Wyclef Jean has an eclectic musical career, including his success with the band The Fugees and his extensive solo catalog. He joins the show to talk about how he got into the music industry, his approach to writing music, his love of rock and roll and UFC, and details about his upcoming album, Carnival 3. (We catch up with Wyclef on tour on Episode 65 right here.)
Jeff: I would love to, kind of, start in the beginning. It's very interest for us to hear, especially for someone like you who embraces all different types of music. Do you remember when you picked up a guitar or when you started to sing or when music started to come out of you, kind of, do you remember what influenced you to do that?
Wyclef: Yeah, definitely, I left Haiti when I was 10 years old, and I came to Marlboro projects in Brooklyn. And projects was very rough, and I always said my mom took a gun out of my hand and replaced it with a guitar. So for me music, it wasn't just like we're doing music, it's like survival. So when you're singing, you can't just be making up things you know? You drift off to the reality. I had an interesting story, because my dad was a preacher. So being that he was a minister, he didn't want me listening to rap music, he called it drug dealer music. That crazy Haitian accent "I don't want you to listen to this music, this drug dealer music." And you know, you're a teenager so whatever your parents tell you don't do you're gonna do. I fell in love with hip-hop, but being that my dad was a Christian minister, I grew up in a very cool but weird environment. So that means that before I heard RunDMC I heard Petra.
Jeff: Oh okay.
Wyclef: Petra is a Christian rock band dude.
Wyclef: So before I heard RunDMC I heard Amy Grant.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Wyclef: So then I fell in love with what was called Christian rock, and in falling in love with Christian rock, because my dad wanted me to hear that. So my brother, the first cassette tape he brought to me that wasn't Christian rock, was The Police Synchronicity.
Dustin: Oh good one.
Jeff: Awesome. Great record.
Wyclef: Yeah man. So you could think, it was very eclectic for me, like straight from the gate. But I would say it was more like hiding the music that you're listening to from your parents, because you don't want them to know that you're listening to this kind of music. You know what I mean. So it's shaped like a trippy ... Growing up for me, by the time I was 15 I became the best battle rapper to come out of my area in New Jersey. And battle rapping, similar to the movie you saw '8 Mile' it was just a different way to ... in the streets versus being violent about a situation you could joust about it lyrically.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah.
Dustin: Yeah, that makes sense and it kind of gives an outlet for people who might be a little bit angrier than they should be.
Wyclef: Yeah I call it lyrically jousting. But it's so funny because today you have all these battle leagues, one of them is URL, you've got King of the Dots, battle rap is one of the biggest things in the world. What's deep is you could see one crip and one blood, two opposite sides, and there's no guns, and what they're doing, they're taking it out lyrically. To me, I always feel like music and sports, is the best outlet, to take things out.
Jeff: I agree. I totally agree. So moving forward a little bit. After you know your getting into ... I guess performing even, from battle rap and stuff like that. Was it a point in your career, where you were like, "I want to do this as a career." Or was it always, like you said, about survival?
Wyclef: Well for me, it's like Johnny Cash, that's how I used to always write songs, just to escape. You don't know what it's going to be yet, I remember being 17 years old, I was a big fan of Rakim one of the best [crosstalk 00:04:12]. I played upright bass, I was also in a jazz band, and I remember basically taking my upright bass and taking it on the train, going all the way to be an extra in a Rakim video. I got cast to be in this video, Rakim, none of them knew who I was the record is called 'Don't Sweat the Technique' and I'm playing upright bass.
Jeff: Oh my god that's awesome.
Wyclef: And I would say, maybe that ... this, maybe I could make a living out of this. I was just an extra dude, ain't like anybody knew me right. Years later I even was telling Rakim this story when he came to a show of mine. He was like, "No effin, no. You wasn't in my ... " I was like, "Dude I was an extra in your video and I got more shots than you."
Jeff: That's so great.
Dustin: That's so cool.
Jeff: That's funny.
Wyclef: So I would say for me that's where a lot of it started. The combination of that, and you definitely, you start to get older and by the time I was 18 years old, I would say that's when I knew, because I was just leaving high school. I'm leaving high school and I get a call from one of my boys, he said that Atlantic Records, which was Big Beat Records at the time with Craig Kallman, they were looking for vocalists because they were putting out a house record. And he said that he recommended that I write the record. So I went to New York, and they played me the beat, I'm just trying to get on just a little kid, and they play this beat and I literally write the record on the spot. I remember that day vividly because that sort of was the day, that week that Nelson Mandela had just came out of prison. That's how I remember it. So then I just started doing these vocals and just writing the record on the spot. Dude, then I left and this is the funniest story, so now when I leave this record becomes famous in the underground clubs. At 18 years old, now what's crazy is when I tell you this stuff and you research it you gonna bug out. Right? So now this record is blowing up in the underground and there was a problem. When I left the studio I just basically took my little money they gave me but I never left my name. So dudes was like, "Yo what should we call him?"
Wyclef: They was like, "Yo, well he sounds African so, well just call him Africali." So-
Wyclef: So if ya'll go online-
Dustin: No ...
Wyclef: They was like, "He sounds like he's from Africa, he has an accent, we'll call him Africali." So they gave me this mysterious name.
Jeff: My goodness.
Wyclef: It's like Africali the record is called 'Outta The Jungle' if anybody wants to check it. The artist is Africali. So years later dude, I see this DJ, this is like 10 years later and now I'm Wyclef Jean, and this DJ called Flex he's like, "Yo man, did you have a twin in the late '90s going into like you know ... Did you have a twin because there's this dude who sounds just like you." And he said, "But he can't be you because his name is Africali." I was like, "Dude play the record." And the record comes on and the record goes, "Out of the jungle here we go." And it's Wyclef Jean. So now I was thinking should I call them MF's up and tell them that my name is Wyclef Jean?
Wyclef: And look them up and say you guys ... But I actually thanked them, because now I could come out with house records as Africali as Wyclef's AKA brother from Africa.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah.
Dustin: Wait, so do you still use that name?
Wyclef: You know what, I was doing a record with Gorgon City out of England, London and it was like a house record and I was like, "Yo we gonna call this Wyclef AKA Africali." I also told Avicii the story too when I was working with [Tim 00:09:05] I was like, "Yo, you know on of my early records was a house record." And I would think from there I probably started taking the idea of, maybe I could be a song writer, for artists, and just start producing for people. That was my initial thoughts.
Jeff: Wow that's awesome The question goes even further than that, you're gaining some underground, you're gaining some sort of ... not necessarily notoriety, but you're getting out there you're writing records, you're getting your name out there even though it's not your name at that moment.
Wyclef: Yeah, yeah. Its crazy though.
Jeff: What was it like, going from someone ... And this is a question I'm always curious about. What is it like going from someone who is desperately trying just to ... Like you said, creating music to survive and desperately just putting it out there because that's what you feel and then you're writing and producing 'The Score' with the Fugees and that becomes everywhere, like everywhere, and you go from someone who is technically underground to someone who is as above ground as you can possibly be.
Dustin: About as ... yeah about as big as you get. And how do you keep stable with all that fame lumped on all at once?
Wyclef: You don't man.
Dustin: No shit.
Wyclef: Ain't no such thing. You are off balance for a minute. Because, The Score, I did this in my uncles basement.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah.
Wyclef: So I did that in my basement. I was always, like in the hood, I was a thug nerd.
Dustin: I love it.
Wyclef: I was that kid that would go to Sam Ash and read all the manuals, and the dude would be like, "If you're not gonna buy nothing get out the store." So being in a basement getting a chance to rock out 'The Score', you gotta think about it, you're in New Jersey and you're in a basement and you're producing all this music. In my brain there's no way in hell that 'The Score' was gonna explode like that, because coming from the underground we was like, "Okay, well this one ..." because the first one we put out was called 'Blunted on Reality' so 'The Score' was actually the Fugees second album.
Jeff: Right, yeah.
Wyclef: Blunted ain't even do that well so we was like, "You know what, maybe this one will probably sell 50,000 and we could maintain a fan base and keep touring."
Jeff: Right. But nope.
Wyclef: Yeah. And then it goes from there to just purely ... I would say the explosion, we was on tour in Europe and I always say that the best feeling is when you get that call from the record company and their like, "Yo, you're number one. In America." It's like every rock band knows that feeling as made it. [crosstalk 00:12:02] beat that feeling because we go from, welcome to McDonalds could I take your order, to buying the McDonalds. It's definitely a surreal feeling, but you know what most artists will tell you, you don't get to live it, because it's going real time. So they ain't like "Oh you're number one." Let you go to Saint-Tropez and chill. Its no your number one so you're gonna work like a wrestler, 365's of the, you know.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah.
Wyclef: We got you on demand 289 dates. I would say the crazy thing used to be when the Fugees had three shows a day right. So we'd have to go from Europe, and then back to America, and we couldn't take no ordinary planes because the planes would not get back that quick. You know the craziest plane we took? The Concord.
Dustin: Oh my gosh
Wyclef: Dude real talk, when rappers be talking about G5's, I'm like "What y'all know about the Concord?" I mean the Concord, basically is like a military jet converted into a commercial jet.
Jeff: Yeah, so fast.
Wyclef: We would make it from Europe back to the states man in like three hours and 15 minutes.
Jeff: Oh my god.
Wyclef: So you go from there and then you gotta jump on stage, then get back on the plane, go back to Europe.
Jeff: Holy crap you don't even know what day it is then.
Wyclef: You don't know what day it is, you don't know what time it is, all you know is the roar of the crowd, the roar of the arena. You're always on the go. I would say it definitely was a surreal feeling to go from that [bugga 00:14:00] basement to the Concord.
Dustin: Yeah that's gotta be so hard to take a step back and actually take in the success that you're experiencing at the moment. It must have felt like a dream.
Wyclef: Man, it's still a dream today brother, like honestly it's like a dream. Everyday I wake up I pinch myself, be like "Really?"
Jeff: Speaking of, actually today, what's crazy even about a record like 'The Score' is it wasn't just big when it hit in '96 it's still big today.
Dustin: Still huge.
Jeff: Those hits are still played everywhere. To the point where as we're recording this record Jay-Z's record just dropped and he samples Fu-Gee-La on one of his new tracks. I mean that's just a testament of the material that you created for that. And I think that's incredible.
Wyclef: Yeah, well like I said, for us it was like ... When I was doing 'The Score' there was two albums, when I was doing 'The Score' and when I was doing 'The Carnival'. Those two albums, my blueprint was The Beetles 'Sergeant Pepper' and then my other blueprint was Pink Floyd 'The Wall'.
Dustin: What do you mean by your blueprint? Just like your approach?
Wyclef: Yeah like, just my inspiration, I was like I want to make something like 'Sergeant Pepper' I want to make something like 'The Wall' but it's going to be talking about my hip hop community. So sonically I'm already in that hip hop rock area. So I'm just like, how can ... Because those records did something to humanity. I was having this conversation with Carlos Santana a few months ago and Santana was like, "We don't do music, we do vibrations." And a vibration lasts longer than music it'll constantly be coming back over. So then a week ago, two weeks ago, I'm speaking to DJ Khaled, and he's like, "Yo Clef' we sampled you and Santana's record 'Maria, Maria' me and Rihanna we about to [inaudible 00:16:14] we need you to get Santana." So dude I always believed in the power of just doing music, if you could just do music , and I'm telling you songs and you write them from the heart, people are going to find those songs. So I always believed in that.
Jeff: That's awesome. And seeing as how you brought up DJ Khaled, Speaking on, you talked about 'Carnival' which came out 20 years ago soon, and now your gonna have 'Carnival III' which is available for presale now. You have some really awesome people appearing on that record with you, including DJ Khaled right?
Wyclef: Yeah, well 'Carnival III' is gonna be crazy, and everybody that's looking at that cover ain't no freaking ... what they call that. You know how they be trying to make up your body with all these fake things, what is it? Photoshop.
Wyclef: Ain't Photoshop that, Wyclef is built like a UFC fighter for real, I'm from the era of Royce Gracie I go on for real.
Dustin: Now you're speaking my language.
Jeff: Heck yeah man. No, you look great on that record.
Wyclef: Oh man come on, ya'll don't want to ... Man listen, I've been watching UFC from VCR tapes in the tour bus like 30 something years ago dudes.[crosstalk 00:17:34]
Dustin: I wasn't on a tour bus when I was watching them.
Wyclef: I was like, "What ya'll know about Shamrock man."
Dustin: Yeah, King Shamrock.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Dustin: My dude. That's cool. Do you pull inspiration from that at all, from fighters?
Wyclef: Well come on brother. The thing about anybody who understands fighting, I mean first of all mixed martial arts is where it's at. Because it's a whole discipline that comes with mixed martial arts, it don't really matter the persons size, it's all about chi. So I always measured that the same way with music. So you was just talking about the people that's on the album for example. All my albums have always been about discovery, it's never been about "Oh because somebodies on the chart, they on the album." So you'll hear an album, you ain't going to know who Lauryn Hill is and later you'll be like, "Oh that's Lauryn Hill, oh that's John Forte." So we did the same approach with the 'Carnival III'. So on the 'Carnival III' what's ill about it is, all of the kids, all of the producers that was inspired by Wyclef when he did 'The Carnival' those are the kids I partnered up with 20 years later.
Jeff: That's so cool.
Wyclef: What's crazy about this is you've got a kid called Supah Mario. Supah Mario is the one who did the Young Thug record, Young Thug got a record called Wyclef Jean. Supah Mario did it. So I was like "Yo, anybody who produced a record called Wyclef Jean got the Wyclef Jean frequency." So we [inaudible 00:19:07] together and we did a record called Fela Kuti, which came out, crazy. Another group of producers who I combined with, is some producers called knox, we did a record that's called 'What happened to love'. So i'm excited about, the best way I can explain this album man it's like 1997 sonics meet 2017. So we got a lot of live instrumentation playing against the electronic trapp drums against the live kit, that's the energy of 'The Carnival'.
Jeff: That's really cool.
Dustin: Talking about ... I'm sorry you hit me with mixed martial arts so I'm going to use this analogy a little,
Wyclef: That's my thing man.
Dustin: Cool. So there's a thing that always kind of plagues me about, what's more important about somebodies approach, is it confidence, or is it intelligence, if you were to pick one?
Wyclef: The key is intelligence. You will get knocked the F out with just confidence, because intelligence is like playing chess, and when you play chess you're mapping moves out before the move. Because you can look at a mans eye and if they have confidence it's a wrap, because you've already sized the person up. But when someones operating from a level of intelligence you don't know half of the time what's coming. For example, me I believe in counter punching, I'm the kind of guy who, I'm gonna let you come at me so I can study you and see how you're gonna move.
Dustin: Anderson Silva style.
Wyclef: Even if I know I might be able to put you out, if I think in my mind confidence first, we see what confidence did to [inaudible 00:20:56]. So I put intelligence ... even the cockiest, it could be the cockiest boxers, the cockiest [inaudible 00:21:06] that point of [inaudible 00:21:09]. Dude I got a chance to meet Muhammad Ali, not one occasion, many occasions. One of the best of all times for example, and yeah Ali had that talk where he told you when he was gonna knock you out and all of that and he had that confidence right. But he was so mathematically trained, that whole play that he was doing was a chess in intelligence because you would think "Oh this guy is just a talker." But he's baiting you because he's well trained.
Dustin: Its almost like the confidence is part of the intelligence when it comes to somebody like Muhammad Ali.
Wyclef: Yeah, definitely, or the Gracies, take the Gracies one of the founders like Royce Gracie, a lot of it, because technique is intelligence. Because basically you have to learn the technique then you have to apply the intelligence real time when we grappling on the floor.
Dustin: Absolutely, that's awesome.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Wyclef: I'm really into this thing, you know George Sinclair?
Wyclef: I have a video out called 'The Ring', and I actually did it in one gym that he trained in, in Montreal. So if ya'll got a chance check that out it's called 'The Ring'.
Dustin: So out in TriStar Gym?
Wyclef: Yeah out in Montreal.
Dustin: Yeah that's awesome.
Jeff: Very cool.
Wyclef: I trained in that gym, and when you look at the video 'The Ring' what you see is what you get, it's no play, I'm not faking it. If you see I'm getting hit, I'm really getting hit, I was like, "Whatever we shoot lets just get it how we get it."
Dustin: That gets me so pumped you're into that whole MMA mentality man. That's cool. I'm a bigger fan now officially.
Wyclef: That's my thing bro. Believe that.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Dustin: So do you have any plans for a tour following this album at all?
Wyclef: Yeah definitely we want everybody to ... we got Wyclef.com so if anyone that's listening here, you subscribe to Wyclef.com we're able to just send you real time newsletters where we're gonna be at, we gonna be in your city, all over. We gonna be taking a tour. You know they call me the Haitian alien if you haven't been to a Wyclef show it's like a Jimmy Hendrix experience. So make sure you get that newsletter and just come to see a crazy show. I can't explain it to you, I play seven instruments, sometimes I might show up with a band or sometimes I do the one man show. I'm going through seven instruments. I don't know what I'm going to do this time but it's gonna be crazy.
Dustin: That's awesome.
Jeff: That's awesome. You've already released two early tracks off the record and the records got 12 tracks on it. Is there any, outside the two that you've already released is there any track that you're really excited to get out there? I mean I'm sure you're excited for all of them but.
Wyclef: Definitely it's a track called 'Warriors' I'm real excited about this track 'Warriors' it's heavy. It's talking to the testament of what we talking about right now, and just letting everybody know they're warriors. And there's another record called 'Borrowed Time'. 'Borrowed Time' is probably one of the deepest records that I've wrote in a minute, because 'Borrowed Time' is I feel we're all on borrowed time. The whole record it just makes us reflect. So Bruce Hornsby he had "That's just the way it is, Some things will never change." Okay Billy Joel had "We ain't start the fire" and Wyclef 'Borrowed Time' that's the best way to explain it, and Black Eyed Peas had where the love. So Wyclef 'Borrowed Time'. So it's in the vein of story telling like that.
Jeff: Very cool. I kinda wanted to ask you, it's been eight years since 'Carnival II' and with the 12 tracks on this record you're someone who doesn't just attack a record because you're gonna put out a record, like you said, music is survival to you, and it's something that you do every single day. What was it like coming up with the track list for this? I'm sure you probably had a ton of songs that you coalesced into these 12 right?
Wyclef: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. First what we did was we put out an EP because I don't take anything for granted and I believe if you haven't put music out, you shouldn't just appear on the Super Bowl like that. With the super star, because then they're gonna be like, "Who's that person with that person." So I still believe in the Bernie Sanders approach, if you want to do it lets get down to the grass roots community level, let people know what's going on. And then with the EP we had three records that was streaming crazy, one was called Hendrix, and that was me telling the story to the new generation [inaudible 00:26:14] to November, and what that meant to me. Making runs, and how in the ghetto I had two choices it was either going to be violence with the drugs, my cousins and them was moving like El Chapo and I was like nope I'm gonna play the guitar and stay here in this basement, so that was cool. So from those analytics and us [inaudible 00:26:34] in the show I just knew for the album where we had to go. I knew that people missed the classic Wyclef sound, and I knew for it to work I just had to be Wyclef. So a lot of what you're hearing is Wyclef is Wyclef. Just with that shot of the sonics. It's very hard though for an artist like me to narrow it down. That's why the label that I'm with is called heads music, and then this albums coming out with heads music and Sony Legacy with Sony. Sony is the old family that I've always been with and then Heads Music is my new family so I feel confident in our track list.
Jeff: One of the things we ask every single person we have on Fueled by Death Cast and I think it's as more important for you than anything because you have been so integral in the music scene for so long and done so many amazing things, is what exactly, what fuels you to keep getting out there and producing music, writing music, what is your fuel, what actually fuels your passion to do that?
Wyclef: Every era you got to get a new passion right? Because you cannot get out there every week onstage singing the same songs right? So I would say this whole new invention my passion is my daughter. This is my passion this time this is inspiration, she's 12 years old. I do this because I see the smile on her face. When she see her papa on TV, when she goes to school she like, "My daddy Wyclef Jean." And smiling, and she loves music. We could sit there and she's way cooler than me in her mind, she's putting me up on game. So she's like "Dad do you know who DJ Khalid is?" Really [Angellina 00:28:37] I go back with Khalid when he was selling records outta his trunk. "Okay dad I heard this, this is cool but you need to remix this with DJ Snake." And I'm like "Who?" And then she put me up on DJ Snake. So I would say that communication and that excitement that I could get man from just my daughter, because it's like you travel a lot and you miss your family. So to be able to have a conversation like that with my daughter. I want to hold her hand, bring her to the award shows, I want Drake to give her a kiss when he sees her, these things are what makes me happy. I do this thing for my daughter right now.
Dustin: So I have a question. Do you get a gut feeling while your producing and recording a song that ends up kind of gaining steam and getting a hit? Do you kinda know while you're recording it?
Wyclef: No what I get is, it just feels special. And then somethings that feel special don't necessarily hit right away. I'm always saying when you're multi talented it's weird because I tell people I don't know what a hit is, I just know what a feeling is. I remember when I did 'Hips don't Lie' for Shakira, but the original record I did it two years before Shakira on a soundtrack called Havana Nights dude. The record felt special but it was another artist singing it [Claudet Artise 00:30:16] so if anybody listened to last dance two years prior to when I did it with Shakira you gonna say holy crap it's the same record that Clef had he just remixed it with Shakira. The same way DJ Khalid just remixed my record with Rhianna. That's all I did with Shakira and then it became a hit. So sometimes if your in the studio and you're recording and you feel like something is special don't stop and don't get discouraged because you put it out and it may not do the numbers you want it to do or the reaction, but you gotta keep it up because sometimes it takes people a minute to catch on to something new, you have to always remember that.
Jeff: Is there anybody that you haven't worked with that you'd like to work with?
Wyclef: Well I think Kendrick Lamar is dope [inaudible 00:31:08] people like that [Drakey 00:31:13] I love, Whiz Kid out of Africa there's a whole sound out of Africa, Afro Beat that I'm really into. But really right now for me discovery is the most important thing and I so miss, as much as a hip hop hit I am rock head. I perform, I also DJ, I used to DJ on the block too. Sometimes I rock my band, and then when I DJ this be some of my favorite moments because you get to see what's in the head of Wyclef playlist. So I would go from like Nirvana 'Teen Spirit', to Guns and Roses. I miss some of those old rock bands. You know how hip hop constantly reinvents themselves, I need to know who the new Nirvana is. [inaudible 00:32:11]Like welcome to the jungle that kind of energy, I still think we need that out there too. Those duded were still saying something but it was just like[inaudible 00:32:23] a lot of those bands.
Dustin: Have you listened to Highly Suspect yet, I feel like they hit that vein pretty well.
Wyclef: Hard, that's one of them. Super-
Dustin: They kill it live too man.
Wyclef: That's one of my favorites, I want to see more bands like that.
Jeff: Same here man, same here. We are so excited for 'Carnival III The Fall and Rise of a Refugee' coming out in September right?
Wyclef: Yeah. [inaudible 00:32:53] The pre-order but dudes go subscribe to that Wyclef.com so we send ya'll them newsletters.
Jeff: Definitely, Wyclef.com and obviously your Wyclef on all social media and everything. We cannot thank you enough for taking time to talk to us on the podcast man.
Dustin: Yeah, dude this was very awesome, were very appreciative, very grateful man.
Wyclef: The music was dope but now we connected on that UFC real.
Dustin: Check this a little bit off pod-
Wyclef: [crosstalk 00:33:18]If we had a bar or something, we get[inaudible 00:33:24] we don't need much people to handle ourselves.
Jeff: Thank you so much man.
Dustin: Seriously thank you so much man. We really appreciate you.