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 darkhaired 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 des Bouquets, the town where Wyclef's family lived, 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 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, emerging only 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 says he wrote all the 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, Wyclefclaimed he was awake the whole night – 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 the 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. SoWyclef 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.
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