Maestro Fresh Wes: Carrying the Olympic torch for Canadian hip-hop
While Canadians sit at the edges of their seats to take in the 2014 Sochi Olympic games, Canadian hip-hop heads are already celebrating a big Olympic win of their own. Earlier this month, CBC announced that they’d chosen Maestro Fresh Wes and Classified’s “Reach for the Sky (Gold Medal Mix)” to represent their network as the official anthem of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Shortly thereafter, CBC also selected Maestro’s Sam Roberts-assisted “History Repeated” (off Orchestrated Noise) to play during the Olympics hockey games. Oh, and Wes’ monstrous 1989 debut single, “Let Your Backbone Slide,” will play during the bobsledding events, too.
“I remember exactly where I was when Sidney Crosby scored a winning goal [at the 2010 Winter Olympics],” says Wes. “And to have my songs now representing the Olympics – on any capacity, on any platform – is a milestone in my career.”
It’s no secret that Canada too often gets ribbed-on for its premature urban music scene. But the fact that “Reach For The Sky” has been designated as the anthem to represent the nation on such an international level marks a huge milestone – both for the Freshter Wester, and the Canadian hip-hop community. Not that it’s any surprise, though — Maestro is just practicing what’s he’s been preaching all along: “Make history, not records.”
And Maestro Fresh Wes does just that. “Reach for the Sky” may be a hip-hop track. But the message behind it is worldwide. Have you heard the chorus on that track? If so, you’re probably familiar with that magic three-letter word: “Try.”
But Maestro is quick to remind us that the longevity of music is determined by its message. Regardless of musical genre, a song with a universal message – like “Reach for the Sky”— is always relevant. “Bob Dylan said, ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.’ That could have been a reggae song,” explains Wes. “John Lennon? Those could have been country records. All those artists – Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Paul Simon and Garfunkel, Smokey Robinson, James Brown – they didn’t make records. They made history.”
Maestro first came on to the scene in 1989 with his monster debut single, “Let Your Backbone Slide.” The single became more than just another radio play, though. Maestro was the first Canadian rapper to have a single with gold-status. And for nearly two decades (i.e.: until Drizzy Drake blew up the airwaves a few years ago), the track remained the best-selling Canadian hip-hop single of all time. And since then, Canadian hip-hop heads have bestowed Wes with the unofficial title of the “Godfather of Canadian hip-hop.”
But despite his seniority in the Canadian music industry, Maestro remains unnecessarily modest, and is always seeking direction from his peers in the industry. “I’m a big fan of Shad [and] my man, SonReal, from Vancouver. And Rich Kidd? He’s that dude,” explains Wes. The Maestro is also a huge fan of collaborations. If you don’t believe me, just cop a listen to his recent Orchestrated Noise album.
The entire project is collaborated. And on “Reach for the Sky,” Maestro linked things up with East Coast hip-hop heavyweight, Classified, as well as Canada’s old-school Torontonian rockers, Blue Rodeo. “Jim Cuddy [of Blue Rodeo] gave me permission to use their track [“Try”]. He heard the demo tape of [“Reach for the Sky”] and he was like, ‘Yo man, Maestro, it’s an honour for you to use this. You have my blessing. And you have my permission,’” explains Maestro. “That was a blessing, right there.”
Wes had previously collaborated with Classified – whom he refers to as “The Voice of a Nation” – on nine tracks. And trust me – Maestro is not shy about gushing over his admiration for Classified’s supreme hustle. He takes several minutes to spill over his appreciation for what Classified has accomplished, lately. “Orchestrated Noise was my first album in 13 years. Within 13 years, Classified put out 13 albums,” says Wes. He believes that the most essential thing he’s learned from Classified is the importance of consistency.
“[Classified is] a consistent artist. Regardless of what label’s representing him, or what publicity firm is representing him, he’s been consistent— in terms of putting out music,” says Maestro. “I’ve been inconsistent.“
Take that comment with a grain of salt, though. While Maestro’s been on musical hiatus for a while, 2013 and 2014 have been colossal for him. Especially after Orchestrated Noise started roasting up the airwaves. But it seems like he hasn’t fully come to terms with the impact he’s had on Canadian music. I mean, take a peep at some of his lyrics off “Reach for the Sky”: “A lot of people think I’m a star/But to me, I’m still scratching on the surface.”
Come on, dude, you’re a big deal; just get over it. But Maestro explains that this line has less to do with putting himself down, and more to do with his understanding of success. That is, success is all about taking things to the next level. “I don’t lie in my laurels over what I did yesterday. It’s where I’m about to go to now,” he says. “Normally you won’t hear me talk too much about what I did back in the day, because I’m busy trying to take it to the next level. I’ve always been like that.”
Maestro also brings up the relevancy of these lyrics from an athletic perspective. “A lot of people might look at Sidney Crosby as a star. But to him— I’m sure he’s trying to take it to the next level,” says Maestro. “People want to strive for bigger and better things, and just keep on going—instead of being content with what they accomplished yesterday.”
At this point in our conversation, the Maestro interjects to let us in on his big secret: he stays relevant by learning from the younger Canadian rap cats. “I’ve always been motivated by cats younger than me, because I never had artists older than me to look up to.” So instead of looking to his past for direction, Wes looks at the future and the artists of the younger generation. He cites Shad, Saukrates, Rich Kidd, and – of course – Drake, as some of his biggest influences right now. “I’m proud of my man, Drake. He was like, ‘Listen man. The Grammy Award for best new artist – that’s not even the goal. I want that,’” explains Wes. “I thought that was so cool. He [was] saying [that wasn’t] even a goal for him, ‘cause his expectations of himself [were] beyond people’s expectations of him.”
And just like that – Maestro has just dropped another “Reach for the Sky” reference. In hindsight, I should probably have gone through this article and just inserted the hashtag #ReachForTheSky wherever it becomes relevant. But then it would be everywhere. And this article would lose readability. So it’s probably a good thing I didn’t bring hashtags into the mix, here.
“This is hip-hop, but when [people] hear the songs, they got to take a second listen.” – Maestro Fresh Wes
A few days after HipHopCanada’s initial chat with Wes, he called us up with some major next-level news— not only had the good people over at CBC appointed “Reach For The Sky” as the official Olympics anthem, but they also decided to play two other Maestro records during their Sochi broadcast: “Let Your Backbone Slide,” during the bobsled racing; and “History Repeated” during the hockey coverage.
Maestro pauses, mid-conversation. He’s in the middle of feeding his five-year old son. And he’s in Maestro Fresh Cook mode—he made Kraft Dinner, chicken drumsticks, and broccoli (because… healthy). And he’s so geeked on life. Only a week into the Olympic success of “Reach For The Sky,” and Maestro had already on to his next big endeavour. In fact, he didn’t even wait for CBC to get at him for his song. He approached them. “I pitched it to them. I’m like, ‘Listen man, you guys are running “Reach For The Sky” and that’s dope. But how about “History Repeated?” Why don’t you give it a listen, with sports in mind?’” explains Wes. And CBC was definitely feeling it.
For so many of us, the Maestro Fresh Wes discography has served as a soundtrack – of sorts – for growing up. “A lot of people [come] up to me, like, ‘Wes, man, I love ‘Drop the Needle.’ When I was in college I used to listen to ‘Drop the Needle.’ And then later on it would be a young a bunch of kids [who’d] be like, ‘Getting ready to play volleyball, we played Stick to Your Vision.’ Or people getting their business together, or starting their companies – that song really inspired them. That’s a beautiful thing,” explains Wes. But now “Reach For the Sky” won’t just serve as the track list for one person’s life. It’ll be the Olympic anthem of a nation.
Written by Sarah Sussman for HipHopCanada
Photography by Peter Grimaldi