Something Good #16: Sacred MP3s With Cadence Weapon
One of my inspirations when I started Something Good was Rollie Pemberton’s Cadence Weapon newsletter, which is also the name he’s been producing music under for decades now. I love the the rapper, writer and former Edmonton poet laureate’s deeply personal writing about music, culture, gentrification and what it means to be an artist in the internet era, and his newsletter made me think about what the creative possibilities of this medium could be.
With his new record, Parallel World, coming out this week, I thought it was a good time to grab him for a chat. As is customary with guests, I asked him to recommend something good for my readers that we could talk about. He suggested the world of U.K. rap music, a subject near to both of our hearts.
Like many a North American teenage music nerd, I grew up fascinated with British music—at first, bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees and other gothy stuff. The hip hop I listened to mostly came from the U.S. But in the early 2000s, as high-speed internet and the shareable MP3 format began to change music culture forever, I started downloading these homemade, low-bitrate MP3s from London artists like Dizzee Rascal and The Streets.
I had just started to DJ, a hobby that was intensely important to me for at least a dozen years, playing little loft parties around Montreal. I spent many, many late nights searching for, downloading and cataloguing music. I had this unquenchable urge to dig up new sounds to re-transmit into my tiny corner of the universe, and most importantly, to make people dance—there was no more urgent task.
Most of the music that has meant something to me in my life has felt like a window in another world, real or imaginary. These MP3s came from a world of things and places I could only vaguely picture, like “council flats” and “kebab shops,” fascinating in their mundane specificity. And it all seemed to flowed out of the culture of dance music in a way that felt exciting and new to me.
Here’s a playlist of some tracks that came up in our conversation, as well as some other favourites. I recommend you listen along as you read. Because of all the YouTube embeds below, I also suggest you read this issue in the web view. Click on the subject line above to load it.
Mark: So you brought up the idea of U.K. rap. Tell me about what first grabbed you about it.
Cadence Weapon: I think the first thing for me was that I was really into trip hop. That was a big thing for me—Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and Mezzanine, and all the Portishead and Tricky solo records. They blew my mind. When Blue Lines came out, I had never heard anybody rapping like that. And the stuff they were rapping about, and all the different kinds of voices, that was very exciting for me.
That was the point where I was like, OK, I want to keep my eye on what’s going on in England. And the next thing probably would have been Roots Manuva coming on the scene. I wasn’t an insane of fan of his, but “Witness the Fitness,” that was a big tune.
I guess I resonate with a lot of the sonic touchstones that the U.K. artists in these genres are into, because they’re from this “hardcore continuum” of jungle and all these other freaky music genres that didn’t blow up the same way in North America. They can reference stuff that’s super synthy, but it’s really just like digital dancehall. So it makes sense to people over there, but when it’s over here it’s divorced from all those cultural touchstones.
M: What I've always found interesting about British music and the British music scene is that there isn’t this, like, anxiety about dance music the way there was for so long in North America, this hard separation between rock and dance music. Like in England, New Order will fill stadiums. I feel like that’s changed a lot in North America, because of EDM and stuff like that, but for a long time it was quite divorced.
CW: I gotta say though, Canada’s still a bit behind even America, right? You don't really hear just straight electronic music on the radio. Whereas in England the BBC will play a purely instrumental, electronic track at prime time. Not only that they’ll have big DJs go on, mixing live on the radio, playing only electronic music.
M: Did you hear that Prince Phillip thing? When the BBC cut straight from a dance track to an announcement of his death and then back again?
CW: I love that. That’s British music culture in a nutshell. The beat must go on.
M: What I also found so interesting about British music was the culture of pirate radio, which is just something we don’t have in North America. It was so alluring and intriguing and fascinating to me.
CW: That was one of the things that got me really excited about UK grime. My first experiences with it were just rips of pirate radio sessions, where these guys are rapping and they sound like aliens over this super alien futuristic music. And you can’t quite make it all out, but it was thrilling to me. Whether it's like, really early clashes where it's Wiley and Dizzee Rascal or Rinse FM stuff.
I used to collect that stuff and download it. I thought it was just the freshest music I’d ever heard. Basically, I saw a parallel in what I was creating at that time in the early 2000s. When The Streets’ first album came out, that was a really big record for me where I was just like, “Oh my God, this is, this is like what I'm doing.”
They’re all into the old music that I’m into from England but also into American hip hop. And they're creating this new mutant music, and I was just like, “Oh shit.” Like these are my people, you know?
The pirate radio thing is really interesting because it’s like, why can't we have that in Canada? I'm into all the internet radio stations, the culture that’s been developing recently with n10.as and places like that, but it's like why isn't it okay to just hear someone rapping on the radio?
M: While driving around in a van with a transmitter.
CW: People are petrified of this idea but it’s preventing our culture from moving forward, by not facilitating the kind of language and the transformation of language that comes with stuff like pirate radio. Because even when they’re not rapping, the way they talk, the ads, all the culture around this stuff—that’s culture itself that is so fire, and so fresh and it ends up becoming like this cultural memory that artists in the U.K. have. They’ll do a track and they’re like, this is a pirate radio type track. And everyone will understand what they mean.
M: “Original Pirate Material.”
CW: Exactly. And I feel like that is one of the reasons why their music culture is so progressive.
M: It’s interesting that you bring up the early 2000s. I have such fond memories of that era of music. It felt like the first time that I wasn’t just discovering music that had been ripped from a CD and uploaded to Audio Galaxy or Soulseek or whatever, but that I was discovering music that was living on the internet, that existed for the internet.
Like the early Dizzee Rascal MP3s, the like the original version of “I Luv U” that didn’t end up on the album. I have this 128kbps rip of that, and that to me is an artifact. I’ve lugged this 200gb iTunes library for years, even after I’ve mostly started listening to streaming services because I have these MP3s that don’t really exist anywhere else.
CW: That's stuff is sacred, man. That stuff is sacred. I still have all these—like I have this old, old, moldy-ass MP3 of a track by Mondi and God’s Gift and it's called “Unknown.” It’s just a kick drum and a guy screaming-rapping over it, and it’s still like the hardest thing ever.
Or very early Wiley recordings that are ripped from vinyl that never came out on any albums. Like all that stuff is this parallel music history that you had to be there to experience. It was just so exciting.
M: You just have this image of Dizzee Rascal, alone in a council flat with a ripped copy of FruityLoops. As someone making music, that must have been exciting for you.
CW: Oh my God, that was the thing that made me feel like I was on the right track because I was a part of that culture too. Not only were they making tracks with Acid, Sound Forge and FruityLoops, they were also making music literally on their PlayStations, with the Music 2000 game. “Stand Up Tall” by Dizzee Rascal—the beat was made on a PlayStation. That’s incredible, right? That, to me, is like the most direct example of youth culture infiltrating new music in the last 20 years. And that felt like what I was doing—I had cracked copies of FruityLoops and Cool Edit Pro and I made a record and it ended up in HMV and people heard it, you know? And that was not happening before the 2000s.
M: So you’ve just made an album, Parallel World, that comes out on April 30. What’s it like to make an album in quarantine? I assume you made it all in the last year or so?
CW: Yeah, “Senna” we had recorded in person together before the pandemic, but every everything else was completely written, recorded and produced during the pandemic.
M: And does it feel to you like pandemic music?
CW: I mean, I was quite careful to not make it “Yo, I’m Stuck in the House: The Album.” I don’t think there’s anything really interesting about that. But it is definitely heavily influenced by the George Floyd protests last summer and all the institutional collapse that we got to witness for the first time. That I found very inspiring, very exciting, because it was like all these institutions that we thought were impenetrable are actually very flimsy. So why are we even accepting or listening to them?
That was something that really influenced me. I just felt an intense burst of creativity where I wanted to just speak to the time that I’m in and really make something that was vital and urgent.
M: I should say we're talking a day after the Derek Chauvin verdict. Did you feel a kind of exhalation or does it just feel like, OK, what’s next?
CW: I avoided the entire trial. I couldn't really do it, emotionally it was just too intense. Then seeing the verdict yesterday, I mean, there was a bit of disbelief at first. And obviously a bit of relief. But to me it doesn’t mean anything. Just a few hours later, the cops killed a 15-year-old girl.
This is an institutional problem. I don’t think reform is the answer because I think the police in general are just something that are such an insidious part of society, that they’re able to change and work itself around the social mores of the time to stay alive.
So I’m still keeping my eye on what the next version of the police will be after this event. Because they're still going to be doing this, but they’re going to find new ways of justifying it, new ways. Like the little girl getting shot, the cop had a body camera but that didn’t stop them shooting someone four times. I’m a little jaded about it, but I don't know. I'm still trying to abolish the police. And I love that we’re even having the conversation about alternative methods of conflict resolution.
M: Tell me about “Eye to Eye.”
CW: “Eye to Eye” is specifically about racial profiling and experiences I’ve had in my life, thinking about how I’m perceived. Partly it’s me thinking about how when I lived in Roncesvalles and I’d be walking down the street and I’d feel like I was the only Black person I’d see most of the time. And I had moments of being like, OK, these rich white people are looking at me a certain way where they were trying not to act racist, but there’s this whole rapid calculus going on where they were like “Don’t be afraid!” It’s the idea of thinking about how you’re perceived by other people, but also how you perceive yourself and at the same time having to navigate that.
M: They’re making this calculus, but you must be doing your own calculus on a whole other level. And I imagine that it’s a huge amount of mental effort.
CW: Oh yeah. It’s super exhausting. Because it’s about survival. I don’t want to be in a situation where someone calls the cops on me because I’m walking on the same side of the street as them at night and they’re afraid. Because it doesn’t turn out well for me in that situation.
It’s definitely difficult to navigate, but I think it’s important to talk about it because I don’t think people are that aware of this idea. There were a few specific instances that influenced me, but I was really influenced by the Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper incident in Central Park. She tried to weaponize the police by calling the cops, and it was all on camera. That’s something that in the history of America, this interaction has happened many times where somebody’s cried wolf.
M: It’s the Emmett Till story.
CW: Emmett Till, it’s the same thing exactly. So it’s like one of the scariest things I can think of.
M: It was really dismaying a couple of days ago when, like in the middle of the COVID crisis, Doug Ford was basically like, OK, so here's what we're going to do. We’re going to bring back stop and frisk.
CW: Yeah, I was like this, the last thing we need. This is why we need to abolish the police, because they have that shock trooper mentality that they can’t resist. When you give them an inch, they take a mile, man. We’re already seeing that they’re, like, beating up skateboarders. This is not productive. This is not helping anybody. This is a waste of resources. If you’re not going to help people, get the fuck out of the way. This is how I feel now with the police.
Parallel World comes out on April 30. You can find it at all the usual places.
I was missing Anthony Bourdain, so when I saw he had a posthumous book, a guide to his favourite places in the world, I impulse-ordered it, partially taken in by the charming cover illustration.
I realized about one page into the introduction that I had made a mistake. The book is largely based a single hour-long conversation with co-author Laurie Woolever, and is otherwise sort of a Zagat’s Guide to various locales made up of quotes from his TV shows, plus tips on how to get to the airport, etc. It bummed me out.
Can’t believe I let myself get fooled by a dust jacket.
Speaking of: this week’s #nojacketsrequired submission comes courtesy Matthew Hannam. Please send yours to email@example.com as big attachments tend to bounce off Substack’s email servers. (You can always reply to this email if you just want to, like, talk, though.)
Every Wednesday I’ll send you Something Good. Don’t forget to subscribe to Cadence Weapon too. If you liked this: please tell a friend.