Canadian Musician - May/June 2021 - Page 47

ferent ways ,” Pemberton says . “ And I felt like I have something to say about what ’ s going on , so why not do this on my record ? I ’ ve always been going in that direction , where I have a song like ‘ High Rise ’ on my last record , but with this one , I was like , ‘ Let me go all the way and let me pull no punches . Let me just say exactly how I feel so there ’ s no ambiguity to where I ’ m coming from .’”
But again , doing that can be musically risky . If you ’ re going to get overtly political , even those who agree with the message would rather be told a story than given a lecture . To borrow from rock and roll history , it ’ s the difference between Crosby , Stills , Nash & Young ’ s “ Ohio ” ( the anti-Nixon song written by Neil Young in 1970 that ’ s still loved ) and Young ’ s not-so-nuanced 2006 anti-Bush song “ Let ’ s Impeach the President ” ( which , let ’ s say , has not become a classic ).
“ Politically , I didn ’ t want to be pedantic . I didn ’ t want to do something that was like [ puts on condescending singer voice ], ‘ do the right thing ,’ or I didn ’ t want to be hectoring or judgmental . I wanted to just be like , ‘ These are some observations I made and you can take it or leave it , but this is the way I see the world .’ I feel a responsibility as an artist to take authority to task ,” Pemberton says . “ It ’ s like , take a stand if you ’ re informed enough to . But also , it ’ s all about your personal experience , too . I don ’ t expect every rapper to rap about what I rap about , because I have my lived experience and I ’ m not going to be begrudging about how anyone else wants to rap . But just personally , I feel like at a time like this , for me to make some tunes that are just about partying or something , it just feels like a disservice to myself and to the audience .”
Taking a stand and illuminating the issues in our society comes naturally to Pemberton , in part , because he grew up on the greats of the genre . He lists artists like Gil Scott-Heron , Public Enemy , and The Clash as inspirations , and it ’ s their informed directness that he appreciates .
“ I listen to those records now and I still learn stuff . Can you imagine that ? It ’ s like 30 or 40 years later and I ’ m still learning new references , new things about history , and being like , ‘ Oh , who ’ s this person ?’ I love that about those records . I feel now there is definitely more of an emphasis on making things as relatable as possible to as many people [ as possible ] and making things very broad , and making things that don ’ t make people think about what ’ s going on in the world today ,” he laments . “ Because people often don ’ t want to when they ’ re listening to tunes , you know ? I feel like there ’ s a lot of music for that , but I see what I ’ m doing is the same as a director making a film or something . Not to be like , ‘ Oh , this is like widescreen music ’ or whatever , but more that there ’ s often an underlying meaning behind everything I ’ m doing and you can appreciate it as pure entertainment , but there ’ s another level to it . Now , I really revel in how many levels I can put in each song .”
It ’ s not just lyrically , but also sonically that this goal is reflected on Parallel World . It ’ s often a darker and little more abrasive album , musically , especially when compare to his self-titled 2018 LP . He compares the sound of the new album to watching a dystopian future film like Children of Men .
“ I think it ’ s really more of a touchstone or a call back to my first record , because Breaking Kayfabe has got a lot of really nasty , gnarly , synthy , abrasive tunes ,” he says . But the former official poet laureate for Edmonton recalls that when making the 2018 album , he ’ d recently moved to Toronto and had a totally different motivation .
“ I was closer to the music industry , and just getting more into learning about streaming apps and finding ways just to reach people . I wanted to reach as many people as possible and really reach people where they ’ re at . I was very fixated on the idea of making music that you can listen to in your house , or you can work out to , or you can live along with . That was like my strategy for my last record . But coming into this record , I feel like I made stuff [ before ] that was a little bit too easy listening .”
Speaking of reaching audiences , there ’ s something Pemberton pointed out to me in a 2017 interview that I ’ ve kept an eye on ever since . In gist , he noted how Canada ’ s music industry infrastructure was unequal across genres . Meaning , the guitar-centric ( and often heavily white ) genres had a national network of conferences , showcasing opportunities , educational and networking opportunities , and so on that catered to them and fostered professional growth , but that this didn ’ t exist for rap , R & B , and pop in this country . In the years since that conversation , there ’ s been progress , both in terms of new initiatives focused on these genres and older programs that have broadened their scope . But throughout his career , Pemberton somehow was able to make space for himself , and therefore other rappers , in places where rappers were not typically seen
For instance , when I recently mentioned Pemberton ’ s old point about the Canadian music industry to Duane “ D . O .” Gibson , the co-founder of the Northern Power Summit , a rap and R & B-focused conference , he said , “ When you mentioned Cadence Weapon , the last time I saw him was at Pop Montreal , and I ’ m thinking to myself , ‘ That ’ s very cool , I enjoy my time there , but it ’ s not a hip-hop thing ’ … So , I ’ ve learned early on in my music game in Canada that you have to get outside your comfort zone and go to these events .” That is exactly what Pemberton did .
“ I feel like , in a lot of ways , I thought of it as a crusade . Like it ’ s my fate and I have to do this because , you know , I just want to make it easier for other people . That ’ s something that I think about a lot , is how can I make it so people don ’ t have to go through what I went through ? I feel like things are changing ; I feel like things are becoming a little fairer ,” he says now . “ When I see artists like [ 2020 Polaris winner ] Backxwash do really well , that makes me really happy because I feel like artists like her couldn ’ t make the strides that they are now when I first started . I just think about when I was nominated for the very first Polaris and it was a super white lineup . It was just me and K ’ naan and everyone else was like Broken Social Scene-type bands and stuff . Now , you look at the nominees and it ’ s so much more diverse and you see that people who are actually winning are way more diverse .”
He ’ s quick to point out , though , that while progress is evident , the journey and mission is far from over . “ That ’ s another thing that keeps me going is that it ’ s not over . You know , I ’ ve never been nominated for a Juno . It almost seems weird , but I never have been . I feel like there needs to be a broadening of the understanding of all the different styles of rap . Like , because major label commercial rap is popular in the States , so we want to reward it in Canada because we don ’ t want to take a stand on our own … There ’ s so many different spectrums of hiphop in Canada , and I feel like we don ’ t reflect that in awards like the Junos .”
Back in the day Pemberton was a music critic , writing album reviews for the likes of Pitchfork and Wired . Putting that hat back on , he says without question Parallel World is his best album . But , of course , everybody thinks their latest album is their best , especially when it ’ s still so new . “ But there ’ s a lot a lot of times in my career where I was aiming towards something and I didn ’ t have the skill at the time , or I didn ’ t have the infrastructure at the time ,” he adds . “ But it ’ s all linking up right now and I ’ m like , man , I made a record to really reflect that . Like , I can die happy . I ’ ll say that . With this record , man , I ’ m so glad I finished this record . That ’ s how I feel .”
So am I .
Michael Raine is the Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Musician .
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