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Wyclef Jean, Renaissance Man

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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 organized 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.

This story is from the October 12th, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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