Tall Poppy Interview: Wes “Maestro” Williams
Wes Williams is synonymous with Canadian hip hop. Bursting on the scene as Maestro Fresh Wes, Williams brashly declared, “’89 is mine.” And it was. His debut single “Let Your Backbone Slide” was a crossover success and is the only Canadian rap single to go gold. His debut album Symphony in Effect remains the best selling Canadian hip hop album of all time despite being a year shy of its twentieth anniversary. Williams is often cited as the Godfather of Canadian hip hop and as he once rhymed, “I’m not a rapper, I’m an icon. Don’t get it confused.”
Although he returned to the top of the charts in 1999 with his comeback single, “Stick To Your Vision,” Williams spends most of his time in front of the camera. Dedicated to acting, he has been in much more than just Metropia. In town to present at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, Torontoist was able to sit down with the music pioneer. Modest but with undeniable swagger, Williams talked about his new cop show, how he came up with the Maestro concept, and who is actually the Godfather of Canadian hip hop.
Torontoist: This is the first year in the National Aboriginal Achievement Award’s fifteen year history where they invited non-Aboriginals to hand out awards. How do you feel about being invited to present?
Williams: It’s a blessing to be right here. It’s an honour. I’m glad that they asked me to be a part of this and I’m going to do my thing and represent.
Are you living in Toronto now or are you more all over the place?
Yeah, I’m more or less all over the place but Toronto is always home.
Are you still doing the acting thing?
I guess you were in Get Rich or Die Trying…
Not really. That was in all kinds of databases and stuff but I was never in that movie. I auditioned for a part but Terrence Howard got that part, and I mean that’s Terrence Howard. But it’s still marked down that I was in the movie and I’m trying to get that off because I actually wasn’t.
Were you in Four Brothers?
Yeah, you know that I was in Four Brothers. I’ve been in a few projects, man. The resume is getting chunkier and chunkier as we go along. I just finished filming a series that’s in post-production right now called The Weight. It’s a series created by George F. Walker who is the creator of This is Wonderland, so I’m in good hands. I think that’s my calling card right there. When people see what I did, they’ll be happy with that.
Can you talk a little bit more about what The Weight [preview video at right] is about?
The Weight is about crooked cops, man. Cops and robbers and everybody is a prick. You just have to decide who you like and who you don’t like. I have a real cool part and it’s going to surprise a lot of people.
Are you a recurring character?
Oh, yeah. I’m one of the leads. It also stars Linda Hamilton from The Terminator, Sharon Lawrence from NYPD Blue, and Ed Asner—Lou Grant from Mary Tyler Moore—so I’m getting to work with some cool peoples. And yeah, I did some of my best work on that project. It’s going to be on the Movie Network in the Spring/Fall and I’m excited about it.
What are the working days like as an actor?
Oh man, it depends. I’m still auditioning for a lot of parts right now as I’m in post-production for this. But I love it. It’s a craft that I’m trying my best to master. You just keep studying, trying different things and trying to be as real and authentic as possible. It’s just like music, you want it to be as authentic as possible.
There are certain times that you hear a singer do a song and it’s like you don’t feel her or his soul. It’s lacking something or what have you. Anybody can just sing words but the ones that standout are the ones that you feel in your soul. Like Bob Marley—he’s still alive anytime you put on the CD. Diana Ross and the Supremes or Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder—you hear that soul coming through their vocals or just sonically. It’s the same thing with the acting: you just try to make it as real as possible and as authentic as possible.
Is that why you’ve kind of moved away from music the past few years? It’s not really where your heart is as much?
Um, I don’t embrace hip hop the same way that I used to, you know like rap music. I embrace hip hop culture the same way but I don’t think that I embrace rap music the same way I did back in the days. I think that as much as I like a lot of new artists right now, I’m getting older now. You know what I’m saying? I might like Lil Wayne and T.I. and Jeezy and I think they’re great artists, but I came up in the 80’s so I’m going to embrace Eric B. & Rakim, KRS-One, Run-DMC a little more or a lot more than I do this generation of artists. It’s just like the fan base right now would be like, “I respect Eric B and Rakim or LL Cool J but I’m feeling Lil Wayne and T.I. right now,” and that’s for the younger generation. So I mean that’s just where I’m at.
And at the same time too, I wanted to use more of my brain and expand into different things. Expand and diversify the portfolio and just expand. It’s a craft and I found something that I love and I’m passionate about. I’ll sprinkle every now and then and do some songs but I think that’s where my focus is at.
I’ll still do shows. Two weeks ago I was in Whistler doing the Olympic Launch. I was asked to come down and be one of the performers and that was cool. A nice little corporate gig, a nice little corporate check and you know, the people had a good time and we had a great time too. I’ll always do shows and stuff like that, but I don’t want to be complacent. I just want to grow and I think through acting, that’s helped me out a lot. I got to work with Academy Award winners already and some good projects. I was also in Redemption, which starred Jamie Foxx as Stan “Tookie” Williams. I got some good top billing on that—I was fourth credit in that movie. So that’s a blessing right there.
That must’ve been an amazing project as well. I don’t really know a great deal about “Tookie” Williams but I find it interesting how he completely changed his life before his execution.
Yeah, I spoke to him on the phone while I was filming and that was a blessing right there too. It’s funny, I tried to get on the soundtrack for this movie called Hurricane which Denzel Washington starred in. I had a song that was written to be the last song for the movie and when that didn’t happen, I was very disappointed. I thought that was going to be a small window of opportunity to help me out in terms of getting that international claim or what have you. So when that didn’t happen, I was a little discouraged.
But two years later, I auditioned for Redemption and it was the same executive producer for Hurricane, Rudy Langlais from Beacon Films. And so he goes, “Yo, that’s Maestro. I remember him.” My audition was good, he gave me the opportunity and I ran with it. So it’s who you know and who knows you, man. If one door closes, the next door is going to open and there’s light at the side of the tunnel. So you just have to keep digging and go forth and forward and I’m living proof of that. That’s just universal laws, when you think about it. When one thing shuts down, another thing is going to open up. I stay positive.
Can you do comedy, at all?
I can do comedy. I’m not really a slapstick kind of dude but I can do comedy. I mean, I guess my persona as a rap artist is a more serious dude or whatever but as an actor, you can expand. I think I’m funny when the time comes to be funny. [Laughing.] You know what I’m saying.
Have you done any stage stuff as well?
My stage has been musicals, which has been performing hip hop. So I’ve been doing if you want to call them musicals since the early 80’s. From opening up for The Beastie Boys or UTFO from the early to mid 80’s to doing stuff right now with Classified or Kardinal or whatever. So I’ve been doing musicals, doing stage for a long time. So in terms from a theatrical perspective, I’m not worried about that. I think that it’s real hard to do film and TV where everything’s closed and zoomed in.
Do you mind if we talk a bit about your music career? I didn’t move to Canada until the early 90’s and you were definitely a presence, but I missed out on your rise. Could you talk about those days and what it was like coming up?
It’s just, I feel blessed man. The fact that I was chosen to be that dude. [Laughs.] You know what I mean. I don’t know what else to say. It’s a blessing and I cherish that, I acknowledge it and I’m very grateful for the fact that this great city here—that I was that dude that set it off or gets props for setting it off from an MC perspective. I mean, Michie Mee was always a great motivator to me and Ron Nelson—especially Ron Nelson. If it wasn’t for Ron Nelson, there would never be a Maestro Fresh Wes as far as I’m concerned. That’s the real godfather of hip hop right there in Canada. Ron Nelson, for real. That’s the dude that put me on all the shows, put me on CKLN and gave me that confidence that I could do this too. But I think that I’m that dude in a lot of ways. Ain’t nobody told me to put on a tuxedo and the bow tie and call myself Maestro. Nobody told me to rent a cello from Steve’s Music store.
It was just me trying to say, “you know what, we’re Canadian but we have to be original.” I think that a lot of times, a lot of people had a hard time dealing with originality. A lot of people had a hard time dealing with Dream Warriors who were probably one of the most original hip hop groups of all time. If they had problems with Dream Warriors, they’re going to have problems with me too. I’m coming out with a tuxedo and a bow-tie saying that I’m the Maestro. But conceptually, Toronto wasn’t bringing it like I brought it back then.
It wasn’t just the music alone and the beats and rhymes. It was the concept, it was the time. It was ’89 son when MuchMusic really cared about breaking new upcoming talent. That was their agenda and their mandate, especially back then. I was just around the right place at the right time; the right song at the right time; the right concept at the right time; it was just my time right there. And I’m still reaping the benefits from that. From you interviewing me or wanting to interview me, that’s a benefit right there.
How did you come up with the concept of Maestro with the bow tie?
I was taking a walk in the mall one day and I saw a tuxedo—a Tuxedo Royal. It was just standing there on a mannequin and I was just sitting there. A friend of mine was just telling me, “You know, you need a title in front of your name. You can’t just be MC Fresh Wes, you need a title.” So, I kept that in the back of my head and when I saw the tuxedo chilling there, I thought, “Yo—Maestro Fresh Wes; that’s my name.” It sounded so original and I told people. People laughed at me when they heard that but it was just something original, man.
You know, it’s not just about making records. It’s about making history. Anyone can make a record and it’s not even just about making music, it’s about making a contribution to the music. People who assimilate, they’re forgotten about. The innovators are the ones that are remembered. It’s easy to assimilate, especially coming out of Canada and we’re so influenced by America. How can you not be influenced by American music? The hardest thing for me and any other artist to do is block out America for a second and try to tap into your own stuff. The ones that shine the most are the ones that have been able to do that, from Kardinal to Dream Warriors to myself to k-os to whatever.
It’s just shutting out those influences and trying to tap into your own soul and trying to come up with something original and be innovators. The innovators are the ones who get the most props and stand out longer. If I was just rapping like everyone else, it would be like, “that was a hot track back then.” But the fact that I did something different is why seventeen years later, Scarborough is giving me a star on the Walk of Fame.
God bless. You know what I’m saying, to me that’s big. Last year or the year before that, you go to Town Center I have a star right there—Wes “Maestro” Williams. It’s beyond just being a good rapper. Anyone can make words rhyme but that shows me what my community thinks of me. You interviewing me shows me what my community thinks of me. Me being asked to present a National Aboriginal Award, come on that’s big to me man. That’s showing me what my community thinks of me and that’s a blessing right there and I cherish that. I’m humbled by that and I keep it moving.
You mention that you were at the right place and at the right time but at the same time, you made the most of those opportunities. Looking back on your discography, you rhyme over so many different types of beats. Like “Conductin’ Thangs” has a jazzy-poppy ..
Ska, man. One thing that I did too that I don’t really mention that much is that I’m the first cat to really sample Canadian rock records. “Drop the Needle” (see video above)—that’s a rock record from a group called Haywire, that’s where I got that sample from. I sampled “These Eyes” for “Stick to Your Vision“—ain’t nobody told me to do that. That was just me loving the Guess Who. Then you have “A Criminal Mind” by Gowan. I’m that dude. I’m the first to sample Canadian rock records and bring it to the forefront like that.
I don’t know if you know this, but I was selected to be the guest speaker when the Governor General came to Vancouver. So that was big for me and you know, I was telling people that I feel blessed. I met this dude and he had “Stick to Your Vision” tattooed on his arm. You have to think—that’s a song that I created, a song that I wrote and it shows me, “Wow, people are inspired by your words, man.” All that stuff shows me that I’m here for a reason and people gravitate towards that and it’s a good feeling.
I actually wanted to talk to you about Stick to Your Vision, because that was your first record back after a hiatus. I just wanted to say that you knocked it out of the park and was it something that when you first heard the sample, you just knew it could be a big record?
Yeah, I knew it. Someone mailed me a CD compilation of 70 Greatest Juno Awards songs. So you had Alanis Morisette, Bryan Adams, The Stampeders, Neil Young, Burton Cummings, Leonard Cohen on that. Like 77 of the greatest and “Let Your Backbone Slide” was one of those songs. So I’m like, “wow I’m with some big people like Anne Murray, everybody. You know what, I’m going to go through this.”
So “These Eyes” was playing and it just made me feel real good. It made me feel like I’m surrounded by greatness. When I heard that break, I knew how I wanted to make it. I was like, “I’m going to write a song right over this 8 bar break. I’m going to loop that and then the chorus, I’m going to sample [singing] These eyes, [singing at a higher melody] these eyes. Those two melodies right there and put my chorus in between.” I knew that. That was already done. I just gave it to my man to produce but it was already produced in my head how we wanted it to be.
Has that happened a lot in your career, where you just heard a song and knew how you wanted to turn it into your own song?
That was one of the songs that I knew right away. Randy Bachman gave me permission and he liked what I did with it. And then Burton Cummings at the Juno Awards a couple of years later gave me a big hug and said, “thank you.” That’s a blessing when people like your stuff. So I feel honoured to be Canadian and I feel honoured to be able to continue and that people are inspired by me.
All photos by Andrew Chin. The National Aboriginal Achievement Awards airs tonight on Global at 8 p.m. Encore presentation on April 5 at 8 p.m. on APTN.