Being “the first” can be a thrill and a privilege, especially the first winner of something as culturally significant as a Juno Award. A historic achievement, a breakthrough or a breakout, being the first can be one of the most validating moments of an artist’s life.
CBC Music spoke with several Juno Award winners who made history as the first in a variety of categories, to talk about that designation, how it changed their lives, and the weight of it on their careers. This exploration uncovered fascinating facts and wild origin stories about notable firsts, whose wins helped launch genre categories that continue to thrive in 2021.
What follows is a look back at some of the country’s most significant musical moments, and the artists who helped make them happen. Meet the firsts:
Liberty Silver: the pioneering Black woman whose voice shook the Canadian music industry
By Andrea Warner
In 1985, Liberty Silver won the first Juno award for R&B/soul recording of the year. She also won the first Juno for reggae recording of the year. In fact, Silver made history three times that night: she was the first Black woman to win a Juno Award — ever.
It was a historic year for Silver, and, in many ways, a life-changing one.
But for the Juno Awards, 1985 meant that it had taken 15 years to honour a Black woman, and it didn’t seem like a coincidence that the first time they honoured a Black woman was also the first year they debuted awards in “Black music” categories.
Silver looks back on the whole experience now with a visible mixture of pride and exhaustion. The singer, songwriter, producer and philanthropist shakes her head at the 15-year gap between the first Juno Awards and her claim as the first Black woman to win a Juno Award and all she can say, at first, is, “Wow.”
“I am a pioneer,” Silver tells CBC Music via Zoom interview. “I had to lift out the rocks, and the old wood stumps and just push through it, I just pushed through it. I didn’t see it as a challenge. I was like, ‘I’m gonna do this.’ I have the perfect platform. And of course, that’s what I did. I just forged ahead.”
Silver spent her whole life perfecting the tough art of forging ahead. She grew up in Peterborough, Ont., a Black and Hawaiian child in a predominantly white community, raised by white parents with English accents. She was tormented constantly by her peers, but her complaints of racist bullying were dismissed by the grownups around her as teasing. She needed “thicker skin,” the classic non-cure that can feel just as cruel as the unrelenting physical and verbal playground harassment. Silver’s major refuge was music, specifically singing in her family’s basement where she put on concerts for imaginary stadiums full of people, belting out multi-octave showstoppers and making her own recording tapes for harmonies.
But when Silver was just 12 years old, her whole world collapsed and rebuilt itself in the space of a single weekend. It began with a classmate who casually informed Silver that she was hated not just because she was Black, but because she was Black and adopted. Silver was floored. She confronted her mother immediately who confirmed her adoption.
Silver’s reaction was decisive and immediate: “Everything’s a lie. I’m leaving.”
She boarded a bus and headed for Toronto to stay with her sister. She remembers seeing people on the bus who looked like her for the first time. It was, in its own way, an affirmation that leaving Peterborough was the right call. When she arrived at her sister’s, she went for a swim in the building’s pool. She began to sing and caught the attention of a man who suggested that she audition right away for the Wild Bunch, a reggae band, that was looking for a singer. Silver got the gig, and the next day drove with the band in their van all the way to New York City to open for Bob Marley at Madison Square Gardens. She made $100 and she knew what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
“I knew that this was what I was meant to do and born to do,” Silver says. “And I knew God was with me 100 per cent all the time, because that’s the person I always talk to. I wouldn’t get through those chain-link fences at school, or outrun the bullies unless he was there with me because I was praying a lot in Peterborough. And so when I left there, it was like Exodus. I was gone, and I didn’t return for four or five years.”
Silver was just 12-years-old and wise beyond her years.
“You have to be when you’re around people who are kind of messing with you,” she says. “You’ve got to be smarter, to figure out how you’re going to escape before they catch up to you. My parents, when I told them, they’d say, ‘Oh, just brush it under the rug, don’t give it that energy, don’t give it any energy.’ And at 12, I just couldn’t wrap my head around those words when I’m going through that. It wasn’t fun. I was like, ‘OK, I’m on my own.’”
She collaborated with everybody, Silver says, and then at 15, she had a baby. Her best friend Nancy, from Peterborough, helped her raise her son, staying with him for sometimes a week or a month at a time as Silver did what she knew best: forging ahead. She had a small team but “a lot of support,” as well as sponsors like Givenchy and a tour manager who worked hard to book Silver wherever she could.
“That’s what the team had to do: hustle,” Silver says. “It’s not like BMG [whom Silver was signed with at one point] is saying, ‘Hey, we got this new star and you’re gonna be onboard and it’s gonna be great.’ There was nothing like that. It was just a small team of people that were all working together and we made it happen.”
It all came together in 1985. Even before the Juno Awards, Silver was recruited by David Foster to be part of his Canadian supergroup, Northern Lights, for the charity single, “Tears are not Enough.” Silver is featured prominently in the video from start to finish, alongside the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bryan Adams, and she and Loverboy’s Mike Reno share a brief but soaring duet in the song’s opening verse.
Shortly thereafter, Silver found herself nominated for three Juno Awards: for the reggae and R&B/soul recordings of the year, as well as most promising female vocalist. While Silver lost the latter award to k.d. lang, and she missed out on collecting her reggae recording award for “Heaven Must Have Sent You” (which she shared with Otis Gayle), she recalls accepting her award for her R&B/soul record, “Lost Somewhere Inside Your Love,” which she also performed at the awards. Tina Turner was in the crowd, she recalls, and it was a heady night. But it didn’t change things overnight.
“It was really hard to get gigs, because people weren’t — it was like it was a new music,” Silver says. “For me, it wasn’t as difficult, but there was a lot of tension with booking agents because they don’t know how to book Black talent.”
Silver has produced or co-produced the majority of her own albums over the years, and continues to write, record and perform. She has the same hopes she’s always had for the Canadian music industry: to create the necessary infrastructure and support to nurture and develop Black, Indigenous and other artists of colour.
“Canada has an embarrassment of wealth of talent, and they’re doing nothing with it,” Silver sighs. “It’s crazy!”
Silver wants more for other artists than what she’s had to face as “the first Black woman” in so many situations. It’s a designation that amplifies and breaks barriers, but being the first is also highly coded, typically obfuscating systemic and historical oppression. Silver has carried the weight of both, and she did so as a young single mother making space for herself in the Canadian music industry.
And Liberty Silver is not done yet; she’s still forging ahead, even as she takes a moment to reflect on how far she’s come.
“I’m proud of myself,” Silver says. “I worked really hard. I loved what I did and I did not compromise my musical or personal dignity. Those were two big things for me. I was a light to a lot of other singers that came behind me. And they told me that I was. I was really happy about that, that inspired me. I’m here to inspire people.”
Anton Kuerti: 6 surprising facts about the trailblazing pianist
By Robert Rowat
Over the past couple of decades, we’ve become accustomed to having four classical categories at the Juno Awards: classical album of the year: vocal or choral, classical album of the year: solo or chamber, classical album of the year: large ensemble, plus the award for classical composition of the year.
But in 1977, the first year the Juno Awards honoured classical music, there was just one category: best classical album of the year. Pianist Anton Kuerti won the award for his three-volume set of Beethoven sonatas, prevailing over guitarist Liona Boyd, organist Pierre Grandmaison, cellist Gisela Depkat and the husband-and-wife duo of violinist Hidetaro Suzuki and pianist Zeyda Ruga Suzuki.
A household name in Canada’s classical music circles for five decades, Kuerti would receive six more nominations, but that first one would remain his only Juno Award.
Now 82, Kuerti lives in Toronto and can look back with pride on a career that took some remarkable twists and turns and brought pleasure to nearly every corner of his adopted country. Here are six surprising facts about Canada’s first classical Juno winner.
1. He came to Canada in 1965 as a conscientious objector
Born in Vienna in 1938, Kuerti was an infant when he and his parents immigrated to the United States to escape the Nazi invasion of Austria. By his early 20s, he had won awards and played with major American orchestras, but he was also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He moved to Canada as a conscientious objector in 1965, and has lived here ever since.
2. He established the Festival of the Sound
In 1979, Kuerti established a summer festival in Parry Sound, Ont., called Festival of the Sound, bringing together two of his biggest loves: music and nature. The festival is going strong to this day (COVID-19 notwithstanding), and is currently under the artistic directorship of James Campbell.
3. He was involved in Greenpeace’s Save the Whales campaign
In addition to being a musician, Kuerti was an activist, and in the early 1980s he became involved in Greenpeace’s Save the Whales campaign. He contributed to a book, Whales: a Celebration, which includes stories, poems, illustrations, paintings and musical scores inspired by whales.
4. He reduced his fees to make music more accessible
Kuerti performed in communities big and small and was especially known for lowering his fees to make his concerts more accessible to small and remote communities. As Colin Eatock wrote, “at the peak of his career, in the 1980s, [Kuerti] was giving about 80 recitals and concerts a year, driving his piano in a truck across the great distances that separate Canada’s isolated communities.”
5. He was a politician
Kuerti ran for the NDP in the Don Valley North riding in the 1988 federal election. Created from parts of Don Valley East and York–Scarborough ridings, the Don Valley North riding was first used in the 1988 election. Kuerti won 11.82 per cent of the vote, losing to Progressive Conservative candidate Barbara Greene.
6. His son, Julian, is an accomplished conductor
In 1976, Kuerti and his wife, the late cellist Kristine Bogyo, had a son. Julian Kuerti would study engineering and physics before following in his parents’ footsteps and pursuing a career in music. Julian has been music director of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra in Michigan since 2018.
The Mercey Brothers: the sound of new country in the 1970s
By Holly Gordon
“We lived in the very best time to be in music. There was work six nights a week, we travelled. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Larry Mercey smiles as he remembers the heyday of his family band, the Mercey Brothers, which started in 1958 and dominated Canadian country throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. Considered the “new country” of the time, the Mercey Brothers won the first ever best country group/duo award in 1970 at the Gold Leaf Awards, the year before the Junos were officially called what they are today — and they won the same category the following four years in a row.
Growing up in Hanover, Ont., with a guitar-playing father and fiddle-playing mother, Larry (the eldest), Ray (the middle child) and Lloyd (the youngest) Mercey listened to CKNX’s popular Barn Dance show religiously every Saturday, broadcast from neighbouring Wingham, Ont. It’s a show that would cast Larry as a regular after his first performance on it at 15 years old, and one that also boasted musician Tommy Hunter as a frequent guest, leading up to the time he started hosting The Tommy Hunter Show on CBC.
When the Juno Awards came along nearly a decade after the Mercey Brothers started their career as a trio, the brothers didn’t need the accolades to affirm their place in country music. They’d already had deals with both Columbia and RCA Records, and chart-topping singles.
“We were kind of at the top of our game, you know?” Larry says, a bit sheepishly, laughing. “We were the top group in Canada.”
Winning five years in a row — and seven Junos in total — meant a lot to the band, and made the brothers feel like they were going in the right direction. “It’s national [recognition],” adds Larry. “You’re not just local; you’re a national band.”
The Mercey Brothers went their separate ways in 1989 (though Ray left earlier, in 1980, to spend more time with his family), and Larry still performs with a different trio but not as frequently (and not at all during the COVID-19 pandemic). He’s also just released an autobiography, Have Mercey: My First 60 Years of Making Music.
Fifty years after that fateful first Juno Award nomination, we caught up with Larry to talk about the very beginning, that Junos streak, and those amazing jumpsuits.
On making it a family affair
After Larry had been on Barn Dance for a few years, relatives kept asking, “Why don’t you sing with your brother?”
“And at that time, the Everly Brothers, Louvin Brothers, Wilburn Brothers, all kinds of brothers acts like that were popular,” explains Larry. “And so [Ray’s] first place ever singing at all was live on a television show. We were probably two scared-looking guys on there or whatever, and then we were a dance band at that point, playing all over like that.”
In 1960, Larry and Ray competed on the CBC-TV show Talent Caravan, and came in second in the country, which really kicked things off for the Mercey Brothers. They started travelling to different parts of the country to perform and record, often finding themselves in Toronto, Winnipeg and Halifax within a two-week span.
Lloyd joined the group as their drummer in 1966, shortly after which they signed to Columbia Records and released a handful of hit singles, including “Whistling on the River” — which would resurface in 2017 on the Stranger Things Season 2 soundtrack.
‘We always ran as a business’
The Mercey Brothers loved playing music, but Larry stresses they were simultaneously a well-run business.
“We always ran as a business, and we helped our success maybe unknowingly at the time, but even in between sets, we would write postcards — maybe to disc jockeys and thank them for playing our record. And those are all business things that really helped us, I’m sure.”
The Mercey Brothers worked 50 weeks a year at their peak — “maybe have two weeks off as holidays,” says Larry — performing six nights a week all over the country. In 1973, they opened their own studio in Elmira, Ont., which allowed them to record and release their own music as well as sign other artists.
Having five Juno wins in a row during all of that work was a mark of something greater.
“It was knowing that you’re getting someplace,” says Larry. “It was very exciting to win, I know that.”
On those $1,000 outfits
The Mercey Brothers prided themselves on being entertainers, and had to dress the part. In the early 1970s, they got their first set of blue jumpsuits from Malabar, a company that makes costumes and dancewear and that is still operational today.
“I couldn’t wear them today, Holly, just too tight,” Larry tells me, laughing. “They were $1,000 each back then,” he adds. “And if you look at the picture, they’re all different. Like, each one is different there. Lloyd’s, he was a drummer, he had a short jacket because a long jacket didn’t work too good. I remember the first time we wore them was at the Canadian Country Music Convention in Ottawa. And we came out in those outfits and we were the talk of the convention.”
As Larry stresses: “All that is really the business part of the music.”
Wapistan: the album that changed Lawrence Martin’s life — and the Juno Awards
As told to Andrea Warner
Lawrence Martin made history in 1994, winning the first Juno Award in a newly created category titled best music of Aboriginal Canada recording. He won for his album Wapistan is Lawrence Martin.
CBC Music spoke with Martin in 2018 for an oral history of the Indigenous music album of the year Juno Award (as it was called in 2017; it’s now the Juno Award for Indigenous artist or group of the year), and this is what he told us about being the first.
The making of Lawrence Martin is Wapistan
“I had just turned 36 years old, my first grandson was born, and I had a whole bunch of songs in my briefcase that I’d never recorded because my dream was to record in Nashville. So, I drove down to Nashville that summer before the Junos and my friend says to take this sweetgrass with you to this guy named John Stewart [a songwriter and producer] in Nashville. He wanted to learn about Native history and Native people, so I met John in Nashville. He listened to my songs and he says, ‘Those country songs are a dime a dozen and we have much better singers than you down here in Nashville so forget about that, but those Native songs — nobody is doing that. Garth Brooks is not doing that. Why don’t you go home and write some more songs that talk about your Native culture that you can sing in your language and incorporate some of that weird chanting that you do?’ So I did, and a couple months later I go back down and meet up with him, and I have saved up a little bit of money and we did a demo. That demo became my album.”
The big win
“We submitted the album, as is, to the Junos and next thing you know, we get a notice that it’s been nominated. I was able to play one of my songs called “Elders” [at the ceremony], and as soon as I finished the song, I was told to just go stand off to the side of the stage behind the curtain and to listen to the announcement. I hear, ‘The winner is Wapistan is Lawrence Martin!’ Oh shit! I go out there and then I see the crowd and I just freeze. I didn’t know what to say so I started speaking in Cree just to give myself a little bit of breathing space and finally start getting my thoughts together and I spoke in English and my children were just screaming their heads off. That’s all I could hear, I recognized their screams [laughs].
“Being the first winner — I definitely benefitted from that and I think it sent a lot of messages to a lot of young people. I was mayor of Sioux Lookout, and I remember coming back after [winning] and being met by a lot of Sioux Lookout people at the airport and then having hundreds and hundreds of letters coming in from children from First Nations communities everywhere. That was the highlight.
“We did something great as a First Nations people. We entered into this mainstream society; all of a sudden we’re all over the news and I was being interviewed by CBC and I did a tour of Canada and a tour of Australia. I went to Europe a couple times. Like, wow, this is really cool: being able to sing my songs that are in Cree and English, a way for me to promote my language and culture.
“I thought, ‘Well, if this [Indigenous-specific Juno Awards category] is how we need to get into the mainstream music industry of Canada, then so be it.’ But what I expected, after some period of time, [was] that we would actually not have that category and that eventually we would evolve as musicians and have access to good recording studios and access to jobs and therefore money and be able to afford our own. But after 20 years, it’s still there, so.”
“Now we have Native musicians that can compete in the other categories as well so that’s good. It was a good first step. Then seeing other musicians, Native musicians coming on and doing the same thing, that was really cool…. It was a political movement and a musical triumph for us.”
Kon Kan: how a DIY dance record accidentally made Canadian music history
By Melody Lau
Kon Kan’s Barry Harris only wanted to make one record. That’s it. And that record won him the first-ever Juno Award for dance recording of the year in 1990.
Inspired by ‘80s U.K. acts like Depeche Mode, New Order and Pet Shop Boys, Harris, a Toronto DJ at the time, wanted to create his version of that synth-driven dance music. And thanks to the rise of MIDI gear, making your own record became a more accessible idea — so Harris quickly found a space in Hamilton to experiment and record.
A big part of constructing his debut single, 1988’s “I Beg Your Pardon,” is the use of sampling, something that feels commonplace today but in the late ’80s was a production technique artists were just learning. “They were all just sampling little pieces of records,” Harris explains, of the few examples of sampling he remembers hearing at the time. “No one had really taken a whole piece of a song like I did.”
The main sample that anchors the track is country singer Lynn Anderson’s “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden.” While spliced into parts, the song is so prominently featured in “I Beg Your Pardon” that the original songwriter, Joe South, is credited as a co-writer on the track.
Harris laughs as he can’t recall how he landed on that Anderson song to begin with, but his love of New Order meant a love of contrasts: “a happy sound with very depressing lyrics.”
While “I beg Your Pardon” is lyrically about the dissolution of a relationship, its sombreness is also inspired by the late ’80s, when the LGBTQ+ community was in the midst of battling the AIDS epidemic. Harris, who is gay, says that “AIDS was a death sentence in ’88; and it was getting closer and closer, from people you didn’t know to people that you worked with to roommates.” The lyrics borrowed from “Rose Garden” — “Love shouldn’t be so melancholy/ come along and share the good times while we can” — were used here to reflect queer love, and as Harris asserts, a reminder that life is short.
That part of the Anderson sample skips during the track, an audio style that came about only because the sample wasn’t long enough to fit that section of the song. “We had to split it up into pieces,” Harris says of that Anderson track. “You could only get two or three, maybe five, seconds of a sample, and it would be on a floppy disk or something. That’s the only way I could make that whole section work. It sounds silly, but little did I know I was creating this whole unique ‘80s sound. It was a hook in itself.”
And the samples didn’t stop there. In total, there are six other pieces of music sampled and referenced: GQ’s “Disco Nights (Rock-Freak),” Silver Convention’s “Get up and Boogie,” Spagna’s “Call Me,” the theme song from The Magnificent Seven, and even a National Lampoon sketch from their That’s not Funny, That’s Sick album. In many ways, the track was a giant puzzle of different sounds and genres, and Harris’ mission was to find — or create, through sampling — the right pieces that fit together. The final piece was vocalist Kevin Wynne, a vocalist-for-hire who turned into a bandmate when Kon Kan was later marketed as a duo. (Harris says this is one of the biggest misconceptions about Kon Kan, noting that it was truly a solo project.)
Along with sampling came the complicated process of clearing said samples — another thing that was completely new to Harris, who chuckles and admits: “I don’t know if any of those samples ever did get cleared.”
Because of this, Harris says he hasn’t made much money off “I Beg Your Pardon” and that the ensuing album is “still in the hole,” owing money to the artists and songwriters whose songs were chopped and sampled. “No one knew how to approach these things,” he recalls. But Harris seems generally at peace with this, noting that his goal wasn’t to make money: “I wanted my own record, and I got it.”
“I Beg Your Pardon” found sudden success when Atlantic Records’ Marc Nathan discovered the song and brought it to the U.S. where it started getting radio play. Shortly after that, Kon Kan signed with Atlantic. “I was quite shocked that it broke out in the States,” Harris says. Because of his British influences, Harris thought “this could be huge in Europe, like, hands down,” but the U.S. exposure was what got Kon Kan off the ground.
When Harris found out “I Beg Your Pardon” was nominated for a Juno Award in the inaugural best dance recording category, he was “freaked out” and convinced he wasn’t going to win.
“There were two Candi songs!” Harris exclaimed, pointing out pop artist Candi’s dominance over the other three nominees. The other acts up for the award were Jam Jam Jam and a newcomer by the name of Maestro Fresh Wes, the latter of whom Harris said got “lumped into the dance category” because a rap category had not been introduced yet. (Best rap recording would be established the following year when Wes won for Symphony in Effect.)
When Kon Kan’s name was called at the ceremony, Harris and Wynne were in absolute disbelief. “It was like winning a lottery,” Harris recalls. “I wasn’t prepared at all, I really didn’t know what to say, I had to think quickly on the spot.”
The first iteration of Kon Kan lasted until 1994, when Harris moved on to start Top Kat, a house music project he started with Canadian DJ Terry Kelly. As Thunderpuss, another project he started with DJ/producer Chris Cox, Harris has remixed some of the world’s biggest artists, including Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Madonna, and most notably, Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right, But it’s OK,” a hit that has more than 23 million streams. He holds the title as the most successful Canadian remixer to date, and has since picked up the Kon Kan moniker once again, although he says it’s much more a personal hobby than a professional career.
He still tries to keep up with dance music today but admits that most of it is “severely watered down.” That said, he continues to stay optimistic, understanding that making music is now not only accessible to everyone, but also constantly evolving. “Next year, it’s going to be a whole different ball of wax, I‘m sure of that.”
Ken Mode: how metal made so much noise in Canadian music, there was no choice but a Junos resurrection
By Nairi Apkarian
That little puff of smoke at the 1991 Juno Awards was metal briefly appearing for the first time as a category — before disappearing for the following 20 years.
The first attempt at a metal Juno saw Rush’s Presto beating out nominees Voivod and Killer Dwarfs for the best hard rock/metal album. By the following year, the award had already dropped “metal” from its title, despite having metal bands nominated. After a couple more years, metal nominees would stop showing up on the list, too.
The furious evolution of mainstream rock in the ’90s and ’00s meant making way for new contenders like grunge, alt rock, pop punk, and indie. The Junos category, which has been called rock album of the year since 2003, ballooned to hold everyone from Alanis Morissette to Cancer Bats to Sum 41 under its umbrella.
Heavy metal’s generally strong showing in the ’70s and ’80s — Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Van Halen and Metallica — laid the foundation for its wild evolution, including the split off into what Winnipeg-based Ken Mode vocalist Jesse Matthewson calls the “less savoury arts.”
With this shift, much of metal dropped out of regular radio play and metal nominees disappeared almost entirely from the Junos lineup. For artists writing metal music, with its oft-misunderstood aggression, kitsch, or even rhythmic and tonal experimentation (features that could either attract or repel more mainstream listeners), there was no longer an appropriate Juno Award category, let alone the widespread support needed to truly “make it” in Canada.
But that didn’t mean metal in Canada went away. Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, metal bands sought success in global markets and tight-knit underground communities, and the breadth and diversity of their music exploded, even as they were largely invisible within mainstream Canadian music. For a band like Ken Mode, which formed in 1999, success came through years of North American and European tours alongside acts like Mastodon, F—k the Facts, Buried Inside and Deafheaven. Ken Mode’s signature sound pulls from doom, black metal and noise rock to create what Matthewson calls a “weird kind of melodic post-rock thing” that the band acknowledges might not appeal even to metalheads.
When fellow metal band Voivod wanted to submit its 2009 album, Infini, to the Juno Awards, there was no category that fit the band’s sound. The band’s Hamilton-based label Sonic Unyon was frustrated and had had enough, so it pushed to bring metal back to the Junos. For a year and a half, the label campaigned for a category that could handle the diversity of metal music. Sean Palmerston, who worked in media relations for the label in 2011, told CP24, “Hopefully, it’ll just make (fans) say, ‘Hey, we have good metal bands in our own backyard.’”
The label’s push was successful. In 2012, up against Anvil, Cauldron, F—k the Facts and Devin Townsend Project, it was Ken Mode that nabbed the first reinstated Juno for metal/hard music album of the year with its 2011 album, Venerable.
“It was kind of a big deal for us,” drummer Shane Matthewson tells CBC Music via Zoom. “You go from being a band just kind of out there, trying to tour and promote your stuff, to people’s parents being like, ‘Hey, congratulations on the massive achievement.’” He describes the “pat on the back” from the Canadian music community as something they weren’t used to receiving.
Shane chuckles as he remembers their grandmother’s reaction to Ken Mode’s win. “When she heard that we won, she said, ‘I would say congratulations — but I don’t care much for that music.’”
Luckily, other people did. But even back then, Ken Mode wasn’t necessarily rooting for itself. Both Shane and Jesse were aware that, at the time, long-running Quebec metal bands Gorguts and Voivod were examples of vital acts that hadn’t yet received their due. Jesse remembers thinking, “If Voivod wins, everything is right in the world,” and how it felt like a “faux pas” that such an influential band had yet to receive a Juno.
It would take Voivod eight more years to win the Juno, but when the band finally did in 2019, drummer Michel Langevin kicked off his thank yous with an elated (if not exhausted), “First Juno in 36 years!”
On the 10th anniversary of the reinstatement of the Juno metal/hard rock category, Jesse says he’s excited about the direction of metal today.
“There’s lots of good stuff being done and pushing the envelope,” Jesse says. “I’m trying to do the thing and keep up and support the bands that are doing things that at least I find interesting.”
But Ken Mode would like to see further splits in the metal category in order to fully capture the variety found in hard music — but all the variety might make it difficult to decide what they would be.
“This world of music attracts a special kind of weirdo that has such a wide array of interests and likes,” Jesse says. “When you can link up with those people, it’s never a dull moment.”
Billy Bryans’ the Gathering: how the former Parachute Club artist produced the first Juno Award-winning world music record
Written by Jess Huddleston
World music has historically been the term used to classify non-Western musical traditions, but its categorization within major awards shows has been a contentious rollercoaster ride with different organizations still seeming to land in different places.
Just last year, the Grammys changed the category to be called “best global music album” in an attempt to avoid “connotations of colonialism,” while the Juno Awards have landed back at a category called best world music album since 2003, after originally being named world beat recording and then best global album.
The first Juno Award for world music was handed out in 1992, five years after the term “world music” had hit the mainstream. In Philip Sweeney’s 1991 book Virgin Directory of World Music, he describes how a group of music industry executives gathered in 1987 to decide on terminology to categorize non-Western music, and world music was their consensus. In 1990, Billboard introduced a world music chart.
With the advent of more modern music technology in the early ‘90s — both the internet and compact disc were less than a decade old — access to non-Western sounds was inevitably increasing, making the integration into awards programs timely, albeit long overdue.
In 1992, the inaugural Juno Award for best world music album (then called best world beat recording) was awarded at the O’Keefe Centre (now Meridian Hall) in Toronto to The Gathering, an 11-track compilation album. Here are five surprising facts about that first world music category winner.
1. The winning album was assembled and produced by Parachute Club’s Billy Bryans
The Gathering was a compilation album of Canadian artists making eclectic world music, produced by Parachute Club’s Billy Bryans. For the album, Bryans, who died of lung cancer in 2012, assembled artists he had booked for the 1991 Ontario Place concert series, World Beat. The music on the album ranges from Turkish folk and Afrobeat to Latin jazz.
In Bryans’ words, from a panel of the CD artwork for the album: “This compilation is not by any means comprehensive, nor is it meant to be a balanced representation of all the communities in Toronto. It is meant, rather, as a beginning, a sampler, of the possibilities inherent in the crossing of language and rhythm, technology and culture. Far too much music is lost in the narrow focus of the media/culture system under which we all live. This work is a salute to the musicians, composers and broadcasters who are pushing for change.”
2. Bryans dedicated much of his career to promoting world music
Bryans, who grew up in Pointe-Claire, Que., but spent most of his adult life in Toronto, worked heavily with world music influences as a musician, producer and promoter. In 1997, Bryans worked as a mixer and producer on the Disney film Jungle 2 Jungle, which featured music from artists like Totó la Momposina and Eyuphuro.
3. The album’s producer was selected because of his all-star experience
The album included a strong Afrobeat component, so Bryans selected recording engineer Walter Sobczak to record and mix a large part of the album, as Sobczak had recently worked with the likes of then rising hip-hop stars Michie Mee, Dream Warriors, Maestro Fresh Wes, Split Personality and more. “I would hear his insights on a wide range of topics, from the immediacy of quick [album] releases, which he admired, to acetates in Jamaica’s dancehall culture, to the months-long military buildup in the Middle East preceding the first Gulf War, which was happening at the time,” says Sobczak. “And, in the middle of the night or in the early morning on my way home, I would drive Billy to the bottom of the laneway where the side door of his house was, which the City of Toronto named Billy Bryans Lane in 2016.”
4. Many of the album’s musicians went on to become multidisciplinary artists
While few of The Gathering’s contributors are actively making music today, many went on to dabble in other arts arenas, making a name for themselves as invaluable Canadian creators. To name a few, Anishinaabe artist Leland Bell has been a renowned painter and musician since the ‘80s, Ramiro Puerta of Ramiro’s Latin Orchestra went on to make films and program Spanish-language films for Toronto International Film Festival and Joseph Maviglia is an accomplished poet, educator and spoken word artist.
5. One of the winning compilation’s featured artists was nominated in the same category for their full album
Arguably the best-known group included in The Gathering compilation, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band was a two-time nominee within the inaugural world music category — for both The Gathering and its own self-titled album, a celebration of Jewish folk music.
Maestro Fresh Wes and Odario Williams: a conversation about hip hop before the Junos
As told to Andrea Warner
CBC Music Afterdark host and Grand Analog hip-hop artist Odario Williams grew up listening to Maestro Fresh Wes, starting out with Maestro’s 1989 breakthrough debut, Symphony in Effect, which featured the wildly popular single “Let Your Backbone Slide.”
Eventually, Williams and Maestro became peers and friends, so who better to pair up for an in-depth conversation about what it was like for Maestro to win the first-ever Juno Award in the rap recording category in 1991?
The video below offers a condensed and edited version of Williams and Maestro’s dialogue, while the Q&A below is an edited but longer account of Canadian hip hop before 1991, Maestro’s come-up, and some never-before-heard stories from both artists.
Odario Williams: How you doing, sir?
Maestro Fresh Wes: I feel blessed, man. Busy, but blessed. It’s an honour to see you, always expanding and diversifying the portfolio doing things, man. We started off doing music and that was a launching pad for us to more than just that, man, but we always remember that hip hop was the foundation for us, you know?
Odario: That’s right. And let me just start with a story. I was in school. I guess it was elementary school. My class was going on a ski trip and we rented a bus. It was a two-hour ride and I remember bringing the “Let Your Backbone Slide” cassette single on the bus. And the bus driver and all 30 kids voted on listening to [it] over and over again for two hours. I had to go buy another cassette single because they wore out mine [laughs].
OK, let’s get into it. Once again, we’re in Junos season. And if it’s not known by now it needs to be known, you were the winner of the very first rap Juno to be handed out.
Maestro: Can I show you what it looks like? [Shows statuette.]
Odario: Oh, cool. My guy, you’ve got the hottest Zoom wall I’ve ever seen.
Maestro: I don’t do this for nobody. But for you, I’m gonna show you this man…. This is for the album, this is the first original Juno for best rap recording of the year.
Odario: That’s it, right there. How much on eBay?
Maestro: This one’s for best rap video for “Drop the Needle.” I want to show you what these look like.
Odario: Yo, I’ll give you 50 bucks. So let’s go back to before the Junos because it took years for the Junos to acknowledge hip hop. But, you know, I’m not going to go hard on the Junos about that, because, you know, hip-hoppers at that time were underground, they were doing their thing. Especially Canadian hip hop, they just didn’t see past the border, they didn’t necessarily see themselves as international success. What was going on? In Toronto, in Scarborough, in the club scene?
Maestro: So, shout out to the brother Ron Nelson. He put me on when I was 15, on CKLN 88.1 FM. That’s where I got to start. And prior to his era, that was the changing of the guard, because now we have a little radio station at Ryerson, but prior to that we had soundcrews like Sunshine Soundcrew. They were from Scarborough but they repped the whole Toronto. Then you had groups like Kilowatt, Sheet Dynasty — these are names of some soundcrews that made a major impact on the scene pre-Ron Nelson, pre-CKLN 88.1 and you had to have props to get on the mic, man, you know?
So I was just up and coming at the time, but I gotta shout out to that. And if you look at the back of the Criminal Minded album by BDP [Boogie Down Productions], it’ll say, “Shout-out to Ron Nelson and the Toronto posse.” So when I see KRS-One and Scott La Rock give us love like that, that showed me, yo, that Toronto posse they talkin’ about us so we got to keep it moving, too, right? That was kind of the vibe, that was like ‘86 or ‘87. Then Michie [Mee] did a joint with Scott La Rock and KRS-One called Elements of Style and that was another changing of the guard where it went beyond just making demo tapes, it was like actually putting out vinyl! That was groundbreaking for us back in ‘87, ‘88, times like that, so you got to tip your hat off to Beat Factory, you know, Beat Factory was a conglomerate that had almost every artist in the city on [it] at the time.
Odario: So Beat Factory acted as a record label, too?
Maestro: They acted as everything, man, they embodied the whole thing in terms of artists. Then they started the record label — I just gave you the story from Sunshine and all the soundcrews’ MCs at the time, Butch Lee was known as the greatest MC out of Toronto at the time like that. We’re talking early ‘81, ‘82, Butch Lee was the man.
Odario: So take me to the moment when you first went on tape because in order to be acknowledged by something like the Junos, you have to have recorded so you know it doesn’t exist unless you have put this on tape, unless you’re recording it. Take me to the very first time Melody Wes —
Maestro: When I was Melody MC, yeah, that was my rap name before it was Maestro Fresh Wes.
Odario: Take me to that time when Melody MC first went into a studio and what was it, where was it?
Maestro: I think it was with Ron Nelson. He took me to a studio in Hamilton, of all spots, man. I was in a group called Vision with my man Ebony MC. We had a song called “Just Swinging” — well, we were a group before that and I think Ron drove us out to some studio in Hamilton. I’m like, this is dope. I remember that long-ass drive from Toronto to Hamilton and then back home. It was an in-house studio but it had mixing boards, like, you gotta be kidding! And later on it was with S Blank and those guys from Flemington Park, they took me to another studio and this is pre-“Backbone” days, way before I had a deal and stuff. People just doing stuff in their homes, trying to make things happen and then we took it to the studio. But that was a big deal to go to the studio.
Odario: Right, and the idea was to find someone who could mix this stuff properly, right? What were you guys pressing to? Just mix tapes or —
Maestro: It was reel to reel, man.
Odario: But how were you sharing them?
Maestro: Just cassette to cassette, man, it was bad, the generations we lost, it was crazy, man…. You know Chris Jackson [DJ Jel]? He’s a part of that journey, too, man.
Odario: Wow, yeah, Chris Jackson is working at CBC right now.
Maestro: That’s a good dude right there. I know him as DJ Jel, so when you hear me and “Stick to Your Vision,” when I say, “Don Mills and Eglinton, Flemington/ making beats with S and Jel and’em.” So there’s history of these brothers believing in me, man, and just supporting me. I’ve had so many mentors around me, good dudes around believing in my drive, man, and I’m so honoured, man. And that’s early Toronto. In 1988, I changed my name from Fresh Wes to Maestro Fresh Wes. So it was Melody MC, a.k.a. Fresh Wes. And then my man, R. Smalls, was telling me, “Your rhymes are too dope for just Fresh Wes, you need a title.” And then one day at Parkway Mall, when I was working, I saw that, yo, boom, there’s a tuxedo, a black tuxedo, Maestro Fresh Wes, and the rest is history. That changed the whole climate of the scene, man.
Odario: Yeah, yeah. So, yo, being an artist myself, I used to work the graveyard shift at a grocery store. And I used to pack the shelves, unload the truck, pack the shelves. What I really was doing was writing my first rhymes.
Maestro: Same here.
Odario: Tell us the story of Parkway Mall in Scarborough, and the hit song that you wrote.
Maestro: That’s what’s up. I think I wrote “I’m Showing you There,” I wrote “The Mic’s my Piece” there. I wrote “Dropped the Needle” there and I wrote “Let Your Backbone Slide.” Like, I wrote the majority of [the] album doing graveyard shift, man, so by the time I got to the record deal, it was ready to go, man.
Odario: What job were you doing?
Maestro: I was doing security at Parkway Mall, graveyard shift.
Odario: Protecting who?
Maestro: Like nobody, man. One time I had to switch a shift and I seen some dude, he was running. And I heard the floorwalk is chasing him, like, “He stole something!” And I look at all these old ladies looking at me. I looked at my uniform and I go, I gotta tackle this dude, man. Like I used to play football, man. So this was a perfect tackle. I caught him and I brought him down. The dude was stealing condoms, man. I felt bad. They put me in a spot! I’m just here to write these rhymes, why are you stealing these jimmies, now I gotta tackle you and you’re falling in front of these old ladies, man. But, it came with the territory. I don’t think I’ve ever told that story before but it’s mad funny.
Odario: You had to do your job. What were you writing on? As an MC myself — oh, wow, a notebook, pen and a pad. But OK, so I’m gonna ask a technical question then. You weren’t writing to beat, you were writing rhymes?
Maestro: No, writing rhymes rhymes. So things changed. Back then I was just writing rhymes and I’d have a beat in my head. Like a “Set it Off” by Big Daddy Kane or a Public Enemy, like “Rebel Without a Cause.” I was writing to that for a few years, man, a few albums, and then I broke away from that and I started just growing as an artist and doing different things.
Odario: Take me to the studio date when you went in and you heard that beat. I don’t know if it was the first, if “Let Your Backbone Slide” was the first — I guess I’m asking if the beat changed.
Maestro: My man [Sierra or Ceara La] did that. He goes by Gary Bajadoor you know, I don’t know if you know Gary but we did the initial “I’m Showing You” and then the beat changed. We used that for the interlude called “Ltd is on the Wheels of Fortune,” that was the original beat for “I’m Showing You” and the original for “Let Your Backbone Slide” that I performed on Electric Circus wasn’t the same beat that we used, it was a different beat. We had the opportunity to remix it, you know, and it’s like, you want a banger, man, because we knew. My slogan is, “Don’t make records, make history.” So “Backbone Slide” was a dope record; now we have an opportunity to make it history. We got a deal now, we’re about to shoot a video, let’s just come with a banger, ‘cause by that time, the song was almost a year out now.
Odario: Yeah, but it keeps growing and growing and growing. Who’s the producer on the version that we know?
Maestro: Well, the same guys who did the other one, that’s First Offense, man [a.k.a. brothers Peter and Anthony Davis]. Respect to Peter and Anthony Davis, we went to high school together at Senator O’Connell. Good dudes and they were so talented. I’m glad I got to work with them. They also did the Kish album right after.
Odario: Shout-out to Kish. OK, we’re gonna talk about the Junos route real quick. So in 1990, we’re going to take this single, “Let Your Backbone Slide,” and we’re going to notice that it’s the only rap track popping off. I’m assuming what you guys have to decide to do was submit in the dance music category. And you didn’t win. And I feel partly because you know, things were so new at the time, you guys didn’t consider yourselves dance. But at the same time that the track was such a hit, you had to be submitted somewhere.
Maestro: You know, what you just made me think of for the first time? Pop was changing, and it was coming into itself from a mainstream perspective. And people didn’t know how to take it in Canada.
Odario: That’s what I’m saying.
Maestro: So fast forward 20 years later. Changing the guard. Well, my man Drake, right? It’s like hip hop had a different feel to it altogether. You see, I’m saying you’re allowed to be singing, doing melody, as well as rhyming. Like we didn’t concede that back then, because this was back then. It was like, [sigh] “What are you doing?” There wasn’t even a category for that, it wasn’t really totally accepted. Do you feel what I’m saying? The way you asked me that question made me think of how hip hop was evolving into what we know it now. Even though artists like k-os and Saukrates were singing and rapping before, it’s the norm now, and where do you put this?
Odario: “Where do you put this” — exactly.
Maestro: This is similar to what happened [with Symphony in Effect] back in ‘90 with the Junos. Where do you put this music? Where can you categorize it? It’s not R&B. It’s not really dance but…. OK, let’s put it in dance. So we didn’t win and it was like OK, cool, peace. I thought that’s as far as I could go with it. And I was a little disappointed because I performed that year, and we didn’t win so I’m like, “Wow, man, maybe this is as far as we could go.” But then the very next year the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences implemented the best rap recording of the year and that’s when this came around right over here. That’s it.
Odario: Right there. Symphony in Effect. Yeah, man. That one in 1991.
Maestro: Like I said, don’t make records, make history, man, do those songs that last, that people remember years and years and years later. We knew that we were doing some very special shout-out to the Dream Warriors and shout-out to Michie Mee and LA Luv and shout-out to Beat Factory and East Park Posse, everybody who was coming out at that time. Because we were on the verge of something that was really special. That’s it. But I thought that’s as far as I could go at the time. And then it was like, we’re here now, man, changing of the guard, man.
Odario: So back in 1991, I’m going to throw you the names of the nominees you’re up against and just give me a couple lines that first come to mind when I say their names.
Maestro: When I think of Simply Majestic, I think of my man B-Kool. B-Kool is a veteran MC who made the transition into dance music for a minute. B-Kool was a part of the East Park Posse out of Flemingdon Park. He put out his EP way before I put out Symphony in Effect. So East Park Posse consisted of B-Kool, S Blank and Jel.
Odario: Oh, wow. OK, I didn’t know that.
Maestro: This is why we have these conversations. Even though B-Kool was doing dance music at the time, he was a well respected MC. So he was like, yeah, he’s just trying a thing, whatever like that but when I think of Simply Majestic and B-Kool, I think of Carl expanding and leaving East Park Posse and continuing his career and trying to evolve and doing different music from a mainstream perspective. He already paid his dues, man. He didn’t just pop out of nowhere. It was like, Flemingdon Park, man.
Odario: I love it. OK, MC J and Kool G.
Maestro: Yeah. What I think of them? I was so proud of those guys because they’re from Halifax. It wasn’t just a Toronto thing. Because at that point, we travelled, we’d seen different parts of the country. So these guys, these are my brothers from Halifax. I’m happy that — you know, I’m from Toronto, the majority of MCs were known from Toronto, and the other Junos in Vancouver, but these guys are from Halifax. How cool is that? And you’re nominated? So I was happy for them.
Odario: Africville represent. So another nominee in the 1991 Juno rap category that you were up against that year was Spunkadellic.
Maestro: Yeah, I don’t know too much about them. I still don’t…. There’s nothing good or bad to say. I can only say, “Peace,” because they were nominated with me, right, but I didn’t know their music or their background or what they were part of where they’re from, nothing like that.
Odario: And that goes to show that the scene was growing pretty quickly…. And the final group you’re up against was Dream Warriors.
Maestro: Yeah, the Dream Warriors, to me, is the most original group in hip hop ever. King Lou was the most original MC I ever heard of, I’m not just talking about Canada. I’m talking period. He’s almost original to a fault. If somebody says “the” he will say “thee.” He’s that dude. But he doesn’t like biting. He’s that serious about being original, man, and he’s a B-boy aficionado. Dream Warriors, they put me onto Kool G rap. And Ultra Magnetic, but you wouldn’t think that based on their music, but they were that out-there and left-field. We were trying to be original. This is what hip hop is about. There’s only one KRS-One. There’s only one Run-DMC. There’s only one Warriors, we’re the Warriors of the Dream. When he says “my definition,” you can’t define their style. Hear what I’m saying? I tip my hat off to the Dream Warriors.
Odario: Yeah. And all that was proof that Canada didn’t have a sound. Everyone was different. Everyone was fine in their own zone.
Maestro: Well, the thing is with me was I came up with the black tuxedo. But at the same time I was boom bap because I was still in the B-boy stance. Yeah, I still had the funky drummer. I was still doing it on a level where, if the black tuxedo was too left-field for somebody, there was the dope state jackets. So I made sure that we did something like that too, you know?
Odario: Yeah. I like that. And so back in them days, man, radio obviously was very rock conscious, you know, big groups at that time: Tom Cochrane, Alannah Myles, Luba, Bryan Adams, Jeff Healey. Where were people getting their hip-hop fix in late ’80s, early ’90s, and how? And how did you find out about other artists?
Maestro: CKLN, man, and then after we had MuchMusic, we had Electric Circus, we had Rap City, and stuff like that. But those were the days when there was a changing of the guard again. Ron Nelson used to have his parties and stuff in the Concert Hall, different places like that, too. And he was very influential, you know, in the early years.
Odario: So then the crossover and you were there. I mean, you, Michie Mee, the Dream Warriors. What did the crossover entail? What was crossing over? Was it commercial radio? What did that mean? I guess what I’m saying by crossing over is, you know, crossing over and out of the hip-hop community and what was known as the tight nightclub community, the college radio community, into broader success.
Maestro: It was an honour to be part of that, man, just to see the growth was an out-of-body experience. Like, being at Square One Mall in Mississauga and the mall has to shut down because people want to see me and get an autograph and whatnot. So it was a beautiful experience, Odario, to be a part of that whole process and to see our scene grow right now from, you know, like we said, we started from the bottom, but now we’re here, man, we’re the top of the global food chain, when it comes to the genre of music man. So yeah, it’s just an honour to be a part of it, man.
Back then it was like, yo, we knew we’re doing something special. And I couldn’t have articulated it any way differently; we knew we weren’t making records. We knew we were making history. And the fact that I could look back now three decades later and say, “You know what? Yeah, we did some[thing] real special back then,” you know, continue evolving, but that’s where it started from, man. My hat’s off to not only the artists back then but the fans and just Toronto and not only Toronto, but Canada at the same time. That was a launching pad for me to do a lot of different things. There’s so much wealth of talent in Toronto, so much wealth of talent in Canada. With hip hop, man. I just want to see it evolve and continue. And it’s an honour to be a part of this, man.
Odario: My man Wes. Thank you so much for everything, man. It was great to chat with you. I know we can talk for hours, my man.
Maestro: Thanks for having me, my brother.
Odario: All right, peace.
Wherever you are in the world, you can tune in to the 2021 Juno Awards on Sunday, June 6. You can watch live on CBC-TV and CBC Gem, listen on CBC Radio One and CBC Music and stream globally at CBCMusic.ca/junos.
Produced by Holly Gordon and Andrea Warner.
Written by Andrea Warner, Holly Gordon, Robert Rowat, Melody Lau, Jess Huddleston, Nairi Apkarian.
Headline image illustration by Ben Shannon.
Web design and development by Geoff Isaac.