S.A.C. Black History Songwriters Series: Maestro Fresh Wes

When “Let Your Backbone Slide” was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in late 2019, the 30 year old song was the first hip hop jam to receive the honour.

Maestro Fresh Wes has released a pile of cd’s, and lp’s, earlier on, and cassettes before that, like just about every aspiring rapper from the time before cdr’s.

Street music – buskers of every style, punk bands with no expectation of a record deal or money to press their own records, and of course, rappers back in the day, anyone making music without enough support to release a record, released music on good old affordable cassettes. Some early Bronx hip hop jams were “released” (not necessarily with everyone’s permission) on tape and others were apparently traded in New York City high schools. Indeed, a mix tape of DJ Red Alert brought from New York City to Halifax in the early ’80s is credited with being many Haligonians’ first exposure to hip hop and provided the germination of that city’s scene.

Toronto’s Maestro Fresh Wes, born Wes Williams to Afro-Guyenese parents on the last day of March in 1968, got his rapping start recording tape demos in the mid 1980’s. CKLN radio’s Ron Nelson was an early supporter, playing Wes’ music released under the moniker “Melody M.C.” That was in 1983 before the teen ager finished high school, attended Carleton University for a year, and came back to Toronto to push his music harder. After teaming up with Farley Flex in 1988 and appearing on MuchMusic’s Electric Circus TV show, Wes was signed to New York City’s LMR label. Now he had a manager (Flex) and a deal. Still, Wes needed a paycheque and worked as a security guard at Scarborough’s Parkway Mall. He worked overnights so he could keep developing his music. The Parkway Mall had a Tuxedo Royale store where Wes got the name “Maestro.” He also wrote “Let Your Backbone Slide” after searching for the best party phrase he could think of. The song borrowed heavily from a British instrumental, “The Champ,” by The Mohawks. As a debut single, few Canadian artists have done better.

“Let Your Backbone Slide” famously put Toronto on the hip hop map, just in time for the 1990’s. The song sold 25 000 copies in the U.S. on it’s release, and cracked the American Top 40, a first for a Canadian rap song. It sold over 50 000 copies, and went Gold in Canada, leading the way for other early ’90s Canadian rap. MuchMusic played more of it, and popular singles and albums came out from the likes of Dream Warriors, Michie Mee, later the Rascalz, Choclair, and others. This song was the biggest selling Canadian rap song until Kardinal Offishall’s “Dangerous.”

Touring Canada brought out large audiences, and Wes’ first album “Symphony In Effect” sold well too. The following year, a new decade, saw continued success. The follow up single from the album, “Drop The Needle” starts off on a thick P-Funk tip, and the accompanying video won a Juno. 

In 1991 Maestro Fresh Wes joined in on “Can’t Repress The Cause” which brought together rappers and singers from many backgrounds and genres including Lorraine Segato and Leroy Sibbles. The project’s aim was to push for more inclusion of hip hop into the mainstream Canadian music scene; the clubs, the press, and such.

Wes’ follow-up album, Black Tie Affair from 1991 perhaps kept the tuxedo related inspiration in effect and also sold well here, but he had his eye on New York City. Wes relocated to New York for much of the 1990’s but his music never gained the traction in America that it received here and he returned to Toronto in 1997.

His next big hit, “Stick To Your Vision” in 1999 borrowed from “These Eyes” and sounded like an affirmation of Wes as a Canadian artist. “Stick To Your Vision” would also provide the title for Maestro Fresh Wes’ self help book.

Wes worked as “Maestro” for a few years, but when working as an actor he uses his birth name. Despite finding success as an actor, Wes wasn’t done with music, either. “416 – 905 (Party Anthem)” from his “Built to Last” 1999 album received a Juno nomination.

Wes welcomed the new millennium with another album, his sixth, called “Ever Since” which featured a collaboration with Kardinal Offishall, “Bustin Loose,” which owes less to the Chuck Brown classic than most rap variations of this enduring D.C. jam.

Wes has since worked with Offishall again on multiple songs, along with Meesha Brueggergosman, Sam Roberts and others on his 2013 “Orchestrated Noise” album and even worked with Lawrence Gowan for a 2005 rap reworking of Gowan’s hit “A Criminal Mind.”

While Wes has never been considered gangsta rap, some of his songs shout out hoods and activities like “Dearly Departed” while his better known songs celebrate partying and sports. In 2015 he released “Underestimated” for the Pan-Am Games, and in 2017 he recorded “Jurassic Park” which included local rapper and producer Rich Kidd. Naturally, “Jurassic Park” was made into a video in 2019 after the Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship.

While touring isn’t an option for anybody these days, Maestro Fresh Wes performed briefly at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto for the Songwriters Hall of Fame gala in 2019. When discussing his Songwriters Hall of Fame induction that year, he told CBC “I’m 51 years old, but my backbone is still slidin’ man.”

Maestro Fresh Wes will perform with Gary Beals, TiKA, and Nefe, on February 25, 2021 at 7pm EST at the S.A.C. Celebration Series Black History Month concert event hosted by Rudy Blair, Rudy Blair Entertainment: Tickets and S.A.C. Press Kit.

Concert goes live at 7PM (EST) tonight – streaming to multiple platforms!

Logging on to the Livestream tonight:
All you will need to do is enter your name and email address and create a password to access the event here. The latest versions of Chrome or Firefox guarantee the best experience. 

On YouTube:
Tune in live on S.A.C.’s YouTube Channel. 

On Twitch: 
Tune in live on S.A.C.’s Twitch Channel. 

Discography (from Wiki)

  • 1989 symphony in effect
  • 1991 black tie affair
  • 1992 Maestro Zone
  • 1994 Naah Dis Kid Can’t Be From Canada
  • 1998 Built to Last
  • 2000 Ever Since
  • 2013 Orchestrated Noise
  • 2017 Coach Fresh
  • 2019 Champagne Campaign
  • Eps
  • 2012 Black Tuxedo
  • 2015 Compositions Volume 1
416-905 (Party Anthem)
Stick to your Vision (These Eyes)
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Note: The Songwriters Association of Canada posts songwriter related news and events as a resource to members. Publishing these posts does not imply that the S.A.C. endorses the teacher, product, service, or company.

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