There was a time when you could pack a group of people from all walks of life into a downtown studio (an environment) in one of the busiest cities in the world and everyone would be concentrating on a particular artist.
In that moment, nothing else mattered. You had made it. You finished schoolwork, you finished your chores, you got out of work on time, or all the above. You then got to experience one of the biggest acts in the world talk candidly about their lives and perform some of the biggest tracks in music in front of you.
You were either there, or you watched at home on what they called, “The Nation’s Music Station” – MuchMusic.
For the “music video generation,” MuchMusic was the channel you turned your TV on to check out the hottest music videos and live interviews between VJs and their favourite artists where anything could happen.
It was a magical time. For today’s generation, you had to be there. The closest thing you can get to experiencing it will be Sean Menard’s upcoming pop culture documentary 299 Queen Street West.
A passion project for Sean, this is his follow-up to 2017’s The Carter Effect which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival before being broadcast worldwide on Netflix. 299 Queen Street West will explore how a low-budget Canadian television network during the rise of the music video era in the 1980s revolutionized how the world’s biggest stars connected with their fans and influenced the culture for three decades.
Sean grew up watching MuchMusic and saw firsthand the power that the channel had from the 1980s until the early 2000s. Like many of us who grew up in the channel’s heyday, he was worried that its story would be forgotten.
It took Sean six years to get the project off the ground, but it wasn’t until he connected with one of the original VJs, Erica Ehm who boarded the project as a Consulting Producer. It was through Erica that Sean was introduced to another pioneer VJ, Michael Williams.
Born in Cleveland, Michael first moved to Montreal in the 1970s to attend university and later returned as a DJ on the famed station CHOM-FM. A busy broadcaster and music producer, Michael was initially uninterested in Sean’s project until he learned that Sean was putting up his house to finance the film.
“We sat down at a Starbucks during the pandemic, late at night, in the rain and snow. [As with a musician] who has certain dedication and commitment to an instrument or a style in their craft, it must be all or nothing. I can respect the amount of commitment Sean was going to put in after he told me that. So yeah, I said, “I’m your guy. I’m in.”
Michael and some of the other VJs were able to guide Sean with some footage that they thought he should use. “I did suggest [some] because I know my moments and direct him towards a few things that might be good for the film and fun to air.”
A couple of months into production, Sean put a cut together to send it over to Bell Media, who now holds the rights for MuchMusic footage, and they came on board. This granted Sean full access to the entire MuchMusic vault.
Sean and his team digitized footage from the vault for the first time, an incredible feat considering that many of the original beta tapes may not have a long shelf life – bringing into concern that if it’s not all digitized soon, it could be lost forever.
The assembled VJs would now record new voiceovers set to the archival footage, which Michael compares to the style of autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture. “I’m quite proud of the work that I did.”
At MuchMusic, Michael hosted various shows including Soul in the City, Rap City, Electric Circus, and The NewMusic. “The NewMusic was my favourite show ever. It was created by John Martin and Nancy Oliver. If anyone deserves the Order of Canada or a Juno, it’s definitely Moses, John, and Nancy.”
“It was definitely one of the best jobs ever,” says Michael looking back. “But I think my best job ever was at CHOM-FM because without CHOM, I wouldn’t have developed the skills.” Michael still thinks fondly of his former radio station, which is now also operated by Bell Media. “It was the greatest radio station ever back in the day. I’m still trying to buy it and change it back to what it was.”
For Michael, video didn’t exactly kill the radio star. “All MuchMusic did was take what I did on the radio and put it on camera. That was absolutely it. I did absolutely nothing different. For the first two years, I still lived in Montreal, and I would go down for four or five days to Toronto and then come back to Montreal and work on radio. I was travelling back and forth. I thought, ‘What a great gig. I can be in two of Canada’s greatest cities, representing, discovering, enjoying, and exchanging music, not just with the two cities, but with the nation. I’m speaking to the nation. This is the Nation’s Music Station!’”
Michael, who was growing up in Cleveland during the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s was a pioneer at the helm of a network that was way ahead when it came to diversity and inclusion. It was easy for the kids to see themselves represented with VJs like Master T, Monika Deol, Sook-Yin Lee, and Namagenyi Kiwanuka.
“Was it intentional by [co-founder] Moses Znaimer? Absolutely. The genius of Moses looking at the new Canada beyond Trudeau [#1] and into the future. Absolutely that was intentional. He could he represent the nation and be the Nation’s Music Station if he did not represent the nation more so than radio ever did or could do. That was intentional and my work [on it] has always been looked at as being diverse, I guess because I’m a black guy and most of the rock and roll world, the music business, or the media industry could be considered mostly white. It’s not very kind, forgiving, or understanding [otherwise].”
Michael, who is often a guest speaker in schools during Black History Month continues, “If there are no women in the newsroom and they’re doing a story about women and some guy gets it wrong, and then you take that same formula but it’s about the Indigenous, black, or East Indian communities, how much misunderstanding comes out because people don’t understand to whom they’re talking to or for? Diversity depends on the opportunities. During the George Floyd period, there were a lot of diversity hires. Most of those people have since been fired. But you also have to have excellence in what you do.”
And that excellence showed. A generation could look up to the interviewing style of Michael and some of the other VJs including George Stroumboulopoulos and learn the art of having conversations, the lack of an outlet like MuchMusic is disadvantageous to future content creators. “Yes, and the content creators now don’t know the history of the content that they are creating because what changes is the medium. The content, which is the conversation, does not change. The medium changes.”
Michael continues during our Zoom call, “So, now we’re talking on here, as opposed to talking on television, or the radio. And tomorrow, it may be, gosh, you know, little flashes of lights. People are also afraid of AI, which can copy one’s voice or face, and do whatever. Yes, but they can’t copy or clone me or my content and emotion – which is everything.”
Michael hopes that the future generation of interviewers find ways to keep learning. “During the assemblies that I do for Black History Month, I’m not just sharing black history and culture, but I’m giving [these students] a window and licence to discover it for themselves. I look at education as having no wasted calories and making sure that you’re getting an education from people you can learn from. Learning is a lifelong ambition of mine. It’s not just something that ended once I was done school. I think education is incredibly important and in that, you will find diversity.”
Looking back to some of his most memorable interviews for MuchMusic, Michael shares that he thinks the ones that viewers may remember would be with Robert Plant and Robert Palmer. “The Roberts from the U.K.! Robert Palmer and I sang Depeche Mode’s ‘Shake the Disease’ back and forth to one another. Robert Plant and I just hung out and extended the interview.”
“Ahmet Ertegun, the man who signed and produced Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and started Atlantic Records,” was another one of Michael’s favourites. Quincy Jones has always been wonderful and brilliant. The late Whitney Houston treated me like family because Bobby Brown, whom I had interviewed before. He was with her when she was coming down the hallway for our interview and Bobby was with her. He saw me and said, ‘That guy is going to be fun. Go ahead, baby. Go ahead, do it, Nippy.’ And she came down and did the interview. She was absolutely like family.”
But then there’s also some that weren’t so fun, or like “pulling teeth,” as Michael puts it. “Stevie Ray Vaughan, the first time… Oh my gosh, it was a nightmare for me because I think they had been partying and it didn’t stop when they came in!”
But on Michael’s very first day at MuchMusic, he got to introduce Lou Reed to Run-D.M.C. “Lou Reed walked in and had his arm in a sling. He didn’t feel like doing the interview. Just imagine an angry, mad, Lou Reed! You don’t exactly want to talk to an angry, mad, Lou Reed! This is Mr. New York! This is a guy, you know, who probably carried a switchblade and knows how to use it. I go, ‘Lou Reed, meet Run-D.M.C. Brooklyn meet Queens. Queens meet Brooklyn. New York City, meet New York City.’” Lou Reed would later invite Run-D.M.C. to open for him.
Michael shares that this film let him peek back at some of his old work, which he hadn’t really done in a while. “My career at MuchMusic was quite vast and interesting. More so than most people know.”
299 Queen Street West premiered earlier this year at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and both Sean and Michael are looking forward to having Canadian audiences – many of whom grew up with MuchMusic – check it out this fall as Sean and some of the VJs head out for a nation-wide screening tour.
So, how close are all the original VJs? “Well, it depends,” says Michael. “Everybody’s got families. When you have a family, that dictates what you’re going to do or where you are. But if we’re in Toronto, you can see people at some events that were held at Citytv or MuchMusic [over the years], or if you’re in Vancouver, like I was, I can talk to Terry David Mulligan!
299 Queen Street West will screen as part of “The MuchMusic Experience Tour” this fall where Sean will be joined on stage by MuchMusic VJs for an ‘Intimate & Interactive’ following the film. The tour kicks off on September 22 in Toronto, making stops across Canada through the end of November.
“It was legendary,” reflects Michael. “I think that without MuchMusic, the Canadian music industry and the world music industry would not be the same, that’s for sure.
299 Queen Street West will stream on Crave later this year.
Tickets for the 299 Queen Street West tour are available at 299queenstreetwest.com.