Maestro Fresh Wes
The man known as Maestro Fresh Wes can rightly be called a trailblazer, in the literal sense, in forging a path for hip-hop and rap in Canada — particularly considering there was no lane to speak of. Although the seminal 1989 track "Let Your Backbone Slide" is so universally loved and accepted as to nearly veer into parody, the cultural and musical impact of the record and the best-selling Symphony in Effect album — still the highest selling rap record in Canada even in the face of Drake's worldwide successes — the man known as Maestro has a lot to be proud of. With a career reaching back to 1983, it isn't hyperbolic to call the 45-year-old Wesley Williams the living embodiment of Canadian hip-hop, breaking down industry barriers and ensuring that the genre is recognized on a macro level.
1979 to 1983
Wesley Williams is born on March 31, 1968 in Toronto to parents of Guyanese heritage. The oldest of three children, he spends his formative years in North York and later Scarborough, ON. Growing up in Canada during the '70s, there weren't a lot of black or brown faces, according to Williams. "I was six years old the first time I heard the 'N word,'" he'll recall in his 2010 book Stick to your Vision. "Growing up, my family lived in an apartment in the North York area of Toronto. I used to play with our next-door neighbours, a young girl and her brother. One day, she looked at me and said, 'Wes, when are you going to turn white?'"
In 1979, he gets his first taste of hip-hop at age 11: "Rappers Delight" by New York rappers the Sugarhill Gang. Entranced by the genre, and acts such as Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow, Williams gets involved in breakdancing and rapping with the hope of making it a full-time career. Making homemade demo tapes by the age of 15, and going by the moniker of Melody MC, he was one-half of Scarborough-based rap crew Vision with partner Ebony MC (real name Marlon Bruce) while attending Senator O'Connor College School and then L'Amoreaux Collegiate Institute in Scarborough.
"I'm Scarborough to the bone," he says now. "My name back then was the Melody MC, aka Fresh Wes, and that's how it started at L'am. I tried to get the girls, so I tried breakdancing but fell on my face with the head spins; it wasn't working. But the rhymes were getting nice, bruh. The rhymes were dope. And I keep on. And the girls started liking me."
Hip-hop in Canada in the early '80s was an unknown quantity; the first known Canadian rap single is "The Bum Rap," by the Singing Fools in 1982. Around the same time, 15-year-old Williams performs live on-air at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Ryerson University) during the popular CKLN rap radio show The Fantastic Voyage, hosted by Ron Nelson. "My man Ron Nelson put me on in 1982. [Before that] the first place I ever performed was at my high school. I rhymed over Vaughan Mason & Crew's 'Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll.' Nelson would tell listeners: this is Melody MC, he's 15 and damn he's good."
Working a job as mall security in a Scarborough shopping mall, Williams would use the money earned to pay for his demo tapes. "It was a job where I didn't have to work that hard, but I could make some money and work on my music while I was there, do some writing," Williams would later tell Toronto weekly The Grid. "The majority of [Symphony in Effect] was written at Parkway Mall."
During this time, he meets Farley "Flex" Fridal, a Trinidad-born Canadian who works at a local restaurant and who, at 15, is known as a budding event promoter, holding local parties and roller-skating jams in the area. "I worked at a little roadhouse restaurant called Wizards in Scarborough, and we'd have these little rap battles with the door staff against the kitchen staff… That was how I encountered Wes as a rapper," Flex will later tell The Grid.
1983 to 1989
Recognizing Williams' natural charisma and potential, Flex transitions from promoter to become Williams' first manager; the fact that the Canadian music industry doesn't have the infrastructure in place to support a Canadian hip-hop artist doesn't deter him in the least. "The fact that no one had really done it before was motivation for me. We knew going in that there was no one out there doing this," Flex would tell Caribbean Canadian community newspaper Pride News. "I was very confident of Wes's talent and what he represented in the grand scheme of hip-hop."
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