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'We don't make records, we make history'

‘Straight outta Scarborough’: How Maestro put Toronto on the hip-hop map

‘Straight outta Scarborough’: How Maestro put Toronto on the hip-hop map

In the late '80s, the idea of a chart-topping Canadian rapper seemed impossible. Then Maestro Fresh-Wes changed everything. 9:28

"Can you imagine a world where there's no hip-hop in the record stores?" asks legendary Toronto DJ Ron Nelson, describing the city's music scene in the 1980s. "There was hardly any  black music on the radio."

South of the border, hip-hop culture was starting to hit the mainstream, with movies like Beat Street selling out cinemas and artists like Run-DMC topping the charts. In Toronto, outside of a few mobile DJ crews playing school dances and community halls, and a handful of MCs trying to get on any mic they could find, there was nothing.

Nelson set out to change that. In 1983 Nelson created the Fantastic Voyage — Toronto's first hip-hop radio show—on campus station CKLN. Within a few years, Toronto's first hip-hop show would be the launching pad for the city's first hip-hop star.

Maestro was 15 years old the first time he appeared on the Fantastic Voyage.

"Ron Nelson put me on the air [rapping] over a song called 'Bounce Rock Skate Roll' by  Vaughan Mason," he says. "I was known as the Melody Man back then and all Ron said was after he heard me he's like 'Yo, that's the Melody MC he's 15 and damn he's good."

Maestro of Friday Night! With Ralph Benmergui in 1993. (CBC)

But good as he was, there was still almost no chance of him getting a record deal in Canada. The Canadian music industry wasn't interested in signing rappers.

"Getting a deal out of the U.S. had to be the goal because we were aware of the lack of infrastructure here," says Maestro's then-manager Farley Flex.

"People said we're dreamers, it's not gonna happen," says Maestro, explaining what naysayers thought of he and Flex's plan to get signed by an American label. "Next thing you know, we've  got a deal with (New York-based) LMR Records."

His debut album, Symphony in Effect, came out in 1989. It was the first Canadian rap record to go platinum, the first album to win a Juno in the Rap category, and helped turn Maestro into a household name. Possibly more importantly, it paved the way for successive generations of Canadian rappers, from Dream Warriors to Kardinal Offishall to Drake.

"I've got a saying," explains Maestro. "We don't make records, we make history."

He'll never forget the moment he and Farley heard their music at a club, getting mixed in with Heavy D.

"The first time we realized it was our song getting blended in by one of the biggest hip-hop artists at the time. Straight outta Scarborough and we jumped around the club like idiots, man."

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