Wyclef Jean is hip-hop’s P.T. Barnum, gathering disparate elements under his big top to entertain one and all. Part world music, part pop, part rock, part righteous message and part braggadocio, Wyclef’s sound reflects his Haitian roots as much as his Brooklyn and New Jersey youth. On The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, his second solo album since the Fugees’ multiple-award-winning The Score, Clef continues to do tricks others can’t – like a remake of a country classic that features rabble-rousing rapper Pharoahe Monch and Kenny Rogers. Between a photo shoot and a flight to L.A. to produce a few tracks for Earth, Wind and Fire (who also appear on Ecleftic), Clef sits for a New York minute in a New York studio to recount his last year and a half.
The first track on Ecleftic, “Where Fugee At,” tells people to stop asking about the Fugees. Why did you write it?
People ask me when the next Fugee album is coming all the time, so it had to be the first thing I talked about. The hook is, “Fugee this/Fugee that/Where Fugee at?” If anything, it’s a Fugee-reunion vibe that I’m calling for. I’m hoping it gets us back together. But whatever’s meant to be is already written ten times over. The chemistry has to be right. If not, life goes on. Look, we did two albums. I’m not going to go into a situation where it’s going to be like some VH1 Where Are They Now? Bands always get pressured into doing an album like that. Lauryn did her album. I did Carnival. Pras did his album. I’ve got this one, and I’m sure Lauryn’s got another one coming. Things might have to stay like that. But if the chemistry’s right, I’ll be ready for it, Fugees, if you’re listening.
Why remake Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”?
It’s the first real country-rock-hip-hop record. I did the Johnny Cash tribute, you know – I want people to know I’m hip-hop with an edge. It’s my culture, but I also play rock & roll, country, whatever. Put me in any arena. With Kenny, it was just an honor that he said yes. He took his anthem and he flipped it on some hip-hop shit.
It’s like Sinatra doing a hip-hop “My Way.”
And if Sinatra was around, I would have called him, too, believe me. Motherfucking Kenny Rogers called me at my house. This dude’s got the coolest voice, you: “Hello, it’s Kenny Rogers.” The way I grew up, that’s the equivalent of Michael Jackson calling me.
Huh? How so?
Country music was such a part of my growing up. I listened to it when I was thirteen, same time I was listening to Grand master Flash, Sugar hill Gang and Melle Mel. You know, Crystal Gayle, the Charlie Daniels Band. Actually, now that I think about it, the first hip-hop-country record isn’t mine. It’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” by Charlie Daniels. I used to go back and forth between that and rap – they was both rhyming, and it’s all poetry.
Musically, neither of your albums really follows trends in hip-hop.
I’ve always wanted to be known as an artist that pushed the envelope. In high school I played in a jazz band. I played guitar and upright bass. In high school I played in a rock band. I’m a real musical cat. In hip-hop, you limited. My position is “ecleftic”: I have to bridge. I have to get Bono. This is the only way things are gonna go. The future is fusion. When people pick this album up, they’re going to get their money’s worth. It’s a CD that people will put on no matter what they doing – barbecues, bar mitzvahs, barbershops – anywhere. Throw on the Ecleftic, you’ll have a good time. It’s a good college-dorm CD. Good shit to have up there while you’re studying.
Studying? Don’t you mean passing bongs?
Yeah, yeah, that too.
Who do you still want to work with?
Stevie Wonder, Prince, Aerosmith – and I love Guns n’ Roses. I don’t know what happened to them. What happened? I could definitely convo with Axl.
I hear you’d like to get into movies.
People been asking me, but I want to play Shakespeare – I don’t want to play a drug dealer. Why can’t a black man play Shakespeare? Or they could’ve put me on the Titanic. You know, the only black couple on the Titanic was Haitian. I would have done that role. I could have just run by. I could’ve been a musician. I could have slid down the deck into the ocean. Any of that.
How have you changed in the last few years?
I haven’t. This industry thing, you pay a price. For fame and fortune, there comes a price. You gotta really stay sane. I’m always out, man. You’ll see me just walking through Manhattan, just chillin’. You’ll see me up in any hood. People won’t think it’s me. I’ve seen girls going, “That ain’t him. Why he walking out here?” But it’s always good to feel people on the real. I used to work at McDonald’s, I was a waiter, I used to clean bathrooms. You ain’t going to get realer than me. I’ve kept the same mentality. Once I lose it, I won’t have nothing to talk about. And the music will be bland. We’ll be talking about ice and different planets.