Groundbreaking hip hop artist Wes Williams, better known to many as Maestro Fresh-Wes, is happy to celebrate his past success, but he’s not content to rest on his sacroiliac.
On Thursday, the rapper’s seminal single Let Your Backbone Slide is being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. It is the first hip hop song to receive the honour.
“It’s good for me, but it’s great for the genre of music. It’s great for hip hop,” Williams says. “We started from the bottom, but now we’re here doing international things. I’m just honoured to be a part of that.”
Williams wrote Let Your Backbone Slide while working as a security guard at the Parkway Mall in Scarborough, Ont., in the late 1980s.
“I took the graveyard shift. That way I could work on my demos,” says Williams.
It was also at the mall where he came up with the title of “Maestro,” inspired by a now-shuttered Tuxedo Royale retail outlet.
When he burst onto the scene as Maestro Fresh-Wes in 1989, Canada’s music industry just wasn’t ready.
There were no hip hop record labels, no mainstream urban radio stations, and no means of recognizing the contributions of rap artists at the Juno Awards.
Music fans were ready for something fresh, though. And thanks in part to a crafty, low-budget video that received repeated play on Much Music, Let Your Backbone Slide became a bona fide hit.
It was the first rap single certified Gold in Canada.
Williams was invited to perform at the 1990 Juno ceremonies, but found himself out of place, nominated in the Best Dance Recording category.
Still, the performance marked a turning point in Maestro’s career, and a shift in the Canadian Music Industry that paved the way for artists such as Shad, Kardinal Offishall and of course, Drake.
When songwriter Tom Cochrane took to the podium to introduce Maestro Fresh-Wes at the 1990 awards, he noted Canada’s rich heritage of folk musicians, evoking the names of Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and others.
“But there’s a new kind of folk music and it’s called rap music,” continued Cochrane. “This is Canada’s contribution in that area, and he’s a great artist.”
Williams doesn’t remember the specific introduction, but he remembers the performance well.
“We knew we were doing something special,” says Williams. “This [was] something in its infancy that Canada ain’t ever seen before.”
The following year, thanks largely to Williams, the Juno Rap Recording of the Year category was created. It’s one of the reasons he is often referred to as the “Godfather of Canadian hip hop.”
“It’s better than the Grandfather of Canadian hip hop,” jokes Williams.
The artist has had other hits and influential songs throughout his career, including 1998’s Stick to Your Vision and 416 to the 905, a song Drake cites specifically as an inspiration. Williams’ 2017 album, Coach Fresh, was nominated for a Juno Award.
Williams has also had a successful acting career. He recently wrapped up an eight-season run on CBC Television’s Mr. D, where he played a smooth-talking teacher who becomes a vice-principal.
In 2010 he published an autobiographical self-help book called Stick to Your Vision, and he has spent time touring as a motivational speaker.
But he continues to work at the craft that first made him famous.
“I’m gonna continue making music ’til I don’t have any music left in me,” says Williams. “I’m 51 years old, but my back bone is still sliding, man.”
Maestro Fresh-Wes’ latest album is the self-released Champagne Campaign (2019).
Thursday’s Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place at the The Phoenix in Toronto. Other songs being honoured include Rise Up by the Parachute Club, and I Would be the One by Kensington Market.
Watch the full interview with Wes Williams from The National, and hear his take on making history with Canadian hip hop: