Maestro Fresh-Wes hip hop classic gets thumbs-up from Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame

Wes Williams, the Godfather of Canadian hip hop, has earned a place in the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame for 'Let Your Backbone Slide,' which he composed on the graveyard shift at a mall.

Wes Williams, Godfather of Canadian hip hop, wrote 'Let Your Backbone Slide' on graveyard shift at mall

Wes Williams, known by his rap name Maestro Fresh-Wes, is referred to by some as the Godfather of Canadian hip hop. His hit 1989 single 'Let Your Backbone Slide' will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame on Nov. 21. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Groundbreaking hip hop artist Wes Williams, better known to many as Maestro Fresh-Wes, is happy to celebrate his past success, but he's not content to rest on his sacroiliac. 

On Thursday, the rapper's seminal single Let Your Backbone Slide is being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame. It is the first hip hop song to receive the honour. 

"It's good for me, but it's great for the genre of music. It's great for hip hop," Williams says. "We started from the bottom, but now we're here doing international things. I'm just honoured to be a part of that."

Williams wrote Let Your Backbone Slide while working as a security guard at the Parkway Mall in Scarborough, Ont., in the late 1980s.

"I took the graveyard shift. That way I could work on my demos," says Williams.

It was also at the mall where he came up with the title of "Maestro," inspired by a now-shuttered Tuxedo Royale retail outlet.

Becoming Maestro Fresh Wes

3 years ago
Duration 0:37
Wes Williams, a.k.a. Maestro Fresh Wes, discusses the origins of his 1989 hit, 'Let Your Backbone Slide.' He wrote the song while working as a security guard at the Parkway Mall in Scarborough, Ont.

When he burst onto the scene as Maestro Fresh-Wes in 1989, Canada's music industry just wasn't ready.

There were no hip hop record labels, no mainstream urban radio stations, and no means of recognizing the contributions of rap artists at the Juno Awards. 

Music fans were ready for something fresh, though. And thanks in part to a crafty, low-budget video that received repeated play on Much Music, Let Your Backbone Slide became a bona fide hit.

It was the first rap single certified Gold in Canada.

The cover of the 1989 Maestro Fresh-Wes album, 'Symphony in Effect.' The release included the breakthrough classic, 'Let Your Backbone Slide.' (LMR/Attic Records)

Williams was invited to perform at the 1990 Juno ceremonies, but found himself out of place, nominated in the Best Dance Recording category.

Still, the performance marked a turning point in Maestro's career, and a shift in the Canadian Music Industry that paved the way for artists such as Shad, Kardinal Offishall and of course, Drake.

When songwriter Tom Cochrane took to the podium to introduce Maestro Fresh-Wes at the 1990 awards, he noted Canada's rich heritage of folk musicians, evoking the names of Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and others.

"But there's a new kind of folk music and it's called rap music," continued Cochrane. "This is Canada's contribution in that area, and he's a great artist."

Williams doesn't remember the specific introduction, but he remembers the performance well. 

"We knew we were doing something special," says Williams. "This [was] something in its infancy that Canada ain't ever seen before."

Maestro Fresh Wes breaks through

3 years ago
Duration 0:59
Wes Williams, a.k.a. Maestro Fresh Wes, tells The National’s Andrew Chang about his breakthrough performance at the 1990 Juno Awards.

The following year, thanks largely to Williams, the Juno Rap Recording of the Year category was created. It's one of the reasons he is often referred to as the "Godfather of Canadian hip hop."

"It's better than the Grandfather of Canadian hip hop," jokes Williams.

The artist has had other hits and influential songs throughout his career, including 1998's Stick to Your Vision and 416 to the 905, a song Drake cites specifically as an inspiration. Williams' 2017 album, Coach Fresh, was nominated for a Juno Award.

Williams has also had a successful acting career. He recently wrapped up an eight-season run on CBC Television's Mr. D, where he played a smooth-talking teacher who becomes a vice-principal.

In 2010 he published an autobiographical self-help book called Stick to Your Vision, and he has spent time touring as a motivational speaker.

But he continues to work at the craft that first made him famous. 

"I'm gonna continue making music 'til I don't have any music left in me," says Williams. "I'm 51 years old, but my back bone is still sliding, man."

Maestro Fresh-Wes' latest album is the self-released Champagne Campaign (2019).

Thursday's Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place at the The Phoenix in Toronto. Other songs being honoured include Rise Up by the Parachute Club, and I Would be the One by Kensington Market.

Watch the full interview with Wes Williams from The National, and hear his take on making history with Canadian hip hop:

Maestro Fresh Wes on making history with Canadian hip hop

3 years ago
Duration 10:15
Maestro Fresh Wes made Canadian rap history in 1989 with Let Your Backbone Slide, which will be the first rap song inducted into the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. He spoke to Andrew Chang about that song’s legacy and how far Canadian hip hop has come.


Greg Hobbs

Senior Media Librarian/Producer

Greg Hobbs is a senior media librarian and producer with The National.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?