Marking 25 years of music success, Maestro Fresh Wes talks about Halifax, the people who inspire him and what motivates his art.
Maestro Fresh Wes is tired and his tooth hurts.
The Canadian hip-hop star (born Wes Williams) is marking 25 years of music stardom, but if you saw us talking on this day, you wouldn’t realize he’s a big deal. Slouched over a coffee, he’s wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. He’s just flown in from a show in Whistler, B.C., arriving in Halifax in the morning. He has to jump into shooting another season of the CBC comedy Mr. D, he’s saving his strength to host a dance party in the evening on the Harbour Queen. And then he has to get up early to have a wisdom tooth pulled.
Yet he radiates joy and contentment.
It’s tempting to say he’s doing what he loves, but it’s more accurate to say he loves everything he’s doing. He’s still glowing from the release of his latest album, Orchestrated Noise, which many critics (including this one) are calling the best of his career. Meanwhile, his straight-arrow, relentlessly positive character Paul Dwyer on Mr. D (the foil to Gerry Dee’s eponymous slacker teacher), has become a fan favourite. As he talks with Halifax Magazine, he shares thoughts on his inspirations, his quest to grow as an artist, his discovery of acting and publishing his first book.
Twenty-five years ago, did you foresee any of this?
I was numb to a lot of things, as any artist would be. There was no point of reference to look at like there is in rock and roll, in terms of this music that was in its infancy. And it would evolve to the level where you have artists in Toronto winning Grammys… In the days we heard “Rapper’s Delight” [a 1979 song by the Sugarhill Gang, widely considered the track that popularized the genre], who would have thought that hip-hop would make it to this level? Today you’ve got this producer out of Toronto by the name of WunderGirl, she’s only in Grade 11 and she produced a track [“Crown”] on Holy Grail, the Jay-Z album. So you’ve got to think, how cool is that?
Who else on the Canadian music scene inspires you?
I’m a big Swollen Members fan. I haven’t had a chance to work with them yet, but I will…But then we’re right here in the Maritimes, so I’ve got to give it up to my man Classified. He’s been doing big things. We’ve been friends for a long time and just to see his evolution has been amazing.
Tell us about your experience collab-orating with him on Reach for the Sky, on your latest album.
Oh, dope! That’s my man. That’s what we do—ha! Me and him, we were like—you know Miami Vice? Tubbs and Crockett? That’s me and Classy.
And the interesting thing about that song is the sample from the Blue Rodeo song “Try,” the way you go right back to some real Canadian music roots…
Just to have Jim Cuddy [Blue Rodeo singer/songwriter] bless it was awesome.
Your work has an unselfconscious Canadian quality about it. You clearly respect where you come from.
No doubt. I’m Toronto to the bone. And I love being in Halifax because there’s a lot of history here. There’s a lot of Halifax on my album. We recorded “Reach for the Sky” right here. Classified lives just outside Halifax. He works so hard. When he popped off, people said he was lucky. Man, he worked every day of the week. I took 13 years off and he did 13 albums. He beat me for a Juno! And I was there watching him win his first Juno, that was the most fun. The Trews on the album are from the Scotia. I have something with my man Caleb Simmons coming out soon. For the last three years, this has been my home away from home.
At the same time, Stick to your Vision (a non-fiction book from McClelland Stewart on “How to Get Past the Hurdles and Haters to Get Where You Want to Be”) continues to do well.
It’s been doing really well. A book to me is like a business card. A lot of people have negative stigmas towards my genre of music. They have preconceived notions of me as an artist, sometimes as a human being.
Will you do more writing?
Yeah, it’s cool. I could see me doing some kids’ books in the future. And in film and TV, I see some other stuff developing too. I can’t divulge everything right now [laughs]. But things are popping. Right now I’m blessed to have this album Orchestrated Noise out. It’s the best album I’ve ever put out, top to bottom. I still think “Let Your Backbone Slide” is my favourite song, I still feel that “Stick to Your Vision” is my most important song but from top to bottom, Orchestrated Noise is my best album. Anyone who takes the time to sit
down and not skim through it, but go for a nice drive to Moncton and play that CD.
You’ve moved into this role where you’re kind of a godfather, a role model on the Canadian music scene…
It’s important you compartmentalize. If I’m doing something relating to motivational speaking or my book, I go in. If it’s my music, I just go in. The song I do with Measha [singer Measha Brueggergosman, who collaborated on the album], “Symphonia Destino,” it’s an opera and I didn’t want to compromise my integrity. And I definitely didn’t want her to compromise her integrity as an opera singer—as a world-renowned opera singer. I went in without trying to be safe, but just showing integrity and honesty in whatever you do is very important.
People say today’s up-and-comers have had an easier time because of you. Do you ever think about that?
No, that would be arrogant. It’s like saying I’m bigger than hip-hop. Hip-hop grew… Artists came up before me, and if it weren’t for me, other artists would have done it. I look at iconic artists and what they must have been through. You look at David Bowie from Ziggy Stardust to now. Imagine all he went through.
How important is it to you to keep trying new things as an artist?
You have to—you have no choice, you have to expand. The byproduct of the book is these presentations. I just did an event in May with Deepa Mehta [a Toronto-based film director] and General Roméo Dallaire. I was one of 10 speakers—Members of Parliament, Bruce from Greenpeace [Greenpeace Canada executive director Bruce Cox], winners of the Order of Canada. And then you had me. I was one of those speakers. It was important to know hip-hop was my foundation, the platform for me to do bigger and better things. I can’t just make music alone. Like I said, people may have a lot of preconceived notions of me as a hip-hop artist, not just me, but anyone in my genre of music. So, it’s important that I come out and present at that level.
You made a conscious decision as a performer to move into acting. It didn’t happen by accident, you took classes—
I still do. It’s important to grow, that’s all it is. Tiger Woods has got a golf coach, right? Floyd Mayweather may be one of the greatest boxers of all time but he’s got a trainer. You need to work on your craft, especially when it’s on this level.
Will you try to go further as an actor?
Oh yeah, without a doubt. One of the accolades I’m most proud of is when I was nominated [for a Gemini Award in 2009] for best supporting actor in a dramatic role for The Line on HBO. I did well; I’m doing well [laughs]. Mr. D is light, it’s a light-hearted show. But The Line, I had monologues and I really had to push myself. And I’m very proud of that and to have that world acknowledge me as one of the best for that year was a good thing. I want to do more.
To go back to Mr. D, to people who don’t know you, it’s a surprise to see you doing comedy—
It is? Oh, OK.
Were you trying to change people’s perception of you?
There’s a time in life where you feel you’ve got nothing to lose, nothing to prove. So there it is. I mean, it’s work but it’s not about me, it’s about the character. I just try to honour that character to the best of my ability, make him as organic, as real as possible. Within any genre—comedy, drama, what have you—that’s what I try to do. They’re not asking me to do backflips or some Dick Van Dyke slapstick.
Whenever your name comes up, people still talk about the classics like “Let Your Backbone Slide” and “Conductin’ Thangs.” Are you OK with that?
I think of certain eclectic artists I know, who don’t want to do what the fans want to see. You can’t do that—give the fans what they want to see. Do your new stuff too, but do what people want. I could never understand that. It’s a selfish thing. It’s not about you; it’s about the fans. You made the music for you, but now it’s out there. The fans are checking for you, they’re the ones coming to your show. What do you mean you’re not doing “Let Your Backbone Slide?” That doesn’t even sound right. You come to my show, and I’m going to do my best work. And you’re going to be surprised. When you see the plethora, you’re going to be like, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t know he had all this.”
After 25 years of doing this, has your approach to those live shows changed?
My approach is just to know that this is what keeps me sober and sane. When the Beatles came out, it was the British invasion, but they didn’t stick to the mop tops. They wanted to experiment, do different things. And they all had their solo careers as well… They had different sounds, different ideas, social commentary. The Rolling Stones had one sound, but then disco came and they adapted. But when disco went out, they were still the Rolling Stones.
How do you evolve like that and stay true to who you are?
Truth is the evolution, man. I’m not the same person I was. I wouldn’t have been able to conduct this type of interview, talk like we are now, a quarter of a century ago, but you grow. I wouldn’t have been able to produce Orchestrated Noise 25 years ago.
What about 25 years from now?
I don’t know. Who knows what’s coming next? That’s the vibe with me: just evolution, growth, having fun. Pushing myself.
The higher up an artist goes, the more people are waiting for you to fall. How do you deal with that?
I’ve had people taking shots at me the last quarter of a century. Good luck, keep taking shots. See what happens to you. I don’t care how you come at me, blogs, what have you. It doesn’t matter. I know my album is dope. It’s one of the best albums this year and I
say that confidently. It is what it is. I needed help, and my friends helped me—Lights, Kardinal, k-os, my man Classified. We recorded “Reach for the Sky” right here in Nova Scotia. That’s why I feel confident. It’s not just me, it’s my team.
What advice do you have for young, aspiring artists?
Don’t make records; make history. Don’t stunt your own growth. We were trying to hit it out of the park, not just fit in. We were striving for greatness. I was like, everyone else isn’t ready—I’m going to prove I’m ready. Take it to the next level—tap into your own artistry.