Maestro Fresh Wes details new album, celebrating 30 years of ‘Let Your Backbone Slide’

After 30 years of success, the godfather of Canadian hip hop, Maestro Fresh Wes (or Wesley Williams) is celebrating his career in style. Not by looking back to the past, but with a brand new album.

On March 8, 2019, the Let Your Backbone Slide rapper released his ninth studio album, Champagne Campaign. According to Maestro Fresh Wes, the album is a toast to his career and a celebration of hip hop, the evolution of music and what it really is to stay “fresh” and revered.

The Toronto-born rapper kicked off his career in the early 1980s working hard at his craft and, without knowing it, shaping what hip hop music would eventually be.

He landed a big break on MuchMusic when he was invited to perform on Electric Circus — which at that point in time seemed to be the only way forward for a number of ambitious up-and-comers.

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Through hard work, dedication, determination, and pure originality, Williams didn’t slip through the cracks. With Symphony in Effect he changed the course of not only hip-hop music but the Canadian music industry altogether.

WATCH: Maestro Fresh Wes’ seminal 1989 hip-hop smash-hit, ‘Let Your Backbone Slide’

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Aside from music, Williams is known for his acting career. In 2018, he wrapped up eight seasons on the critically acclaimed Canadian sitcom, Mr. D, where he played the competitive but beloved school teacher, Paul Dwyer, for almost a decade.

After a four-year stint on Canada’s Instant Star, Williams was nominated for a Gemini Award thanks for his performance on HBO’s The Line.

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Ahead of his long-awaited album release, Maestro Fresh Wes released two brand new singles, Waste Yute and Minor Chords.

Once again, he’s receiving major airplay on radio stations throughout the nation and — as always — is working hard towards his next big project.

Before taking a trip to the 2019 Juno Awards in London, Ont., Maestro Fresh Wes took the time to sit down with Global News, where he detailed his extensive past, the making of Champagne Campaign and the importance of ambition.

Global News: Congratulations on 30 years of Symphony in Effect. Did you ever think you’d make it this far?
Maestro Fresh Wes: Thank you, man. To be honest, I didn’t know if it would bring me or this genre so far. A lot of people really thought it was just a fad back in the day. I’m so happy to still be making music and still be acknowledged across the board. The foundation of it all came so long time ago. Even prior to Symphony in Effect. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into my career, man — I’m talking throughout the early ‘80s — and it was all worth it. The fact that I’m here now, I see that as a blessing.

I wanted my career to be like that of rock artists like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones, or Jazz artists, like Quincy Jones. These artists all transcended. They didn’t just stick to one genre of music. Y’know?

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Does that speak to your passion in creating new music, then?
No doubt, man. When I look at music today, I see it in terms of how it evolved. Take disco for example. What was it? It was popular music… and what is trap now? It’s popular music. The Rolling Stones made Tattoo You, which had different songs like Emotional Rescue, while Quincy Jones went from doing his own jazz records to producing disco records for Michael Jackson. It’s all basic evolution. So, in my new album, Champagne Campaign, there’s not only rap, or what you’d expect from Maestro, but some trap, boom bap from back in the day and even some funk.

Ultimately, what we’re doing is celebrating music and the complete evolution of the genre that we know today as hip-hop. That’s how I’m celebrating three decades: not by looking at the past, but by making new music, with twelve brand-new tracks.

Is that where the album title came from then? Champagne Campaign?
Exactly. We’re making a toast to hip-hop because it wasn’t just a fad. We’re making a toast to the three decades of us still doing what we’re doing. By “us,” I mean people I’ve met along the way on this incredible journey, whether that’s my collaborators or producers, et cetera. For hip-hop to evolve to the level it’s at now — where we have the biggest artists in the world coming out of Toronto — is amazing. We’re at the top of the global food chain. It’s truly a beautiful thing.

Maestro Fresh Wes speaks during the 2019 Juno Awards at Budweiser Gardens on March 17, 2019 in London, Ont. Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

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Like all of your albums, there’s a lot of features on this one. What’s the reasoning behind this recurring choice?
That was just what I wanted. It was all my own decision. I pick all the beats, the collaborators and additional songwriters. If you love it, you love it and if you hate it, you hate it. [Laughs] I didn’t have a bunch of young guys advising me which beats to use or which direction to go with a certain song, I just do whatever I feel is right with the music, and the reception I’ve had so far shows me that my ear is still good.
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Was there a specific moment or event that inspired your latest single, Waste Yute?
What inspired this song was actually another track I recorded a few years back called I Know Your Mom — which is actually my favourite record I’ve ever recorded. It was released on Compositions Volume 1 (2015) and I just loved the way that I put it all song together.

Waste Yute is basically just slang for a young person that’s a waste of time or space. So it was almost like a sequel to I Know Your Mom. Dusty Wallace was a pleasure to work with on this one too. Ironically enough, it’s being really well received from the younger generation. [Laughs]

Do you ever consider that if it weren’t for your breakthrough performance on Electric Circus, things might have been different for Canadian musicians today?
All the time. If it wasn’t for Stevie B. — who was an R&B/Dance artist — the direction of hip-hop in Canada might have changed completely. He saw me perform and luckily, he liked me. We were about to sign with a different label, but Stevie put us onto LMR Records instead — and in terms of sharing our music, that was a whole different launching pad for us altogether. I was definitely in the right place at the right time. We ended up with the video for Let Your Backbone Slide, and that’s exactly what MuchMusic was there for. Thanks to Electric Circus, I was essentially discovered. That was a major turning point for a lot of things. I’m still so grateful for that opportunity.

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WATCH: Maestro Fresh Wes’ latest single ‘Waste Yute’ — featuring Dusty Wallace

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Was MuchMusic was the only way for Canadian up-and-comers to make a name for themselves in the industry without the support of the radio?
Oh yeah! MuchMusic was the machine back then. It was the driving force behind it all. You have to understand, this was way before the internet and they managed to make a great platform for musicians. They did a great job exposing artists when the radio stations often wouldn’t.

But in retrospect, looking back at certain things, I have mixed feelings. Firstly, because it’s great that these up-and-comers shared that platform too, but it felt almost like some of those cats were handed shortcuts. I know I wasn’t completely ready for success yet, but I evolved after working so hard on making music. Look at what it did for me. Symphony in Effect dropped in ’89, but I started hustling in ’82. Unfortunately, a lot of the artists I was paired with back then were brand new to the industry and just weren’t ready for that platform. Backbone Slide had already gone platinum for me, I had at least some experience.

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Once you achieved that success, did you have other producers and artists coming to you for advice or help?
Always. But that was something I always wanted to do. Back then, Beat Factory was like the OVO of Toronto. Everybody who was a somebody was already represented by Beat Factory. Then there were cats like me. I tried to rock with them early on, but when I saw the list of artists they had, so I knew I could never be taken seriously because they had to deal with these other artists first.

They had the Dream Warriors, Michie Mee and a plethora of others, so I did my own thing. Eventually, when I got my record deal and Backbone Slide blew up, I actually went back to Beat Factory and gave them their first platinum record — a track called Private Symphony. That was me showing solidarity since the inception of my career. It wasn’t just about me doing my thing, it was about my community. I was already good because Backbone Slide was a gold record, but then I thought “Why not bring these people with us for the next album?” They had their own clique but guess what, We’re still Toronto! [Laughs] So I offered to give Beat Factory a spot on my album to produce, as an act of community. No one told me to do it, it was just something I knew would be good business.
From that, you look at my second album, The Black Tie Affair (1991) and see this long list of features. My intention was to go double-platinum and then give all of these new artists a shot to shine. Again, it was about community. Almost like a family. That was my mentality back then. I hate to say I wanted to “give back,” because to me, your actions show that without having to say it, but because we’re in a different era now, that information doesn’t get documented properly and I have to explain myself. [Laughs]
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Maestro Fresh Wes — one of Canada’s best known Hip Hop artists — at the base of the CN Tower in Toronto. Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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You see a lot of feature hits dominate the charts now, do you think you started a trend in that sense?
Well, I think that’s where hip-hop is right now, regardless of what happened in the ’80s. Personally, I believe hip-hop is the genre which receives the most hate but is definitely the genre which receives the most love among fans and as a community. We work together and we give the most love. We are a family and I hope other artists remember that too. We have way more similarities than we do differences. The agenda, in terms of media, is to keep us divided. But I pride myself in how I worked back in the early stages of my career. I wanted to make that track with Beat Factory, I wanted to collaborate. Being born and raised in Toronto, we grew up watching every other community grow together and prosper, so my whole thing was that that’s what I felt we needed to do. I wanted to support black business.

After eight seasons, Mr. D has officially wrapped. Did you ever expect to land a longstanding role in a sitcom?
Man, I saw Tupac in Juice and I said: “Yo, let me try this acting thing right now.” Before that, I saw Ice T in New Jack City and Ice Cube in Boyz n’ the Hood and I’m like, “Alright, okay,” but that was just a west coast thing. It wasn’t until I saw that Tupac film that I thought I could really do it, because New York is so close to Toronto. I studied, I went to acting classes and one project led to another and I started acting. That’s actually where I met Drake. I was working on Instant Star while he was on Degrassi.

Maestro Fresh Wes performs at Joe Carter Classic After Party at Ritz Carlton on June 21, 2018 in Toronto. Sonia Recchia/WireImage

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You seem like a guy who’s dedicated to helping people live up to their ambitions and full potential. Is that important to you?
I’ll be honest with you, I just try to lead by example, man. I can’t tell these young guys how to rap, or how to make a new record label, I’m from the era of the physical, we’re in the digital age now. I mean, I just learned how to copy and paste last week. [Laughs] It’s a whole different animal now. It took two whole decades for what I accomplished to be succeeded — with the help of the internet. That’s why I feel like I’m still respected and acknowledged in this industry. But we keep things moving, right? I’m happy about what I did back then, but the new album is dope and I’m glad that I’m still evolving.
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People — who even I rate — are coming to me and telling me that they’re digging the new material and it feels better than ever. It means a lot to me. I’m still evolving. I’m breaking away from all my reference points and creating something new. I hope people can look at me and see that evolution and see the hard work that I’ve put in over the last three decades. Look at David Bowie too. I mean, damn, rest in peace. But man! By the time I was listening to him, he had already gone through like three different transitional phases. From Ziggy Stardust, to Aladdin Sane to making disco records. Stuff like Let’s Dance. He never stopped surprising people.

We’re not confined to a little box, like a lot of people think we are. We’re all growing, that’s what I wanna show young people. Hip-hop is like a project, made to suppress us, but the idea is that you’ve got to break out of it. You’ve just got to grab inspiration from different places and evolve sonically.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
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Champagne Campaign is now available on all major streaming platforms. You can find it here on Spotify.

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