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Interview: Wyclef Jean – Rapper, Songwriter, and Producer

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UPDATE – Haiti native Jean issued a statement in response to the calamitous January 12 earthquake in his home country: "Haiti today faced a natural disaster of unprecedented proportion, an earthquake unlike anything the country has ever experienced. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake – and several very strong aftershocks – struck only 10 miles from Port-au-Prince…We are asking those interested to please do one of two things: Either you can use your cell phone to text “Yele” to 501501, which will automatically donate $5 to the Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund (it will be charged to your cell phone bill), or you can visit Yele.org and click on DONATE."

At the age of 37, Wyclef Jean is young enough to have his finger on the pulse of today’s hottest music trends, yet old enough to respect and acknowledge the path his forebears blazed in front of him. Following in the footsteps of Babyface and Quincy Jones, he has learned the value of ownership, as well as the need to hone his musical craft, even if his God-given talents have brought him thus far. Such wisdom, undoubtedly, comes with age.

Wyclef Jean is well-aware that music shouldn’t be made just for music’s sake. And although it has become quite customary to say that music has the power to change the world, Jean believes in this sentiment with every fiber of his being. Having traveled the world, due to his legendary status as one-third of The Fugees, hip-hop’s eclectic pioneer group, Wyclef has not rested upon the laurels of his past success. With the founding of Yéle Haiti, he has utilized his superstar status to bring international attention to the social and economic plight of his mother country. Thus, in an ironic twist of fate, Wyclef Jean’s humanitarian efforts have garnered him a dose of love and respect beyond his musical ventures.

On November 10, 2009, Wyclef Jean released his sixth solo project. Upon the release of From the Hut, To the Projects, To the Mansion, he managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on his father’s influence, the evolution of the contemporary music landscape, and the blessings reaped from Platinum Sound Studios.

Your latest release is entitled From the Hut, To the Projects, To the Mansion. As you have traveled from Haiti to Brooklyn to Jersey and then back to Haiti, what major life lessons have you learned along the way, as you’ve grown in the music business?

I’m still learning lessons. I’m still at an early age compared to when I look at Quincy Jones and what he’s done. The real lesson that I’ve learned about music is before we’re born, our cards have stated what’s going to be. And then when you’re born you choose your cards. The thing about it is you can get so caught up sometimes in the hype that you forget that you have a greater purpose than just yourself.

The mixtape represents my greater purpose. I left a village when I was ten, and I told the people that I would be back in the village. I told the kids that when I was ten. To come to America and to go through everything that I go through, and the accomplishments, and to say, “Oh, now it’s time to go back to that village,” makes me feel that everything that I got in leaving that village was because I was supposed to return and help people.

Outside of your musical pursuits, you have developed quite a name as a political activist. A few years ago, you founded Yéle Haiti, a grassroots movement to transform your home country. Was there a defining moment or epiphany that led you to start this particular organization?

My dad was a minister. He always had churches in the hood, the roughest hood. Everything that I do, I really got it from him and my mom, just growing up and watching what they did. The epiphany for Yéle Haiti came to me when I went and did a fundraiser with the Fugees in 1997. I would say that’s when a lot of it sparked. I thought, “The music is cool, but I’ve got to do more than just the music.” I’ve seen celebrities sing about change and revolution, and then they die. I was thinking, “I want to be part of the actual revolution.” That means getting your hands dirty. That doesn’t mean another celebrity with another charity for a tax write-off. That means putting yourself out in the field. With Yéle Haiti, I did not want it to be another charity. I want it to be a movement. I’m just glad that a lot of people are talking about Haiti today. It just feels good, because all of the stories are not bad stories.

Do you think it was prophetic that at an early age you were part of a group that was called Helping Hands?

Helping Hands, what’s deep about it — to actually go back that far – is that I’ve turned into that guy. It’s almost like my life couldn’t have been written any differently. The story is, “He’s really that guy.” That was my band when I was sixteen years old, and I always felt that I had to give a helping hand.

As I watched your career evolve over the past decade, I have really been intrigued by your level of professionalism. You have always been very self-sufficient in business, especially with the co-founding of Platinum Sound Recording. At what point did you realize that the music business was just as much about the business as it was about the music?

After high school, I had to make a decision. I went to Five Towns College for a minute, but at the time it was hard. So I thought to myself, “I’ve got to hustle. I’ve got to make a decision here. So what am I going to do? If I decide to go into this music thing, I’ve got to treat it like a business. If I decide to go on the block and sell drugs, then I’m going to have to treat it like a business, too. So I’ve got to make a decision. Whatever decision that I make, I have to keep it professional and work beyond the hype of whatever it is.”

And my good conscience talked to me and showed me the life I should lead. I always believed that reading is fundamental. And in negotiation, I always believe I have the upper hand because it’s someone asking me for something. I don’t compromise my price, because I feel that I’ve worked hard and I’m going to keep working hard. When I worked at Burger King, if the man didn’t compromise his price with me, he thought that was what he had to pay me, so I can come up with my price. I’ve always had these crazy, loony thoughts in my head.

I stumbled upon a press release from Berklee [College of Music] that said you had recently enrolled and that you were anxious to go back to school and get your diploma. Why did you think that was an important and vital step for you? More often than not, people go to college to become successful; and yet, here you are, with a great degree of success, making a conscious decision to return to school.

Yeah, I applied and my first semester is almost over. I really wanted to learn more about music theory. Someone can’t ever stop reading books. No matter how good you are as a writer, there’s something you’ll pick up, you’ll read and you’ll think, “Man, I didn’t know that.” Information is key. Same with the music. Music is math. Math is key. If I’m trying to follow in the footsteps of Quincy Jones, there’s a lot of things that I want to do. I want to score a lot of movies. I was nominated for a Golden Globe for “Million Voices,” which was featured in Hotel Rwanda. I lost to Mick Jagger, but I had the bug. I was thinking, “Man, I could do this. I can win an Oscar. I can score a film. But I want to learn the theory.”

When you look at certain composers, they compose from a theory point of view. Look at Beethoven. So in high school, I was a jazz major. I just went back so I could get my sight reading game back up and just try to bring another level to the game. In my new album, the Wyclef Jean album, you’ll definitely hear it because I’m doing a lot of orchestral stuff behind the records, making them sound a certain way.

What is it that you most admire about Quincy Jones’ career and legacy?

His consistency. He started out in jazz. I started out in hip-hop and jazz. There was a consistency, because no matter how many pop records he did, there was still that big jazz credibility. He actually worked with artists that helped move the world forwards and not backwards.

To date, you are one of the few hip-hop artists that has willingly incorporated a lot of world beat rhythms into your music. Since the release of your solo debut, The Carnival, you have worked with everybody – from Cyndi Lauper to the late Celia Cruz. Why do you think that so few artists have really followed in your footsteps?

A few artists are doing it now. I think Kanye takes chances. He has a very broad sound. He travels a lot. I feel will.i.am does the same thing, too. In his production, you can hear European or different sonics. They really take chances on their records. For me, though, coming from Haiti, I automatically grew up with rhythm instilled in me. I always tell these rappers, “Past the fifty states, there’s a whole lot of money. So, what do you want to do? Do you want to stay and be content or do you want to start off, blow the states up, rock it out and then go to Europe, rock it out. Go to Africa, rock it out. Go to Asia?” The only way that’s going to happen is the music has to be three-dimensional music.

The Carnival is really a seminal album in hip-hop history. What do you think makes that album stand out so much, even after all these years?

When people tell me that I can’t do something, that’s when I do it. And everyone was saying, “Don’t put Creole on that CD. Creole music doesn’t sell.” They’re like, “Yo, Clef, don’t put Spanish music on the CD. Why would you do a CD, and mix it with four different languages?” I said, “Because it’s The Carnival, baby!” [laughing]

Not too long ago, you premiered the video for “The Streets Pronounce Me Dead.” Even though the streets might pronounce you dead, there’s so many people who have fallen to the wayside over the course of your career. What do you think has allowed you to maintain such a great degree of longevity? What would you like the future of hip-hop to be?

Well, the timing was right for the record “Streets Pronounce Me Dead.” Like you said, a lot of people fell on the wayside, so you don’t want it to be like, “Oh, man, Clef is mad because he ain’t getting no more money, and now he’s talking about the streets pronouncing him dead.” [laughing] Lyrically, I wrote that record as the battle rapper that I was.

What people don’t know, my weapon was freestyling. There’s a lot of rappers that can go in a studio and do a great song, but they can’t freestyle on the spot. I used to be a battle rapper. So I say on the streets, “Pronounce me dead.” And I think having that naturally in my knapsack gives me another edge.

Your relevancy has to do with your open-mindedness, your hunger and how humble you are. When you’re humble, you’re able to see things coming, opposed to thinking you’re a shit. So I always look at it from the outside. If I’m going to do a tape, I don’t think that I’m a shit. I go listen to Jay-Z. I listen to 50. I listen to Wayne. I listen to Drake, because I know they’re all going to pick up my tape, regardless, and they’re going to be like, “Let me hear what Clef’s talking about,” because they know I’m an innovator.

So what would you like the future of hip-hop to look like?

For me, it was always important to maintain a certain level of purity. I never came in the music game because I was trying to be famous. I came in the music game because I was trying to lend a helping hand to the hood, and at the same time make sure that I make a whole lot of money and get wealthy, because I know with a whole lot of money, I know I’m giving a whole lot of money back.

One of your most consistent collaborators over the years has been Shakira. As you look towards the future, what surprise collaborations do you have in store? I know you have another album in the works.

I think with me as a producer, if you pull my chart with women, it’d be like, “Damn. Clef is like Babyface. He’s worked with every hot woman.” With me, when something’s good, I usually just keep it moving. But definitely in the future, I would love to work with Shakira. I did something on her new album called “Spy.” I still think she’s one of the baddest out there. We naturally connect because of the whole Caribbean, Colombian thing, and I think she rocks.

You said if people looked at your résumé, they would look at you in the same kind of vein as Babyface. Expand on that a bit.

If you go back to my career, you’d say, “Oh, man, Clef gave Destiny’s Child their first hit. Oh, that was Beyoncé. Oh, Clef found Lauryn and brought her to the studio. She was only fourteen and he basically molded her. Whitney Houston. They counted her out. Clef came and he gave her ‘My Love Is Your Love.’” Babyface – he’s one of the greats. And like him, whenever I combine with women, some magical stuff happens.

Why do you think that you have been able to develop a keen sense of knowing women want and what women need?

I read a lot of the Book of King Solomon and a lot of the Book of Proverbs and the book of Psalms. I don’t know if you follow my blogs, but I write a lot. I get it from dad. So I always send out these sermons on Twitter on Sunday. If you go to Wyclef.com and hit on Clef Notes, you’ll see a lot of my blog. My dad always said, “Listen, homey. You know we’re not really in control of things.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” He said, “You know your mom’s really controlling it. She’s acting like I’m controlling it, but she’s controlling it.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be here. So all of us actually come from the womb of a woman. You see how smart they are? They’re so smart, they’ve got us thinking we’re running things. And at times they let us know that they are running things.” So I always say, “Man, we don’t run nothing. They run it. And when they want to let you know they run it, they’re going to let you know — whether it’s scandalous, whether it’s real, you’ll always know.”

One element of your life that you are in control of, however, is the recording process. In what ways has Platinum Sound Studios benefited your career?

The real founder of the studio was my cousin, Jerry Wonder. For me, if you’re going to be a producer, you’ve got to have a hub where you can control music 24/7. Controlling music means, if we didn’t have Platinum, then we wouldn’t be able to write music. If you catch a vibe, it’s important to have somewhere where you can lay it down. And if you’re going to do a beat for me or do a song for me, I will bring you in and you will hear my entire album. And you’ll either be like, “Damn, okay, well this is what I’ve got to beat. I’ve got to go back to work.” It’s very important that when you own your studio, you’re able to craft out exactly what you’re seeing, and you’re not worried about somebody saying, “Yo. It’s twelve hours, fourteen hours. Time for you to get out of here.” [laughing] So that’s the good part about having a studio.

What do you think has been your greatest contribution, not only to hip-hop, but to music in general? Earlier, you touched on the point of being an innovator. What do you think is your lasting legacy?

I’m going to share this story with you, which I haven’t told anybody yet. I was at this radio station seeing this kid. He said, “Yo, Clef, I’ve got to tell you a story.” I’ve heard mad shit. I’ve got stories for days. You know that already. This dude right here struck me, man. He said, “Yo, I’ve got to tell you something. Let me tell you how your music influenced me.” I said, “Go ahead.” He said he lived with this guy. This guy was a Nazi, Skinhead guy. He said every time he came in the house, he would always play The Carnival. And the dude would be like, “Yo, take that shit off.” He said little by little, he kept playing “Staying Alive.” He said little by little, he watched this Skinhead nod his head, nod his head. He went from The Carnival to “Staying Alive.” He said, “Clef, would you believe this motherf**ker is in Brooklyn right now living with a Black woman? Your music, man . . . he literally started paying attention to the lyrics and started feeling like what he was doing was not the right thing.”

So I think my greatest accomplishment is the fact that I can remind people that we are one race and we have to respect each other. The idea of racism, I don’t go for that. I say, “F**k the KKK,” with my middle finger waving high. You dig what I’m saying? Like Malcolm X would. I just feel the future of the world is us moving forward, us moving together in real harmony. I feel like I’m part of that movement with that real harmony.

So what does the future hold for Wyclef? What plans do you have for the future—both short-term and long-term?

I think the next level will be reached by building a few things. One of them is online. I started a gang called The Warriors. The idea is to come up with my own social network – which has nothing to do with Wyclef but has something to do with the people. I’m in the process of developing that. Discovery is very important with The Warriors movement, and I’m hoping we can discover new artists, new thinkers, new authors, new scientists. This is the kind of social network that I’m looking forward to doing in the future, tied with two record companies: one being called Sak Pasé Records – which will be a world beat label – and the other will be Carnival House Records. I’m hoping that I can find the next Shakira, the next Janis Joplin, the next Jimi Hendrix. We will be a complete entertainment social media. I don’t necessarily think a record company, by itself, is relevant anymore. But I think mass media entertainment with a record company as a part of it is very important. So looking forward to doing that.

For more information on Wyclef Jean, visit his official website

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About Clayton Perry

  • http://www.technorati.com Dawn

    Awesome interview Clayton and now more than ever, we see why Wyclef has such a passion for helping the people of his native land. No nation should be so besieged by poverty and world indifference they can’t provide for their people in a time of catastrophe.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/charlie-doherty Charlie Doherty

    Nice job, Clayton. (And I thought I was cool interviewing Julian Lennon last month!)

  • YASIN OMRAN ALI ISMAIL

    FROM NOW CAN WE SEE SOME DISCUSSIONS AND HOW WE HELP ALL PEOPLE FROM HAITY .
    YASIN OMRAN ALI ISMAIL.