One of the most respected VJ’s from Much Music was Michael Williams who spent the better part of a decade spinning videos in an era where visual medium was king. The music was fresh, and everyone had a chance to have their 15 minutes of fame.
Michael, along with his VJ family will be featured in the story of Much Music, going deep into the analog archives of the day. The movie is 299 Queen Street West and will be shown at 7PM on October 17th, 2023 at the Rialto Theatre. Michael will be there in person along with others special guests.
Michael was always an innovator, and a special mixer was a key ingredient to his success. Before being trust into the world of videos, he was first an eminent DJ in the Montreal university & bar scene.
“My TASKAM was the center of my studio.”
The purchase was inspired by legendary DJ Robert Ouimet of Limelight, “one of the greatest DJs in the history of DJs. He mixed his music with the tools that created music. He had a 24-track Yamaha console with his turntables attached to that. He had every variable that could color the music as he wanted to or bring in effects.”
While the TASCAM was a smaller version of Robert’s gear, it “allowed me to be a better DJ.”
Michael would produce reel tapes for Grumpy’s, Darwin’s, Winston Churchill Pub, Le Privé and other places on Bishop & Crescent Street.
“They didn’t have DJ mixers back then. I’ve been DJ’ing for so long, I invented my own equipment out of things that already existed in high school.”
Michael then teamed up with Stan and created a mobile DJ system that ruled Loyola campus, with lineups around the block to hear them spin.
The musical roots run deep. Being a DJ in those days was about creating an experience, a curation of songs that flowed and kept the dancefloor packed. It’s a special skill, that I feel is somewhat lost with today’s short attention spans, or DJ’s who stick to one genre.
Michael’s experience in radio was an eye opener when they said: “You think you are here to play music, right? No. You are actually here to play the commercials.”
Regardless, Michael would go on to make shows like Soul in the City all about the music, which to him, was the most important.
All this was all preparing Michael to be able to create a musical experience at 299 Queen Street West, an address that would soon become pivotal in the Canadian music scene.
“Much Music paid no attention to the radio, even if it was owned by the company CHUM, who owned a lot of radio stations. We paid no attention to what they were doing. We didn’t care what anyone was doing. We cared about what we were doing. What we were doing eventually won and ruled the day and that’s how we changed music in Canada.”
The Much Music Effect
Much Music was more than just a TV show, it was a medium that launched careers for some, but its impact would be more important than just a launching pad for musicians.
“It did launch many careers, but it did change the face of music in this country. That was the most important thing it did. We changed music.”
Much Music gave a face to the music. “We made it 3 dimensional, which is something black music did not have the luxury of having, at that time, on radio.”
Club 980/Soul in the City (CKGM) was Michael’s efforts to promote black music, some 40 years ago, but Much Music proved to be a more powerful ally to put black music at the forefront.
It takes a village, as the saying goes, but Michael was the village elder, with a stage to curate what our ears would listen to, and in effect, bringing black music to a new level of awareness in Canada.
First day at Much Music
Michael was at the Much Music launch party, but his first day was at 99 Queen St E., staying at the hotel where Prince would later marry the manager’s daughter, Manuela Testolini. This was his audition.
He walked into the room and was handed a microphone.
“I hadn’t been in the room for 20 minutes and I’m talking to Run-D.M.C.”
Thrown into the deep end of the pool, Michael had an advantage. He had already spoken to the band and was already playing Run-D.M.C. on his Club 980 show in Montreal.
“Everything was great. In my mind, rappers are poets, so when you talk to them live, you let them be poets. It’s about the poet, the lyrics, and the rhythm.”
Michael hit it out of the park, got out of the shot, and the next interviewee came in. “It’s Lou Reed. He’s not in a good mood. He’s got his arm in a sling…he’s not a happy camper at all.”
Run-D.M.C. on one side of the room, grumpy Lou Reed on the other. What would Michael do?
He did what he does best, a DJ mixing people like records.
He approached Lou and said: “How’s Garland?”
Michael knew that Garland Jeffreys was Lou’s absolute best friend.
Lou replied: “You know Garland?”
Michael responded: “Do I know Garland? You kidding me?”
The ace up his sleeve was that Michael’s first print interview for Prime Cuts Magazine was with Garland.
Lou conceded: “You know Garland. OK.”
The anger melted, and Lou was more relaxed.
“Do you know these guys?” asked Michael pointing towards Run-D.M.C..
“Hollis in Queens, meet Manhattan. New York meet New York.”
Michael hopes that moment, when they shook hands, was caught on tape.
“That was the magic of Much Music. Get in the shot, let’s just go!”
The reason Michael swam so well in the deep end, was as he put it: “I did the same thing at CHOM, except they put a camera on me. It (CHOM) was the best job ever and I got to be so creative.”
“C’mon, let’s buy CHOM!” was the rallying cry from Michael after we reminisced about the fantastic music CHOM exposed Montreal to, including The New Music Foundation with Benoît Dufresne, which would be his partner in this endeavor.
“Much Music for me, was an outgrowth of everything that I had done up to that point.”
Michael is always asked which were his favorite interviews, which were Quincy Jones and the Roberts…Robert Plant, and Robert Palmer. He also got to introduce Colin James to the country.
We instead spoke about which artist surprised him by going from OK to great: Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“The first time he came in, he was two sheets to the wind.”
The drunken Stevie did not do himself any favors, even if Michael was a fan.
“The second time he came in, I could have left my 2-year-old son with Stevie. I would have come back, my son would have been well fed and a hell of a guitar player, because Stevie would have taught him. He was just that incredible, that nice and that respectful.”
Should You Meet Your Heroes?
Michael has met just about every musician of note out there, yet the question was asked: Should you meet your heroes?
“Depending on why you are meeting them. Sometimes you definitely shouldn’t.”
Prince was one he didn’t want to meet because “I didn’t want to spoil the man, the myth, the legend.”
Prince did play some pranks on Michael at a distance, but far enough to keep the Prince myth alive and untarnished.
Reverse The Death of One Artist?
We have lost so many great artists, some to natural causes, and others to tragic lifestyle choices.
If Michael could reverse one musician’s death, who would it be and why?
Prince, followed by Nick Drake, John Coltrane and all of Weather Report.
For Michael, it would more Jazz/Blues musicians than Rock musicians.
“The interesting thing about music is that you have the people who innovate and create the music. Then you have the disciples and the followers. If your innovations are very creative and good and go through the test of time, you become a school of music. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sly Stone and Stevie Ray Vaughan to a certain extent, although everything that came before Stevie, he synthesized. The disciples and the followers get caught up in the same trap as the originators. The originators being a black guy. The white guy or the blue-eyed soul guy, the east Indian…whoever that is not black that wants to do that music, they are let into that fraternity based on the level of skill and love they have for the music, continuing it and learning how to play it. But those guys…those disciples…those followers…those students…invariably they will be treated like the originator. They will be treated like they are black, just because you are around that artform, and you are around that people.
That’s the downside, now the upside is that when you are playing that party in the yard and grandma is cooking…you will be fed like everybody else. They will treat you like everybody else because the music brings you into that fraternity, that society, that community, that culture.”
If I understand correctly, we have to give credit to the innovators of black music, giving them the respect they deserve for being the teachers. Other cultures have become the students and kept the artform going, but in exchange, they’ve had to undergo some of the hardships of their teachers. Yet, the music binds all races, all colors. When it comes to music…it’s a family that is bound by talent and creativity.
Michael is a lover of all types of music, but he was key in shinning a spotlight on the teachers. Rap, which became hip-hop was a new school, and Michael featured this exciting genre to the masses through the medium of music videos at Much Music.
During our conversation, Michael touched on the industry that is still very much about the commercials, over the music.
But Hip-Hop fit a need for these industry types. It was “high return, low investment. LL Cool J did his very first album in his bedroom.”
That was irresistible for the business of music, but “it turned into an artform 50 years long and look where it is. One of the highest grossing forms of music ever put on the earth. It’s run by young black kids and old accountants.
The young black kids figured out that the record deal isn’t really worth it, because I’m giving you a credit card that you have to pay back. They can get a TASCAM and go to the basement and work out.
Stairway to heaven was recorded on an SM57 microphone, one of the cheapest you can get. Sound great, don’t it?”
As Michael continues, “it’s never about the money. It’s always about the art, the creativity, the person who has the microphone in their hand, the person who is playing the music and the intention in which they do it with.”
Like early Rap and Hip-Hop, Much Music was about the bravery of putting new music out there, for the love of the artform. There was not script. There were no teachers. VJs like Michael forged a new path and became the curators of the zeitgeist.
“The whole place was a lightning rod for music. We were friends of music.”
While we might miss those days, we can relive them at the showing of 299 Queen Street West. Michael will have stories to tell, and memories of Montreal to share. This is an event not to be missed.
Talking with Michael, the man of many stories, will often weave in and out of stories about Montreal, especially food like Smoked Meat, Bagels and Moishe’s steaks.
We discussed venues like the Spectrum, where Michael saw The Jam, Simple Minds and even U2 with only 50 people in attendance. Breakdancing,
Michael is working on a book, which I can’t wait to read.
Watch the full interview to learn more about the early days of AM & FM radio in Montreal, and the stories that were the building blocks of the Montreal music scene, of all genres.
Writer: Randal Wark is a Professional Speaker and MasterMind Facilitator with a passion for live music. You can follow him on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. His Podcast RockStar Today helps musicians quit their day jobs with out-of-the-box advice from Ted Talk Speakers, Best Selling Authors and other interesting Entrepreneurs and Creatives. He created the Rock Star Today Music Business Jam Session for musicians. Randal is a collector of signed vinyl, cassettes and CDs.Share this :