Fresh rapped Maestro

ERROL NAZARETH

, Last Updated: 11:27 PM ET

"Even Prime Minister Chretien knows I'm tres bien!" -- Maestro

The Fresh-Wes portion of his moniker is history, but his colossal passion for the rap game hasn't disappeared.

In fact, the artist formerly known as Maestro Fresh-Wes is as hungry for success today as he was eight years back when his debut album, Symphony In Effect, made Canadian music history. His new disc, Built To Last, arrives in stores Tuesday.

Released in 1990, Symphony In Effect sold over 170,000 copies here. And his now-classic single, Let Your Backbone Slide, sold more than 50,000 copies. Both feats have yet to be matched by any other Canadian rapper.

Maestro also bagged a pair of Junos that year for Best Rap Recording and Best Rap Video, and walked away with the Best Video, Best Rap Video and Best Male Video trophies at MuchMusic's Canadian Music Video Awards.

A year later, he released Black Tie Affair. The album sold more than 50,000 copies, and the video for Conductin' Thangs, a superb ska-inflected single, scored Maestro a Best Male Video at the '91 MuchMusic CMVAs.

A classic bittersweet tale was unravelling.

The following five years found Maestro trying to elevate his game in New York. And it was during his sojourn that he released an unlistenable album, Naah Dis Kid Can't Be From Canada?!!!

Many in Toronto's hip-hop community, which has a reputation for being pompous and malicious, began dissing Maestro.

"The first record I ever make blows up and becomes a milestone, my next record doesn't do that well, and the one after does worse. It was hard," Maestro confesses. "A lot of people thought I was finished, and people in the industry told me I'd had my day."

Ask him if he was aware of the nasty things people were saying about him and Maestro erupts.

"These cats here ... I can't take a man who's dissing me seriously if he can't do what I did 10 years ago," he says, laughing. "The best-selling Canadian rap record is Symphony In Effect, so if you want to dis me, you best check yourself.

"You should be embarrassed to even think of dissing me when after 10 years, you can't take out Let Your Backbone Slide," he continues. "I can be just as vicious.

"Like the last line in Verbal Exodus goes, 'I'm back to the rescue, n----s want to dis me? What the f--- you bitches done since I left you?'

"Come at me," he challenges. "I'm ready."

A mix of radio-friendly jams and joints aimed at hardcore hip-hop heads, Built To Last sees one of this country's wittiest lyricists riding tracks tailored by local producers like Scam and 2Rude.

As in the past, Maestro continues to assail us with volumes of metaphors, he raps the fastest he's ever rapped on Still In Da Game, and shares mic duties with locals Choclair, Ghetto Concept, and R&B singers Glenn Lewis and Wade O. Brown.

Nothing seems to dissuade Maestro, not even the fact that Canadian radio has grown more conservative over the years. He says Symphony In Effect was played on 35 stations while his follow-up, Black Tie Affair, was only spun on six.

"If Puffy can sell triple-platinum in Canada, there's no reason why I shouldn't sell some units with or without radio," he blasts back. "I don't use that as an excuse."

See what we mean about relentless?

"I love this, man, I love this!" Maestro says. "This is all I know and this is what I'm about. I have the same love and passion for writing rhymes now as I did when I was 11."

Maestro's infectious attitude has made an impact on those who've encountered him over the years. One of those people is Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy and one of rap's most accomplished and respected figures.

Maestro opened for Public Enemy in the late '80s and was credited on several of the crew's records.

"He has a passion that you don't see too often," Chuck told me from Australia, where PE's on tour. "A lot of artists who were around in the '80s lost their hunger, but (Maestro's) persevered.

"He's a prime example of an artist who's overlooked by a business that's geared to recognizing (artists from) L.A. or New York," he added.

Ron Nelson, a hugely influential figure in the local rap scene, knew Maestro when the two worked at a bar in Scarborough in the early '80s. He echoes Chuck D's sentiments.

"He's always been a go-getter, he's got the I'm-gonna-make-it-no-matter-what attitude," Nelson says. "There's no one willing to work as hard and willing to overcome the negative forces."

No one puts it better than the Maestro himself.

"I'm proud of this album and my accomplishments," he says. "I stuck to my vision, and I'm still here."

THE MAESTRO FILE

The Maestro received the Pioneer Award at the first annual Canadian Urban Music Awards held earlier this year.

Other guests on Built To Last include Philosopher Kings' James McCallum, Carla Marshall, DJ Grouch, Stone Poet, and Black-I.


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