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.
Part IV: Can-Rap Rising
Symphony in Effect inspires a Canadian hip-hop boom.
Farley Flex: At the time, the only hip-hop shows were on the campus stations; CIUT, CKLN and CHRY. Literally 100 per cent of those early spins were coming from that.
Wes Williams: Ron Nelson from CKLN was my major support.
Steve Waxman: It was a hit on the dancefloors, it was just a matter of getting it on [commercial] radio. I believe the first station that added it was CFTR here in Toronto. They were so influential; once CFTR added it, it only took a few more weeks for us to have a significant amount of the radio panel playing the track. Once we started getting significant radio play, MuchMusic started playing the video even more.
Wes Williams: With the reception from radio, I knew I was onto something. I was doing shows from Public Enemy and Ice-T, and that kind of etched it in stone. I knew I was good, I knew I was ready. Then the next step was to prove that it wasn’t a fluke, and come back with more heat. Then “Drop the Needle” dropped.
Larry Moelis: One of the things that was really big back then was getting video play. If you were an independent, they didn’t play you unless they had to. I think when [MuchMusic] started to play the video, that was a major breakthrough. Stevie B had a number one record in the States and we couldn’t get the video on MTV.
Farley Flex: There wasn’t a finite goal—“we want the album to sell X-amount of units,” or whatever. But we definitely broke through the ceiling for Canadians doing well in Canada, especially black Canadians doing a black genre of music. We broke that mold and the skies opened up.
Steve Waxman: It was like a competition: Who’s going to have the bigger record? “Let Your Backbone Slide” and [Dream Warriors’] “Wash Your Face in My Sink” were going head-to-head. As the singles got bigger, the hip-hop scene got bigger, and more and more people started covering it. Everything was kind of building together. It was like this giant monster and, luckily for us, Wes was always on the top of the mountain.
Farley Flex: If you talk to studio owners at the time, they’ll tell you how much business they started to generate as a result of Wes’ impact.
Steve Waxman: “Backbone” was a really big hit, then “Drop the Needle” was a really big hit, and Symphony wound up selling a couple hundred thousand. But then, coming into the Junos, no one in the industry—outside of us who were directly involved—thought this was for real. They didn’t believe the sales were the sales. This was before we had Soundscan, so you’d call record stores and they’d say, “Here are my top 10–selling records,’ and you had to take them at their word.
Wes Williams: Getting nominated for a Juno was like, ‘Oh my goodness—I’m from Scarborough, and I’m getting nominated for this award.’ Then, the next year, they created a category at the Junos for best rap record. I was a part of that.
Steve Waxman: I was trying to get the people on the [Juno] performance committee to put Wes on the show, and they just didn’t want to do it. I would send [them] article after article, chart after chart, video after video, and they finally agreed. I have a letter, to Al Mair, from someone on the committee saying, “We want to commend Steve Waxman for being so thorough and sending us so much information on Maestro Fresh-Wes.” I was like, “You betcha, buddy. I’ll pound it into your ass.”
Wes Williams: My whole thing was: I’m not making records, I’m making history. We just didn’t know it was going to last so long.
Wes Williams: The artists that I’m inspired by aren’t necessarily the most popular, but they made ground-breaking music: KRS-One, Public Enemy, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane. When I made music, I wanted it to last and have the same sort of impact those artists made. When you put on a Public Enemy record, you remember where you where when you heard it. That’s what I wanted to do. The fact that people still want to interview me 25 years later proves that I was doing something.
Larry Moelis: At the time, there was no market at all for rap [in Canada.] Wes was a total original: He clearly opened the door, and he did it in a way you couldn’t argue with, with sales, Juno awards, and video play.
Farley Flex: If you look at track and field in a place like Jamaica, the history of [1970s Olympian] Donald Quarrie has a lot to do with the success of Usain Bolt. A lot of people don’t make that connection. If you do a work-back schedule from Drake’s career back to Maestro… if you take away the success of Kardi and Saukrates and k-os and all the way back to Wes, Drake might be working as an accountant somewhere.
Steve Waxman: It opened people’s minds to what Canadians could do, that it wasn’t just Platinum Blonde and Loverboy.
Do you remember the first time you heard Maestro Fresh-Wes? Share your story in the Comments section below.