Toronto Life, November 1990
A sparse, utilitarian banquet hall in Rexdale is thumping with a beat loud enough to make the windows throb — it’s as though the room is hyperventilating. From the sidewalk in front you can clearly hear the sonic boom, Boom, BOOM; once you're inside, the boom, Boom BOOM rattles your rib cage and kicks you in the solar plexus. The beat speeds up, slows down and changes syncopation through chugging ragamuffin reggae, loping drum-breaks from forgotten mid-1970s funk singles and insistent house grooves speeding along at close to 130 beats per minute. At the turntables in front of a stack of speakers four-and-a-half meters high and three meters across, Anthony and Peter Davis, known as First Offense Productions, are keeping the beat going. The crowd consists off about a hundred adolescents, all trying to master an air of studied boredom to mask their anticipation fro the main draw: Maestro Fresh-Wes.
After two hours of constant beat, one of the Davis brothers cuts it off abruptly and starts pumping the crowd: “How y’all feel tonight?”
The kids shout back a ragged, wordless howl.
“I said, How y’all feel?‚” demands Davis again. “Do you want the Maestro?”
Another yell from the crowd. The call and response continues, each question more of a challenge, each answering bellow longer and stronger than the one before it.
When the crowd is screaming steadily, Anthony and Peter Davis start the beat once more. Seconds later, the main attraction arrives onstage. Wearing a tuxedo, sporting a red bow tie and cummerbund, Maestro Fresh-Wes (Wesley Williams) is prowling the platform. He moves up, down, back, forth, reciting his rhymes with urgency and intensity:
Wes’s DJ, known as LTD, is powering the words and the performance with nothing more than a set of turntables and a mixer. He moves fluidly between the wheels of steel and the cross-fader. A record on one of the turntables carries the beat as LTD accents the mix by cutting in short, biting phrases from another. As well as providing the rhythmic spine of the performance, LTD serves as Wes's interlocutor, using phrases from records to answer questions in the raps, comment on lines or exhort the crowd.
The maestro continues to stalk and stomp. Only minutes into the opening number and he's pouring sweat. His face in profile looks like a hatchet, a fierce scowl underscoring the words that rattle rapid-fire:
While LTD pilots the sinewy beat through another break in the lyrics, a pair of dancers wearing red jackets with Dope State written across the front in yellow take center stage. They're called EZ Duz It and Do It EZ, and they run through a series of athletic moves: bouncing off each other in midair, spinning faster than LTD's turntables and suddenly dropping to the floor.
As Wes returns, dozens in the audience rap the lyrics along with him. They're some of the people who have pushed his first record, Symphony In Effect, 50,000 copies past the platinum mark (sales of more than 100,000) in Canada alone -- a first for any black Canadian artist.
Wes often will put on two shows a night: one for an underage crowd that wouldn't normally be able to see him in the venues he plays, or who have parental curfews to worry about; a second performance is for more autonomous audiences. But what's onstage, Wes says, doesn't change simply because of who's attending: “I try to keep the same show. I mean, if I have to modify it, modify what I'm about, it’s not giving the crowd the real thing. Some of my songs, people say, are a little bit explicit or whatever. But kids joke around on the street saying a lot of the same things. If I'm any different from the norm, it's just that I decided to put it on wax.”
And making the audience part of the act clearly hooks them. Call-and-response sparks something elemental, something that springs from the long oral tradition that gave birth to rap’s precursors. An early form was called “playing the dozens,” a ritual of rhyming insults and put-downs that goes back to the turn of the century in Afro-American culture. But it was only about fifteen years ago that DJs in the Bronx in New York City figured out how to use two turntables to keep a beat going nonstop — all night if need be — to keep the dance floor full. After that, playing the dozens while playing that beat was the next logical step.
In its early days during the middle 1970s, hip-hop — the collective term for the explosion of American ghetto art forms that include rapping, scratch mixing, break dancing and graffiti — helped channel the creative energies of young urban blacks into something other than the destructive gang culture that was destroying lives. More than one American rap star has talked about watching friends die as a result of zip-gun shootouts — tragedies that tailed off considerably with the rise of hip-hop. Instead of joining gangs, kids organized into crews: tight units comprised of at least one and often four or five rappers, a squad of break dancers, a slew of graffiti writers (as they called themselves) and a DJ. Some of the most famous crews eventually got record contracts. Grandmaster Flash, for example, released solo singles and recorded with his rappers. They were known collectively as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and their 1982 twelve-inch single, “The Message,” helped turn rap from good-time party music into hard-edged social commentary:
Now twenty-three, Wesley Williams was a ten-year-old in northeast Scarborough when the first rap started appearing on record. “We’re talking Grandmaster Flash, the Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, Spoonie Gee — that’s what I grew up listening to,” says the Maestro. “I was rapping since I first heard the stuff. At first I rapped at house parties, school dances, the Concert Hall. If I could get a chance I’d talk on the mike for a couple of minutes — even ten seconds. You’ve got to pay your dues.” Wes didn’t consciously set out to pay his dues. Initially, his objectives were strictly short-term: “When I first started, I just said to myself, I just want to get something out of this — I want to get a fresh car. But then the reality comes in.”
That reality, composed equally of the intense competition in the Toronto rap scene and the Canadian record industry’s apparent resistance to almost all black acts and rap in particular, meant that Wes spent seven years working on his performances and writing material. But it wasn’t until 1988 that he began recording demos and sending them to record companies. And, like every rapper and DJ before him, part of that development was to create a stage persona and a name to instantly communicate what he was all about. Instead of opting for a streetwise approach, he went for sophistication, calling himself a maestro. He was, after all, conducting the jams. “Fresh” is slang for anything new, desirable and unexpected. With that combination, the first syllable of his name just seemed to fall naturally into place.
When it came to contacting record companies, says Wes, “We went to the States and Canada. In Canada, we went to the bigger labels. They just sent back the packages: Sorry, we’re not really interested right now.”
Rap’s rapid infiltration of the mainstream may have helped Wes’s efforts to some degree. After growing and developing on its own for the first part of the 1980s, rap finally started to attract the attention of major labels and radio stations about three years ago.
Suddenly, the majors were looking to sign rap acts, and many “urban contemporary” radio stations (a trade euphemism for black) were at least doing rap specialty shows, if not adding new tracks to their regular playlists. It’s only been with the rise of Maestro Fresh-Wes, however, that it has become possible to hear rap on a big commercial AM station like CFTR.
His current record deal with New York’s Lefrak-Moelis Records was the result of chance. “They were on holiday with Steve B [another LMR artist] in Toronto,” says Fresh-Wes. “They saw me on Electric Circus [Citytv’s weekend dance music show]. They just happened to be in the room. Then, boom — contracts were set.”
Says Larry Moelis: “We have to be very selective about which acts we’ll sign. We don’t have a lot of cash or resources. We can’t afford to sign someone who won’t make an impact. We can’t afford mistakes.”
Maestro Fresh-Wes hasn’t been a mistake. The first single from Symphony In Effect, “Let Your Backbone Slide,” sold 25,000 copies in the United States during its first few weeks of release with no advertising and almost no radio airplay. “Backbone‚” got club DJs in the United States interested, and as the momentum built, radio stations on both sides of the border started adding the album to their playlists.
MTV, the American version of MuchMusic, added the video for “Backbone‚” to the rotation on its daily hip-hop program, Yo! MTV Raps. MuchMusic was playing the video too. But for the first few months after it was released, Symphony in Effect was only available here as an American import. Once “Backbone” started denting charts, Attic Records signed a distribution agreement to handle the recording in this country.
When he signed the deal with LMR, Wes had already finished his first year in politics at Carleton — a year that has been the focus of breathless fascination for too many white interviewers. “It seems like every interview I do, they always bring up going to university,” Wes muses. “It’s strange. I don’t think they think they’re being racist, but it’s almost like, ‘Hey, you’re black and you went to university?’ It‚Äôs like me saying, ‘Hey, you’re white, and I’m amazed you can dance.’ Of course I went to university. So did Farley [Farley Flex, Wes’s manager]. He’s got a business degree. Of course. So what?”
But that kind of stereotyping persists. And the more Wes’s success makes him a worthwhile subject, the more he encounters it. Reporter after reporter comes to Maestro Fresh-Wes expecting some Scarborough badass, a cartoon straight out of an early 1970s blaxploitation epic such as The Mack or Superfly.
“Instead of giving facts,” says Wes, “they give a fabricated version of what I’m about, trying to get across their interpretation of what a black rap artist is like. When I speak in interviews, I try to be as articulate and straight up as possible. And I’ve read stuff I know I didn’t say. They could be better informed. It shows me they need to know more about rap music as well as black people. They definitely have to learn more about what time it is. It comes with, let’s say, a culture shock. There’s a gap that has to be bridged.”
A similar gap existed in artist-and-repertoire departments at Canadian record labels before Symphony In Effect passed the platinum sales mark. Now that’s changed, and the reason is single and obvious.
“Artists that are getting signed now are getting signed because of me,” that reason says. “That’s not being conceited or bragging. It’s just being factual. Check the stats. There’s no other Canadian rap artist that’s made it at this magnitude yet. I don’t think they would have gotten the attention if it hadn’t been for me. In Canada? Definitely not. I could say that even if it was somebody else. I opened the doors; I crashed them open. I don’t want anyone patting me on the back, because somebody had to do it, and it just happened to be me. All the other record companies see that, and they’re looking for another Maestro, which is understandable. All that’s doing is stagnating the industry. They’ve got to find innovators. Innovators are the ones who are going to get the most respect in the long run.”
Maestro Fresh-Wes spent most of the summer consolidating his success with a few Canadian concert dates. He also put together a song and a video, “Stop Playing Share AIDS,” a duet with female rap artist D. Shan, for the North York public health department to raise consciousness about AIDS. And, like countless Canadian artists before him, Wes is also looking south: “My ultimate goal is to prove myself in New York, if only because that’s where rap started.” He’d been booked to play Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, but that fell through, so negotiations continue. But there have been one-nighters in Florida, Virginia and Ohio.
“Ohio was good. Miami was rough,” says Wes. “But I like playing rough places and rough crowds, because you’ve got to earn respect. In Canada I’ve earned respect. But I don’t mind getting booed. That’s fine, because what are they going to say three years from now when I’m still around? Get it over with now. Nobody’s going to come up and make it easy. I’m going to be in this game for a while. I’ve been doing it for a while and I take my music seriously. I’ve already written ten tracks for the next album. Nobody’s even ready to think about a second album. “Backbone Slide” s a baby in the States right now, but it’s going to slam, I know it. The thing about this game is you can’t sleep. You’ve always got to figure your next move, because you’ve got so much competition. Even your friends who are rap artists are competition. I wish them all the best of luck, but I’ve got to stay awake and get my stuff done.”