The traffic light turns red on 125th Street in New York, stopping the progress of Wyclef Jean’s Town Car. A middle-aged gentleman wearing an “Africa” T-shirt ambles towards the windshield with a rag; the chauffeur waves him off. “Washing cars, that’s not right,” Wyclef says to himself. “He shouldn’t have to do that.” He rolls down the window and calls the washer back to the car. After Wyclef gives him a twenty-dollar bill, he says, “You know who I am?”
The washer looks blank.
“Wyclef Jean,” prompts the chauffeur, which doesn’t seem to help very much.
“Wyclef from the Fugees,” Wyclef says, and the washer’s eyes light with recognition. “I gave you twenty dollars,” Wyclef tells him. “You should spend fifteen of it on my new CD.”
Music is probably not this window washer’s most pressing need. He is most certainly unaware that today is the day that Wyclef’s second solo album, The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, goes on sale. Nevertheless, he agrees to the proposition; he and Clef shake hands. The washer says, “One love” as the light turns green and the car lurches forward. Wyclef leans back in his seat with a smile on his lips and begins to sing.
Wyclef Jean is usually singing or quietly rapping. He’ll croon songs from his own albums, or oldies like “Tutti Frutti,” or an improvised lyric. But as we continue down 125th Street, Wyclef is belting out a hit single from 1984: “Sister Christian, oh your time has come, and you know that you’re the only one. . . .”
“Caribbean people love country music and Eighties music,” he informs everyone in the car. “I’ll take ‘British Invasion’ for $500.” He then quizzes us with the melodies of singles by a-ha, Culture Club, and the Outfield. By the time he gets to “We Built This City,” the car has arrived at our destination, Harlem’s new HMV record store, where Clef will be performing and signing autographs. We’re early. “We’ll wait in the car,” Wyclef says with a smile. “Pull that superstar shit.”
Wyclef grew up in poverty in Haiti, without shoes or store-bought pants; now he wears a diamond-encrusted wristwatch and sports a diamond ring large enough to gouge out one of your eyes. He has one of the most fecund musical minds of our time, but has been derided for recording too many cover songs (e.g., “Killing Me Softly,” “Guantanamera” and on the new album, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”). He believes God put him on this earth for a greater mission – “Music is the avenue, but the purpose of Wyclef is to unite people to move forward.” Well, that and to keep America’s strip clubs in business (The Ecleftic‘s “Perfect Gentleman” is dedicated to the nation’s topless bars). With Wyclef Jean, these don’t seem like contradictions but manifestations of his talent as a twenty-first-century chameleon, able to fit into any context, sacred or profane. Or more to the point, to rock any crowd in its own language.
At HMV, Wyclef does a series of interviews with local TV stations. He tries to keep it lively: When one crew wants a shot of him walking through the store with their reporter, he tangos through the aisles with her instead. He repeats the same answers over and over, telling them how The Ecleftic features Kenny Rogers in the world’s first rap-country fusion, explaining that his song “Diallo” – about the shooting of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo last year by New York police officers – doesn’t mean that he thinks all cops are bad, because some of them recognize him and let him go without a speeding ticket, so please don’t subject him to the type of protest Springsteen endured. But what everyone really wants to know about is the Fugees.
Wyclef has spent much time and effort lately broadcasting the fractured state of the Fugees, starting with the second cut on The Ecleftic, “Where Fugees At?” Seemingly acting on the theory that putting out a CD is easier than sending a telegram, Wyclef rapped, “Lauryn, if you’re listening / Pras, if you’re listening / Give me a call / I’m in the lab in the Booga Basement [the Jersey home studio where they made 1996’s six-time-platinum The Score].” And in recent interviews, he has repeatedly insulted the talents of his cousin Pras and said that he hadn’t spoken with Lauryn Hill in a year and a half. Furthermore, he outed himself as the old flame Hill sang about on her solo album in “Ex Factor.” According to Wyclef, their covert romance came around the time of The Score, in the middle of Wyclef’s twelve-year marriage. (He’s still married; Hill has since started a family with Rohan Marley.)
Today, however, Wyclef wants to cool things down, so over and over, he tells the camera crews that everything’s fine with the Fugees: He spoke with Pras a few days ago and will be talking with Hill soon. One reporter asks Wyclef if he cried when he broke up with Hill. He freezes, calculating whether he should answer, and then confesses, “Yes, I did.” Almost immediately, he tries to turn his admission into a joke: “I cried! What do you want from me, Channel Nine?”
When the interviews are over, there’s a crowd lined up around the block for Wyclef’s in-store performance. To build the hysteria, Wyclef leaves the HMV by the back door so he can re-enter through the front door. He’ll stir up some hoopla, but claims he doesn’t really like the limelight; he says he was as surprised as anyone when his 1997 solo debut, The Carnival, a guided tour of Caribbean sounds, went double platinum. “I never wanted to be this kind of Clef,” he says. “I always did obscure stuff so I could be like Ben Harper playing in the clubs..” As he tells it, he then decided to shift into production to keep a lower profile – but soon after, songs he wrote and produced for Whitney Houston (“My Love Is Your Love”) and Santana (“Maria Maria”) became smash hits. Curses, foiled again.
Wyclef gets on a makeshift stage in front of a crowd of 300, ranging from grandmothers to toddlers. The concert is a quick tour through The Ecleftic, showing off how Wyclef can handle any genre, both as a vocalist and as a guitarist. When he plays the ska-rap single “It Doesn’t Matter,” the crowd shouts the title refrain (on the record, that job falls to wrestling star The Rock). His little sister Melky steps forward and grabs the mike; without warning, the band shifts into up-tempo gospel while she testifies and wails. “I know you’re my little sister, but you can’t just jump on the stage and take over the show,” Wyclef says. He’s lying; behind his gruff beard, there’s a baby-face grin. If he can’t hide from the spotlight, at least he can share it.
When nine-year-old Nelust Wyclef Jean arrived in New York, he didn’t speak a word of English. Now he’s fluent in English, French, Spanish and Creole. Sometimes he thinks in English but speaks in Creole; sometimes it’s the other way around. When he was first writing the heartbreak song “911,” his duet with Mary J. Blige on The Ecleftic, the words were in Creole. “I didn’t want to be like, ‘Baby, I love your way,’” he says. “The world’s not really like that. I had to flip the metaphor.” So he conceived the scenario of a man with a bullet in his heart, bleeding to death: That felt like a relationship to him, something worth translating into English.
Wyclef grew up in Haiti, the son of a preacher and the grandson of a voodoo priest. “My grandfather used to get these books from Egypt and study black magic,” Wyclef says. Young Nelust tried to learn magic himself: “Just the basic white, you know.” One time in school, a kid was bullying him, so he tried to turn a pencil into a serpent. He commanded “Serpent!” and pointed at the pencil, which declined to transform itself. He never mastered any spells, but even as an adult he’s open to the prospect of the mystical. He vividly remembers standing by the ocean as a child in Haiti, looking out at the waves, and seeing a mermaid, a beautiful dark-haired girl surfacing through the water. “The Fugees always tease me about this story, but when she dipped her head and swam off, I saw her tail,” he insists.
Croix de Bouquets, the town where Wyclef’s family lived, was was known as “the town of the spirits.” “After twelve o’clock, there’d be nobody out on the streets because there’d be ghosts roaming,” Wyclef remembers. “My spirit, Agarou, is Lightning and Thunder. I don’t feel electricity or fire.” One night when Wyclef was about five years old, there was a thunderstorm. He got out of bed and ran outside to dance naked in the rain; his parents were yelling, but he knew the lightning wouldn’t hurt him.
Wyclef’s parents went to the States and worked at a garment factory; after a few years, Wyclef followed them, to the Marlboro projects near Coney Island in Brooklyn. The United States wasn’t the land of milk and honey that he expected, and Haitians were sneered at, the butt of jokes about AIDS. Wyclef learned English and tried to blend in. “You look at people’s attire, and that’s what you’re wearing,” he says with the dispassionate air of an anthropologist. Only Wyclef couldn’t afford a leather bomber jacket, so he had to wear Pleather.
“My mother was the person that had the answer to everything,” says Wyclef. “And if she didn’t, she’d make one up. I call her my sensei.” Even today, she keeps Wyclef in line when she reads his interviews. She’ll call him and tell him, “We didn’t raise you like that. You have to watch your tongue, because it can be a sword or a rope.”
Wyclef’s father brought his five children to church and would have them perform – sometimes without warning them. They became adept at improvisation. (To this day, Wyclef’s mother complains that he’s letting his church-trained voice go to waste and doesn’t sing enough on his records.) His dad couldn’t afford an organ, so at age eleven, Wyclef learned to play the accordion – one of six instruments he now knows. A year later, his mom bought him a guitar, in a successful gambit to keep him practicing at home instead of getting into trouble on the streets. Not long after that, the family moved to New Jersey, only to find that East Orange had neighborhoods as bad as the Brooklyn projects.
“We couldn’t really go outside and play,” says his younger sister, Melky. “So we used to rehearse all the time. Our parents told us: Your friends are your brothers and sisters, and this piano.” Wyclef led the Jean children’s band.
“Clef is like our dad,” says his younger brother, Sedeck. “Very stern, stubborn, the decision maker. In Haitian households, you gotta respect the oldest. Even today, if anything goes wrong, we call him.” Melky says that she didn’t even have a boyfriend until she turned eighteen: “I was cute, but he would threaten them. As far as he knows, I have no boyfriend still.”
Wyclef had two nicknames in high school: Ticket and Speedy. “Ticket” was because he was always traveling in his mind. His friends would try to get his attention, and Wyclef would say, “I’m in Paris right now. Be cool.” “Speedy” came from his Roadrunner-like ability to flee trouble and be home within seconds. Wyclef kept a low profile through high school, only emerging periodically, he says, to win the school talent show. At home, he wasn’t allowed to listen to hip-hop: His father thought it was a bad influence. Rock was acceptable. Wyclef could play the Police, Bob Dylan and Yes to his heart’s content, because his father assumed he was listening to Christian rock like Petra or Stryper.
(In August, Wyclef’s father made news by going missing for two days, and then ending up in the hospital. “He’s much better. You know, when folks start getting old, they get sick,” Clef says mournfully. “My father took care of us since we were little, so it’s only right that I take care of my parents now.”)
Wyclef would play air guitar in front of the mirror, and then switch to air microphone, imagining he was onstage in Madison Square Garden. He always had a rock band or a hip-hop group: One collective of six rappers, Exact Change, made it as far as an Apollo Theater talent show. Wyclef wrote all the group’s lyrics but left the group when he got tired of watching them screw up his words.
“I was the fourth member of the Fugees,” he says. “It was Pras and two girls. I was like, ‘Shit, who wouldn’t want to be in a group with two girls?’ ” (The second girl left the group when she went to college.) Meanwhile, only one obstacle stood between Wyclef and graduation: a math class he was failing. So he deployed his secret weapon – bringing his guitar to a meeting with the math teacher, he serenaded her with a personalized song. She was moved by the gesture – but Wyclef still had to go to summer school.
He did well with the ladies long before his musical career took off, he says. “I was a mack. I had spunk.” He met his wife Claudinette when she was modeling: “She was bangin’. Gym four days a week, natural cocoa skin, she looked Jamaican and Brazilian mixed.” He married her when he was eighteen. Asked about the temptations of infidelity, he says, “It’s the same with her – when she goes out, guys are macking on her. I’m not worried with the kind of relationship we’ve got. Most people, they don’t leave room for mistakes in their relationship.”
Wyclef bounced around at some local colleges, studying music and starting rock bands. Before the Fugees got signed in 1993, he earned money any way he could. He wore a uniform at Burger King and McDonald’s; he worked as a gypsy-cab driver; he held down the overnight shift as security guard at a garment factory. Unfortunately, one night he fell asleep at 5 a.m., and the factory got robbed. At the time, Wyclef claimed he was awake the whole time – but got fired once they checked the videotape and saw him snoozing.
Wyclef does most of his work at two studios: one is the Booga Basement, a shabby white house in East Orange, New Jersey, where you can always wander into the kitchen and get a plate of rice and beans. The other is the Hit Factory, a gleaming New York facility where the walls are covered with platinum records by Bruce Springsteen and Mariah Carey. Wyclef leads me into the high-tech environs of the Hit Factory’s Studio Four, which looks like the bridge of a starship.
“In the studio, I’m like Captain Kirk,” Wyclef tells me. “My cousin Jerry Wonder, he’s like Mr. Spock. You know Kirk’s a horny nigga – he be fucking all the bitches in the ghetto. Spock really ran the Enterprise.”
Wyclef has been working on a remix of “911” for urban stations – he’s created a new music bed with a loop of the guitar riff from Edie Brickell’s “What I Am.” He says this isn’t his usual modus operandi; he prefers to re-create samples on the guitar himself. After playing this remix four or five times at ear-bleeding volume, he decides he wants me to hear some of the material that didn’t fit onto The Ecleftic. One, “Most High,” is an inspirational number, a collaboration with reggae legends Jimmy Cliff and Sly and Robbie.
The other song, “Younger Days,” has lyrics looking forward to when Wyclef can be nostalgic about his achievements: “When Madison Square Garden no longer screams for me / When the record company no longer sends limos for me / When young girls think I’m too old.” He starts off crooning over intricate piano lines, and then adds a booming rhythm and begins to toast. The combination is baroque; there’s even a sax solo. “These records are on another level, like I’m the hip-hop Elton John,” he analyzes. “And I don’t want to go there yet. I’m still trying to be in the streets.”
Wyclef “Elton” Jean knows that his material is already slightly out of step with the R&B mainstream: too much guitar, too many odd genre juxtapositions. So he’s extra-diligent about doing whatever his record company asks, agreeing to interviews, glad-handing radio programmers, selling his unusual record however he can. That’s part of why he has so many guest stars on The Ecleftic: like the programmer of a network variety show, he hopes to pull in audiences of Kenny Rogers, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Rock.
It also means that his sales patter never stops. When he gets in the elevator of a Park Avenue office tower to visit radio station WBLS, his ten fellow vertical travelers give him a quick glance – maybe just bedazzled by his diamond treble-clef pendant – and then stare at the door. So Wyclef cups his hands around his mouth, makes a crackling sound to simulate a microphone coming to life, and then announces: “I want everybody to pick up the new Wyclef album. It’s in stores today. Fourteen-ninety-nine. Best Buy.” He lowers his hands and snickers.
Every head swivels his way. “How about a freebie?” asks a young white guy in a charcoal-gray suit.
Wyclef puts his hands back around his mouth. “I don’t have any on me,” comes the PA announcement. “Don’t be stingy. No freebies.”
Some facts about Wyclef Jean: If he weren’t a musician, he thinks he’d be a lawyer. He’s afraid of airplanes, but has conquered his swimming phobia. He smokes a lot of marijuana. He’s read and reread The Celestine Prophecy. He’s voting for Al Gore. He’s thirty years old, although he maintains two “showbiz ages” (his term) of twenty-one and twenty-eight, depending on who’s asking. He wants to do a Twilight Zone-style TV show called Haitian Tales: in one episode called “Elevator Zero,” a man would press the wrong elevator button and go to hell by mistake. In high school, Wyclef thought Hamlet was about a pig. He’s a very bad cook.
The sleeve of The Ecleftic contains a drawing of Wyclef looming over a poor street, a Bible in one hand, a machete in the other. Asked to explain this art, Wyclef tells the biblical story of Passover and adds, “The same way, the Lord is sending an angel through Wyclef. The sword is death, the book of life is peace. We have to choose.” Through the Wyclef Jean Foundation, he has done many benefits for the deprived in Haiti and elsewhere: As he likes to say, there are refugees everywhere. (The Fugees’ name is just a truncation of “refugees.”) Wyclef believes he’ll be leading people someplace, but if he knows where, he isn’t saying just yet.
Today, he’s just hanging out in a record-store stockroom, eating a fried-fish sandwich, waiting to sign more autographs. When he finishes his food, he dances to the radio, tuned to the R&B station Hot 97. Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones” comes on the air, beginning with the words “It’s funny how money change a situation / Miscommunication leads to complication / My emancipation don’t fit your equation.” Wyclef keeps moving his gray boots to the rhythm with precise baby steps, as if he were walking a balance beam.
Is it strange to hear this song?
Wyclef stops moving. “When I first heard it, yeah. It was like someone was talking to me. But now it’s one of my favorite songs.” He continues to dance in his exacting fashion, his feet following a map that exists only in his head.
Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published as “Rapper, Hipster, Huckster, Preacher Man, Lover Boy, Thug Angel, Country Aficionado, Wrestling Fan, Global Visionary… Wyclef Is All These Things and More” in Rolling Stone 851 (October 12, 2000).