Canada’s original rapper marks his debut LP’s 30th anniversary in Montreal

We spoke to Maestro Fresh Wes and Kalmunity director/Under Pressure organizer Preach Ankobia about music, cultures and direction.

Montreal’s original block party — and, well, festival of murals — is back this weekend and already gearing up to full effect as graff writers, DJs, MCs and dancers get ready to wage a hip hop fiesta at Under Pressure’s 24th edition.

Events are already underway on and around their downtown campus orbiting Foufounes Electrique. 

While there is no shortage of free activity to keep you entertained and in touch with the community this weekend, their annual outdoor headlining concert comes with an extra northern touch this Saturday when Canadian hip hop prime-mover Maestro Fresh Wes shows love with Kalmunity Vibe Collective’s live dynamic for the Boombox ’89 concert in front of Foufs.

“I’m a staple in the maple, man! I’m about to sign in Montreal (city hall’s) golden register,” says Toronto’s Fresh Wes, who is being welcomed by the mayor at city hall today.

“How crazy is that? The city is giving me love and I’m really excited that the city is acknowledging me on that type of level.” 

He recalls good times in the old days at classic Montreal dance halls like Checkers and the Dome.

“I had great times in Montreal,” he says. “But I think Jazz Fest (in 2011) was the best. That was amazing for me.”

UP event organizer and Kalmunity director Preach Ankobia struck up a relationship with the “Let Your Backbone Slide” hitmaker, Canada’s first bona fide rap star and the genre’s first national talent to release and distribute a full length LP, 1989’s Symphony in Effect.

“I was six years old, seven years old, and my first hip hop tape ever was Symphony in Effect, because my sister was like, ‘There’s no cursing on this,” Preach recalls. 

“There was DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, and Maestro Fresh Wes, right? And Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince sounded like a cartoon. They were having fun, it was cool and as a kid you liked it.

“But Maestro looked cool. Maestro was on the same level of like, Rakim, when you looked at that cover. To take in the music, to see the video, something as simple as that ‘black tuxedo’ line blew my mind.”

Wes is rightfully proud of his place at the helm of Canadian rap, but with a career that has included film and TV, two recent LPs and more music on the way, and a hit earlier this summer with the Raptors-win inspired “This Is Epic,” he avoids the complacency that many his American “Golden Era” contemporaries fell victim to after their late ’80s/early ’90s prime.

“Styles change,” Wes stressed. “My strength came initially in the late ’80s but then I had a resurgence in the late ’90s with Stick to Your Vision, when I started sampling Canadian rock records. So I changed up, definitely. 

“As far as the (Golden Era) rappers we mentioned, a lot of them stayed in the same lane, which is a scary place to be because it’s almost like we’re intimidated to change or do something different because it’s almost like our fanbase, that’s what they know us from.”

He breaks it down further.

“You look at Quincy Jones, George Benson, Herbie Hancock — they didn’t just stay in the same lane doing jazz,” Maestro, a music historian in his own right, says. 

“They evolved and started doing disco records. I got a lotta trap beats on my new records, but what is trap? It’s popular music to what disco was back in the ’70s. You had groups like Pink Floyd doin’ a disco record. The Wall is a disco record, you feel me? Rolling Stones did disco records. If the Beatles stayed together, they woulda been doin’ disco records just like David Bowie, Queen or Kiss.”

Preach Ankobia

Preach Ankobia, meanwhile, who got involved in programming and booking during UP’s 2017 season, makes a parallel point about what it takes to keep the stalwart festival fresh, relevant and honest, stressing that the roots of hip hop culture ought never stray too far from where they began.

“My main dedication (to the fest) — as kid from NDG who grew up on Walkley and is a born and raised Montrealer — is to make sure that the things that purvey my culture in this city are well preserved and taken care of, and that the representation of things that historically came from black culture reflect my community,” Preach explains.

“Under Pressure, through the years, has historically been good at respecting those ideas in the artists, volunteers and participants that came through, but at the directorship level, it was kind of lacking,” he says.

“Martin Luther King said you can’t influence a table that you’re not seated at. So instead of bitching about it, I’m trying to lead by example for the young talent around us.”

With a stacked roster of local and national talent representing a large swath of Canada’s cultural, ethnic and gender diversity, UP24 will, as always, provide a sensory feast, free of charge, and openly welcoming guests and passersby from all walks of life. And Maestro Fresh Wes and Kalmunity, together on stage, will make ’ em smile.

“I’m just enjoying it now instead of being held a hip hop hostage, where my cadences can only be like one way, and I’m only allowed to hit one note on a keyboard,” says Wes.

“That’s not music. That’s hostage, man. It’s unhealthy for growth.” ■

Maestro Fresh Wes performs with Kalmunity at Under Pressure’s Boombox ’89 party outside Foufs (87 Ste-Catherine E.) on Saturday, Aug. 10, 7 p.m., free

Under Pressure is on from now until Sunday, Aug.11. See for full event details.