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Maestro Fresh Wes on hip-hop up top


When it comes to hip-hop, Canada may not get much shine in comparison to America—but that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of talent up here. This week I wanted to show some love to my countrymen that are doing it big.

So I linked up with pioneer Maestro Fresh Wes to chop it up about the state of Northern hip-hop. Since his debut in 1989, the platinum-selling artist has been an icon in Canadian culture. Six albums and a greatest hits compilation deep, and still recording and performing, the T-dot rapper has witnessed every stage of Canadian hip-hop. Maestro’s success prompted the Juno committee to acknowledge urban music. He was the first artist to get the Juno Award for Best Rap Recording, and has picked up numerous MuchMusic, Toronto Music and UMAC Awards. This month he’s being inducted into the Scarborough Walk of Fame. In the past few years, Maestro has branched out to acting and has landed roles on the big and small screen, including appearances in Four Brothers, Honey, Redemption, and Paid in Full. Maestro has played a mentorship role to many artists coming up, and is one of my main sources for info on Canadian hip-hop history. Here’s my convo with Stro…

In the last 20 years that you have been in the game, what’s changed in Canadian hip-hop?
I just think there’s more talent out right now. I’m proud of artists like K-OS, Kardinal, Saukrates. There’s a lot of talent out right now—here on the West Coast too. There’s a lot of cats doing their thing.

What stages has Canadian hip-hop gone through to get where it is now?
When I first started out, Toronto was like a younger brother to New York City. The reason I say that is because everyone came to Toronto. Scott La Rock, KRS-One. Everybody came to Toronto. I opened up for UTFO when they had “Roxanne, Roxanne.” I opened up for Sparky D at the Concert Hall—Toronto’s version of The Apollo. I saw Cut Master DC battle DJ Cheese. We got history. If you look at the back of the BDP Criminal Minded album it says “peace to Ron Nelson and the Toronto posse.” Cause we been doing it. Toronto is only an hour flight from New York. We’ve been doing it since ’78, ‘79. A lot of these young cats coming up right now, especially in the States, don’t really know the history of the culture. It’s not their fault, but they don’t know. Everything is about who is hot right now. But it’s important to know the history.

Name some Canadian hip-hop pioneers that haven’t got the props they deserve.
I mean, we had cats like Sunshine Sound Crew, Butch Lee—that was the MC that I grew up listening to. Butch did his thing. And all by word of mouth, cause we didn’t have no commercial radio station. My man Ron Nelson. I don’t think he gets enough props. That’s the cat that put me on when I was fifteen years old. He’s the cat that brought up all of the acts, whether it was LL Cool J, Run DMC, Fat Boys, the Beastie Boys. Ron was a catalyst for not only the Toronto scene, but the Canadian hip-hop scene.

What are five Canadian hip-hop albums that you feel had a huge impact on our scene?
My Symphony in Effect and The Black Tie Affair. Kardi’s first album. K-OS’s last joint. The Rascalz and Swollen Members did their thing. The Cash Crop album cause [The Rascalz] came to Toronto and unified Canada. And Swollen just hit everybody on the head when they came out. When I hear cats hating on Canadian hip-hop, I think it’s kind of funny cause we have so much talent here.

Who is next in Canada? Who should people be checking for?
I say Mayhem Moriarty. I like Rochester a lot—everyone should watch out for him. Me and Rochester did a show in France and Chuck D introduced us on stage. We were with a crew called Dope Poet Society. We were the first Canadian artists to perform at MIDEM. It was good to be there and let our presence be felt…There’s a lot of cats coming up, but they need to get deals. I think Mayhem is ill, Kryptonite, obviously Saukrates and all of them. 

You’re living in Vancouver right now. What are the difference between Vancouver and Toronto hip-hop?
There’s a merging with snowboard and skateboard culture in Vancouver. Toronto is more East Coast oriented. Obviously they like the Down South shit too, but they’re mostly East Coast. When it comes to urban music, you don’t really think of skateboarding and snowboarding. Vancouver is similar to San Fran. Toronto is more like New York, with a little Down South influence.

I heard that the Maritimes are popping right now.
Yeah, Classified is my man. I’m going to fly out to Halifax and me and him are working on some riddims.

Kardinal recently announced that he will not be participating in the Juno Awards in the future as a result of how little respect hip-hop gets. What’s your take on the Junos?
I think Kardi was upset because for the last couple of years they have been setting him up. He’s accessible, he’s from Toronto, he’s talented, he’s visible. He comes and he performs and then they shut him down. This year in Halifax, Kardi was doing all these parties. People were pushing him to be the Canadian hip-hop ambassador, and when the time came to give out the award [for Best Rap Recording], it was like, “we gonna push you in the corner again.” That’s not taking anything away from other artists. It’s just that I feel [Kardinal] was used. When the time came to get that acknowledgement, the politics of the record companies got in there. Winning a Juno award has a lot to do with politics, just like the Grammys and the Oscars.

What do you think the biggest challenges are for Canadian hip-hop in terms of getting shine?
The challenge is that we are so close to America. You could be so talented, but if a Kanye West album comes out—even if it is really, really dope—they’re going to have a multimillion dollar marketing strategy behind it. And K-OS or Red-1 or whoever can’t compete with that. That’s the challenge right there. And I don’t even stress the labels. To me, the major labels are dinosaurs anyway. All these cats are clinging to their jobs right now to see what happens next. I’m not being disrespectful, that’s just the truth…People need to know about Canadian hip-hop and about our history. We could never be New York, because we are not New York artists. Or California. But our skills are just as good or better than anybody. Listen to that K-OS album. From an R&B perspective, listen to the Big Black Lincoln album. We’re doing it up here.

For audio: Maestro on MySpace


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