Int’l Players Anthem
Wyclef Jean really gets around. Over the last week, he has spoken to XXL in person in New York City and via cellular from the south of France. This time, when the phone rings: “What up, homie? I’m out in the Bahamas with my girl and kids.” Obviously unconcerned with roaming charges, the itinerant Grammy winner is calling to set up another listening session for his latest solo album, The Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant. “You didn’t hear the Shakira record. You didn’t hear the Serge record. [That’s Serge Tankian, from the prog-metal band System of a Down.] You didn’t hear the ‘Welcome to the East (Remix).’ When you hear it, make up an order for me.”
Asking a reporter for sequencing advice is an unorthodox move. But Wyclef isn’t constrained by industry rules. Never has been. In fact, he’s spent his entire solo career taking artistic risks. Rap over a Bee Gees sample? Of course. Strum a guitar and sing a Bob Dylan–esque folk tune about running drugs? Why not. Collaborate with a professional wrestler, a country singer and M.O.P.? Sure, even if it doesn’t always work. Wyclef has always viewed hip-hop from a different perspective—he’s not from here.
“There is something about the Caribbean and the culture and the upbringing,” he says with his unmistakable Haitian twang. “It’s just a little different than growing up in the States. We’re a little more diverse in music. Like, we would listen to a lot of different types of music, instead of saying that I’m going to listen to this type of music. It’s more open. Dealing with hip-hop [in America], dudes is like, ‘If it ain’t this, it ain’t real.’”
Stubborn rap fans were never Wyclef’s base, anyway. “My last big rap record?” he asks, repeating a question. Long pause. “‘The Fugees’?” Close. Most accurately, his last popular nuts-and-bolts hip-hop record was probably “2nd Round KO,” the LL Cool J diss track he produced for his old protégé Canibus. That was spring 1998. Since then, after Canibus’ debut album ended up flat on its back, ’Clef has been largely M.I.A. His own rugged 2002 album, Masquerade (call it his 14 Shots to the Dome), sold a meager 370,000 copies. Contributions to the latest Ying-Yang Twins effort didn’t exactly get the clubs crunked up. And while he produced two cuts on T.I.’s latest album, the current single, “You Know What It Is,” has received a lukewarm reception. Wyclef remains unfazed.
Over the last decade, the 34-year-old musician has written and produced monstrous pop hits like Carlos Santana’s “Maria, Maria,” Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love” and Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” (which set records for digital downloads and radio spins last year and topped the charts in an astounding 27 countries).
You’ll notice that those are not rap songs and that they’re not on Wyclef’s own albums. Crafting such crossover smashes for himself has been a challenge throughout his post-Carnival career. Now, though, he insists he’s solved the problem. “Psychologically, when I’m doing a record for someone, I know what to give them. When I’m doing a record for myself, I go deep,” he says. So in making his new album, he reverted to the mentality he had while creating his two-million-selling 1997 solo debut. “On The Carnival, I wasn’t thinking about ’Clef. I was thinking about producing records. With this album, I was thinking about producing records. It’s coming out crazy.”
Wyclef first found fame as a Fugee. In the mid-90’s he and his partners, Lauryn Hill, and Pras, came up with a catchy blend of conscious hip-hop live, instrumentation and cover songs (lots of cover songs) that propelled their sophomore album, The Score, to over 17 million in worldwide album sales. But a Behind the Music-worthy cocktail of solo aspirations, allege intrabrand romance and jealousy splintered the trio soon after.
In September 2004, the Fugees reunited at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party concert. They later released a single, “Take It Easy,” played a handful of high-profile gigs and appeared together in a cell-phone ad. The plan was to follow “Take It Easy” with “Take It Easy Pts. II-IV.” They recorded five other songs, one of which had each Fugee spitting for 80 bars. Then, suddenly, the momentum stopped.
Wyclef is evasive about what specifically went wrong. “It was just mayhem,” he says. It’s been reported that he and Lauryn clashed over production credits, but that’s too trite a reason for the total collapse of the reunion. “We had the records. We had the vibe ready to go. It just didn’t work.” He then mentions Hill’s reported eccentric behavior.
“Personally, I think someone needs to find shortie a doctor.” Wyclef pulls out his cell phone and searches for an e-mail. A photo appears of Lauryn Hill onstage at a recent concert. She’s screaming and wearing far too much makeup and a bowler hat. “Look at this picture. This is how Lauryn looks now, homie. Look at this shit. It’s like Homey the Clown, man. Where muthafuckas are worrying about an album, I think someone needs to get shortie to a hospital.” His intentions may be sincere, but he sounds jarringly cruel.
“The shit really hurts, in a sense, because you know where the shit comes from,” he continues. He’s literally sitting on the edge of his seat, but his voice remains calm. “Every great goes through some Lauryn Hill shit, like what she’s going through. But, then, they come back and recover. My thing is, when the hell is she going to recover? If she don’t get this shit straightened out in the next two years, you might as well can the whole Fugees shit.”
Wyclef displays a wide variety of skills on this album. He does not, however, do much rapping. “My head is not there,” he explains, sounding like Andre 3000 talking about The Love Below. “My head is somewhere else.” Though The Carnival II was co–executive produced by reigning rapper T.I., it is more hip-hop influenced than actual hip-hop. ’Clef’s aware that, at this point in his career, he’s not viewed as a traditional MC, or even as a rapper. He addresses the issue on the song “Trouble Again (Riot),” where he raps (yes, this time raps): “I caught you off guard/This verse is unexpected/Check it, like when I rhymed on Big Pun’s record.” Following that lyric, he rattles off a Pun-like tongue twister, and shades emerge of the gifted MC who ripped “Caribbean Connection” and so many Fugees songs.
Wyclef insists that, despite his frothy pop collaborations, he’s never abandoned hip-hop. You could always hear the hip-hop drum inside of it,” he says of his music. (He’s quick to note that Kurtis Blow produced his demo.) Still, he’s counting on his relationship with a currently reigning rap king to keep him connected to the streets. “It was good to have T.I.’s ear on this album,” he says. “Because he’s hip-hop. And I’m thinking, if a strictly hip-hop listening kid is listening… I wanted to make sure everything we are doing is not too far away for him.”
If anything, Wyclef thinks hip-hop fans respect him more for his versatility. Wyclef Jean has never put himself in a box,” he says. (He drifts in and out of the third person in conversation and sometimes refers to himself as “The Immigrant.”) “I came in the game diverse. The people that usually have trouble are the people who started off a certain way and now they are trying to be diverse.”
Struggles with the Fugees are nothing compared to what Wyclef encountered growing up in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. During his youth, the Tonton Macoutes, a private army utilized by Haitian presidents Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, terrorized citizens. Wyclef witnessed the brutality firsthand. “The Macoutes would be rolling,” he says. “And if you jaywalked, the Macoutes could be like, ‘Yo, man, you just threw that gum on the floor. You know what that is? That’s a violation. Come with me.’ You’d be like, ‘Fuck, if I don’t go with this Macoute, I’m fucked.’ You go with the Macoute. Guess what he does? I seen this shit. He brings you to his house. He brings you to his basement. He puts you in jail in his basement for like three days. Then they whip you and let you go.
“They did that to my cousin. Then another one of my cousins, a Macoute just shot in broad daylight.”
After Wyclef’s father, the Rev. Gesner Jean, was accused of being a Communist, a crime punishable by death, the family fled Haiti. They moved to Brooklyn and, later, Newark, where Wyclef faced more hardships. “It was tough,” he remembers. “You’re talking about the era where it was ‘HBO: Haitian Body Odor’ or ‘Go back to Jamaica.’” Despite the occasional knife fight—“I’m good with a machete,” he says—Wyclef channeled his frustrations into music. Hip-hop, he says, “made him normal” to his peers.
Since 1994, Wyclef has been the de facto Haitian representative in hip-hop. Sure, there were other Haitian rappers (Kangol Kid from UTFO) and industry staples (Shakim Compere, Herbie Luv Bug, Harve Pierre). But none were as outspoken about their culture as Wyclef: On 1994’s “Refugees on the Mic,” he described the prejudices he faced growing up Haitian in America. And at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, he lashed out at How Stella Got Her Groove Back for joking about Haiti’s AIDS crisis—even though he contributed to the film’s soundtrack.
“He made all of us [Haitians] proud,” says longtime friend and Czar Entertainment founder Jimmy Henchman, who shares a co–executive producer credit on Carnival II. “He has given the Haitian people that upliftment that they needed, to know that, hey, here goes a Haitian kid that can come to America, make something of himself and stay true to his Haitian roots.” In January 2007, Wyclef was named “roving ambassador “for Haiti. Basically, his job is to improve the impoverished island nation’s image abroad. That honor was bestowed upon him as a result of the humanitarian work done through his Yele Haiti Foundation.
“Wyclef started Yele Haiti with his own funds,” says Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to Washington D.C. (He is also Wyclef’s uncle.) “He worked in an area where not even the government could venture in, Cite de Soleil, which, at the time, was the most violent shantytown north of Port au Prince. With his music and his manner, he was able to go into Cite de Soleil and help the people there. To clean up, to pick up garbage, and start youth groups and teach them soccer. He held music festivals and music competitions. It was a way to draw the young people away from violence into something sociable and something they would be proud of.”
Wyclef travels often to his homeland, where, to hear him tell it, he’s treated quite well. “Like Muhammad Ali mixed with the Pope mixed with the Beatles mixed with Jesus Christ,” he says. “Keep in mind, the same way an American kid studies Biggie Smalls’ lyrics, a Haitian kid studies Wyclef lyrics that are in their language. From beginning to end, they live by it and they die by it. That’s their bible.”
After a week abroad, Wyclef is back in New York. “Literally, I just got off a plane from the Bahamas,” he says. He’s now in his Midtown Manhattan studio. His cousin and longtime co-producer Jerry Wonder is there. Later in the night, they’re joined by ’Clef’s younger brother Sedek and, for about 90 seconds, Pras. The two Fugees exchange pounds and promise to get together once Pras returns from Scandinavia. Wyclef then plays the new music. It’s good stuff, but it’s hard to see where it fits on the radio.
“There is no format that can…” he says before trailing off. He takes a sip from a glass that has a picture of Henri Christophe, a hero of the Haitian Revolution of 1791, on it. “I make radio stations play songs they wouldn’t normally play.”
He says that Funkmaster Flex is already spinning a song called “Sweetest Girl.” And he has high hopes for “Welcome to the East (Remix),” which features Sizzla, Uncle Murda, Movado, and Louis Farrakhan on violin. (Yes, that Louis Farrakhan.) He then describes “King & Queen,” his latest collaboration with Shakira.
“It sounds like a carnival,” he says. But then Wyclef quickly corrects himself. “Like a world carnival.”