Maestro Fresh Wes Class Act
Published Jul 02, 2013The 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."
As Melody MC, Williams can be found at local concert halls engaging in battle MC competitions and opening for acts such as UTFO. In 1988, Williams first begins to go by the name Maestro Fresh Wes and records an independent demo, You Can't Stop Us Now. Now also working with Alva Swaby, otherwise known as DJ LTD, he releases another demo called I'm Showin' You. "There was no blueprint for we were doing," Williams says, "but we made a go of it."
Upon first hearing the beat for "Let Your Backbone Slide" — produced by fellow Senator O'Connor high school classmates Peter and Anthony Davis, otherwise known as First Offence —Williams and Flex know they have something special; it contains a range of samples, including "The Champ" by the Mohawks, "Funky Drummer" by James Brown and Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause." "There was an aura in the room. It was an amazing phase of existence," Flex would tell Pride News.
They finance a video for "Backbone" themselves — with $2,000 of Wes's savings and a $3,000 loan Flex co-signed with his mother — and soon recognize the importance of national exposure, booking themselves on City-TV's dance show, Electric Circus. It was the second of two appearances on the show, in 1989, that would give him his big break. Dance artist and LeFrak-Moelis Records (LMR) recording artist Stevie B was on the show during the second appearance, where Maestro performed the original version of "Let Your Backbone Slide."
"[Much VJ] Michael Williams whispered in my ear that Stevie B wanted to talk to me," Maestro recalls. Stevie B introduces Flex and Williams to then LMR vice-president of operations Larry Moelis, who promptly offers a deal for the single. Attic Records Canada would handle Canadian distribution.
"Wes and I wanted an album deal," Flex will later tell The Grid. "We talked about our interest in an album deal, and we had some other songs on the demo that they liked, and then I asked Wes to drop a rhyme right there on the spot — that took them aback."
"Big up to Flex for being a part of the whole situation for me as well," Williams says. "Instead of just getting a single deal, I got an album deal. It was beautiful. I worked with First Offence on the record. Once we got the record deal, we finished the album in, like, two weeks. I think Farley locked those guys in the studio. My father was the photographer for the album and first single cover. We shot that in the basement. He was cool. Mom isn't really a big rap fan but you know — Guyanese parents, they are kind of old-fashioned."
Wes tours across Canada with the record and ends up doing a couple of spot dates with Public Enemy. "Imagine you just coming out, just getting your record deal and you're around the most influential hip-hop groups of all time. That's what moulded me to be the artist I am today, in terms of how I articulate myself in interviews, how I conduct myself with media, fans and other artists. My media training came from being on the road."
"Let Your Backbone Slide" would become a smash hit record; more than 50,000 copies of "Backbone" are sold across Canada, the first gold-selling hip-hop single in the country. "Backbone" would also top the Record Singles Chart in 1990, selling more than 25,000 in the U.S within the first few weeks.
"It was a shock to me. I'm from Scarborough. There was no point of reference for me in terms of how things were to be done. Then your record goes gold, then you perform at the Junos. You've got to be crazy. You've got to be kidding. We were just overwhelmed by what was going on. This wasn't a 'crawl-walk-run' scenario. This record came out and today it's still the best selling hip-hop record of all time in Canada. Even the Drake albums haven't exceeded Symphony in Effect, which is crazy to me. That's monumental to me."
In 1991, Wes wins two Juno Awards including Best Rap Video and Rap Recording of the Year, categories that were specifically created due to the album's far-reaching success. (Other nominees in the category: Simply Majestic with B. Kool; MCJ and Cool G; Spunkadelic and the Dream Warriors.) Over the course of his career, he would be nominated for 12 Junos. Years later he'll tell The Toronto Star: "I felt great [that night], got five nominations, feeling great, but then Leonard Cohen wins the lifetime achievement award that was as big as a grand piano. I'm like, 'Damn. I got a long way to go.'"
1990 to 1991
After the success of Symphony in Effect, stakes are high for a follow-up. Williams wants to take a blank slate approach to creating sophomore effort Black Tie Affair in 1990. "It was important to have that social commentary in my music. I learned that it's not about making records but about making history and saying something that lasts and resonates."
Still on LMR Records, Williams works with First Offence again, along with producers such as Sir Scratch and DJ K-Cut, the Toronto-based producer from New York rap group Main Source. It's important to create a polished effort that not only improves upon Symphony, but could be the foundation for a sustainable hip-hop industry in Canada, Williams explains. Indeed, William's success paves the way for the relative successes of acts such as Michie Mee (who ironically lands a U.S. record deal before Wes gets his), Dream Warriors, Devon, Kish, Simply Majestic with B. Kool, MCJ and Cool G, Sunkadelic, Finesse & Showbiz, Snow and Tom Green's novelty act Organized Rhyme. Independent record label and major label imprints would also appear at this time, all working to capitalize on local hip-hop success.
Also around this time comes the birth of Toronto as the screwface capital, Wes recalls. During his early career success, he notes there were was some jealousy in certain corners of the city, particularly from those put off seeing Williams become a huge rap star in Canada. "That was the birth of the screwface. In terms of people feeling that they deserved certain things. Thinking they should be on, when they ain't ready to be put on. That's when that really started," says Williams. Getting college radio support in Canada proved to be even more difficult the second time around, he adds, especially considering that long-time supporter Ron Nelson was no longer at CKLN. "[It] was odd," says Wes of the promotional struggles, "because nobody was doing it like I was at that time."
Black Tie Affair's first single is "Conductin' Thangs," a throwback horn-driven ska-inflected groove produced by K-Cut and featuring a young Simone Denny (later of '90s dance-pop group Love Inc.) as one of the background singers. The single earns Maestro a Best Male Video at the '91 MuchMusic CMVAs (now the MMVAs).
Creating the album is about ignoring the "Let Your Backbone Slide" success to build something new, he says. "That's why we came up with 'Conductin' Thangs.' I thought it was cool working with Main Source. Even though they were in Canada, [Main Source member] Large Professor lived in New York. So they had that influence with Gang Starr, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, so by the time they finished mixing their album [Breaking Atoms], Gang Starr had released 'Step Into the Arena,' and my album was getting mixed too. I remember them telling me about track six on the album and this kid named Nasty Nas. And everything was just about Nas, who was 16 at the time. You don't know how many times I've heard that verse from Live at the BBQ. I stayed at K-Cut's house at the time while we were mixing and Nas came over and I met him. Large Professor also introduced me to Kool G Rap. So that was a cool little time in New York for me."
The album also features various guest appearances from Canadian artists. "It was important for me to bring people on. I didn't feel like it was an obligation or pressured. I felt like it was something that I was supposed to do. So I blew up, but I didn't feel the overall scene in Toronto and Canada was where it was supposed to be. If you notice, with the album, there were a lot of features. K-Force, the cat who came up with the phrase 'T-dot, O-dot' was one of the top MCs at the time, and one of my favourites. I made sure he was on the B-side of 'Conductin Thangs' single, called 'VIPs Only.' I figured 'Let's bring other cats along with me,' you know? That way we would have an industry one day, as opposed to sticking to my own little thing."
In Canada, Black Tie Affair is certified gold with over 50,000 copies sold, which is relatively successful but not the breakthrough Wes is aiming for. "No. I wanted it to go bigger than the first one. That's why I put so many of my city on it," Wes says. "It's not about just one artist. I want people to know that. That's why we have no industry here, because cats just wanted to be individual artists. I'm an individual artist, but I needed a team around me. One artist can't do everything."
1992 to 1995
As hip-hop grows to mainstream prominence in the mid-'90s, the sound changes, becoming both broader and more pop-flavoured. While he has a reciprocal distribution deal via Polydor in the U.S., Williams determines that he'll get more attention from his U.S.-based record label and the American market if he moves Stateside, and does just that. Living in New York, Wes begins work on a new studio album, 1994's Naaah, Dis Kid Can't Be from Canada?!!
"His insistence that the 'kid can't be from Canada' is a disruption of the idea that the dopest rap songs can only be from African-Americans," University of Toronto professor Rinaldo Wincott will write about Maestro's move Stateside in his 1997 book Black Like Who?: Writing Black Canada. "I only went there because I was signed to a U.S. label," Wes explains. "The first two albums, I was in Canada, which was great. But I couldn't just be visiting [the States], I had to be in their faces. I hired my video promoter, commercial radio promoter, college radio promoter, as well as producing, like, 80 percent of the album."
By 1992, Maestro Fresh Wes is living in Brooklyn, and connects with American rap duo Showbiz and A.G., members of the famed Diggin' in the Crates Crew (D.I.T.C.) along with rap heads like Lord Finesse, Diamond D, Fat Joe, and Big L.
"The game really changed for me. But Showbiz was a blessing for me. Just took me with open arms. I'm in the studio with Big L doing background vocals for a ShowAG album. That was like legendary times," says Wes.
But it was also tough times. "My vibe was just to do what I felt like doing, which was introduce yourself to America. So don't introduce yourself in a tux right now," he says. "It was a tough transition for me. It was basically starting from scratch again. The game changed. Hip-hop started to be broader. I did a lot of work myself on that project. So I learned around that time that you have to be hands on with your work. It was tough."
Album singles "Fine Tune da Mic" and "Certs wid Out da Retsyn" see Wes adopt a grittier, harsher sound, one he says wasn't an intentional thing but rather borne out of the New York environment. "The backlash against pop rap was still in effect, and Fresh Wes was as consumed by it as the average New York MC," RapReviews would say in its review of the album.
Despite being nominated for Best Rap Recording at the 1995 Juno Awards, the album is largely considered a commercial failure on both sides of the border. The album gets more love in the States than in Canada, Williams maintains. "The first record I ever make blows up and becomes a milestone, my next record doesn't do that well, and the one after does worse. It was hard," he would tell The Toronto Sun in 1998. "A lot of people thought I was finished, and people in the industry told me I'd had my day.
"There was more love from the underground stations in the Bay Area and New York than I had in Canada. The label ultimately didn't know how to market the album or Maestro as an artist," he says. "One thing with me, I don't cry over spilled milk. To be a man is a man. People have agendas, people have life, only the strong survive. So you're going to get back up and while it was a disappointing time, the music was banging. A lot of cats put me on their mix tapes. That was love."
Looking back, Williams notes he would have probably done less production work on the album, in terms of doing things differently. "I wish I produced maybe only four songs. But there was a lot of stress dealing with the label. There were internal issues and it was very disappointing."
1996 to 1999
Maestro moves back to Canada in 1996. "A lot of people thought I was done. Now I'm back, and people are checking me," he would tell Billboard Magazine in 1998. The rap landscape has changed and Wes is slowly finding his new position in it. Despite Maestro's hopes of kick-starting the Canadian hip-hop movement in 1989, not a single Canadian hip-hop song reached even the Top 100 on a Canadian pop chart between 1992 and 1998. He returns to a Canadian hip-hop scene that has an influx of new blood, a newer generation of artists having coming up post-"Backbone," including Ghetto Concept, Thrust, Da Grassroots and Frankenstein, along with a upstart Toronto hip-hop collective known as the Circle, which includes Kardinal Offishall, Choclair and Saukrates. Ron Nelson's The Fantastic Voyage has given way to DJ X and his Powermove program.
"This was when the Circle was on and popping. And I met a young Saukrates, who gives me screwface when I saw him," Wes says with a laugh. "He saw me up in CKLN and gave me a screwface. But everyone's body language at the time was like 'We respect what you did but it's our time now to shine,' which wasn't really even disrespectful. They were coming up now and they were the young rebels."
There was pressure to come out with a new project sooner than later, Wes says. "Pressure. Yeah. Cats were like 'He's wack, he fell off' and what have you. But I've always been that old school rapper. Even when I got my deal, I was considered old school. Now it's more magnified. But I'm that type of cat who's like 'Come and get me.'"
Dropping the "Fresh Wes" to go by Maestro, he secures a "Canada exclusive" deal with Attic Records and starts work on his fifth studio album. Working largely with producers 2 Rude and Scam at studios Phase I, Studio Play and Flip Side Studio in Toronto, the album Built to Last is released in 1998 and features singles "Stick to Your Vision" and "416/905 (T.O. Party Anthem)." It's nominated for a Best Rap Recording at the 1999 Juno Awards. "Stick to Your Vision" is a huge "comeback" hit for Maestro and reflects his maturing, introspective sound.
"I remember growing up and listening to that song, 'These Eyes' by the Guess Who. I found the eight bar break and started spitting. Frankenstein did the original demo and when I got the deal I got Rude to do it again," he says. "It was like, just humble yourself, let the music speak for itself. And 'Stick to your Vision' kind of resonated."
2000 to 2001
By time Y2K rolls around, Maestro is at a professional crossroads. Working on the follow-up to his moderately successful "Canadian comeback" record Built to Last, Wes works with producers Frankenstein, Kwajo Cinqo, Tyson Kuteyi, Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall and long-time collaborator K-Cut for the follow-up, 2000's Ever Since. But things weren't fully kosher with his record label situation.
"I was signed to LMR for the first three albums. Then Attic decided to form a conglomerate with the Song Corporation. That's when things got really messy for me. They went belly up, imploded and I when through a bit of a crisis. My masters were all over the place — a Montreal company had the rights to my masters, from "Backbone" to Ever Since. It was really hard for me and probably the toughest point of my career."
Wes describes the album at the time as "a brand new book all together," adding "the vibe of my music has changed, especially with tracks like 'Poppa 'Stro' and 'Maestro Glycerine.'" Singles 'U Got da Best' and 'Poppa 'Stro' would be released to okay response but a lack of promotion and marketing ultimately dooms the project.
"That album was cool but didn't really turn out because no one got a chance to hear it. The label went belly up two weeks after the album came out. That was a tough time. In retrospect, it was a well-mixed album. Wasn't as conceptual as my first album but there was some good production on it and some songs that I did that I hoped would bridge me into the mainstream. But nothing really popped off with that," he says.
During this time, Wes starts thinking about career longevity and a potential life after rap. "I'm just going to fall back for a minute and just concentrate on doing something else," he says of his mindset at the time. "Because if I dealt with this fully, I'm going to have a nervous breakdown. So when Built to Last came out, I started taking acting classes. In case things don't pop off again, I'm going to have a back-up plan. I studied with the best teachers in Toronto. When that situation happened, that's what people started seeing me pop up in movies and television stuff."
Music becomes less of a focus during this period. But it wasn't like he was fully out of the scene, he notes. "Every now and then I'd do a guest spot with Classified or Ghetto Concept. It was still important that I did, for people to know that I'm still doing music."
2002 to 2010
Maestro puts all his energy into becoming an accomplished actor, but even though rap isn't his main focus, it isn't intended to be a permanent break. Outside of releasing a greatest hits album in 2005, Urban Landmark:1989-2005, Wes doesn't release new material for several years. "Right now, there are artists who are way more talented than me, but it's a different time, a different era. When I was around, the internet wasn't even out yet. In terms of sales and in terms of impact, I don't know if it's going to happen," he would tell Pride News in 2005.
"I'm working. I wasn't really thinking about music at this time. For me, I'll do music forever. No one cares if Neil Young has a three-year hiatus. And when he comes back, no one's is going to say it's his comeback album. My whole vibe is that if I want to take five or ten years away, I never stressed it in that way," he says.
As an actor, Wes "Maestro" Williams appears in films such as Paid In Full, Honey, Four Brothers and with rapper 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin'. On the small screen, he lands lead roles on the early 2000 series Metropia as nightclub owner Quincy Daniels, music mogul Darius Mills on CTV's Instant Star and the HBO Canada series The Line in 2008, for which he's nominated for a Gemini Award.
Working on Instant Star, he shares a dressing room with Aubrey "Drake" Graham, who is starring on the popular teen series Degrassi at the time. "We shared a dressing room. They would just change our name tags from Darius to Jimmy. He was always polite. He'd say he knew me and that he was also doing music. It's like what Chuck D told me, 'Always inspire young people coming up,'" says Wes.
Splitting time between Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles, Wes is now considered a "multi-media" performer; in 2003, he receives a Trailblazer Award by the Reel World Film Festival and is inducted into his hometown Scarborough's Walk of Fame in 2006.
"Humility is a skill. I go into it thinking it's not about the Maestro Fresh Wes, it's about me submitting to this specific character and making the character as organic as possible. If I was on some arrogant shit, I'd be like 'Where's my wardrobe!' and stuff like that. This is a new arena for me — let me do it a certain way and just knock it out the park. I used the same process of making things last. Love what you do and you will always be in style."
In 2010, Wes publishes self-help book Stick To Your Vision: How to Get Past the Hurdles & Haters to Get Where You Want to Be, co-written with his wife Tamara Hendricks-Williams. It's endorsed by Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean. As a motivational speaker, he tours public schools with the book while also supporting support several charities such as War Child, Save the Children, Covenant House, Special Olympics, Battered Women's Support Services (BWSS), and the African AIDS Society.
2011 to 2013
Maestro is still acting, notably as a high school teacher Paul Dwyer on the CBC sitcom Mr. D. Late in 2012, he releases the Black Tuxedo EP, teasing a full-length and marking the 25th anniversary of "Let Your Backbone Slide." The Black Tuxedo EP is nominated for a Best Rap Recording Juno, where he's edged out by rapper Classified.
The fact that Black Tuxedo is nominated for a Juno Award is "very exciting for me," says Williams. "It meant that people were still checking for me. For me, I think that reinforces that, yeah, I'm still one of the best and that I'm still here, still out of Toronto."
The 18-track Orchestrated Noise is released in 2013. The new album —a conceptual extension of "Backbone," he says — features 18 diverse tracks with a wide range of guest appearances, a virtual who's who of music: Public Enemy's Chuck D, soprano singer Measha Brueggergosman, Sam Roberts, k-os, Lights, Brand Nubian's Sadat X, Kardinal Offishall, Kool G Rap, Divine Brown and Saukrates.
"A lot of the album just deals with life — growing and the trials and tribulations. At the end of the day, the music is a foundation. I could be the greatest actor in the world, [but] I ain't Denzel. I could be the greatest author in the world, [but] I'm not Margaret Atwood. You feel me? The foundation is the music," he says. "Although I'm doing these different things, I've got to fuel this engine right here. So the project just came together — I'm writing songs, meeting artists — so what came from just doing one or two songs came out to an 18-track body of work.
"I've set the bar at a certain level, but at the same time, too, there was a level of comfort," he tells Toronto newspaper Post City. "Meaning it's OK for me to experiment and do certain things based on what I've already accomplished. The competitive edge in me is still saying, 'Let me show the hip-hop world I've still got it,' and the more brave and fearless side of me is like, 'Listen, man, just do stuff that's not been done before. You don't gotta conform.'"
In terms of his overall career, Maestro notes that he's in a great place personally and professionally — comfortable in his status as Canada's Godfather of Hip-hop. In early 2013, he is named #1 on CBC's Top 25 Greatest Canadian Rappers List.
"It's a blessing that people still check for me — that's all," he tells The Toronto Star. "To be quite honest, the person we got to thank for all this is Drake. And I say this because what he's done internationally woke people up to the fact that people gotta remember that we got history in Toronto — that we have a future but we got a past too."
Essential Maestro Fresh Wes
Symphony in Effect (LMR/Attic, 1989)
The platinum-selling album that started it all. A Canadian hip-hop classic. Besides that obvious smash single ("Let Your Backbone Slide" became the first hit single in Canadian rap history), the Peter & Anthony Davis-produced tracks "Drop the Needle," and "The Mic's My Piece" still hold up while exemplifying the best of what late '80s hip-hop sound had to offer. The album is the best-selling Canadian hip-hop album in history — trumping even Drake's current success.
The Black Tie Affair (LMR/Attic, 1991)
With 1991's The Black Tie Affair, the rap star Maestro bursts out the gate with the hit single "Conductin' Thangs." Despite selling more than 50,000 records, The Black Tie Affair arguably doesn't quite hit Symphony In Effect highs — though tracks like the socially conscious "Nothing At All" stand out, while the project's collaborative efforts to build a sense of Canadian hip-hop community (via its abundant guest artist spots) are particularly noteworthy.
Built to Last (Attic, 1998) After not attaining a desired level of Stateside success, Maestro returns to Canada, delivering a more mature, introspective sound with "comeback" album Built to Last. A snapshot of the late '90s Canadian music scene —guest appearances from Snow, Glenn Lewis, Ghetto Concept; production from Saukrates and Kardinal Offishall — Built To Last is buoyed by single "Stick to Your Vision" and that classic Guess Who sample. The 17-track album features standouts "The Visine" and "416/905 (T.O. Party Anthem)."