Wyclef Jean spoke with Okayplayer from his Los Angeles Carnival Tour stop about educating and inspiring the next generation, plus the brilliance of Kodak Black.
Wyclef Jean will forever have a place in hip-hop. As a former member of the group The Fugeesand responsible for one of the most timeless rap albums of all-time, The Score, the Haitian rapper shows no signs of slowing down.
Loud and proud at 48-years-old, Wyclef has no problem being the bridge between the youth and the old heads. In fact, he thrives off it. Working with the likes of Young Thug, DJ Khaled, and Kodak Black of the newer generation, Wyclef decides to give back to the community in the best way possible.
With a new album in the works, Wyclef embarks on a journey to do what no artist has ever done before: scouting students for features across colleges all around the States. If there’s one thing Wyclef knows, it’s talent. Following the footsteps of his idol Quincy Jones, Jean is ready to effortlessly inspire generations to come.
Touching down in Los Angeles for his Carnival Tour, a fresh-faced Wyclef steps down from the stage after a successful soundcheck. Whether he’s taking on the role as a rapper, musician, producer, actor, or politician, there’s no doubt Wyclef will be shaking things up in the new year.
Okayplayer: I love the concept of recruiting students for your new project Wyclef Goes Back to School. What was your biggest inspiration behind the project, and how does it relate to your own musical journey?
Wyclef Jean: It relates to my journey because I came from Haiti when I was 10-years-old, couldn’t speak no English. And so by the time that I was 17-years-old, I was the leader of the jazz band. So think about you coming from Haiti—like a small village, no nothing—and I’m competing at seven-years-old. My first plane ride was to Pasadena, California and a jazz competition. So I always believe there’s something about that last year of high school, that first-year college. Then I went to a small college called Five Towns College for music. And I set up a campus dorm, a band. So when we show up in the the grass, it’s like 3,000 to 4,000 people. And people were like “Yo.” So, for me, the pulse of discovery is two ways.
We’re in a modern generation where there’s a few leaders that are from my era that are left, that are relevant. So it’s like Jay-Z is a leader, Puff [Daddy] is a leader; Khaled is a leader, I’m a leader. And then everyone takes a direction. So me, I’m a music man. And what that means is… my idol is Quincy Jones. I read sheet music. I do all that. And for me discovery has always been there. I met Lauryn [Hill] when she was 14 and started putting her on tracks. I met Beyoncé when she was like 16, and then, you know, I gave them their first hit, “No, No, No”. For me, growing up, there’s two sides to the talent. I feel like the TV show and all that area, that’s one side. But then, the other side is the discovery side and to really give focus on the raw. ‘Oh, this person just had five views on YouTube?’ But guess what? They on iTunes right now, and they name is Moira Mack. They went to USC, and they’re going to blow it up tonight.
For me, I believe still in that idea of discovery. This is what inspired the idea of Wyclef Goes Back to School. And also, I’m from a generation coming from the hardware, where the physicality of everything had to be there. After I ran for president and I came back, everything was changed so it was all converted to software. The first school I went to was Avicii’s school in Sweden, you know what I’m saying? I learned the technology. So all of the kids that I’ve worked with from Young Thug to Kodak Black, I just felt like as much as they felt like they were getting out of me, I felt like I was getting the same out of them. It was like a “back to school” moment.
OKP: Talk about recruiting the 20-year-old student, Moira Mack, for your latest single.
WJ: So as we go through this journey, there’s a lot of discovery that’s going to happen. I featured Moira Mack on stage while I performed. We have another tour that we do with an orchestra. It’s a Live Nation event called The Hip-Hop Symphonics. So I was looking for a certain style of vocalist that can sing the symphony. I do a whole 20 years catalog. We start in the ‘90s and we finish in 2018. And this vocalist that we just discovered from the school was able to sing everything from Lauryn [Hill] to Mary J. [Blige] — everything.
Barely 20-something and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ So what we did was, we sprinkled her on the “Sak Kap Fet” song. She’s the one doing the ad-libs. I’m excited because the kids are going to get my style of the production and fuse that with what they do. So she’s on that. It’s a lot of crazy discovery going on, like Rachel. Rachel, we went to her school — and I don’t know if I should mess up the surprise for you tonight — but the beautiful thing about Heads Music and an all-independent women’s label — is the way that Madeline Nelson runs it. It is kind of unique because all of these kids have incredible talent, like some want to sing, some want to dance, some want to act, but then they’re all working.
This is how we came up. It didn’t matter if I was a Fugee, I was still working at Burger King. You know, I say it, ‘I used to work at Burger King — a king taking orders.’ But it’s not where we start, we have a dream of where we’re going to go. For me, this is how the entire idea of what’s exciting about finding these kids came about and then when the fall comes, we’ll do a great college tour, which is dope for me because Quincy Jones always told me, ‘The real, the true reinvention — when people be like ‘Oh, I just reinvented myself’ — is thanks to the next generation.’ The generation reinvents you. So when Young Thug goes, ‘This song is called ‘Wyclef Jean’, he reinvents you. Now, a 24-year-old will go on Spotify and they hear “Hendrix” and that’s the that’s the first Wyclef song that they know, and then they go back. The idea of this combination of 1997 meets 2018 and the way that I’m hearing these samples right now, like Migos is incredible..
Even on the “Narcos” record, they use an old Haitian folk record. So as a producer, I’m listening to what the producers are doing and I’m like, ‘Yo, there’s a whole surge — a melting pot that’s going on.’ It sounded like The Carnival all over again.
OKP: How do you specifically go about choosing your students or talents, and do you ever have any hesitations or worries if they can deliver?
No I don’t, because I focus on what’s called “raw talent.” That’s why you gotta duke it out. When we show up at your school we conduct a battle of the stages. This is dope. [There] ain’t no reality shows. You got real college kids in there. And nine times out of 10, there’s a lot of kids. But you clearly can see the kid with the gift. Like when we went to Moira Mack’s school, everyone was dope. We’re not saying that they weren’t dope, but I am saying that this arena is the draft pick for the NBA. I look for kids that can play all the positions, which is the most important.
OKP: This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, one of the most pivotal hip-hop albums to date. What are your thoughts and feelings as the date gets closer?
WJ: It’s one of my favorite albums of the century. Coming up with Lauryn, seeing the progress, it’s like when you saying you a Fugee and you hear Bono [of U2] call The Fugees “the hip-hop Beatles.” Seeing that growth is a testimony to us as creatives. That’s one of those blueprints that only we could create. All I know is when we started out, there was a rule. The rule was like, ‘Yo, we not going to do music. Anything that we do is going to be a movement and it should be able to live in any space and in any time.’ So when I hear Miseducation, it’s like a thousand years from now, that album will still be there, which is dope.
OKP: What are your thoughts on this new generation of hip-hop? What sets you apart from them?
WJ: Now, I don’t really see no difference. [When] I came in I wanted to sing and I wanted to rhyme. I wanted to sing Spanish music, African music — everything. And I was like, ‘Yeah and I’m a hip-hopper, too,’ and they doubted me. So when I see Kendrick [Lamar] sing about love and then he’s spitting bars, it’s incredible. These kids do the same thing. When you listen to Kodak Black and the records Kodak choose to sample. That’s like my nephew.
WJ: Nah, all Haitians. They say I’m their uncle. There’s a record with me, Kodak Black, and his brother. You should check it out. The record is called “Haiti”. We had done it for Haiti — “I’ma do this one for Haiti” — before he went back in [to jail]. So for me, I never look at it like I’m a generation gap-filler. — because I always believe that when you start to say, ‘Oh, this ain’t hip-hop’ or ‘This ain’t music.’ You begin to lose it. I feel a certain way because that’s what [the old hip-hop heads] used to say about me. And it was all because it was different. They probably didn’t understand what I was doing. So I just feel that these kids have as much talent as we did.
All I have to do is watch my daughter. She’s 13-years-old, so she’s going to move with the same pulse that I moved when I was 13, but within her own generation. I just feel like a lot of us from our era, we miss it because you’re waiting for something to come back versus moving forward. Like Jay-Z said, ‘You want to listen to this, listen to my old shit, dawg. I done left the building and I’m going somewhere else.’ And that’s basically what I’m saying. I’ve done it and then I’m going somewhere else right? Even when you hear the new [DJ] Khaled, it’s Future, but you still hear Jay-Z on it. You hear Beyoncé on it. At the end of the day, if you’re that dope, you live in a timeless space. I’m 48, so for me to show up here in Los Angeles today, you’ll see the crowd will range from whatever, from 18-to-60. It doesn’t matter and I think that that’s the era that we in. I think we’re in a good space.
When I see [Twitter beefs] I remember our generation because we didn’t want people talking down to us. I remember when we were doing hip-hop, our generation and the generation before us was more musically-inclined. Before us, they were a band-oriented generation. They played all of this and the idea, to them, that someone would walk around with just a microphone in their hand with some turntables — they were lost. When I was studying jazz, I noticed that they were sleeping on the culture we were creating, because I would notice patterns. Like the horns would be converted into vocal instruments, meaning that in hip-hop they were doing the same syncopations. When you hear Kendrick Lamar, you’re hearing Charlie Parker. The way that they move with the cadence, it’s crazy!
OKP: What was that studio session with Kodak Black like? Curious minds want to know…
WJ: With Kodak, I did an EP called J’ouvert and there was a song I did called “Lady Haiti”. Kodak got his mom to dance while listening to “Lady Haiti,” and he posted the video online. People started hitting me saying, ‘Yo, Kodak [is] trying to reach out to you.’ He had some stuff that he wanted to get out to Haiti and, according to him, I was the only one he could trust. So, I went to see him, chilled with his family and we caught a vibe.
‘Yo, Clef, I got a track,’ he told me. And he played all of this music that he knew that I would want to hear [laughs]. It was nothing y’all even heard or could imagine. Our connection was right there from the gate. He already knew. It was the way we did the handshake. Once we shook hands, it was like, ‘Okay, you 12 tribes of Levi.’ He had the information. At the end of the day, I think that to rule, at times, antics are very smart. A ruler understands that through antics you can distract the crowd to get to where you want to go.
Someone like Donald Trump uses antics for the wrong reasons, but if you think about Rome and how they used antics to get their way, then you see my point. Kodak, to me, is one of the most brilliant minds [in the business]. If you look on my Instagram, when it was his son’s birthday, I wrote them these letters. You have to understand that with these kids, they look at me as an O.G. They know stories about me that the average person doesn’t know. [Kodak] knows how I am with the gangs in Haiti. He knows that there’s no difference between me and him. He can have a conversation with me because, at the end of the day, we’re cut from that same slave blood of 1804. That’s the connection.
OKP: What do you bring to the table that these new cats may not?
WJ: I’m still learning and as a learner, I look up to Quincy Jones. So, in looking up to him, I just tell people that I’m on the second chapter of the book. I don’t know where it’s going to lead me, but I know it is the second chapter. What I come with to these new cats is this: I come with a whole leap of information and my job is to pass this information to the next generation. In my own circles and generation, I’m the only hip-hop guitarist. I am the first ever hip-hip guitar playing rapper that kids saw that was really jamming. Peep The Fugees’ “Vocab” video or even hear it acoustically. Whether it’s Nick Cannon or Young Thug, everybody is waiting for Wyclef to send them guitars.
Another thing I’m going to bring to our new generation is that I am working on a futuristic guitar line, which is going to be pretty insane. I want to combine hardware with software to come with a piece that can be insane. My background is in audio engineering, so for me, I believe the 360 or the whole leap of information that I have is for the younger generation. I don’t really feel like the information is for us [this generation]. Pass it on to them and enable them with the tools to be great, you know what I mean?
OKP: What do you think of this new black cinematic renaissance that’s going on in Hollywood and abroad?
WJ: Yeah, I think it’s a movement. But guess what? I contributeNetflix to a lot of the movement. Because remember before Netflix, it was like you had to roll through the independent circuit and break out that way. Netflix sort of did it where now there’s a place where you can go to and immediately make an impact.. My daughter knows she can go to Netflix and see something that is a movie from Africa. It might not have been On Demand. So for me, there’s a lot of more black movies now that are getting noticed now, in a way that is just awesome.
OKP: Speaking of your daughter, I am curious… is she into music like you are and in the music space?
WJ: My daughter has a killer ear like you wouldn’t imagine. When she heard Migos’ “Narcos,” she was like, ‘Dad, Migos sampled you.’ I’m going to show you how crazy her ear is. If you listen to Wyclef and will.i.am’s “Let Me Touch Your Button,” listen to the guitar as it comes in, and then go listen to Migos’ “Narcos”. The original sample that I used came from this Haitian sample. My daughter doesn’t know the original though, she knows “Let Me Touch Your Button”. So, when she says that this sounds like something she her me do, it’s a gift. For her to get right into the part, I was like, ‘This girl is probably a producer and she really don’t even know it yet [laughs].”