An Interview With Wyclef Jean

Here is an oldy but goody. I did a lengthy phone interview with Wyclef just as his Preachers Son record was about to get dropped. This was pre-Fugees reunion. In fact it was before any of them had begun talking about getting back together. He was an articulate artist to interview, thoughtful and somewhat guarded but definitely friendly–willing to answer questions. 

Wyclef Jean was born in Haiti and immigrated to the United States at the age of nine, settling in New York City; Jean had to learn English, “(in) twenty four hours.  Even now my first language is Creole.  That gives me a very weird style of writing.”

“Preacher’s Son is my first album,” he insists.  “It’s the first album I’ve ever done where I focus on my songwriting more than anything else.  That’s why I call it Volume One-because it’s a movement back to music.  Being a hip-hop musician, being from a reggae background and of Haitian descent, I have a lot of music in my mind.  For the first time on any record, I’m going back to that music.”

A myriad of guests grace his newest album from Patti LaBell and Carlos Santana to Missy Elliot and Redman. Ultimately the passing of Wyclef’s father inspired him to approach his songwriting differently on Preacher’s Son, he says that, “Right away I wanted to do my music differently.  I want to do things that will change people who hear it three hundred years from now, like scriptures.  The Preacher’s Son is my first step in this direction.  It’s my resurrection.”

Wyclef began rapping with his cousins group, Tranzlater Crew, which later became the Fugees.  Aside from being a talented lyric writer, Wyclef also learned how to play the guitar, recording his first solo album, The Carnival in 1997.  The brilliance and musicality felt on the Fugees break through album, The Score, was merely a taste of what Wyclef’s talent entailed.  Using his multi-cultural roots and bringing some genre expanding sensibility to The Carnival, the album was met with the praise of critics and fans alike.  It was packed with hits like “Guantanamera,” “We Trying to Stay Alive,” (a song which sampled the Bee Gee’s hit) and the beautifully well-written heart breaker, “Gone ‘Till November.”

Not only was The Carnival an introduction to a prolific songwriter, it also kept to the basic issues of his group, The Fugees alive.  The ideology of the Fugees was one of proactive positive revolution, especially with the song, “Gunpowder.”  The classic lyrics stating, “We can’t stop the violence/Because the war is not over/Until you feel love, peace in your silence.”

The Fugees were revolutionary in their presentation and delivery, Wyclef’s contribution as a songwriter and forward thinker eclipsed his role in the Fugees and solidified his career as a soloist.  One song Wyclef is particularly proud of is “Gone Till November.” “That’s where I’m talking about getting up and leaving someone, and not knowing when I’ll be back.”

Wyclef draws similarities to John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” saying, “In both songs, you’re telling the girl: “Just chill.  There’s no need to cry.  I’ll be back.”  There are themes that are universal.  It’s everyone else that puts labels on us.”

Though The Carnival was an exercise in Wyclef flexing his creativity, it was also an indication of a band that was dissolving.  Band mate Lauren Hill also decided to chance a solo project, proving her strength as a writer and met with similar success with The Miseducation of Lauren Hill.  It had some amazing hits on it and proved that the Fugees contribution wasn’t only limited to group efforts.

Wyclef says that his writing inspiration isn’t formulaic and is as simple as, “I just got stuff down on a napkin, and then it turns into something later.  In a plane, in the shower, wherever.”

Preacher’s Son concepts are executed with the help of Clive Davis producing.  Wyclef was made to take his singing further than he has on past efforts.  “I sang more on this album than I ever thought I would, ” he says.  “I paid more attention to the melodic structure.  I approached each track like I was writing songs, as opposed to just writing a rhyme, so even when I’m rappin’ there’s melody to it.  It’s rhymin’ singing.”

Wyclef’s newest effort, Preacher’s Son, set to bow on Super Tuesday, Nov 4, is an example of the eclectic and talented nature of his song writing capabilities.  Drawing from a host of influences besides his Caribbean roots like jazz, blues and world music, Preacher’s Son, will be a test for Wyclef.  A test of his longevity as a soloist and songwriter and a test of how receptive his true fans will be.

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