The time, how it flies: it was this month 10 years ago that Roland “Rollie” Pemberton, better known as Cadence Weapon, released his debut album, Breaking Kayfabe. It was shortlisted for the inaugural Polaris Music Prize, and launched his acclaimed, eclectic rap career: he’s since put out two more critically beloved albums, done a term as our city’s Poet Laureate and toured with the unusual likes of Liars.
Its first single, and anchoring track, “Oliver Square,” was a swaggering ode to the city. And given that a decade is a long time, particularly in a place that’s been going through its share of changes over that span, we thought it might be worth taking a look at the song’s lyrics—full of 2004-era references to people and places around town—as a way of charting progress since then. Spoiler alert: a lot of venues aren’t here anymore.
Pemberton, for his part, was game to chat. Over the phone from his new home in Toronto—where he recently moved from Montréal—he notes that the song predates the album: back in 2004, he’d dropped out of journalism school, was avidly blogging, writing for Pitchfork and working towards his first release.
“At that point, I was just hanging out on my mom’s couch,” he recalls. “The reason that I dropped out was mainly I was getting this feeling of tension that, if I didn’t really put out the music I’d been working on soon, somebody else would come out and put out something similar—maybe I’d miss the timing. I didn’t want to take the chance.”
Many of those early songs found a home on the Cadence Weapon is the Black Hand mixtape, including “Oliver Square.” He put the song out into the blogosphere and it quickly found purchase.
“I met a bunch of other people in the music-blog community, one of whom was a guy named Matthew Perpetua. He had a blog called Fluxblog. Around that time, I sent him ‘Oliver Square’ and asked if he’d be interested in putting it on his blog, and he did,” Pemberton says. “That was really the first taste of people hearing my music, and it really springboarded me out to signing with Upper Class [Recordings]. They discovered my music from that post.”
“Oliver Square” itself was partly born from a love of the New York rap his father Teddy Pemberton would play on his CJSR show, The Black Experience in Sound.
“He used to play all kinds of rap tracks that were talking about all this different, specific things about New York,” Pemberton notes. “I always used to wonder, ‘Why doesn’t anybody write a song like that about Edmonton?’ I wanted to create an anthem, from my perspective, as a young person in Edmonton, talking about my side of Edmonton. Back then, it still had a reputation for being this stodgy, conservative place.”
So: below are some of the song’s key referential lyrics paired with some analysis as to how they pertain to modern-day E-town, with Pemberton’s thoughts scattered throughout. Cue the song up and read along.
It’s corrupt where I’m from:
City life will leave you red with blood
Punched holes in the wall, then they fed the thugs lunch /
After they rocked the party in the literal sense
Roland Pemberton: “‘It’s corrupt where I’m from’ is a Jay-Z reference, a Jay-Z lyric, but the story I’m telling is actually true. When my mom left town, she went to China with some friends of hers, and I decided to throw a house party while she was gone. I invited everyone at my school, and they invited everyone from Ross Shep and all the surrounding high schools. Everybody came to my house, and they really just tore the place up. It was a very wild party; some jock kids were throwing rocks at people and laughing, and punching holes in the wall.”
And with regards to “corruption”—Jay-Z line or not—Edmonton usually ranks above average on Statistics Canada’s Crime Severity Index. That said, the amount of reported crime has been slowly descending Canada-wide over the last decade.
You could be on Whyte Ave havin’ the time of your life /
Then you get your arm broken by a random cab driver, ask Katie.
RP: “That happened to my friend Katie. It was just a weird incident where a cabbie thought … I don’t want to get the information totally wrong here, but I believe it was about a cab [that] came to pick-up somebody else, and a cabbie got into a fight with her boyfriend, and she tried to pull the cabbie off of him, and he shrugged away, and ended up inadvertently breaking her arm.”
Don’t generalize, you must think and wonder /
Why I drink 40s and memorize
BusLink numbers …
There have been a few innovtations in local bus-schedule technology: now you can simply text the BusLink number to a line to check upcoming bus times. Handy! (Unless you’re at the stop, memorization still helps, but at least you don’t have to listen through an arduously slow recorded message anymore). In keeping with the times, there was also a city-developed transit app released somewhat recently, but it hasn’t quite gained traction.
So I’m drunk at the Funky Pickle, nothing difficult /
Came out with just napkins, it was something pitiful
The heyday of the Funky Pickle franchise was seemingly in the mid-2000s around “Oliver Square”‘s release, but the pizza company’s decline has been swift: it’s all but vanished from Edmonton streets, with its key Jasper and Whyte Avenue locations now converted into other, non-branded pizza places. A decade ago, though, Funky Pickle seemed the de facto slice of choice, known for offering large triangles of ‘za adorned with unusual combinations of toppings—corn, red pepper and beer sausage might all share a cheese-bed together. But it’s all no more.
RP: “I couldn’t believe when I heard that.”
So I let Jane cover my pitchers at The Strat /
‘Til I get a little bit of riches from this rap …
While Whyte Avenue’s seen plenty of change in the past few years, The Strat remains a steadfast anchor against gentrification’s growing riptide in the area.
Yeah, I take the 7 off 82nd to get to Jasper /
So I can hit New City with the electro-clashers
The road and bus route remain—though, depending on where you are on 82nd, you could just as easily hop the nine to get downtown—but New City has long since departed its Jasper haunt: it moved to just off Whyte a few years ago, but struggled against the area’s high rent and shrinking audience sizes, and eventually shuttered. Also: electro-clash’s abrupt status as an it-sound in trendy circles came and went pretty quickly. Remember Fischerspooner? Exactly.
See me at Victory, don’t ask to see the skill /
I’m sick of fanboys more obnoxious than Peter Hill
Located under the Starlite Room, Victory Lounge still exists, albeit now as a renamed Brixx Bar & Grill.
Peter Hill was an enduring public-access television figure, a world that seems to be all but gone online these days. Access, the government-owned public-access channel, was later purchased by CTV and rebranded as CTV Two, which ceased broadcasting over the air in 2011.
I come with the ill shit, still good /
More dangerous than Mill Woods
Mill Woods remains one of the largest, most-diverse populations of Edmonton, and marks the home of former city councillor/just-elected MP Amarjeet Sohi, who was made part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet as Minister of Infrastructure and Communities. All in all, not bad for an area of town that’s up against a perpetual stigma.
I need to listen like records,
Y’all oughta get dismissed /
On the wake up, I tend to politic with Kris
RP: “Some of the stuff is very inside baseball. I give a shoutout to—I say, ‘Tend to poltique with Kris,’ [or] ‘I need to listen like records,’ I’m talking about Kris Burwash from Listen Records. Not a lot of people would pick up on that.”
Lamping real pretty, don’t care what rapping can get me /
I’m just letting y’all know, I’m from Champion City
Though still the most pervasive nickname—that and Dirt City—the “City of Champions” slogan was removed from the entrance to Edmonton in early 2015. “We’re in a post-tagline era,” Mayor Don Iveson said, shortly after city council voted seven-to-five on the removal.
See me on the bill
Better follow me there /
I solemnly swear
I’ll make it back to Oliver Square
Depending on his show, following Pemberton these days might be more of a Phish-like exodus—the drive to Toronto’s two-plus days—but hey, do you. And Pemberton’s been known to show up around Christmastime, so there’s a pretty good chance he still makes it back to Oliver every once in a while.