By James Keller
Walking into the Auburn Saloon, it’s obvious why it is the perfect place for this interview. With a laid back atmosphere, peppered with a faint backdrop of music, it is both intimate and comfortable. Looking right at home, relaxed on a couch in the corner, sits the man behind "Let Your Backbone Slide," Maestro Fresh-Wes. He invites us to shuffle around the table next to him and shakes our hands.
"Respect," he says.
A fitting first impression, as much of the Ontario native’s career has been about respect. Gaining it.
Losing it. Rebuilding it. Back in the days of his first record, Symphony in Effect, Maestro–born Wes Williams–was at the forefront of the Canadian hip hop scene and is still the most successful Canadian rapper ever. Since then, his career has seen many difficulties. Even so, one still has to acknowledge his contributions, including his recent ones.
"I don’t know if I’d say ‘turning point,’ but it was a very pivotal point in black music in Canada," explains Maestro on his early career success. "People saw that happening and went ‘wow, this is something that could happen here.’"
From there, hip hop music in Canada was somewhat vindicated. He received lots of radio play and was the first person to win a Juno award in the category of rap–an awards show in which he also performed. His success no doubt opened up doors for other Canadian hip hop artists.
After his debut album, Maestro released Black Tie Affair in 1991–a commercial disappointment compared to Symphony.
"Put yourself in my shoes," begins Maestro. "You’re thinking, the last album almost went double-platinum, so this time around we going for sure and the scene is gonna grow."
When he moved to the U.S., the failure of Naaah, Dis Boy Can’t Be From Canada?!! in ’94 forced him to abandon New York and head north once again.
Maestro returned to Canada five years later, bringing back a lot of frustration from his stay south of the border–directed at both himself and his management.
"That was a very disappointing part of my career," he admits. "It kind of made me think of… retiring and all things like that. It was very depressing in a way."
Fortunately, he stuck with it and released Built to Last in 1998. One track, "Stick to Your Vision," which featured a sample of the Guess Who song "These Eyes," was played during the closing ceremonies of that year’s Grey Cup and again in a documentary about the life of Pierre Trudeau. Maestro is again getting attention reminiscent of his glory days.
His new album, Ever Since, is one he sees as having great potential. He explains that changes from previous work have been very positive and now he has to keep things tight to rise into the spotlight–both himself and rap music in Canada in general.
"Right now, we got Choclair on Virgin and Rascalz on BMG. To me, that ain’t good," Maestro says, noting that there is a wealth of talent in Canada that isn’t getting recognized. "It is important right now, imperative right now, that everything we do has to be dope."
As for the future of Maestro and Canadian hip hop in general, Maestro is optimistic and stresses there is great potential, providing it is presented and received correctly.
"Everything’s gotta be on point… because the world is looking."