On the rooftop with Maestro: Wes Williams meets with AfroToronto.com's Laina Dawes

27 Nov 2005

Over the years, I have met three people who swear they were in the video for “Let Your Backbone Slide,” the first video from Maestro Fresh Wes’s 1990’s debut album, Symphony in Effect . One woman was a featured dancer and the other two told me that if you study the video closely, you could see their foot or their arm. Nowadays, being in a video is no big deal – it is pretty easy to find a video shoot looking for extras in Toronto, as there seems to be one filming every weekend. But appearing in Maestro’s debut is a badge of honour for those who remember the excitement when the MC from Canada made his first appearance on Much Music. Hip-Hop (or Rap, as it was called then) was slowly emerging on the scene, Canadians could finally pack away their mixtapes, smuggled in from sympathetic relatives in New York and listen to a homegrown MC. Maybe we thought the lyrics were based on our experiences in this chilly country with bits of nationalistic pride or maybe we were just happy to see a Canadian brother get some cheddar.

And cheddar he did get. But the road to success for Maestro (who is also known professionally by his government name, Wes Williams) has not been easy. Even though in 1991, bowing to the popularity of his debut album, the Juno Awards created a new category to acknowledge his success (in which he later received 2 awards), his mind was solidly fixed on the future. Creating five more albums, numerous collaborations and the title of being the only Canadian Rap artist to have a platinum record, starting a flourishing acting career and a new clothing line (Dope State Classics), Maestro insists that the road to stardom is not paved with gold.

On the rooftop patio at the trendy Drake Hotel on Queen Street West, Maestro sat down with AfroToronto.com to discuss his latest album, Urban Landmark. We also took the opportunity to get his views on the city he loves and the socio-political controversies that are haunting Hip-Hop culture. Known as a ‘greatest hits’ CD, die-hard fans will be delighted to know that, Urban Landmark , landing in record stores this week, includes five new tracks to compliment such classics as “Nothin’At All,’ “Drop the Needle” and of course, “Let Your Backbone Slide.” With his transition from music to the big and small screens, appearing with Jessica Alba and Mekhi Phifer in Honey , Fox Television’s Redemption, UPN’s Soul Food and most recently, the role of Quincy on Omni Television’s night time soap, Metropia, Maestro is a very busy man .But does Urban Landmark mean that this will be the last we hear of him?

“I am going into different fields right now. I’ve made a transition into film and television, so music is not my main focus, as much as it was before,” he says, gazing out into the cloudy sky.

“At the same time, it’s been a long time since my first body of work, Symphony in Effect , which came out in 1989. If you look at Rock artists in this country, their history is documented, and I feel that what I’ve done should be documented as well. Let these kids that are coming up right now know that it just doesn’t happen overnight.” And speaking of kids, he acknowledges without a hint of envy and resentment in his voice that there are more avenues for new artists to create and market their work than when he was starting out.

“They do it differently now. Back then, we didn’t know about the Internet, I didn’t know about CD’s, everything was just vinyl. The first CD I ever owned was my own. And I was disappointed because the images were so much smaller compared to the album.

“I like what cats are coming up with right now. They have more leverage a lot of times. I didn’t know about VideoFact back in 1988. My first video I put out myself, shot it for $5,000.00, and it got on Soul in the City (R&B / Soul music program that aired on Much Music). It wasn’t the best film or the best quality, but back then, you had to be proactive or it’s not going to happen because I’m Canadian. Canada’s not easy, especially if you’re black. You have to work ten times harder than everybody else does. And at the same time too, we sit beside the biggest superpower in the world, the United States, so it’s a tough place to be geographically, financially, everything.”

So is that why there seems to be an obsession among youth with American Hip-Hop culture?

Maestro grew up listening to artists like Rap pioneers Schooly D and Boogie Down Production.

“We have always been inspired by our American brothers and sisters. It comes out in our music, it comes out of our sound…It’s just an imaginary line that separates America from Canada. We do have our influences but we influence them too. We have a strong Reggae community. They come up here; they know what’s up. We inspire each other. It’s just that Canada has 30 million people, America has 300 million people. I’ve always been inspired by American artists, especially those on the East Coast.”

But not everyone in Canada is from a cultural background in which Reggae music plays an integral role. And Maestro is more practical when asked whether this might be a hindrance. After all, who is going to listen to a Canadian MC when American artists are doing the same thing?

Maestro cites the difference between America and Canada and the emotional strength that African-Americans have garnered through slavery as the explanation for the inability of Canadian artists to find and sell their unique voice.

“The dynamics in America and the dynamics in Canada are two totally different things. And we are caught in a weird place, because besides the brothers and sisters from Nova Scotia, the majority of us are first and second-generation Canadians. In America, they’re like, eighth generation American. So when they came from the Middle Passage, when the slave masters brought us down the Passage, some of us ended up in the Caribbean, some of us ended up in North America. That type of slavery that they put American brothers and sisters through, is what gave them the strength that they have right now. That was a special type of slavery that our brothers and sisters had to be so strong to get through, to get out of that. From North and South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia, to migrating to Philadelphia, New York, Chicago – Those were people who ran away and strived to be independent. The type of experience that American brothers and sisters came out of comes with a certain kind of strength, a unique strength that the world gravitates to. So now you’ve got the power of the black American dollar that cannot compare to the Canadian black dollar – we’re not there yet. So when we market our products, we have to market our products differently than in America.”

I decide to put Maestro to the test: Most journalists hate asking this question but the media has been pounding the subject ever since Ice-T’s then-wife appeared in a thong bathing suit on the album cover for 1988’s Power. What is his opinion on the rampant misogyny in Hip-Hop? He pauses for a second…looking a bit irritated, then finally responds.

“I like to look at the whole problem, not necessarily just a situation. This is nothing new. There are bigger issues out there. There are artists trying to eat. We’re talking about business. No one is talking about the business of information, the business of mis-information. What is the political stance of Reuters or the Associated Press? Where are they positioned politically? Because they are the ones giving us the information, which Canada gets through CNN or what have you, because those journalists, those who are sitting behind their desks, are actors too. And what they are spewing out is a script. When they are reading from a teleprompter, they are reading from a script that is not necessarily the truth. So if people want to look at us as Rap or Hip-Hop artists, let’s look at everybody. So if you are looking at it from a misogynistic perspective, in the fifties, Frank Sinatra used to call women broads and back then, that was considered misogynist. Now it’s bitch and ‘ho. What’s the difference between that back then which was accepted to a certain degree versus what is going on now? It’s been always there. Marilyn Monroe stood over a vent and her dress flew up, showing her ass, and people thought she was glorifying womanhood. But then you see Foxy Brown doing the same thing, and people go, ‘what is happening with Hip-Hop culture?’

“This problem, or situation, has always been there. So what I’d like is to address the whole situation, instead of pinpointing, especially at hip-hop artists,” he continues, his voice rising. “We are at the bottom of the food chain. Artists are at the bottom of the food chain in terms of monetary and political power. I’m not talking about when your album goes double-platinum, that’s the exception. The powers of the people that control information are in a whole different echelon than the rap artist. I feel like I’m insulted in a lot of ways. We’re put under a microscope and it’s like, ‘the violence this, the violence that’ And I’m like, ‘yo, there are certain things going on right now that we don’t even know about. Certain conspiracies going on that we don’t even know about. But we are wasting our time insulting ourselves by not necessarily speaking about it, but speaking about it way too much because there are certain things that push us into a direction to distract us from what’s really happening. The news – do you think they really tell us the truth? Is that the truth, or is that a script? So what is the difference between that and a rap artist that talks about violence? Fabricating a story or speaking the truth in a story, in comparison to something that is spewed that is not necessarily the truth from someone who is hired who can speak convincingly, who is reading a script, passed down to them by the powers that be? No one really wants to talk about that, but people want to talk about the Rap artist who wants to eat. I’m not saying this justifies anything, all I’m saying is let’s look at the bigger picture.”

He wonders why people are more interested in discussing Hip-Hop when there are more global problems to tackle. He asserts that in the grand scheme of things, this is not only an insult to the general public, but a smokescreen to avoid the larger issues. “What about the violence that’s happening around the world right now? It’s the powers that be, from a war perspective to the business of mis-information. Propaganda – It’s a big business that no one wants to talk about. I’m working to put my album together, to get a marketing campaign together, I’m thinking of ways, with a minimum budget as to how to get people to buy records,” he laughs. “I’m planning a strategy at a small level. From a political perspective, you can imagine the multitudes of people they will hire to position people’s thinking to purchase a specific item or person, believe in it or not to believe in it. That’s a business, a multi- million business. People look at the rapper- and they are really breaking my heart right now- because they are insulting not only my intelligence, but also the general public and other artists. This is a way where we can make money. I’m not saying that this is the way, or something that you should or shouldn’t do, but let’s re-evaluate the whole thing, but no one wants to do that right now.”

We start discussing the current issues that are plaguing Toronto. He is dismayed about the changes in the city over the past two decades. On the escalating gun violence, he says, “I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed to live in this city right now. I was born in Toronto, raised in Toronto and this is unacceptable, as far as I’m concerned. At the same time too, where do all these guns and drugs come from? Who is bringing them in? You can’t make Cocaine here. We (Canada) don’t have those resources. Guns? How do they get here? That’s what I want to find out. The violence right now is the results of certain things that are happening or are not happening.”

As a thirty-something adult, Maestro has lived enough to form his own social and political perspectives on the world, and is greatly concerned about the future. I ask him what keeps him going and what gives him the drive and determination to further establish himself as an actor. “I don’t really feel myself as being successful. I have done successful things, so maybe that is the answer right there – because I don’t see myself as successful. I’m striving towards success, but I’m not anywhere near where I want to be, so maybe that’s the factor. Maybe in someone else’s’ eyes, I’ve done a lot of stuff, but I’ll never rest on my laurels, saying that, ‘this is what I’ve accomplished so I deserve this and that,’ I’m just like, ‘whatever,’ he broadly smiles.

Look for Urban Landscape , a retrospective of over fifteen years’ of material from Canada’s hip-hop pioneer, in stores this week and check out his newest single “God Bless Da Child” on Much Music and on your local radio station.

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