Wyclef Jean, Renaissance Man

Rapper, hipster, huckster, preacher man, lover boy, thug angel, country aficionado, wrestling fan, global visionary... Wyclef is all these things, and more

Wycleff Jean
Frans Schellekens/Redferns
October 12, 2000

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 toward 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.

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"Wyclef from the Fugees," Wyclef says, and the washer's eyes light up 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 kind 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 raps, "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 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 in "Ex-Factor" on her solo album. 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.)

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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 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 babyface 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 speaks 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.

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