Introducing Rewind, a new series featuring the oral histories of some of Toronto’s most important albums. In the inaugural edition, we look at Maestro Fresh-Wes’ 1989 debut, Symphony in Effect, the album that forced an indifferent music industry to pay attention to Canadian hip-hop.
In the late 1980s, Toronto’s hip-hop scene was so underground that it bordered on subterranean. The only radio play came courtesy of college-radio jocks like Ron Nelson and Adrien “DJX” King. Domestic record labels weren’t interested in hip-hop, while American labels largely weren’t interested in Canadian rappers. (As of 1989, only the duo of Michie Mee and L.A. Luv had signed a deal with an American label.) Symphony in Effect, the full-length debut by Scarborough native Maestro Fresh-Wes, would change all that.
Released on American independent label LeFrak-Moelis Records (LMR) and distributed domestically by Attic, Symphony sold nearly 200,000 copies, was the first domestic hip-hop album to crack the RPM Top 5, won the first-ever rap Juno, and held the record for being the best-selling Canadian hip-hop album for over 20 years. By 1991, Maestro was on the vanguard of a Canadian hip-hop boom that included artists like Mee, the Dream Warriors, and Kish.
That said, it’s never easy being first, and Symphony would never have happened without the single-minded determination of two guys from Scarborough, as well as some help from a zealous record executive, ’80s dance music star Stevie B and, um, long-forgotten pop-rockers Haywire.
Wes Williams (a.k.a. Maestro Fresh-Wes): I started rapping in 1979. I was 11 years-old… I started making demo tapes when I was about 15 or 16, thinking [rap] could potentially be a career.
Steve Waxman (former Vice President of Radio Promotion, Attic Records): Years before Symphony in Effect, I saw [Wes] at the BamBoo. He was playing in a rap duo called Vision, and I thought they were fantastic. I went up to them, gave them my business card and said, “Do me a favour, call me.” They never did.
Part I: Wizards and Parkway Mall
Maestro funds his hip-hop dreams by working as a mall cop at Scarborough’s least exciting shopping destination.
Farley Flex (Maestro’s first manager): When I would come home from university, during the summer and spring breaks, I worked at a little roadhouse restaurant called Wizards in Scarborough, and we’d have these little rap battles with the door staff against the kitchen staff.
Wes Williams: It wasn’t really battles; it was just having having fun with the fellas at work. It wasn’t like we were battling on a stage with mics and everything.
Farley Flex: The guys on the door were winning all the time, and then the kitchen and bus staff started getting good, and I wanted to know why. I found out this guy in the back, Wes Williams, was feeding them lines. That was how I encountered Wes as a rapper.
Wes Williams: I went [to Carleton] for a year… then I said, ‘Okay, well, let me just give [music] a chance’ and took a year off.
Farley Flex: Wes called me, and told me he was thinking about taking time off school to try and become a recording artist. He knew I had a business background from promoting events and stuff like that.
Wes Williams: I got a job to pay for my demo tapes. I was working security at Parkway Mall. It was a job where I didn’t have to work that hard, but I could make some money and work on my music while I was there, do some writing. The majority of the album was written at Parkway Mall.
Part II: Coming to America
The King of Freestyle helps out the future Godfather of Canadian Hip-Hop.
Farley Flex: We’d approached some Canadian labels, who, at that point didn’t have a lot of experience with the genre. Their approach was to find something that had already worked. They were looking for a Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince replica.
Wes Williams: It’s not their fault really. It was a gamble, no one had ever done it before. There was no point of reference for them to look at… I say that being mature about that now.
Farley Flex: The story really begins when [Wes] performed on Electric Circus a couple of times. The second time he was on, Stevie B, who was signed to LMR, was also there.
Wes Williams: I didn’t even necessarily want to do it… [but] because I’d already done that, Farley said, “Let’s give it a shot one more time.”
Farley Flex: As we were leaving the building, [Stevie B] kind of beckoned us. He informed me that he had a show in Mississauga that night, and that his label was in town. He said he really liked the song [“Let Your Backbone Slide”] and he’d like to talk to us about it.
Larry Moelis (Vice President of Operations, LeFrak-Moelis Records): Stevie B was big in Canada, and he told us about Wes. We were not in the rap market at all. We were basically trying to use the American dance market as a segue into the pop market.
Farley Flex: Stevie B was their artist; it wasn’t a lengthy roster. I went out that night and met with a vice president of [LMR], Larry Moelis, who was the son of the man who owned the label. He offered a single on the spot.
Larry Moelis: That was pretty standard for an independent. No independent was going to commit to a new artist for an album. You did a single, you put it out, you promoted it and, if you saw potential, then you went for it.
Farley Flex: Wes and I wanted an album deal. We were thinking bigger. We went down and met the patriarch of the label, Herb Moelis. We talked about our interest in an album deal, and we had some other songs on the demo that they liked, and then I asked Wes to drop a rhyme right there on the spot—that took them aback. I guess Herb thought he had potential.
Part III: The Return to Canada
An unlicensed sample helps Maestro land a domestic distribution deal.
Farley Flex: When the “Let Your Backbone Slide” single came out, it was available only as an import… many of the [local] DJs didn’t know that Wes was a Canadian kid. He came in in sort of a backwards way, living here, with a record on import.
Larry Moelis: We were originally affiliated with A&M [in Canada], for Stevie B. A&M didn’t want to take on rap product, which kind of shows you where Canada was at the time.
Steve Waxman: I was at, of all things, a Soundgarden concert at a club out in Mississauga called The World; the DJ was playing all this dance music. He put on “Backbone Slide”—and it wasn’t on the radio at the time, the video wasn’t being played—and the place went absolutely fucking bonkers. The kids went apeshit.
Farley Flex: We did the [“Let Your Backbone Slide”] video and that got on Much—that was when Attic Records started negotiating with our American label.
Steve Waxman: I got the record and played it for [Attic President] Al Mair. He said, “Do you think could be a hit?” I said, “Al, I think it already is a hit. Somebody just has to put it out.”
Farley Flex: Part of the negotiation was that [Attic] owned the sample that we used on the album, the “Drop the Needle” sample.
Haywire was a PEI-based band—a sort of CanCon Bon Jovi—that released three albums on Attic between 1986-1990. “Drop the Needle” samples roughly three seconds of Haywire’s biggest hit, 1987’s “Dance Desire.”
Steve Waxman: At the time, record company people used to meet regularly with club DJs. We’d be promoting 12-inch singles and things like that. Someone played [“Drop the Needle”] for the DJs. I was very intricately involved with Haywire at the time; I heard the sample and told Al Mair about it [the following] Monday when I was back in the office, and he kind of went, “Ah ha!”
Farley Flex: It wasn’t a strong-arm situation; that was a bargaining tool they had, and they used it.
Steve Waxman: I think LMR was probably looking for a better deal at the time. I don’t know what the deal ended up being, I’m never involved in that stuff. But I remember, back at that time, people were sampling records and there were a lot of lawsuits flying around. I think [Wes’ deal with Attic] was basically a distribution deal cut on avoiding a lawsuit.
Larry Moelis: There may have been some internal horse-trading, but I have no idea.
Farley Flex: You want to do well on your home ground. With Attic, we had distribution from Nova Scotia to BC.
Wes Williams: All I knew was Toronto; I didn’t know the world or nothing like that, so [being on Attic] was cool.
Next page: How Symphony in Effect paved the way for everyone from Kardi to Drake