“I told you I got politicians calling me asking if I want to run for Toronto City Council.”
When most people hear “The Godfather” they see Vito Corleone in a tuxedo seated in a dimly lit office taking visits from associates and friends on the day of his daughter’s wedding. He is a powerful man, whose words carry immense weight for those who come to visit him. Eventually, he relinquishes his title and his son Michael Corleone steps in looking to eventually move his family beyond the bounds of the New York mafia and into the world of legitimate business. Michael is, in a sense, a fearless renaissance man who sees great opportunity outside of his family’s traditional comfort zone.
Take “The Godfather” and add four little words: “of Canadian Hip-Hop” and it turns into a whole new movie. Maestro Fresh Wes is and always will be considered the forefather of rap north of the boarder. But if you think about it, there are actually some similarities to both Vito and Michael. Our first image of Maestro finds him in 1989 also donning a tuxedo in a dimly lit room sitting at a piano (Let Your Backbone Slide video). As the first Canadian MC to find mass commercial success, his appeal gave him great power and opportunity. When he spoke, people listened. Actually, so many people listened that for 20 years “Let Your Backbone Slide” reigned as Canada’s #1 selling hip-hop single. But as was the case with Michael Corleone, Maestro had visions of bigger and better things and more than two decades later is no longer just an MC, he’s a cultural icon.
Standing over the Air Canada Centre on the third floor of the Hotel Le Germain, Maestro reminisces about the overwhelming development of his hometown’s cityscape. As he remembers how the city used to look, it’s clear he’s a man who appreciates progress. And on this day, progress is the topic at hand as he prepares to speak to the newly formed Michelle Jean Foundation about how his involvement in the arts affected his character, career and community. This isn’t the first time he’s met the former Governor General of Canada, but it remains a big day for Maestro. It’s one in a series of steps he continues to take every day to stay outside the proverbial hip-hop box.
“I told you I got politicians calling me asking if I want to run for Toronto City Council,” says Maestro.
“And then we’re chillin’ here because the former Governor General of Canada asked me to come chop it up with them. She was right hand to the Queen, that’s what it is. But the point I’m trying to make is that’s how powerful hip-hop is. We have political power, potential political power. It’s just how you want to shift it – without trying we have potential political power. You feel me? So that’s where I’m at right now and it’s a blessing.”
Where he’s “at right now” all started in 1989 with a video made inside his own high school (Senator O’Connor Secondary School). “I’m Showing You” was financed with a $5,000 budget. According to Maestro, he saved $2,000 for the video and had Farley Flex’s mother co-sign for a bank loan of $3,000. He admits to knowing nothing about the country’s grant systems at the time, which are now prevalent in funding many of Canada’s music videos today (Factor, VideoFACT, Ontario Arts Council). He was simply a young man with a vision and more than two decades later continues to develop and pursue his vision.
It’s very fitting then, that he’d name his new book Stick To Your Vision. It’s given him a heightened sense of credibility in education circles and on stages across the country he may have never reached without it. The book itself was in the works for several years and recently took him to British Columbia for a librarian’s conference of all things.
“Imagine that. [I’m talking] to librarians son!” he says with a smile.
“No hip-hop heads, a couple were kind of young but the majority had bouffants or whatever like librarians dude! And I had to show them why my book is ill and why they need to put my book in the school curriculum.”
Stick To Your Vision centers around three points: expectations, operation and destination. As explained by Maestro, expectations are: “What’s expected of you as an individual? What expectations do you put on yourself? What expectations do others put on you? What limitations do you put on yourself? What limitations do others put on you and why?”
Once you figure out these questions, you start approaching what you’re into – the operation. “The operation is you and me politicking right now. It’s me keeping Michelle Jean’s assistant’s number on deck so when she’s in town, boom. MJ was the greatest but he never passed the ball to himself. So who’s your team? Who’s your mentor? That’s why I never feel bad asking young cats for suggestions. Men sharpen men like steel sharpens steel.”
Next is destination, the intended end point of that particular goal or journey. “Destination might be getting a book deal. Destination might be graduating high school and going to university. Destination might be finishing your first music video.”
Interestingly, today’s destination is to educate the board of directors for Michelle Jean’s foundation. Along with Benjamin “Royalz” Kwofie and a local poet, Maestro is tasked with giving the board some insight into how best they can allocate resources and develop programming to serve the arts in Canada.
“What did hip-hop do for me?” Maestro asks rhetorically. “It gave me confidence. I learned the importance of repetition and preparation. When I made the transition to film and TV I knew what it took because I knew what it meant to be ill on the mic. So I have a point of reference…My leg up was I knew the specific work ethic it took for me to be great (as an actor). Not good, great. So I took those components and implemented them into being an actor. And something a lot of people don’t know about me is last year I was nominated for a Gemini.”
After hearing stories from the three men for nearly an hour, members of the Michelle Jean Foundation weighed in with questions before the former Governor General gave her thoughts.
“What you’re talking about, what your stories’ about, is empowerment,” she said gently. “I see you all as empowered young men. You’re making a difference. You have a story to share. I think those principles that you discuss in your book are key and it’s interesting how you got that confidence from also an artistic experience. The arts were there to help you build certain knowledge about life.”
For many of Canada’s new artists, Maestro was a voice himself to help them learn about life. And that admiration is not lost on him, as he notes when talking about the 2011 Stylus Awards. Maestro received 2011’s Hall of Fame award and yet somehow remained surprised at the overwhelming love he received from “the most grimiest rappers to the most backpack artists.”
However, Maestro is a unique case when it comes to the old school/new school conversation. He’s legitimately old enough to be a father to some of today’s emerging Canadian artists, but there is also a class of artists that came after him (Kardinal, Saukrates, etc) who create a buffer in Canadian hip-hop history. While Maestro laughs at the idea of anyone calling Kardinal and Saukrates “old school” he does acknowledge the symbol he’s become. He is not simply a rapper who used to have some hit records. He could’ve been only that, but he’s not. And the reason he’s not is because of his affliction for progress, his transferrable skills and his vision for taking hip-hop to places it’s never gone before. He’s arguably as relevant as ever, due to such versatility.
“I watched the CBC Hip-Hop Summit and they asked Shad who he grew up watching,” remembers Maestro, who recently cut a record with Shad called “Praise Da Lord.” “And he had this boyish grin and said ‘The Godfather Maestro Fresh Wes.’ I knew he had love for me but he broke it down and it was cool because it was something I was conscious of doing. He said it wasn’t only “Let Your Backbone Slide” or “Drop The Needle” or “Conducting Things,” but if you look at my body of work, I try to do different things. At least I’m pushing the envelope. That doesn’t mean everything is going to work but I’m trying. Saukrates said it a long time ago, we’re fearless up here.”
And not five minutes after that, Maestro reveals just how fearless he is: “I just put down an opera son.” Talk about outside the box. Maestro recently visited an opera rehearsal and was so moved by the emotion in their performance that he actually wrote an opera himself and commissioned an opera singer named Measha Brueggergosman to sing in operatic Italian. Recently recorded, “Symphonia Destino” involves conflict and tragedy: mainstays of any traditional opera. As Maestro raps in English, Measha comes back with Italian for what could be his biggest artistic risk to date. Maestro isn’t worried about translation issues.
“What I learned from going to the rehearsal is, I don’t have to understand what you’re saying word wise, because I understand what you’re saying. They’re going in. They’re acting. So I guess my point is, if Shad liked my body of work before what is he going to think now [Laughing].”
Maestro also recently started filming for two television shows. In one he plays a school teacher named Paul Dwyer in the CBC sitcom named Mr. D starring and produced by Gerry D. He just wrapped filming in Halifax and is now on to a reoccurring role in an HBO series called The Transporter.
“That’s the vibe. I’m just trying to expand,” he explains. “There’s a safe haven where we can stay in a comfort zone but let’s try to see how far we can go outside that and break shit down.”
Progress is beautiful.
Written by Jonathon “Bizz” Brown for HipHopCanada
Photography by Melissa Moffat for HipHopCanada
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