Wyclef Jean – Fugees
Wyclef Jean is a Haitian musician whose band, the Fugees, hit it big in the mid-1990s with ‘The Score.’
Wyclef Jean was born Nel Ust Wyclef Jean on October 17, 1969, in the small town of Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Jean was one of four children — three sons and a daughter — born to pastor Gesner Jean and his wife, Yolanda.
Wyclef, who spoke only Haitian French when he entered the States, quickly learned English from listening to rap music. Music soon became one of Wyclef’s chief interests; his mother sensed his talent early, and gave him a guitar as a gift in the hope of keeping him away from the local gang activity.
In his early teens, Jean and his family moved to Newark, New Jersey, so that Gesner Jean could assume a post at the city’s Good Shepherd Church of the Nazarene. At Newark’s Vailsburg High School, Wyclef stayed focused on his passion for music. He majored in jazz, studied the music business and learned to play more than 15 instruments.
Along with his cousin, Prakazrel “Pras” Michel, and friend Lauryn Hill, Jean also started experimenting with hip hop. In order to afford studio time to record their original compositions, Jean worked at a local McDonald’s.
Jean’s talent came to the attention of music executives and, while he was still a minor, he was offered a recording contract. But the deal fell through, because Jean’s father refused to condone his musical tastes. “When I’d come back from the studio, I’d get a whipping from my dad, ’cause I was playing devil’s music,” Jean later told Rolling Stone magazine.
Instead, Jean and Michel played for Vailsburg High School’s swing choir and formed a rap group called Exact Change, which rapped their positive message in six languages. Changing their name to Tranzlator Crew, they were signed to Columbia Records in 1992. After a legal dispute with another band named Translator, the group renamed themselves the Fugees, a shortened version of the word “refugees.” Their debut album, Blunted on Reality (1994) had been in label limbo since 1992 and failed to capture the public’s imagination. The label’s decision to bring in the producer Salaam Remi to remix the singles “Nappy Heads” and “Vocab” was a masterstroke. He smoothed out their rugged sound and set the template for their breakthrough follow-up album.
‘The Score’ Reaches International Success
It was their second and final album, The Score (1996), which catapulted the Fugees to international success. The Score was certified six times platinum in the United States, with worldwide sales totalling 17 million. The single “Killing Me Softly,” a remake of Roberta Flack’s 1970s hit, stayed at the top of the R&B singles chart for seven months, while “Fu-Gee-La” and “Ready or Not” were also hits. Critics were very kind to a group whose debut they had mostly ignored. Spin gave the album 9 out of 10 and raved that “organic interaction is the hallmark of this album.” Two Grammy wins followed in 1997.
The Fugees continued recording together, but they also began to work on solo projects. The group would never record another album, touring the world but eventually splitting due to personal issues.
Jean released and produced his album The Carnival in 1997, which explored the musical gamut, including a mix of Creole, salsa, reggae, Afro-Cuban, R&B, funk, rap and orchestral selections. The platinum-selling solo album received rave reviews from critics and was a smash-hit in Haiti. The singles “We Trying to Stay Alive” and “Gone Till November” were also successful.
February 2017 saw the release of an EP, J’ouvert, intended to act as a teaser for his forthcoming The Carnival Vol. III album.
Away from music, Jean has made a concerted effort to represent the diaspora he hails from. However, it hasn’t always gone smoothly. The Yele Haiti charity he established in 2001 folded in 2012. Attempts to raise money for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake ended up in the courts and the charity was criticised for repeatedly failing to file tax returns. An investigation concluded that vast amounts of money raised through the charity had gone to Jean and his entourage for travel expenses.
In 2010, Jean announced he’d be running for president of Haiti in that year’s election. However, his candidacy was refused as he hadn’t been a resident in Haiti for the five prior years.
02:42 Brian’s thoughts on the episode.
05:39 Brian’s introduction.
06:26 Wyclef’s relationship with the city of Paris and its influence on his birthplace of Haiti.
10:49 Voodoo is not as scary as Hollywood depicts it.
13:48 How musical vibration evokes a connection.
18:07 Wyclef describes how a visitor should experience Haiti.
24:03 Musical influences absorbed from an early age.
28:29 The culture shock upon arrival in Brooklyn.
34:50 Wyclef goes deep about tough reality of life in Marlboro Projects, Coney Island.
51:10 A move to South Orange and Newark, New Jersey, with its car crime culture.
55:32 Music development in a basement with Lauryn Hill.
1:05:13 Wyclef discloses something no-one knows.
1:10:03 A record label signs up the Fugees.
1:13:30 Music business tougher than the streets. Observing, learning, developing, finally making it big.
1:30:20 Success brings its own problems for artists.
1:39:53 Formation of Yéle Haiti.
1:52:37 How Yéle Haiti ceased.
2:11:32 Decision to run for President of Haiti.
2:24:03 Wyclef describes what he witnessed in earthquake aftermath.
2:29:20 New Carnival III record change of title from Road to Clefication to The Fall and the Rise.
2:33:54 Why Wyclef likes to be both mentor and mentee with new young artists.
2:36:14 How the music scene has changed since release of 1997 Carnival I to 2017 Carnival III.
2:39:03 How Wyclef’s daughter has change his life.
2:46:15 Concern for current world turmoil.
2:51:19 Telephone call to the twenty year old Wyclef.
2:52:02 Success secrets.
2:52:46 Why Wyclef believes that both our birth and death are a gift.
2:54:30 What is music?
2:56:27 Are we all one as humans, one big organism?
2:58:58 Brian’s summing up.
Wyclef Jean links:
Wyclef Jean website
Wyclef Jean on Twitter
Wyclef Jean on YouTube
Wyclef Jean on Facebook
Wyclef Jean on Instagram
Wyclef Jean on Wikipedia
Wyclef Jean Books:
Wyclef Jean Music:
Blunted on Reality
Africali – Out of the Jungle
Live and Let Die (film)
Canibus Performing 2nd round knockout with a lion on stage
Ne me quitte pas
New Jersey Drive (film)
Fresh (Kool and the Gang song)
Killing me softly – Fugees
Big Beat Records
Amy (documentary film)
Ready or Not (Fugees song)
The Wall (Album by Pink Floyd)
Ghosts of Cité Soleil
For Whom the Dogs Spy by Raymond Joseph
People mentioned in this episode:
Sir Mick Jagger