Lead Fugees rapper and sometime guitarist Wyclef Jean was the first member of his group to embark on a solo career, and he proved even more ambitious and eclectic on his own. As the Fugees hung in limbo, Wyclef also became hip-hop's unofficial multicultural conscience; a seemingly omnipresent activist, he assembled or participated in numerous high-profile charity benefit shows for a variety of causes, including aid for his native Haiti.
The utopian one-world sensibility that fueled Wyclef's political consciousness also informed his recordings, which fused hip-hop with as many different styles of music as he could get his hands on (though, given his Caribbean roots, reggae was a particular favorite). In addition to his niche as hip-hop's foremost global citizen, Clef was also a noted producer and remixer who worked with an impressive array of pop, R&B, and hip-hop talent, including Whitney Houston, Santana, and Destiny's Child, among many others.
Question: When did you decide to pursue music?
Wyclef Jean: I decided to do what I do when I was 2 years old. At 2 years old, you know, I heard the sound of a drum playing in the village, and I found my own drum and just picked it up and started playing <singing>, the worst song ever written by Wyclef Jean. But <laugh> it actually started a vibe. Professionally, I started doing what I was doing when I turned, like, 13 years old. And not -- ‘cause a lot of times it surprise people what I do because they say, “Aren’t you a Hip Hop artist?” Like, “How do you know about Bob? How do you know about Art and [Blinky]? How do you know about Crystal Gale? How do you know about Pink Floyd?” Well, understand that, you know, my background and naturally what I grew up with was music in the church. And in going to high school, I got introduced to Jazz. And from the 9th grade to the 12th grade, all I did was study and play Jazz all day. So for me, it’s just -- then I turned 18 years old and got my first contract with Atlantic Records Big Beat. At the time they just released Nelson Mandela, and I did a record called “Out of the Jungle,” and it was dedicated to Nelson Mandela. And I got with my group, The Fugees, in, like, 1989, and which was like a high school band for me. And basically with The Fugees I went on to doing my first CD. The first CD was called “Blunted on Reality.” It was me, Pras, and Lauren. Why did this thing work? It worked because you had three individuals from three different styles of music. Lauren taught me about R&B, ‘cause at the time I was more into, like, church music, Reggae, or Rock, you know. Pras was just a Rock head. And so Lauren would come -- Stylistics. What’s that, you know. And then she would play it. And then I would automatically learn it. The first CD was called “Blunted on Reality.” It basically tanked. And in the second CD we went to my basement, my uncle’s basement. Me and Jerry Wonder got together -- Lauren and Pras -- and created a classic that sold basically 22 million. That CD was done inside of a basement. So if you’re doing music in your basement or in your garage, I always say, “That’s the best place.” I think that’s where you’re gonna get your best <laugh> material from, or the bathroom <laugh>.
Question: How would you categorize your music?
Wyclef Jean: I mean the Wyclef Jean music is eclectic music. Wyclef represents [ecleftic] music -eclectic music. I’ve been doing this music since I was a child, and I said I will refuse for anyone to put me into a box. Whenever I want to listen to Celia Cruz, I will. When I wanna hear Pink Floyd, I will. When I wanna hear Bob Marley, I will. I wanna hear Nirvana, I will. I can and I will. I wanna listen to Jay-Z, I will -- Biggie Smalls, Tupac -- and this is the iPod of a kid today. So the Wyclef Jean music is just eclectic music. It’s called good music.
Question: Who informs your music?
Wyclef Jean: I mean my influences range from like Jimi Hendrix, to Bob Marley, to Marvin Gaye. And then one of my favorite, like, singers -- you know, when I hear him I could identify with his voice. You know, a lot of people be like, “Man, how is Johnny Cash,” you know what I’m saying? I like Johnny Cash a lot. Like, my dad was a minister and stuff and just growing up in the church, and I grew up with a lot of Christian rock and -- so that’s some of it <laugh>.
Question: How has Haitian music influenced your music?
Wyclef Jean: I mean, the Haitian music -- one of my favorite bands is called Boukman Eksperyans. And Boukman Eksperyans represents the true roots and the culture of what Haitian music is to me. You know, that band is a band when I hear it, and they say there’s a connection with Haiti and Africa. I naturally could feel that connection. It represents Rasin. The translation for Rasin is roots. When you listen to that music, then you understand the connection of, you know, where the Haitians are from and why the rhythm sound like that. It’s the natural music of the country and in the young generation to listen to a form of music which is called Kompa music. And Kompa music is more like - there’s bands like Djakout Mizik, there’s bands like T-Vice, bands like Carimi, that’s sort of like -- you could say it like this: Bob Marley and then there’s Dancehall. You know what I’m saying? So that’s the best way to describe it, like there’s Rasin and then there’s Kompa. So the younger kids are definitely more into the Kompa, which is a traditional, like, form of, like, dance music from the islands created in Haiti, which definitely has a lot of influence on what I do.
Question: How has your music evolved over the course of your career?
Wyclef Jean: My music evolved -- I mean, at this point, you know what I’m saying, it’s like -- you know, my role model, you know I’m saying -- like I’m a young Quincy Jones, you know? Like, what I mean by that is that’s my blueprint, you know, and I feel like my career is just getting started, you know. I’m into a lot of scoring music now, I like the sounds of scores, you know, I wanna do, like, big soundtracks for movies, you know, I wanna, like, develop more of the Wyclef sound, the sonic sound and get my own label, Carnival House Records, and start to find great talent, develop it and help expand it.