that I could.
I was rapidly learning about music and listening to every rap album ever and trying to find myself musically online.- Rollie Pemberton
I was rapidly learning about music and listening to every rap album ever and trying to find myself musically online, whether that's sending tracks to some random guy in Denmark and making a song with him, or battling somebody from Sacramento on a message board where everyone was rapping. It was this digital version of what a hip hop scene would be like.
You are 23 years old in 2009 and you're named poet laureate for the city of Edmonton. What was your reaction?
My first reaction was: what is a poet laureate? Then, I found out. I was like, okay, you're a literary ambassador of the city. I felt like I was already doing that with my music and I dabbled in poetry. I was excited about it.
When I got the position, I was very proud, but I received a lot of skepticism in the press. I felt like everyone thought it was this kind of circus act or this oddity. This was before you had somebody like Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize. This idea of rapping as a very serious art form — it took longer for that to be appreciated in Canada. At that time, in 2009, Drake was not as significant a figure as he is now. Being a Canadian rapper was already a dirty word; it was a pejorative.
LISTEN | Rollie Pemberton discusses his memoir on Q with Tom Power:
Throughout your memoir, you give us a lot of insight into your experience with the record industry and an exploitative record label contract. Can you take us through the deal that you made and what it meant for your career?
I signed that contract when I was a teenager. I did have legal representation look at it [but] it was basically a 360 contract. What that means is the record label or the management, they're everything on the contract. They take a percentage of everything you do and that includes the records you put out, your publishing, control of the masters — any kind of income is going to go through this entity. That resulted in me basically not getting any money from playing shows or selling records for the first 10 years of my career.
[The contract I signed] resulted in me basically not getting any money from playing shows or selling records for the first 10 years of my career.- Rollie Pemberton
How did you live?
I had other jobs on the side. I worked under the table at Holt Renfrew in Edmonton. I was in the shipping department. I'd be putting security tags on fur coats.
When I moved to Montreal, I did scientific experiments at McGill. They would scan my brain and make me say certain words and they would measure the brain activity, and I'd get like $15 or something.
One of the biggest things though is I would DJ a lot. That was my main source of income for a long time and I would be DJing — especially when I lived in Montreal — around 20 times a month.
I was DJing at a lot of restaurants. It felt like a service job — like I was a bartender. It had an unintended effect on me because I used to think of playing music and sharing my music with people as "check out this cool thing I'm doing. Look at how cool I am."
When I started thinking of it as more of a service position, it became this thing of "how can I do the right thing for the environment that I'm in? How can I do the right thing for the audience that's here?"
LISTEN | Rollie Pemberton on his memoir Bedroom Rapper:
How did Montreal affect your worldview and the way you made music?
Living in Montreal totally changed my life. Back in Edmonton, we had a tight-knit DIY music scene and arts community that I loved. We were doing our own thing and nobody was really looking at it.
When I went to Montreal, I wanted to put my stuff up against the best artists in the country and see if I could hang. What I found was this constructive, creative, free environment where we would all hang out all the time and make music, make art and throw events.
It was a university for art that was free and such a marvelous city to live in. That was a great time in my life.
You eventually ended the relationship with your previous management and label. How did that happen?
They just ghosted me, really. I was working on more music. This would have been around 2013, and I got radio silence from them.
There was a moment where I thought about giving up on music because it felt like I had been totally used up.- Rollie Pemberton
They eventually stopped responding to my calls, texts and emails. I was like, what am I going to do with my career? It actually took me six years until I was able to rebuild my entire music infrastructure. I lost everything.
At that time, I didn't have management; I didn't have a booking agent; I didn't have publicists. You're starting from scratch. I had to completely start over my career and in the process, I moved to Toronto.
There was a moment where I thought about giving up on music because it felt like I had been totally used up.
And years later you win the Polaris Prize, which you've also been longlisted and shortlisted for. It's a real honour to speak with you. Your book is just fantastic. Keep writing books, too, eh?
I will. There's a future for me where I'm writing more books than I'm making records.
LISTEN | Rollie Pemberton reflects on winning the 2021 Polaris Music Prize:
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.