NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of a man whose music is popular here and around the world, Wyclef Jean.
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If you're going to interview one of the most influential and successful musicians in New York, you’d better be ready for just about anything.
So much for a nice quiet afternoon talking music with Wyclef Jean; he often breaks up his days at his recording studio in the Theater District with workouts with his personal trainer, and just my luck, on this day, Wyclef Jean wanted some company in his workout.
At least he was generous in his assessment of my workout skills.
“He's got a lot of heart, a lot of stamina, and he's holding out,” Jean says. “The last reporter that showed up to interview me, he's missing right now. He’s somewhere bad breathing. But my man right here, he's holding it down."
One of Wyclef Jean's musical calling cards is collaboration. As musician, songwriter and producer, he's collaborated with a wide range of artists, from Mary J. Blige to Kenny Rogers. On this day he even agreed to a little collaboration with an amateur guitar player.
But the collaboration for which he's best known is the Fugees - Jean, his cousin Praz and Praz's high school classmate Lauryn Hill. Their 1996 album "The Score" sold more than 12 million albums and was credited with sounding unlike anything else at the time on the hip-hop landscape. They reunited recently on the BET Awards.
Jean has released several successful solo albums, but he is constantly asked about recording another Fugees album. He himself asked the question at his own concert this summer at Avery Fisher Hall.
"No matter how good you are, you love to play with the championship team, and Fugees is a championship team,” he says. “And I love performing with them and doing music with them.”
The description of Wyclef Jean that you hear most frequently is "eclectic," a musician at home rapping and using the New York Philharmonic on his Gammy nominated song "Gone ÎTil November."
"I like Gershwin a lot, because Gershwin would paint a picture through music and set a mood," he says. "Anything that I'm going through I can speak to the instrument through my fingers, and it's able to communicate back these tones. Any form of stress I'm going through, like no yoga, no exercise, nothing can do it for me like this thing right here.”
From the very first days of the Fugees, Wyclef Jean has tried to change people's preconceived notions of hip-hop.
“They automatically assume that is you're a hip-hopper, there is no such thing as instruments,” he says. “[It’s like], ÎYou don't play guitar. You probably just have two turntables and a microphone.’ I was like, ÎNo.’ If I pick up the guitar and [start playing] they freak out like, ÎOh my God. How did you learn to pick like that, boy? Where are you from, Kentucky or something?’ What I was able to do was change a lot of people's ways of thinking and have them look at our music much broader."
So how did Wyclef Jean develop such eclectic tastes in music? One clue is that his father was a minister.
“My dad was sort of like an evangelist in like a Nazerian church,” he says. “He traveled to different places and people would come to our churches, so there would be people from Kansas coming in the hood to like help rebuild the church. All that did was just to open up my mind .to let me know that there's more to the world than just where I was living at the time.”
Jean spent his first nine years in Haiti, then moved to Brooklyn. Rap was king, but his mom liked country music, and Wyclef was already going against type.
“Growing up, I’m in the hood and I'm listening to Pink Floyd,” he says. “Everybody's like, ÎWhat is that?’ I'm like, ÎYo, that's Pink Floyd. This is dope, man. Listen to it.’ They didn't know what the hell. They thought I was crazy.”
The family moved to New Jersey for his high school years, where Jean was caught between his church music and his rap music.
“My father never knew I rapped because he was a minister, and rapping was a no-no,” he says. “He felt that was what the thugs were doing, and I was to have no part of that. So I rapped in secret."
He kept his tough rapper pose until a teacher caught him playing piano in music class.
“This teacher came and was like, ÎWhy don't you ever do this in the school?’” he says. “And I was like, ÎNo, I'm hard. I'm rapping. I want to be the best rapper,’ and she's like, ÎBut you could rap and you could come to choir in the school. There's nothing wrong with that, you'd still be cool.’"
A few years later, Jean joined the group that would become the Fugees. Wyclef and his cousin Praz and Lauryn Hill practiced in basements, hoping for a record contract.
A first album didn't make much noise. The second one, “The Score,” did, and nothing could prepare them for the ride from relatively anonymity to international fame.
"If you go from no phone calls to 100 phone calls per second, that affects you,” Jean says. “If you go from just the minute you get out of a car like nobody knew who you was to getting out of a car [and they scream], that affects you. Today I want to eat this, tomorrow I want to eat this, and then the next day I want to fly to the south of France - all of it is possible. You can get trapped in what I call a Îfantasy reality.’”
Jean's "fantasy reality" got a jolt in 2001 when his father was killed in a freak car accident in his garage. Shortly before his passing, the father saw the son perform for the first and only time, at Carnegie Hall.
“I just wanted to show him the way that I saw the world, because we always debated about that,” he says. “So that's probably the most memorable performance for me, ever, of all time. I always wanted him to see that his son is not in prison, not selling dope, and I made something positive of myself."
Wyclef Jean is busy on a number of fronts these days, from contributing music to film scores, his own solo shows, and his involvement in a host of social and political issues. But from the time his success gave him a platform in America, there's been a renewed interest in his native land, where his voice holds great influence.
“Haiti, I mean, that's where I come from, so it always brings back memories to me of, I came from nothing and came to America and got a chance to live that American dream,” he says. “So when I sing that song, I sing that song so that when the kids in Haiti hear it, they can feel it and get a piece of that inspiration that I have, so that they don't give up hope and know that help will come one day.”
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video: