[Interview] Maestro Fresh Wes talks “Orchestrated Noise,” Chuck D’s influence, and making timeless music

Interview by: Martin Bauman

The Godfather of Canadian Hip-Hop. The first ever to win a Juno for “Rap Recording of the Year”. The first Canadian rapper with a Top 40 Hit. One of the most talented actors in hip-hop history. Award-winning author. All of these titles can be used to describe Maestro Fresh Wes. Suffice it to say, Maestro has already cemented his legacy in Canadian hip-hop history, and yet, despite all of his accomplishments, he’s not satisfied with resting on his laurels. 25 years after releasing his debut album Symphony in Effect, the Toronto emcee is back with Orchestrated Noise, his first full-length release in 13 years, and also perhaps his most ambitious yet. As Maestro tells it, he’s doing things that have “never been done before.” The Come Up Show caught up with Maestro to discuss his latest album, Chuck D’s influence on him, making timeless music, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: I thought we’d start by gaining a little bit of perspective and going back to your roots. What’s the significance of “Rapper’s Delight” to you?

Maestro Fresh Wes: That’s probably the first song I remember that had rapping in it. It took me over; I wanted to be a part of it. It was just the coolest thing I had ever heard, you know what I mean? I figured, let me try this.

TCUS: At what point then did you end up actually trying to rap?

Maestro Fresh Wes: Two weeks after, I was writing. I wrote some rhymes, and tried to come up with a couple cool names and whatever. But yeah, it was “Rapper’s Delight”, man. All the way. Then after that, I heard “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow; then after that, I heard this song called “Super Rhymes” – I give it the most props – that was like the illest rhyme I ever heard. This guy was so dope, man; his name is Jimmy Spicer. The song was like fifteen minutes of bars, and I’m like oh my goodness, this dude is nasty.

TCUS: I want to get some perspective on your family dynamic. I understand that you grew up in a Guyanese household. What was that experience like?

Maestro Fresh Wes: My dad was real peace, man. He loves music, and he put me onto a lot of jazz records, a lot of soul records.

TCUS: What can you tell me about Senator O’Connor High School?

Maestro Fresh Wes: O’Connor was dope. I went there; I did my first performance there ever in high school at a party. I’ll be straight with you, man. The break dancers, they were getting all the girls. I tried break dancing, and it didn’t work, but my rhymes were dope. The girls started liking me, I got more confidence, and I just wanted to rhyme more.

TCUS: [Laughs] However you can make it work. Aside from your music career and acting career, you’ve also written a book called Stick To Your Vision. Part of the message is how, in retrospect, some of your biggest disappointments actually led to some of your biggest successes. Can you talk about this?

Maestro Fresh Wes: I mean, being 18 [or] 19 and driving all the way to New York City – getting lost, ending up in Lake Placid [laughs] – dropping off demo tapes to labels, and nobody gets back to you, then getting a letter from Profile Records saying that they’re not interested. S— like that was disappointing, but it just made [me] stronger. I fell down a lot of times in life, [but] the mark of a true champion is getting back up. That’s just how I am.

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TCUS: What’s the single most influential book you’ve read?

Maestro Fresh Wes: I can’t say one single book, because there are different types. There are books that are uplifting, marketing books… I remember reading this book called Self-Promotion for the Creative Person; I thought that was so dope. The author was Lee Silber. It was a dope ass book, because he just gave you creative ways to promote yourself.

For example, I’ve got a song called “Black Trudeau (Rap Prime Minister)” [on Orchestrated Noise]. Yahoo! Canada just made it the song of the day. I thought that was kinda cool, because it’s not the main single or nothin’ like that – the main singles are the Kardi joint and the Sam Roberts one, which you’ll hear shortly on the radio, God willing – but because Canada Day weekend was coming up, I thought that would have been a cool way of promotion. It’s just good to get feedback like that right away, where it’s the song of the day on Yahoo! Canada, and the day before that was when the album came out, and it got four out of four stars in the Toronto Star.

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[That’s] one of the things I learned from that book, sometimes it’s good to think outside the box. I thought the song would be appropriate for Canada Day weekend, and [I wanted] to tie that in with the release of the album in a cool way. I did Breakfast Television this morning; I came home to check my e-mails, and just to see that e-mail was kinda fresh.

TCUS: I once read that you keep a picture of yourself as a kid in your wallet. Can you explain the significance behind that?

Maestro Fresh Wes: I lost that picture within the last few years; I’ve gotta get a new copy of that somehow. That basically was [there to remind me], this is where you came from. And it’s like, you’ve got so much life left to live. You’ve survived so much, just continue taking it to the next level. You’re not gonna let these present mishaps impede you from where you’re supposed to go. [It’s a reminder that] your journey continues regardless; it’s not going to end right here. You’re going to keep it moving. That’s what it [symbolizes].

TCUS: Let’s talk about the main attraction, Orchestrated Noise. You describe the album as a conceptual extension of Symphony In Effect. How so?

Maestro Fresh Wes: Back when I was introduced as the Maestro Fresh Wes, the symphony was in effect, conceptually. With Orchestrated Noise, [it’s a continuation of that]. I’m fusing different types of music, different genres, the classical violins with rock guitars, opera with hip-hop, stuff that’s never been done before. It’s [about] being innovative, and tapping into my creativity and bringing different artists from different genres together, from indie rock, to electro rock, to underground hip-hop, to all kinds of stuff.

You’ve got big artists like Sam Roberts and The Trews, then you’ve got Measha Brueggergosman, then you’ve got Golden Era artists like Sadat X, Kool G Rap, and Chuck D, and then you’ve got Classified, Adam Bomb, Saukrates, and King Reign… it’s just reinforcing the fact that this is what a Maestro does. He’ll orchestrate noise and put it together to show that the symphony is still in effect.

TCUS: I want to talk about something that you just said in there. You’re trying things that have never really been done before, especially with fusing hip-hop and opera. What inspired you to go that route?

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Maestro Fresh Wes: Measha inspired me. We were just going to do a song where she was singing on the chorus; I thought that would have been good enough. But then, she invited me to a rehearsal at one of her operas she was doing. After I saw that, I [decided] we’re not just going to do a song where she’s on the chorus, we’re gonna do one where we actually write an opera [laughs]. I was writing with the Rezza Brothers, [and I thought] how about if she stabs me to death? That would be kinda ill [laughs]. And I actually went for it, so it was cool. She sang in operatic Italian, and she didn’t compromise her integrity; she made us transpose the key into something that’s more suitable for her range. We just kept it real; it’s like we’re battling, and unfortunately the Maestro loses that battle [laughs].

TCUS: It’s been quite awhile since your last full-length release: 13 years. Why come back now?

Maestro Fresh Wes: Because it’s the 25th anniversary of me being known as the Maestro Fresh Wes. It’s perfect timing. [Speaking of Self-Promotion for the Creative Person], look at when the album was released: June 25th. The 25 represents the 25th anniversary, and June is Black Music Month. June 25th is also the day Michael Jackson died. We’ll never forget that day. So a lot of things aligned where that day is very symbolic. And when you say 25, the colour for your 25th anniversary is silver, so the club that we had the record launch was the Stirling Room. 25 is also really symbolic [for] that joint I did with Kardinal, because Kiss 92.5FM was the station that debuted the video online.

TCUS: We already talked about the features a little bit on the new album. You’ve got a lot of Canadian talent on there, and you mentioned artists like Kool G Rap and Chuck D as well. I know you and Chuck D go a ways back. How did that relationship begin?

Maestro Fresh Wes: That’s my mentor, man. That’s like my big brother right there. That’s who I look up to. A lot of people say, “Wes, you’re a cool guy,” or they like the way I interact with artists and stuff like that; I learned all of that from Chuck D and Public Enemy. Those guys were grown men when they came in the game, so they weren’t trying to act like they were young; they were trying to act like grown men, and that’s what I learned from them. That’s what I try to be like.

And think about it: they got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two months ago, and two weeks later, Chuck D gets his honorary doctorate from Adelphi University. To me, that’s hip-hop right there, man. That’s stuff you don’t really hear on a regular basis, but that’s the same guy who wrote “Fight The Power”.

TCUS: What was the first time you and Chuck met?

Maestro Fresh Wes: He was signing my autograph; it was at the Concert Hall in Toronto, and it said, “Stay strong, my brother. Chuck D, Public Enemy #1.” I’ll never forget that, because he took time to write that out. The next time I saw him, we did a mini-tour – we did like three shows – and I gave him my cassette. The finished artwork wasn’t even done yet, but I was so excited. I remember Flav looking at it too, and he told me, “I wish you all the best, man. There’s room here for everybody.”

When I saw him in Ottawa two days later, I asked him if he listened to the album yet, and he said, “Nope!” [Laughs] He was like, “but I will. Why, you think I ain’t going to listen to it?” Then, when I bought the Fear Of A Black Planet album, I was blessed; I felt honoured, because I saw my name on the back of the album cover in the liner credits. That meant so much to me that the most important hip-hop group of all-time acknowledged me like this back in ’90. Just to see my name on there meant a lot to me.

“Toured with Public Enemy, they motivated us blacks/ I bought the record, nearly died, I saw my name on the back!” – Maestro

I don’t know if you know this, but Chuck wrote the foreword for my book Stick To Your Vision. That’s a blessing right there. Recently in Toronto, at the Sound Academy, he pulled me onstage. How cool is that, man?

TCUS: I want to ask you about a specific line in “Dearly Departed”. You say: “To me, Toronto was trapped; I had to break the chain.” Can you talk about that?

Maestro Fresh Wes: A lot of people give me titles for doing what I’ve done. When I [first] came out, it was like somebody had to break this [barrier], and I think I was definitely one of the cats that broke that. As a kid, I just knew everything we did was historical. Myself, Michie Mee, the Dream Warriors, everything we were doing at the time, we knew we were making a statement. With “Jamaican Funk”, Michie was making a statement; with “My Definition…”, the Dream Warriors were making a statement. They’re letting you know that they’re not letting the world define them; they’re defining themselves. I say the Dream Warriors are still the most original hip-hop group ever out of Canada, and probably one of the most original groups ever, period. Just the fact that they’re the first hip-hop act to actually go Platinum in the UK is phenomenal, because they did that back in 1990. Who can say that?

We have so much history here. But for me, I’mma [support the next] cat like “you see my man Drake?” [He’s] one of the reasons we’re compelled to think about history in Canada. We look at the history of New York City, and Jay might be doing his thing right now, but “Rapper’s Delight” was out back when I came up. You’ve got artists like Kendrick Lamar doing stuff right now, but Ice-T was out back in the days, like ’88, ’89, with Rhyme Pays. Then you look at Texas, I think the first Texas artist I heard was probably Willie D of the Geto Boys. Now, you’ve got so many artists out of Texas, it’s ridiculous.

Every major city in America has a hip-hop history. I just think that with Drake doing what he’s done internationally, it’s reinforcing Canadians to take our Canadian hip-hop history more seriously [and] document it. You’ve gotta give it up to him for that, definitely. CBC just put out something where they’ve got me at #1 in the ‘Top 25 Greatest Canadian Rappers Ever’, and I’m blessed for that, but to me, if it wasn’t for Drake knocking s— down the way he did, nobody would feel it necessary to put a list like that together in the first place.

TCUS: Now, you mention that recognition as #1 on the list of Greatest Canadian Rappers. Fast forward to your latest album, and on “The Conversation”, you’re talking about some of the insecurities about whether your music is still relevant, and whether your reputation still stands. What’s that like for you?

Maestro Fresh Wes: You go through times when you question yourself. When you’re by yourself, you reassess things. That [song] was basically God talking to me through a piece of acrylic [laughs]. I thought that would be fresh, you know what I mean? That’s God talking to me, saying “listen, what you’ve done was cool, but you’re here to do bigger things.” And I [wrote] it like it was in a dream. That’s a concept where the dude is talking to his Platinum plaque, and the plaque is talking back. I had never heard that before in hip-hop. It’s me being retrospective, and at the same time realizing my importance while I’m here.

“Just because I’m here, you think that you’re the man? Mr. Wes, Mr. Wes, Mr. Wes Williams/ I thought you were a star, what happened to your fans? Mr. Wes, Mr. Wes, Mr. Wes Williams/ What’s really going on? I don’t understand. Mr. Wes, Mr. Wes, Mr. Wes Williams/ Do you know who you are? Do you even have a plan? Mr. Wes, Mr. Wes, Mr. Wes Williams.” – King Reign in “The Conversation”

The way I sequenced the songs [on Orchestrated Noise] is intentional. That song “The Conversation” comes right after “Black Trudeau”, which is probably one of the more… [I don’t want to] say braggadocious, because I’ve never heard an emcee have references to the Charter of Rights, and referendum, and Rene Levesque. There’s a lot of history in there from a Canadian political perspective, and to make that in a way where it’s humourous too, I thought that was kinda slick. But to have a song where I show authority, followed by a song with insecurity, was important to me.

TCUS: One thing that I feel you’ve stressed throughout your career, and with your latest album, is making timeless music. In your opinion, what qualities make a particular record timeless?

Maestro Fresh Wes: The message, definitely. You can listen to a song like “Best I Ever Had” from Drake, that’s history; that’s a big chune. You can listen to “C.R.E.A.M” by Wu-Tang Clan. [Recites lyrics:] “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, C.R.E.A.M, get the money, dolla dolla bill y’all,” you know what I’m saying? Those guys came with acronyms; they came with their own way of speaking. They weren’t coming out saying “we’re just gonna be regular emcees.” They were making a statement when they came out. They said, “Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to f— with,” and they weren’t joking. They didn’t make records; they made history.

Eminem. He’s got “Lose Yourself”; that’s a statement, man. “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy. And that title comes from an Isley Brothers record. It’s reincarnation in another way. “Stick To Your Vision”. Years later, I come out with a book called Stick To Your Vision. When you look at the Beatles, when you look at Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, they didn’t make records; they made history. That’s kinda where I am when I say timeless; you wanna make those joints that last, regardless.

I woke up at 4:00 this morning and did Breakfast Television. Look at the two songs I did: one song was called “History Repeated”, and then I did “Backbone Slide”. So basically, I did “History Repeated”, and I was repeating history. That’s just what I try to encourage to artists; try to make those joints and say something in your music.

TCUS: Getting back to another song of yours, in “Reach For The Sky”, you say: “A lot of people think I’m a star, but to me, I’m still scratching on the surface.” As far as your career goes, what would you like to do that you still haven’t done yet?

Maestro Fresh Wes: I’ve got a lot of stuff, man. There are certain things I can’t divulge right now, because they’re in fruition. I’ll let you know at the opportune time [laughs]. And God willing, they will come into fruition, so I can let you know and be like “yo, that’s what I was talking about” [laughs]. I want to do more touring internationally. I’d like to see Stick To Your Vision become part of the school curriculum across the country – the book got nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s White Pine Awards, which I thought was real dope. The next step is to try to do stuff on a bigger level where the book is in schools and libraries, and the three principles are utilized. That’s something I want to work on. A couple more TV projects, film projects… there’s a lot of stuff that I’m doing. In a lot of ways, I’ve done a lot, but to me, there’s a lot of things I’ve still gotta do.

TCUS: We talked earlier about what it was like for you coming up in hip-hop. I’m curious, as someone who was so instrumental in bringing hip-hop to Canada, how does it feel now to see what it’s become today, and see Drake, and see K’Naan, and all of these other Canadian artists coming up?

Maestro Fresh Wes: Those same artists probably grew up watching me in some capacity, and it’s an honour for me to humbly say I’m watching them now. It’s not like I’m the mentor, or I’m too proud or arrogant [to learn from them]. I’m not saying, “this is what I’ve done, so f— it. These are yutes.” I’m learning [from all of them]. And the thing is, with me, when I came out, I had nobody older than me as a reference point to look up to. I’ve always studied people younger than me, from Michie Mee and the Dream Warriors, to Saukrates, Ghetto Concept, k-os, Rich Kidd… it doesn’t matter.

I’ve always learned from cats younger than me. Jully Black and I have never done work together, but she’s educated me on a couple things business-wise, when it comes to putting your band together and stuff like that. I’m not too proud to ask questions; that’s how you learn. I learn from Rich Kidd; I learn from my man King Reign, and other emcees like my man Promise, and Dan-e-o, and Rochester, they all teach me too. I don’t feel like I’m too proud to ask questions, because coming up, all of my influences were younger than me. So it’s not a problem for me to say that I’m still influenced by cats younger than me.

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TCUS: It’s like Flavor Flav said, “there’s room for everybody.”

Maestro Fresh Wes: You know what’s so funny? When I gave Chuck the book Stick To Your Vision – this is after he wrote the foreword and the book came out; this was on their tour bus, when we did a show in Collingwood in 2010 – I autographed it for him, and he smiled. Flavor Flav looked at it, and he said, “I wish you all the best with this,” and the way he did it, and the way he held the book, was very similar to what he did in 1989 when he saw my cassette. It was a genuine [expression]; it was real. It just goes to show they’ve maintained how they are as a group, and it’s not a mystery why they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was kinda ill, because Drake wrote a testimonial on the front, and then Chuck D wrote the foreword, so it’s kinda like Alpha and Omega in a lot of ways, you know? One of my earliest influences and then one of my latest influences.

TCUS: That’s all from me, any final thoughts?

Maestro Fresh Wes: I’m proud of this project, man. There’s never been a project like this; it’s one of the most innovative hip-hop projects ever. I’ve done stuff that I’ve never heard anybody do before, and I’m probably the least talented artist on the whole album [laughs]. I thank everybody who helped me out with this to make this happen, not only now, but for the last quarter century. That doesn’t happen too often.

And I’ll say this: the day of my record release launch was one of the best musical highlights I’ve ever had, from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep. I woke up and went to G98.7FM at 7:00 in the morning, and there was an anniversary cake waiting for me. The cake looked like a friggin’ black tuxedo with a cummerbund and everything [laughs]. That’s how my day started. Later on, I had an interview with Global. After that, I picked up the Toronto Star and found I got four our of four stars for the album. That’s crazy. Then, later on in the evening, I had the launch party, and just to see the people come out that I’ve known for so long, it showed me that you know what? I’m appreciated. And I really appreciate that.