"I always believed in the power of just doing music. If you could just do music, and I'm telling you when you do songs and you write them from the heart, people are going to find those songs." Wyclef Jean, grammy award-winning musician and producer
WATCH THIS EXCLUSIVE CLIP
ABOUT WYCLEF JEAN:
Wyclef Jean is a Grammy award-winning musician and producer, appearing twice on Fueled by Death Cast. Hear some of his best stories from interviews, including how he was an extra in an Eric B. and Rakim music video as a kid, his passion for performing and creating a music community, and how Pink Floyd’s "The Wall" influenced the creation of "The Score" by The Fugees.
Jeff: ... Love to kind of start in the beginning. And it's very interesting 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 you really started to, when music started to come out of you, kind of, do you remember like what influenced you to do that?
Wyclef Jean: Yeah, definitely. I would say, I left Haiti when I was 10 years old and I came here to Marlboro projects in Brooklyn. And the 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 was like, it wasn't just like we're doing music. It's like survival. [crosstalk 00:00:52]. So when you're singing, you can't just be making up things. You drift off to the reality. But I had an interesting story because my dad was a preacher. He was a minister, man. He did not want me listening to rap music. He called it drug dealer music.
Wyclef Jean: That [inaudible 00:01:14] Haitian accent. I don't want you to listen to this music, this drug dealer music. And you're a teenager. So what ever your parents tell you don't do, you're going to do. And 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 Run-DMC, I heard Petra.
Wyclef Jean: Petra is a Christian rock band, dude. So before I heard Run-DMC, I heard Amy Grant. So then I fell in love with what was called Christian rock. And in falling in love with Christian rock, because that's 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.
Speaker 4: Oh, good one.
Jeff: Awesome. Great record.
Wyclef Jean: Yeah, man. So it was very eclectic for me, 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 shaped like a trippy, growing up for me then by the time I was 15, I became like 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. You know what I'm saying?
Speaker 4: Yeah, 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 Jean: Yeah, I call it lyrically jousting. You know what I'm saying to you. But it's so funny because today you have all these battle leagues. One of them is URL, you got King of the Dot. Battle rap is one of the biggest thing 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. And to me, I always feel like music and sports is like the best outlet to take things out.
Jeff: I agree. I totally agree. So moving forward a little bit. After you're 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 just like you said, about survival?
Wyclef Jean: 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 [inaudible 00:04:11]. I played upright bass, I was also in a jazz band. And I remember basically taking my upright bass and taking it on a train, going all the way to be an extra in a Rakim video. I got cast to be in his 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 Jean: And I would say maybe that, I was like, yo, maybe I could make a living out of this. You see what I'm saying to you? I was just an extra dude, it's not like anybody knew me. And years later I even was telling Rakim this story, when he came to a show of mines, he was like, No, effing, 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.
Speaker 4: That's so cool.
Wyclef Jean: So I would say for me, that's where a lot of it started. So the combination of that and you definitely, you start to get older and by the time I was like 18 years old, I would say that's when I knew because I was just leaving high school, you feel me? I'm leaving high school, and I get a call from one of my boys. He said that Atlantic Records, which was Big Beats 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.
Wyclef Jean: So I went to New York and they played me [inaudible 00:05:54], I mean 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. And I remember that day vividly because that's 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 a record on the spot. Dude, then I left and this is the funniest story.
Wyclef Jean: 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 won't bug out. 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? They was like, yo, well he sounds African so we'll just call Afrikali. [crosstalk 00:07:09] If y'all go online, he was like, he sounds like he's from Africa. He has an accent. We'll call him Afrikali. So they gave me this mysterious name. [crosstalk 00:07:25] So it's Afrikali, only the record is called Out Of The Jungle. If anybody wants to check it, the artist is Afrikali.
Wyclef Jean: So years later, dude, I see this DJ. This is like 10 years later and now I'm Wyclef Jean, you know what I'm saying? And this DJ called Flex, he's like, yo man, did you have a twin? In the late nineties going into like, even though did you have a twin, because there's this dude who sound just like you. And he said but he can't be you because his name is Afrikali. I was like, play the record and the record comes on and the record goes (singing). And it's Wyclef Jean. So now, I was thinking, should I call them MFs up and tell them that my name is Wyclef Jean and book them up and say you guys [inaudible 00:08:35] , but I actually thanked them. Because now I could come out with house records as Afrikali as Wyclef's, AKA brother from Africa.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah.
Speaker 4: So do you still use that name?
Wyclef Jean: You know what? I was doing a record with Gorgon City out of England, London, and it was a house record. And I was like, we're going to call this Wyclef, AKA Afrikali. I also told Avicii this story too when I was working with [Tim 00:00:09:04]. And I was like, Yo, you know one 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 songwriter [inaudible 00:09:20] 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 [inaudible 00:09:43].
Speaker 4: Yeah. It's crazy though.
Wyclef Jean: Afrikali.
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, everywhere. And you go from someone who is technically underground to someone who is as above ground as you can possibly be.
Speaker 4: About as big as you get. And how do you keep stable with all that fame lumped on all at once?
Wyclef Jean: You don't, man.
Speaker 4: No shit.
Wyclef Jean: Ain't no such thing. You [inaudible 00:10:32] balanced for a minute. Because the goal, I did this from my uncle's basement. So I did that in my basement. So I was always, in the hood, I was a thug nerd. You feel what I'm saying? So I'm thinking that would go to Sam Ash and read all the manuals. And the dude be like, "If you're not going to buy nothing, get out the store." So being in a basement, getting a chance to rock out The Score. You got to think about it. So you are 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 going to 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.
Wyclef Jean: So this was actually the Fugees' second album. Blunted did not 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: Yeah, but nope.
Wyclef Jean: 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 they're like, "Yo, you're number one." It's like every rock band knows that feeling has made it. Beat that feeling. Because you know what I'm saying? We go from, welcome to McDonald's. Can I take your order? To buying a McDonald's? 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.
Wyclef Jean: You know what I'm saying to you? So it's not like, Oh, you're number one. Let you [inaudible 00:12:26] Saint-Tropez and chill. It's, no, number one. So you're going to work like a wrestler. 365 and you know. We got you on demand 289 dates. I would say the crazy thing used to be when the Fugees had three shows a day. So we'd have to go from Europe and then get back to America. And we couldn't take no ordinary planes because the planes would not get back that quick. The craziest plane we took, the Concorde. Yo dude, real talk. When rappers be talking about G5s, I'm like, what do you all know about the Concorde. The Concorde basically is like a military jet converted into a commercial jet. [crosstalk 00:13:23] Yo, we would make it from Europe back to the States, man in like 3 hours and 15 minutes. So you go from there and then you got to jump on stage, then get back on the plane, go back to Europe.
Jeff: Holy, you don't even know what day it is.
Wyclef Jean: You don't know what day it is. You don't know what time it is. All you know is all you know is the roar of the crowd, the roar, and then you just, you're always on the go. So I would say it definitely was a surreal feeling to go from that booger basement to the Concorde.
Jeff: Oh my God.
Speaker 4: It's got to be so hard to take a step back and actually take in the success that you're experiencing at the moment. It must've felt like a dream.
Wyclef Jean: Man, it's still a dream today, brother. You know what I mean? Honest, it's like a dream. Every day I wake up, I pinch myself and be like, really?
Jeff: Speaking of, actually today, what's crazy even about a record like The Score is like, it wasn't just big when it hit in '96, it's still big today. 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. And that's just a testament of the material that you created for that. And I think that's incredible.
Wyclef Jean: 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. Two albums, my blueprint was the Beatles-Sgt. Pepper. And then my other blueprint was Pink Floyd-The wall.
Speaker 4: What do you mean by your blueprint? Your approach?
Wyclef Jean: Yeah. My inspiration, I was like, I want to make something like Sgt. 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 era. So I'm not even thinking. I was like, 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 as longer than music. They'll constantly be coming back over. And then it's funny. So then two weeks ago, I was speaking to DJ Khaled and he's like, Yo, Clef, we sampled you and Santana's record Maria, Maria, me and Rihanna. We need you to get Santana.
Wyclef Jean: So dude, I always believed in the power of just doing music. If you could just do music, and I'm telling you when you do songs and you write them from the heart, people are going to find those songs. So I always believed in that. We went from a cassette tapes to streaming rates. So it's like, to have music and continue to put music and then, reaching generation after generations. It's a cool feeling.
Jeff: How big is the band on this tour? It seems like every night that you guys are doing Instagram Live or something like that, it seems like there's like two or three more people. [crosstalk 00:16:59].
Speaker 4: Like a bunch of traveling gypsies.
Wyclef Jean: It's traveling gypsies. That's the word. Because the way that it works is, me being a church boy it's like, I always set up the stage like you're in my recording studio. So we got the drums, we got the keyboards, we got the computer and everything. And my team knows me. Every night I said there is no setlist and it's really a vibe and an energy. So I set it up so anything can happen and at anytime of night. I don't really put it in a routine form. Like yesterday, we was in Boston and next thing you know my crew from Brooklyn was like, "Yo, we arrived in Boston, we got the voodoo horns with us." And they showed up with these instruments from Haiti. These 100 year old instruments that sound like seashells, but they're built out of steel pieces and then, and it basically sounds like a whole tribe is coming. So when we did The Carnival, they jumped on. And what's the name of that band?
Speaker 5: Culture crew.
Wyclef Jean: Yeah, Culture Crew. Last night, at the end of the night I was like, you know what? We're going to do after hours. The crowd don't want to leave. They come back on, my man Kofi Black jumps on and it's literally another half an hour, jam session. It's like a after the show, there's a after night show. That's what's going on now.
Jeff: But it's really a carnival.
Speaker 4: It sounds like if you're coming to one of your shows, you're going to get the most authentic experience because you're leaving it up to the night. Like how you're feeling and how the crowd is responding. Not having a setlist seems though like the way to go when it comes to something like that.
Wyclef Jean: But ever since I was little, even with the Fugees, I really don't believe in setlists, I just believe in a vibe and an energy. Because we know the records. We created them. We know how to sing them through the years. But I think when you give the audience an experience, it's something totally different. So at the end of the day, the foundation of what we do has a big backbone to hip hop because that's our DNA. We can't help that. We're hip hoppers. He from Africa, I'm from Haiti. That Caribbean thing. You're always going to feel that movement in the music.
Wyclef Jean: But once again, The Police, Sting, I was just with him at Jamaica at the Shaggy benefit. We was jamming together. I'm jamming with The Edge over in Europe. So it's like, at the end of the day, I'm a straight up, they call me a thug hippie. So for me, I look for, I don't say, this is folk music, this is reggae, this is hip hop. I don't know what that is. I just know that there's music we feel, because the same place that I got Police cassette, Synchronicity, I have a plaque next to it. A piece of vinyl that says Mobb Deep. So it's like that's the era that we in. I was like, "Yo, you know there's kids in the project that listen to Pink Floyd." Dude's like, "Yo, what, The Wall?"
Wyclef Jean: Yeah. We did, we listened to Nirvana, but it's sort of like that side of it wasn't exposed. We were the nerds. How the fuck you think we're able to produce? How the hell you think we was able to produce all of that shit? If I wasn't listening to The Wall, how would I be able to do The Score? It'd be impossible. So thug hippie just kind of sounds like you're really open-minded.
Speaker 4: Were you always this way?
Wyclef Jean: Okay. So the way that you can see a artist is through its original DNA. So let's go back. Let's go back with Wyclef 1996, 1997. 1997, the video's called Gone Till November. The guy who's sitting in the chair is who? Bob Dylan. So I've always been a musician. And I've always said, I'm a hip hop musician. Dude's like, what does that mean? I says hip hop is the culture of where we from. We're musicians. And I said a hip hop musician is the most eclectic musician that you will find because we're just open-minded.
Wyclef Jean: It's like, we know how to take, there's records that I've done where I've took Kenny Rogers' Gambler and fused it with Pharoahe Monch and people thought I was insane. And now that's the shit that everyone's doing. Everyone's trying to find what's the fusion? So when you hear Kendrick Lamar fusing with this person, all of those kind of fusions, I was doing them in the 90s. So to me, okay, a reality show, you probably only going to get 2% of realness, barely that. But I'm like, where's the 98% of, there's probably talent on the subway, nobody's searching for. That's incredible talent. You got talents in these universities, these kids sitting all around.
Wyclef Jean: And I'm just like, we need a new community to activate something. And the tour is a living testimony of that. Like I'm showing up here. At the end of the day, it's like every night is a summer jam for me. So whether it's 10,000 people I'm playing in front of, I actually like these rooms because I learned this style from Prince. So Prince who I got a chance to jam with, one night, Prince is like you don't understand. You'll always be able to do the arenas. Throughout your career, you're going to always have arena music at times, but to test your pulse, if you can't kill the small room, then you've lost it. And then now you're here and you're playing. So we got a bunch of bands. So it's almost like this is really what it's about. Now who knows? One of these bands could be like the next Hendrix or Beatles. No one knows. And guess what? This, me showing up in the town and being who I am, it allows a whole nother eye on social media to be like, what the hell is going on in this town?
Jeff: The last time we talked to you, one of the things that stuck with me is you said that music is survival. Music is something that it's ingrained in you because you need it to survive, is basically how you put it. And I feel like the landscape of music, especially in our nation, it's constantly getting cut in schools. It's constantly getting downtrodden by reality television. The 2% or the not even 2% of the talent that you're seeing, do you think that more artists should go this route? What do you think can be done to help music? The state of music?
Wyclef Jean: I think this is a great route, because this route could create a community. Look, it's only, I think two days, the single Sak Kap Fet is already number 34 on iTunes and it's featuring Mora Mack that nobody fucking knows yet. Maybe she has five views on YouTube and I guarantee you when she picks up a guitar and sings a song by herself, the world is going to get shook. So once again, if we're creating models that's working, everyone will follow. I just think the new model is the reverse of what they're doing in the reality shows.
Wyclef Jean: I think the thing is though, an artist from my era, you have to be willing to put in the work. That's a different thing because you can't just be willing to like, okay, I'm putting out an album and you're showing up at the super bowl and then my daughter's like, who's this person with Taylor Swift? You can't be doing that. At the end of the day, the work, being back on the road, grabbing that root saying, okay, this is how it started for you. This is the only way you could curate magic.
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 Jean: Every era, you got to get a new passion because you can't get out there every week on stage singing the same songs. So I would say this whole new invention, my passion is my daughter. Like this is my path this time, this is inspiration. She 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. 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 even know who DJ Khaled is?" Really, Angelina? [inaudible 00:26:01] when he was selling records out of 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.
Wyclef Jean: So I would say that communication and that excitement that I could get, man, from just my daughter being in, 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 the hands, bring her to the award shows. I want Drake to give her a kiss when he sees her. All of these things are what makes me happy. I do this thing for my daughter right now.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Speaker 4: 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 kind of know while you're recording it?
Wyclef Jean: No. What I get is, it just feels special. And then some things that feel special don't necessarily hit right away. So 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 the feeling is. So I remember when I did Hips Don't Lie for Shakira. But the original record, I did it two years [inaudible 00:27:30] Shakira on a soundtrack called Havana Nights, dude. The record felt special, but it was another artist singing it, Claudette Ortiz. So if anybody listened to last dance two years prior till I did it with Shakira, you're going to say, Holy crap, it's the same record that Clef had. He just remixed it with Shakira.
Wyclef Jean: The same way DJ Khaled just remixed my record with Rihanna. That's all I did with Shakira. And then it became a hit. So sometimes if you're in a 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 got to keep it up because sometimes it takes people a minute to catch on to something new. You have to always remember that.
Jeff: It was great to have you on again. You are officially the first guest we've had on for the second time.
Wyclef Jean: That's right, baby. Thank you. And you're mans you already know. [crosstalk 00:28:28] Love. Respect fam, always.