Innovate, Don’t Assimilate: Maestro Fresh Wes on Success
Wes Williams a.k.a. Maestro Fresh Wes is considered the Godfather of Canadian hip hop. In 1989, he became the first Canadian rapper to have a Top 40 hit with “Let Your Backbone Slide”.
He remembers falling in love with hip hop as a kid growing up in Toronto. “From the time I turned 11, I was into hip hop. It was just my passion; it wasn’t from a career thing, it was something that was calling me. I was just into trying to be cool. I wanted to get the girls liking me, man. Ladies were loving the break dancers so I tried, did a couple head spins, but I fell flat on my face. So I started working on my rhymes, girls started to feel me. Confidence started coming from that. And then people told me I was dreaming, trying to get a record deal coming out of Toronto, it was just a dream. So I’m a guy that tries to make that happen regardless.”
Once he made the decision to take his love of hip hop and make it a career, Wes spent those early days hustling, making demo tapes, driving to New York to drop them off, and getting rejection letters. One night, he was performing on a dance music TV program and he caught the attention of a record label who signed him and released “Let your Backbone Slide”. He was the first Canadian rap artist to have gold and platinum certified albums. Following his first record deal, Williams went on tour with Public Enemy.
After his initial massive success, Wes found himself faced with obstacles as he released his second and third albums. “It was the changing of the guard. Musical styles were changing. I was trying to do a lot within a limited period of time. I was trying to introduce myself to the globe, to the world, but reintroduce myself to Canada, who knew me for years. And then it was just tough with label issues with that. It was just time to really re-evaluate life, re-evaluate my career.”
In 1999, inspired by iconic Canadian artists like Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, KD Lange, The Guess Who, Bryan Adams and Leonard Cohen, he wrote and released “Stick to Your Vision”. “‘Let Your Backbone Slide’ might be my biggest song, but my most important song I ever made was ‘Stick To Your Vision’ because that was like a 10-year span that solidified a career. Because ‘Stick To Your Vision’ was there, that was 1999, ‘Backbone Slide’ was 1989, then you remember all the other events that were happening in between that. So that was a very important record for me.”
During the last two decades, Wes has also made his mark as an actor and a motivational speaker. In addition, he wrote a book titled Stick to Your Vision, which includes a foreword written by Chuck D of Public Enemy.
Looking back at his career, he credits success to a drive and believing in himself.
“Once you reach a certain destination, you have more expectations out there for you. So when I won my first Juno Awards back in ’91, I was really excited, I felt really good about it. But that same time Leonard Cohen was winning a Lifetime Achievement Award, and when he got his there was a standing ovation for him. And I realized, “Wow. I still got a long way to go. I might’ve reached a destination, but this man right here is showing you, showing the world there’s more to accomplish out there.”
Tayo Branston is the drummer and lead vocalist for Five Alarm Funk, a heavy-duty funk band who is burning up stages with wild concerts, outrageous props, and hot, sweaty dance parties.
Ola Volo has always known that she wanted to be an artist, she just never saw it as a reality. Today, she has an incredible portfolio that includes work for companies like Starbucks, Chanel, Lululemon, Hootsuite, Honda, and Louis Vuitton—and she’s pinching herself.
Karolina Kuras is a Toronto-based ballet and portrait photographer. In this piece, we explore her creative collaboration with Canadian National Ballet dancer/choreographer Brent Parolin and Tanya Howard, as well as make-up artist Ashley Readings.