In 1989 the album Symphony in Effect dropped authoritatively into a Canadian music scene that was unprepared for its arrival. The artist in question was named Maestro Fresh Wes. The lead single was “Let Your Backbone Slide”. Before the dust settled, Symphony In Effect went almost double-platinum in Canada. “Let Your Backbone Slide” went Gold, making Maestro Fresh Wes the first Hip Hop star from Canada to have a Gold record. The song and album even charted south of the border, too. In 1990, “Let Your Backbone Slide” won the Juno award for Best Dance Recording. There is a lot of significance to the song winning that particular award because “Let Your Backbone Slide” is not a dance-oriented song (although the video does feature dancing). “Let Your Backbone Slide” was Canada’s first bonafide Hip Hop hit. When it went up for consideration at the Juno Awards, there was much embarrassment on the part of the music industry because the Junos did not have an official Hip Hop category. Thus, Maestro Fresh Wes won for Best Dance Recording because that was the category that organizers felt was the closest thing they had to Hip Hop. In 1991, the Junos rectified that mistake by creating a category known as Best Rap Recording of the Year. Just let this all sink in. Before Maestro Fresh Wes released Symphony In Effect, the official music industry in Canada did not recognize Hip Hop as an official music genre worthy of merit. After Maestro Fresh Wes released “Let Your Backbone Slide”, the Canadian music industry was changed by its impact. Hip Hop took its place on the national stage and has grown in scope ever since. One need look no further than to the careers of The Weeknd and Drake to know how important Hip Hop has become in Canada and around the world. As with many genres of Canadian music, we are now a force to be reckoned with internationally when it comes to Rap and Hip Hop. Canada can hold its head up high. But in order to appreciate where we are as a Hip Hop nation, we first must know from whence we came. This is the story of how it all started. This is the story of Maestro Fresh Wes and a song that changed Canadian music forever. Enjoy.
As much as Maestro Fresh Wes is responsible for introducing Canada to the kick-ass rhyming schemes that came to characterize Hip Hop as a musical style, his ascendance is more accurately the result of a number of factors that had to appear first. Initially, Hip Hop was a musical phenomenon that was restricted primarily to areas such as neighbourhoods and smaller community settings such as community halls, local parks, school yards or street corners. In the 1970s, Hip Hop as a culture and rapping as a musical style began to coalesce around certain regional areas and the personalities whose skills seemed to be a cut above the rest. In New York, those names included Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, along with DJ Kool Herc *(who was just inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame this past year). Rappers like Kurtis Blow and groups like Run-DMC began releasing tracks. As a result, even though it remained very much a fragmented, niche market, Hip Hop started to grow in scope and in influence as a style or genre of music. Even in those pre-Internet times, word began to spread across the border and into various neighbourhoods in Toronto which were demographically suited to embrace this new form of music. But even as Hip Hop took root in areas such as Jane and Finch or in Scarborough, there was no centralized or organized movement. As the 1980s dawned, Hip Hop in Canada was only a reality in isolated neighbourhoods. That all began to change with the launch of a community-based radio show in Toronto called Fantastic Voyage that was hosted by Ron Nelson. *(I have written about Ron in a previous post that you can read here. In order to appreciate the rest of today’s post, I think it is important to re-read my previous post so you can know more about my university classmate and the enormous impact he had in the world of Hip Hop in Canada).
Ron and I both enrolled in the Radio and Television Arts Bachelor of Arts programme at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now called Toronto Metropolitan University) in 1982. The 1982 cohort was organized into groups of twenty. Ron and I were in the same initial group of 20. While I was figuring out how to do my own laundry and cook my own meals, Ron Nelson was applying to work at the Ryerson community radio station CKLN. Like most college radio stations, CKLN was a not-for-profit organization. It got its budget from the university and from public fundraising campaigns. Its mandate was to broadcast programming that reflected the multi-cultural character of Toronto. The vast majority of the people who worked at CKLN were Ryerson students who volunteered their time. Ron Nelson was one of those volunteers. He showed up at CKLN during his first week of school because he had an idea. He wanted to broadcast his own Hip Hop radio show. By the time 1982 rolled around, Ron had been introduced to some of the artists who were beginning to make waves in the world of Hip Hop in the US. But as he surveyed the musical landscape in Toronto at that same time, he saw none of that emerging culture reflected in on-air television or radio programming. So he took it upon himself to fill the void, as it were. Ron Nelson launched his radio show called Fantastic Voyage and turned Saturday afternoons into must-listen-to programming. Initially, his show was listened to exclusively by those in the small neighbourhood enclaves that had already embraced Hip Hop. But soon, by word-of-mouth, the news spread across Toronto that this new, seemingly exciting and exotic music called Hip Hop was being broadcast on air for real by a young man filled with knowledge of and passion for his subject matter. Ron used the success of Fantastic Voyage to branch out into the world of concert promotion. Because of Ron’s efforts, Toronto saw bands such as Public Enemy come to town. It should also be noted that in addition to the pioneering efforts of Ron Nelson, a second very important factor in helping to launch the Hip Hop movement in Canada occurred when Much Music began broadcasting across the country. The 1980s saw the emergence of music videos as a way for artists and bands to reach a much wider audience than they ever had access to before. In Toronto in particular, the TV station that housed Much Music’s studios, CITY-TV, also ran its own music programmes. One of those programmes was a Friday night televised dance party hosted by a lady named Monika Deol called The Electric Circus. On EC, new and emerging musical talent often appeared live. This show was modeled after the successful U.S. show Soul Train. Like its U.S. counterpart, The Electric Circus proved to be one of the first public entertainment environments to open its doors to acts from the world of Hip Hop in Canada. One of those acts who appeared in 1989 was a young man named Wesley Williams, aka the Melody MC, and now known as Maestro Fresh Wes.
At age fifteen, Williams began listening to Ron Nelson’s radio show. Like many young black men, Williams heard his own life experiences being reflected in song for the first time in his life. It is impossible to underestimate the impactful nature of what the Fantastic Voyage radio show meant for young black people in Toronto during the 1980s. Aside from a cultural perspective, one of the most noticeable consequences of showcasing Hip Hop music was that it inspired an entire generation of young kids, like Wesley Williams, to believe that their own poetry had merit, that there was a way forward for them to express themselves and that, perhaps most importantly, they were not alone in experiencing the world in which they found themselves and were, in fact, part of a larger like-minded community. So one day Williams arranged to meet up with his hero, Ron Nelson. In turn, Ron Nelson introduced Williams to a fellow rap artist who went by the stage name Ebony MC. Together, Ebony MC and Melody MC (Williams) formed a collective named Vision MCs. Vision MCs were promoted by a man named Farley Flex *(who some of you will know as a judge on Canadian music talent shows such as Canadian Idol). In a few short years, Melody MC left his musical collective and branched out on his own as the newly minted Maestro Fresh Wes. His debut album was called Symphony In Effect. Hip Hop’s incubation period in Canada was ending and a new era was beginning with the declarative words:
“This is a throwdown, a showdown, Hell no, I can’t slow down!”
And just like that, the door opened for people like Drake to walk through.
However, as much as this is true, the fact remains that Hip Hop struggled to garner much airplay in Canada beyond that of “Let Your Backbone Slide” and a few other hits by groups like Dream Warriors. In fact, in the previous post linked above, much is made of the fact that almost a full decade after “Let Your Backbone Slide” hit the charts, Hip Hop was still not all that respected by the Canadian music industry. Once again it took an embarrassing series of moments at the Juno Awards for the next phase of Hip Hop’s Canadian evolution to occur. In 1998, Vancouver based Rap group Rascalz won the Juno for Best Rap Recording of the Year. However, much to their surprise and dismay, when Rascalz arrived for the live broadcast, they were informed that their category had been already handled, along with the technical awards, and that their segment was held during the non-televised portion of the show. The members of Rascalz were outraged and claimed racism was at play in segregating the only “Black music” award of the night. Consequently, they refused to accept their award. Much debate ensued across the country regarding what had happened. The following year, the Best Rap Recording award was moved into prime time and Rascalz was on stage to give it away. When the winner didn’t show up to claim the award, the members of Rascalz launched into an a-capella rendition of their previous year’s award winning song, “Northern Touch”. Watching all of this at home was a teenage boy named Aubrey Graham. Aubrey, whose middle name is Drake, was already starring on the TV show Degrassi Junior High. Because of the trailblazing efforts of Maestro Fresh Wes and Rascalz and other rap stars like Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, Choclair, Jully Black and many others, Drake saw people who looked like him sing songs that reflected who he was and how he felt about navigating through this world as a person of colour. Watching Drake take his first steps into the world of Hip Hop (of which he is arguably the biggest star of them all in the world) was another young man of colour named Abel Tesfaye who is currently taking the world of music by storm as The Weeknd. And on and on it goes.
After the success of “Let Your Backbone Slide”, Maestro Fresh Wes had some minor hits of his own, but for the most part, he has recognized the value of who he is as a role model and has developed secondary careers as an actor and as a writer of motivational books, as well as children’s books. Wesley Williams is most appreciative of the opportunities that he has had thanks to people such as Ron Nelson and Farley Flex. In turn, he knows that lending his presence to projects with visibility may help others to find inspiration and the courage to spread their own creative wings. In the end, the entire history of Hip Hop in Canada has been predicated on the belief that representation matters.
“Rap scholar, soul like a Dominican
But like I said before, “I’m not American.
It’s who you are, not where you went, we all originate from the same descent“.
The link to the video for the song “Let Your Backbone Slide” can be found here. ***There doesn’t seem to be a lyrics video for this song. Sorry. 🙁
The link to the official website for Maestro Fresh Wes can be found here.
The link to the official website for Ron Nelson can be found here.
The link to the video that shows the band Rascalz at the Juno Awards can be found here.
The link to an interview with Monika Deol, host of The Electric Circus on City-TV can be found here. She talks a lot about representation and the importance for the growth of Toronto’s culture to have so many musicians from previously under-represented demographic groups perform on the show.
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