Throughout his 20-plus years in music, Wyclef Jean has traveled the world. It’s rare that he finds a concert venue or major festival he hasn’t touched, but the celebrated Fugee experienced that very reality when his talents were requested at Jamaica’s famous Sting festival. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the world-renowned reggae event has held seminal sound clashes and been known for an audience that’s notoriously picky about the artists selected (past weak performers have been bottled off the stage).
In this exclusive interview with BeatsBoxingMayhem, Wyclef talks about his approach to Sting 30, how he fits in with music’s current pop landscape, and of course, the status of the Fugees.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: Congratulations on getting the call for Sting 2013. How do you approach a festival like this as opposed to an American one?
Wyclef: I come from a sound system background, going all the way back to The Score. I love playing music before anything. Sting isn’t a festival you can just call up and ask to play. It’s an honor to be invited to and a tribute to an artist’s respect and creativity. With me, it’s like being back at Port-au-Prince (in Haiti). The real sound system energy I embody comes from that local energy that Sting brings.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: You published a biography last year, ran for president, and currently have a lot of volunteer work you’re involved in. With everything going on, is music still the center of your life?
Wyclef: Music for me is like drinking water. There’s nothing like catching that vibe with a guitar. Without that I’d literally be insane. My last full joint came out before I ran for office. The time is coming.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: We’ve seen before that rappers sometimes have issues with the Sting crowd despite the connections between Hip-Hop and reggae. If it gets particularly bad, the crowd has no problems voicing their displeasure by throwing bottles. Why is it that some rappers can’t connect?
Wyclef: It’s a culture thing. You can’t go out there and talk about your ‘bitches.’ There’s still a form of spirituality and godliness with the people. Most people from there know their Bible front to back. The best example I can give you is that it’s like entering a ghetto revival. It’s not about having a hit song — it’s about can you relate to the people, the basic demographic. Can you humble yourself?
BeatsBoxingMayhem: With your album being called The Carnival Returns, that implies it will have elements of the original. However, we know you like to throw curveballs with your sound. What can we expect with the new album?
Wyclef: It was good to see that I’m still relevant and people want to hear it. I was traveling when I made the first Carnival. This one is developing into something — of what I don’t know yet. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Stockholm [Switzerland] — it’s become a musical safe haven for me. I knocked out 30 songs in one week. I’ve been mixing up sounds with those sounds you’ve heard me use with Shakira, Wayne, Akon and Avicii.
Sonically is what I go for first. The songwriting comes naturally. I start with the guitar and fuse it with the synths and electronic sounds that are the norm today.
BeatsBoxingMayehm: Let’s touch on those electronic and synth sounds you just mentioned. A lot of fans, particularly from our generation, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the “pop” sound of a lot of Hip-Hop music. Did you have you own similar “shock” moment before being able to adapt your sound?
Wyclef: It didn’t shock me. My DJ roots go back — I can quote records like Inner City’s “Good Life” that I hear in today’s music. A lot of these pop songs are just updated 80s British Wave sounds.
I’m a walking music library. Coming from the background of a sound system, I loved listening to all music. Anything that’s popping today, we can go back and reference it from the 80s and 90s. There’s always a reference point. We can listen to something and be like “Oh shit, that sounds like some Men At Work!” I never felt that shock, even when people were saying the lyrical content was changing. You still have Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Joey Bada$$. Hip-Hop can never die in the sense that what goes on in our communities, there’s always gonna be kids who rise and be leaders of that.
Yes, the sonics of radio changed, but I just felt it was going back to the beginning. Remember, there was an era when Hip-Hop and House were together. We called it Hip-House. So when I’m hearing Flo Rida, what’s the difference with him and some of the Jungle Brothers’ records? I can quote Jungle Brother records where they’re singing over the same house beats.
It comes down to how much of a music lover you were of the complete culture and not just closing yourself off to one style of music. If your thing was “I’m underground and I’m always gonna be that,” then you’re in a very confused place right now. You don’t know what to do because the music is weird to you. With me, whether it was Kool & the Gang or Boy George, we sucked it all in.
That’s what my eight year old daughter does. She’ll go from Coldplay to Jay Z to the Fugees to Joey Bada$$. She sets it up herself like that!
Songs are not supposed to fall into the same space. People used to think if you’re no longer on the radio, you’re no longer popular. People would leave comments on my Instagram shocked that I was playing before sold-out crowds in Spain. The goal should be uniting people through music. Fuck the radio. Be worried about this teenage trafficking issue here, or the problems going on over in Nairobi. Stop worrying so much about your “brand.” What’s important is whether you’re moving history forward. All people are going to remember is if your were proactive in changing this world or not.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: New Jersey as a whole used to give strong and varied contributions to Hip-Hop culture. You had the Fugees, but also groups like Lords of the Underground, Poor Righteous Teachers, Redman and Naughty By Nature. Now, outside of Joe Budden, the representation isn’t there. How did Jersey phase itself out?
Jean: Honestly, Jersey needed to showcase more actual bands. Remember, we dominated for a minute with house music and Hip-Hop. The Fugees were a band. Kool & the Gang, another band. The other biggest problem was Jersey artists just lived for the time and didn’t put each other on. You knew with Brooklyn, when one got on, there were like 30-40 people coming behind them. With Jersey, a lot of artists just put on their friends and that kept everybody closed off. I seen that with my own eyes.
That’s why with The Score, we made sure to let everyone shine. That’s why you got the Outsidaz. You got Akon. John Forte got to rock. We made sure the talent was completely showcased.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: Speaking of Jersey, being from there I mentioned to a few people I would be speaking with you. I got the same question from everyone and I’m sure you know what I’m about to ask.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: So with that said, Pras came out last week and said he’s open to trying another Fugees reunion. At this stage of your career, and with everything that transpired in the past, would you even consider it?
Wyclef: I think when people ask that question they’re asking the wrong thing. I’m a Fugee. At the end of the day, Wu Tang is Wu Tang. This is part of us. That’s my gang and where I come from. We wouldn’t be having this conversation without that.
It’s not a question of would I do a Fugees album. I think the question people should be asking is our frame of mind. A Fugees album is demanded by a group of people who are in love with The Score. Are we in the frame of mind where we can create something that won’t be The Score, but can it be close enough to give people who reminisce that vibe? Are the three of us in that frame of mind? I don’t see that. Can we get in that frame of mind? That’s to be said. The first track is “How Many Mics.” Can I get on there and spit 48 bars? Yes. Can Lauryn do that? Yes. Can Pras do it? Yes. But will the energy be the same?
I think by now, the world has figured out exactly what part everyone played on The Score. When you go back you say, “Ok, ‘Clef was clearly the Will.I.Am of the Fugees. No one can take that away.” Lauryn was the soul and brought that other sound and style. No one can deny the fusion Praswell brought.
The thing is, there has to be a level of trust. The group has to let me do what I know how to do best, and let them do what they know how to do best.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: Thanks for your time today. Any final thoughts?
Jean: It’s all love. Check me out on Sting pay-per-view. It’s gonna be fun. Thank you, brother.
Catch Wyclef Jean at Sting 30 beginning at 8 p.m. ET on December 26. The entire 8-hour festival can be ordered via your local pay-per-view provider. For more information on Sting 30, visit http://www.bringthesting.com/. Find out the latest on Wyclef by visiting his official site www.wyclef.com.