Wyclef Jean Wants to Go Back to the Essence of Music With ‘Jouvert’ EP
Wyclef Jean is the American dream personified. In 1996, the Haitian-born, New Jersey-bred rapper, along with his trio Fugees (comprised of himself, Lauryn Hill and Pras Michel), infused the rap game with eclectic, island undertones on their breakout album, The Score. A year later, 'Clef broke out on his own with the solo debut LP, Wyclef Presents the Carnival, a genre-blending classic of an album. Fast forward to 2006 when 'Clef achieved chart-topping success once again with a feature on Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie." In other words, Wyclef has found success time and time again.
The rapper has witnessed the industry change as well as helped to change it. At 47, this former Fugees member has more than 20 years in the music business. With a resume like his, it's understandable that the Grammy winner could be jaded about rap these days. But Wyclef is actually more excited than ever. With the 20-year anniversary of The Carnival on the horizon in June and rappers like Drake cashing in when it comes to Caribbean influences in his music, 'Clef's impact on the game is palpable. Now he's ready to add a little more to his discography.
The powerhouse checked in with XXL ahead of releasing his newest EP, J'ouvert, which drops Feb. 3. The 14-track project is set to feature songs like the previously released "The Ring," "I Swear" featuring Young Thug and "Hendrix." Once he drops the EP, he's not done. Clef still has the Carnival III: Road to Clefication on the way.
Before J'ouvert arrives, Wyclef discusses both music and politics. Even though he was dressed in a varsity jacket and black fitted hat with the word "Haiti" stitched on the front, 'Clef delivered his rhetoric as if a politician. This makes perfect sense considering that aside from music, the rapper-singing talent has started charities, rubbed elbows with presidents and even dabbled in politics himself. With America in shabby shape these days, 'Clef still has hope for the future.
XXL: You’ve got a lot of things coming up musically. Let’s start with the J’ouvert EP.
Wyclef: What’s coming up is… 1997, for the kids that didn’t get to live 1997, in 1997, there was an album called The Carnival. And what The Carnival is is a blueprint for a lot of what you hearing today. So, in 1997, I was in the frame of mind of wanting to connect the whole world together through culture. I felt like it was important. This was one of the first records were you could hear Spanish, French, Creole, all within one project.
So what we’re doing is, after everything that I went through, we started coming back with music to just go back to the essence. So, the EP J'ouvert is the first experience. If you haven’t been to it, [it’s] the night before the carnival goes down. It’s called J'ouvert. It’s a celebration of culture, of food, but it’s also a dangerous place. It’s like ice skating in the middle of the ice so you have to be very careful. And the idea of J'ouvert is taking you back to what it was like coming to Brooklyn. What was that energy like.
So that’s the first part of the EP. We close it with a song called “Life Matters.” We have another song called “Hendrix” which is about what the come up was like. It was the first generation. The first joint is called “I Swear” and “I Swear” is a combination of me and Thugga a.k.a. Jeffery. The second song, a song with Walk The Moon. I tell people, “If you can’t make it to the Caribbean, just throw on J'ouvert by the fireside. You’ll be alright.”
How did these collabs come together?
Well the thing is, it's like J. Cole found Nas. He was one of his biggest inspirations, you know? You have kids that been listening to music. Like Avicii, he knows more Wyclef music than Wyclef, you know? With Thugga, he was doing a mixtape and he was influenced by his favorite four, five artists. So, the first song was called “Wyclef Jean.” And you obviously gotta clear my name to use it, you know?
So we connected like that. When I first walked in the studio, he was like, “Look, man.” He showed me his tattoo of Haiti. “The tattoo is Haiti. My daughter’s named Haiti. In the projects we even had our own handshake called Haiti.” He started talking about he history of Haiti. I was fascinated because it was 30 percent music talk and that other talk was that real talk, you know? That leadership talk. I found that very interesting.
What was your favorite studio session out of making the EP?
I had some great times making this. I remember, like with Nick [Petricca] from Walk The Moon, we was like recording in my backyard outside with nature. They called me like the “thug hippie” ‘cause I got both sides of my brain. Thugga’s moment was epic because he was working on the day of his birthday in the studio. He was finishing his mixtape that night. That was crazy. That definitely was an experience.
My man Nick from Walk The Moon sort of reminds me of like Phil Collins that sort of came back in the modern body. The way that I make reggae sound is the way that he make ‘80s music sound but modern.
Let’s talk more about you and Thug. You called him the “new Tupac” in a previous interview. Can you explain that a little more?
I just felt like, Yo, did anyone read the whole article? Or they gonna get bait switched. I was just hoping it was like, “’Clef said Thugga sound like Tupac, please check the context.” It wasn’t that. What I was talking about was that I’ve had a chance to be with both men and this is really a deep story because it’s real, you know? A lot of people thought that the Fugees, they thought I had beef with ‘Pac at one time or whatever.
So, it’s very important. But it’s all love when it comes to me. At the end of the day, when I sat with ‘Pac and we was talking, I was amazed by his level of history and understanding. His love for the Panthers. He had so much knowledge in that field. It’s the same way with Thugga and how he was talking about Haiti and the revolution of Haiti. And I had a documentary called The Ghost of Cité Soleil. So the level of history… I found both men amazing in that capacity, in that level. The idea of Thugga working on his birthday made me think… Also, I thought they had the same work ethics. I was in no way comparing music because it’s two different lifelines. But that’s where I felt both men reminded me of each other in the sense of the auras.
I was just with Thug in California. This was another thing people said, “How can you compare Pac to Thug?” Because Thug was more of a revolutionary, he was really ‘bout it. And there was a comment that Thug had made on the Black Lives Matter Movement. And I asked him about that because I wanted to understand his mindset, which was deep. So, for example, I don’t say, “Yo, I’mma run for president.” No, I actually ran for president. I put my foot in the fire. They tried to take me out as if J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the joint. They tried to get me a modern day lynching. But they can’t because my roots is planted in my people and for you to get to me, you gotta get my people to betray me and that won’t happen.
So Thugga was like, “’Clef, look, everybody talking about this Black Lives Matter situation. I understand it and I respect it.” When he commented on the Mike Brown situation, his thing was he’s really ‘bout. At the end of the day, he means what he says, he does what he says, he don’t back talk. So he said, “If I was going to make a statement, ‘Clef, there’s about to be 30,000 people around me like we about to revolutionize, we about to move. But at the end of the day, I feel it’s more words than action. I’m about action.”
So, similar to Malcolm X, he has to find himself and every individual has to grow to understand. What happens is when someone says something in a context or within a feeling, we as a crowd, we judge it without understanding the mindset of what the person is saying. So basically, he was saying, “Look, at the end of the day, I’m looking for more people who are not about just saying it, but doing something about it. I would be more about doing something than making a movie and saying stuff, you know?”
When did you guys have this conversation?
When we were shooting a video. And I so respect that because doing and saying are two different things. You got people that will just talk for the cliché of talking. And celebrities are great at talking, man, when it comes to the cliché, but no one’s going to taint they brand. That’s why when Bey[once] stepped out, I so respected that because it’s like okay, now a challenge of the institution is happening.
So I fully understood what he was saying. I could think different. I think to each his own. I think conversation is the start of great leadership in the future as in the youth movement.
What’s something you think most people wouldn’t know about Thug just from working with him and bonding with him like this?
Well, first off, Young Thug told me, “Yo, ‘Clef I just started doing trap.” And he wanted to play me inspiration. He started playing me a bunch of like acoustic records. He played 808s and I started seeing it like, “Holy crap. How this kid pads his melodies and moves is how I pad my melodies and I move. The language can be different, we could say it different, but I was like, “Okay, I could see the melodies, the comparison.”
So most people wouldn’t think that Thugga could sing over an acoustic melody as if it’s a country singer on the song, you know? I got wind of that, so when we did "I Swear,” he doesn’t sound like anything he’s done before because I was previewed to whatever that vault was. He gave me that preview and I was like, We gonna do something different.
So you’ve seen more versatility from him?
I just think that for example, there’s what you gotta do to feed your family, but I just see the musician. Nick is a musician. Thugga is a musician.
You've been in the game more than 20 years. Why drop The Carnival 3 this year?
Because it’s the rebirth of like everything. Y’all done seen me run for president, y’all seen the downs. Y’all seen the comebacks. It’s like the rise of the phoenix. It’s almost like the Road Back to Clefication. The road back to the music. And to be fortunate and to be able to do that in this time was… and it’s named Carnival III because it’s a cultural experience. Like when I did Carnival 2 I had a record called “Sweetest Girl” and then the next single I wanted was the record with me and T.I. at the time and I felt, I got so much into Haiti, that I left that alone. So this is like a return to where I left off.
A continuation of sorts?
Definitely. So anyone who has a copy of The Carnival, you put it on because you basically want to just listen to culture. And cultures diverge and it’s a beautiful thing. That’s what you going get from Carnival III.
Can you talk about the other features you’ve got on Carnival III?
Emeli Sande is one of my favorite singers in the world. I stalked Emeli Sande. We started actually working at Puffy’s studio, Bad Boy and then after that we went to my studio. I think John Lennon had “Imagine” and I think Wyclef and Emeli Sande got “Carry On.” Emeli as a writer is one of the best I’ve ever worked with hands down. And trading bars and trading rhymes was amazing. Her melody schemes are just incredible.
I got a chance to be in the studio with Afrojack. The good thing with Afrojack, with Avicii is we started working on these concepts. I can say it’s all coming out insane because it all feels like fusion, so I’m very excited about that. Also, Pusha T. I love hip-hop and Pusha is like the Miles Davis of hip-hop. That was incredible, working with Pusha. Also, Joey Bada$$, me and him got together and did some insane stuff. My albums are like crazy themes. Everyone says, “Kids are into singles,” and I’m like yeah, that’s cool, but when you throw on The Carnival, put it on when you go on a plane or something and listen to an audio film. So I’m trying to compile a crazy cast. How can you go from a Emeli Sande to a Joey Bada$$? We also got Daryl Hall. We got a couple more surprises too.
What do you think of the state of rap these days? You’ve seen so much of it change.
Well, I think the '70s was the '70s, the '80s is the '80s, the '90s is the '90s, but there are similarities, but it's for those that stay tuned to the sound. Like Quincy Jones always told me, “The pulse of the music is the youth.” All I gotta do is look at my daughter, she’s 11 and she’s going tell you what it is. She’s going tell you, like “Dad, this is what it is.” She talks different. Her metaphors are different. How they say them are different.
Some of them [rappers], they don’t even do double entendres. They could do four entredres in one record. One word could mean four different things. I think with this generation of hip-hop, we’ve entered a melodic generation. I was the cat singing “Gone Til November,” I was the cat singing “Hips Don’t Lie” too. But then I’m the cat with T.I. on “You Know What It Is” then I’m the cat with Lil’ Wayne.
Now you got Drake, you see what I’m saying? It comes back around the sun through different people but it’s still the same movement, so I embrace this generation. Whether it’s going from a Kendrick to a J. Cole or a Thugga to a Young Chop. I spent time with Choppa in Chicago recently, in the studio. It’s a beautiful thing because this generation is so melodic. You know what’s funny? The melody and the beat sometimes come before the words within the process. My daughter, she sings the melodies before anything. I think if you search deep into the music, you’ll find a lot of similarities.
What do you think about rappers today pulling from Afrobeat and Caribbean influences? Drake scored his first solo No. 1 single with “One Dance" last year, which had those influences.
I think it’s incredible. For me, like I said, nothing is new under the sun. I so embrace it. It’s so beautiful because I remember when I was coming up, I ain’t never meet Bob Marley and people was like, This kid is a modern Bob Marley. I remember when I saw Drake, you know, he was picking me up and he was hugging me, you know. He was like, “Anything I can do for Haiti, just let me know.” If you do good music and you do it from your soul a generation is always going to come and find the music, you know what I mean?
It’ll live on.
It’ll definitely live on. I always told the rappers from my era—because at the time we were singing and we were rapping—people were like, Yo this not hip-hop! Hip-hop don’t be singing. Now, rappers from my era, they be like, Teach me how to sing four notes! Do, re, me, fa, sol, nigga [laughs]!
Who are some other new hip-hop acts that you’re feeling these days?
I think I was watching this kid play the drums. Anderson .Paak. I was watching him kill the drums and rhyming and I found that dope. For me that was dope because we get busy on stage for real. I think he’s incredible. Chance [The Rapper]. Vic Mensa, I got a chance to be in the studio with him. I just got up on to this kid from the Bronx that Madeline [my manager] has been trying to get me to pay attention to. A Boogie. My people called me telling me, “A Boogie trying to get in with you.”
For me, this is what I’m most excited about, and quote me on this. After doing this for 25 years, whether it was Destiny’s Child or whatever, there was a passion for it. I did “No, No, No.” I’m excited that this new label I’m with, Heads Music, female-owned with the passion of a CEO that reminds me of Jimmy Iovine. I think this woman Madeline Nelson, the CEO of Heads, they were like, “Look man, the same thing you did for Beyonce and Shakira, we got a bunch of kids that are 19, 20, we need you to take that formula. I’m excited because here’s a label with artist development. But at the same time, they was like, “We also want you to be apart of the label.” I fell in love with what they’re doing. So I think Heads Music, moving forward, is going to be one of those innovative labels for young talent.
What’s the overall message you want listeners to get from The Carnival 3?
Culture. Preservation of culture and celebration of culture. I’m just trying to say, like, “be happy, this is who we are, let’s embrace that.”
How do you think former President Obama contributed to bringing hip-hop into the mainstream culture?
Obama will go down as the voice of our generation because we could not be in Congress. We could not be in those dinners. Nah, we didn’t have that executive order to pass the pen. I think that Obama has made us better people. What seemed too unrealistic to me, to my daughter is so natural. And I love that. What was amazing to me, was I can’t get my daughter to get off this Musically app, but somehow she’s paid attention to this last election like you wouldn’t believe.
And you ain’t thinking she paying attention but she got every sound bite in her head. She’s 11. My daughter was watching everything. She didn’t want to go to sleep. She was watching the countdown as everything was going down. It was just amazing to watch.
Do you think hip-hop owes Obama anything?
I think that hip-hop owes Obama gratitude. Like I said, certain things we would do, because of Obama, we wouldn’t do them anymore because we owe him that gratitude. Like, don’t put the gun on that Instagram. You don’t need to. Really think about these things because he has pardoned a lot of people, you know what I mean? So, gratitude, let’s really be thankful.
And with your daughter being so interested in it, what was your reaction to the 2016 election?
Well, as someone who’s followed poli-tricks for a long time... word to my mom, they’ll tell you as a young Fugee when they was like, “Let’s roll up this blunt,” I was like, “Y’all better turn on CNN, see what’s going on.” For me, I know it was going to be tricky. And I saw Hillary winning because I knew she would have more popular vote. But the electoral college..it’s deep [because] its who gets to a certain number quicker.
Two things alerted me: the FBI investigation like a week beforehand and the Wiki Leaks. Every week, things was happening, information was coming out that was making the millennials more and more angrier. It was like the more she was getting to them, the more stuff would flood out. At the end of the day I felt like the kids didn’t vote. A lot of them put Harambe on their ballots. So overall, like Dave Chappelle said on [Saturday Night Live], we do have a president, that’s the reality of the situation.
We have to buckle our belts now and we just have to hold everybody accountable for everything they said they were going to do. I feel if we as the people feel like somebody’s trying to take us back to days of segregation or division, then I think that we all will rise as a people. America will keep being great, but within the process, we don’t have to alienate people, we don’t need to make people feel like they’re not welcome in this country. This country is the country of immigrants.
You ran for president six years ago in your home country of Haiti. How could you compare your run in your country as a celebrity with Trump’s run in this country as a celebrity?
Well, Reagan was a celebrity before he was president. I think that people in general are just fed up. People don’t trust politicians. Like, my daughter is really talking about Kanye [West] running for president, like she’s really gonna vote for him. So, it’s a very serious thing to actually run for president but the public now feels like they would prefer anybody but the politicians now.
Would you vote for Kanye West for president in 2020 if you could?
In order for me to vote for anyone, I would have to know what your policy is, what your legislation is, what your movement is. It’s totally different than just being [a celebrity]. Hillary [Clinton] brought out Jay Z and Beyonce the last three days and lost the election terribly. We go to concerts to have fun, see what goes on, you know what I’m saying? But being really in it as a politician is different.
So I look forward to and I commend Kanye for stepping up to do it, it’s inspirational. But real simple, I can influence the voice but I can’t vote in America but I can’t vote. I have a green card. But definitely, I would also choose a non-politician over a politician.
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