Often referred to as the Godfather of Canadian hip hop, Wesley Williams was born in Scarborough, Ontario in 1968, the son of Guyanese parents. He began writing poetry as early as Grade 2, and his earliest musical influences, although varied and included African rhythms, always leaned towards the burgeoning New York rap scene, including Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow.
By the age of eleven he was an accomplished DJ and rapper going by the name Melody MC. Barely two years later, he entered a rap festival sponsored by a Toronto radio station, and formed Vision Crew with school friend Ebony MC (Marlon Bruce). They played around the greater Toronto area until Williams went solo in ’88 and changed his handle to Maestro Fresh Wes. A pair of independent demos, “You Can’t Stop Us Now” and “I’m Showin’ You” (with DJ LTD – aka Alva Swaby) made their rounds through the underground.
After adding Farley Flex to the fold, and with DJ LTD, Wes recorded a demo of what would become his biggest hit in 1989, “Let Your Backbone Slide.” He shopped his wares in New York City later that year at the New Music Seminar, and scored a record deal with indie label Lefrak-Moelis Records (LMR). He entertained offers from several interested Canadian parties upon his return, and eventually signed a distribution deal at home with Attic. Distribution outside Canada was done through various affiliations, including Lisson Records in the UK, Lafayette in the Netherlands, and BCM in Germany.
His debut album, SYMPHONY IN EFFECT, was on the shelves before the end of the year, eventually selling double platinum in Canada (200,000 units – the only Canadian hip hop artist to do so), and over a million worldwide. “Let Your Backbone Slide” made him the first Canadian rapper to have an American top 40 hit. The lead-off “Drop The Needle” was the second single, and Wes benefited from heavy video rotation on MuchMusic and MTV. He was the first rapper to ever perform on the Juno Awards show in 1991, where he won for Rap Recording of the Year and Most Promising Male Vocalist. This was followed up with three MuchMusic Video Awards later that year.
His influence with youth was so strong, and so positive, that he became the official spokesman of Toronto’s Task Force Against Drugs after the Toronto Student Councils named him the most popular performer in ’91, beating out Hammer and Young MC.
He released his sophomore disc, BLACK TIE AFFAIR, in the summer of ’91, and “Nothin’ At All” was quick to follow as the first single and video, a song which was basically based on his own accomplishments with “Let Your Backbone Slide” and an ode to some of his own idols and fellow role models like Lennox Lewis and Oscar Peterson.
“Conductin’ Thangs” was next up, then “Another Funky Break,” and although the album sold gold, Wes was frustrated with a perceived lack of support of Canadian hip hop at home and his inability to crack the American market because of it. He packed up his bags and early the next year was a resident of Brooklyn, working on his new album.
Other noteable cuts included “Watchin’ The Zeros Grow” and the title track, both touching on social and political themes of Afrocentricity, self-destruction, and media stereotyping.
MAESTRO ZONE, partially a culmination of the first two records, was released through a new distribution deal compliments of Polydor in ’92, but the record tanked. NAH, DIS KID CAN’T BE FROM CANADA was out of the blocks not long after, but it too was primarily met with indifference, despite the single “Fine Tune Da Mic,” the re-release of “Bring It On,” and two versions of “Dat’s Ma Nigga” – one which was instrumental.
He kept out of the limelight for the next few years, finally resurfacing in the fall of 1998 with BUILT TO LAST. All growed up, he shortened his handle to simply Maestro, and a bunch of cameos from the industry’s top rappers and hip hoppers like Snow, Ghetto Concept, Michie Mee (aka Michelle McCullough), Carla Marshal, and Glenn Lewis highlighted the album. “Stick To Your Vision” was the first single out of the gate, which generously borrowed from The Guess Who‘s classic, “These Eyes.” Although still struggling to crack the American market, the song was a pleasant surprise when it was a hit at home, as was tthe follow-up “416/905 (T.O. Party Anthem).” Later that year, he was awarded the Pioneer Award during the annual ceremony by the Urban Music Association of Canada.
More success came back in 2000, when he released EVER SINCE and the single “Bustin’ Loose,” featuring Kardinal Offishall. A critic’s fave, the record was heralded for Maestro’s fresh slant on politics and social issues. But pre-occupied with outside interests, he laid low until his 2005 cover of Gowan‘s “A Criminal Mind,” which featured his sampled vocals and a cameo from Infinite. Gowan also appeared in the video and performed the song with Maestro at the Urban Music Awards in 2006 in London, England.
Still in 2006, Maestro again made Canadian hip hop history when he joined The Dope Poet Society on stage in Cannes, France. Together with Rochester AKA Juice, they became the first Canadian hip hop acts ever to showcase at Midem, the world’s largest and most influential annual music industry conference. That same year, Maestro was inducted into the Scarborough Walk of Fame.
Over the years, Maestro has also become an accomplished actor under his real name, scoring roles in the series “Metropia,” “Instant Star,” “Platinum,” “Blue Murder,” and “The Line,” as well as the films “Poor Boy’s Game,” “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” Honey,” and “Four Brothers.” He was also the subject of U of T Professor Rinaldo Scott’s book about Black Canadian experiences, “Black Like Who?”