There’s an unexpected moment in this wide-ranging interview with Wyclef Jean. Before describing the investment needed to make his ravished homeland (Haiti) “fly like Jamaica” and the Dominican Republic, and after detailing the golden microphone that helped secure his first Battle Rap victory—The Preacher’s Son explains why he’s releasing his mixtape “April Showers.”
“For me, it’s important that before I go on my next journey musically of building my new record company [All Handz On Deck], that I take it to the essence,” Clef told HipHopDX exclusively in his Midtown Manhattan recording studio. He continued:
“I want a 15-year-old to know what I used to do. It’s important, ‘cause if he sees me running for president, then he hears “April Showers“ and he sees me spitting, he’s looking at this interview like, ‘I didn’t know! I didn’t know what Wyclef did. I thought the guy ran for president and he sang with Shakira [on] ‘Hips Don’t Lie.’ Wow, you mean he’s from Hip Hop? You mean he be rapping like that?’ Then all of a sudden, it’s gonna give the youth a whole ‘nother energy that I need them to ride with. That’s why we’re putting out “April Showers.”
There isn’t much Wyclef hasn’t experienced during his transformative foray through Hip Hop history. Away from the Grammy victories and classic albums; away from the platinum plaques, heartaches and accolades—the Haitian-native’s musical repertoire somewhat served as the prototype for the post-Love Below industry landscape.
Andre 3000’s seminal half of Outkast’s diamond selling masterpiece, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is often credited as the lynchpin for rappers to start singing shamelessly. Clef’s been singing on wax since before his rendition of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” on The Fugees’ The Score. He’s been playing strings since way before his cameo appearance in Rakim’s video for “Don’t Sweat The Technique.” He’s always been progressive; always been lyrically sharp.
So—on face value—it’s a bit unexpected hearing one of the Golden Era’s most genre breaking emcees describe his label-launching return as a means to reach the teens. But since 1994’s Blunted On Reality, on or off wax, fortunately Clef has never embodied the predictable.
Wyclef Recalls His Battle Rap Origins
HipHopDX: Everyone knows about your time with the Fugees and your subsequent solo work. What can you tell us about the early days of Wyclef and your Hip Hop origins?
Wyclef: I went to Vailsburg High School [in Newark, New Jersey] and every lunch period, it would go down—there would be a battle. Like the same way you see [in] the 8 Mile movie. It would go down like that, so for us…it wasn’t like we could sit there and play video games and entertain [ourselves]. The only entertainment that we was gonna have in that school that day [was a Rap battle], because it wasn’t like we had the best track team or the best basketball team. [A battle was] the only thing we looked forward to that lunch period; [it] was like watching Channel 5 karate.
We was living this; we was breathing this, and then when we went home everybody was thinking how they are gonna outsmart the next guy lyrically the next day. We went home and did our homework. And sorry, it was not the school work we was doing. We was trying to put all these words together to see what would happen the next day. Basically, I called my school like the Hip Hop version of Fame. You could be in homeroom and some dude would just appear in your homeroom while the teacher was [there], and he’s like, “Yo, I’m trying to do this right now, man. We’ve got to settle the score.” And it’s not a fight—it’s a Shakespearean war of words going back and forth. It’s as intense as a sword fight, because if you lost, you felt dead. All you know is, if you are in that cafeteria every day, one day out of those four years, you will be called out. You don’t know when it’s gonna be, so every day you home getting stuff ready.
DX: So these were the early days in New Jersey?
Wyclef: We [my family and I] was living on 1108 South Orange Avenue [in Newark, NJ], which was funeral home. Dudes know my story. Some people know it, and we talk about Haiti and me coming from a hut. What do y’all know about living in the projects and I’m living in a funeral home on 1108 South Orange Avenue? My dad was like, “Yo, we’re gonna take this funeral home, and we’re going to convert it. We’re going to turn it into a church. That’s what God told me to do.” We can’t argue with my dad…he’s got a big belt and he’s West Indian. So inside of this funeral home, he would do his [church] services. When Monday comes, I would sneak into the church and take the microphone. Everyone who knows me knows this. I would take the microphone, and it looked like a gold microphone that my dad used to preach with, and I would put it in my suitcase [for school]. So every day I’d get to school in the cafeteria, I’d have my microphone in my suitcase. And I’m hoping one day, somebody could call me out so I can be a part of being like the number one challengers to be in the ring.
One day, my day did come. Dude looked at me, and he was like, “Yo, something-something-something, I’m yente-yente / He look like that guy they call Kunta Kinte…” And I was like, “Yes, finally!” And you know, Hip Hop is all about drama. So the minute the dude says that, I have my briefcase. And then I push the two buttons and then it popped open. Now, I know I’ve got the kids’ [attention], because theater plays a lot with Hip Hop. Real Hip Hop back in the day, your theater game had to be crazy. I lifted [the briefcase] up, pull my gold microphone out, and the kids are in awe. They’re like, “Yo, this dude pulled the gold mic out! Let’s see what comes out of his mouth!” And I knew I had the school on smash right now ‘cause I got this gold mic. There’s nothing plugged on it. It’s just the theater of the mic, fam. I start to go in, and it’s my first time going in at Vailsburg High School. I’m going in against a senior, and the battle lasted for an hour.
He was saying in Spanish he learned this, and in French he learned this. But the battle started getting sticky, because now I started flipping the languages. I was a big fan of Reggae music, and at this school, I know nobody was listening to Reggae music at the time. So now, I close this dude in 50 minutes into the battle with this Reggae speed rap that I learned. Man, I went in! Now, if I was to slow that down, “Jah man, me cool, me stubborn like mule / Me walk ‘pon street, me walk ‘pon fools / Say ripe on dunce, the mic’s my tool / Eat ‘pon table, sit ‘pon stool…” But the speed of them hearing [the verse]….there’s something about a battle when it’s over because the crowd can’t take it no more, and everyone goes, “Oh!” and everyone just runs. That’s when you know it’s over. Once dudes heard that speed rap, they said, “Yo, I don’t know what the fuck that nigga just said, but you see how fast his tongue was going? That shit’s over.”
DX: So did you ever lose with that routine?
Wyclef: The only battle I lost, I’ll always remember this kid’s name. His name was Abdullah. They were like, “Yo Clef, this kid said you’re a sucker, and he’s saying you’ve been living all this time off this hype [and] you’re not really that good.” I said, “What?!” I’m the king [of the battle scene] at that time, I said, “Bring this dude!” They said, “No, the kid agreed to 3:30 after school.” So I’m walking, and you’d think it’s a fight, that’s how big the crowd is. And Abdullah’s standing right there.
I’m going into the routine, and I’m killing it. I just remember after I did all my speed rap and everything’s going real well. Abdullah let me do my speed rap. And I try to finish him off, closing him with a freestyle, and then he looks at me and he says, “You being in The Twilight Zone / ‘Cause everybody here knows that you live in a funeral home.” Oh my God. The crowd dispersed immediately, because nobody knew that I lived in a funeral home. We was like “The Addams Family.” I used to watch from my window…watch the kids go to school, let everybody move out, then me and my brothers [and sister] would go out. We would jump the fence on the other side. So it was always like, “Who the fuck lives in that house?” Real talk! This was Jersey for real! Y’all know what it is, and y’all didn’t know who lived in the funeral home in the beginning.
Once Abdullah exposed me now, it was like, “Okay, now I lived in the funeral home.” But this, sort of like, you see this smile on my face and I glared and looked back, because we wasn’t banging. So it wasn’t like it was some drive-by [situation] in the hood, but it was like that, just with lyrics.
Yele Haiti & Wyclef’s Aborted Haitian Presidential Run
DX: So ‘Clef clearly has B-Boy origins before the Grammys and hits. Yet you’re about to drop a mixtape. How does this April Showers project play into everything that’s been going on with you over the last few years?
Wyclef: I would like this mixtape [“April Showers“], the sonics of it, to go back to Hip Hop. All I meant by that was after everything that I’ve been through, I’m that dude in ‘96 who takes a Haitian flag and put it on my back and I appear at the Grammys. The next day, every Haitian’s wearing a flag on their head. So it hurt me when all of the controversy was around me. I was expecting four or five million Haitians to stand up, masked up like, “Yo, you ain’t gonna do nothing to him because he’s watching us.”
DX: How’d you feel about the backlash towards Yele Haiti and your run for the presidency?
Wyclef: When I have to go from picking up bodies on the ground, physically… Me—this camouflage ain’t no joke—picking up dead bodies off the ground, to the next day having to defend myself. I’m looking back like, “Yo, where all my peeps at? I made all of them get the Haitian flag and put it on them. Where they at?” And they’re like, “Maybe the nigga did take the money. Maybe the nigga did done that.” And I’m like, damn, did anybody read Marcus Garvey? I’m like, “What happened? Where’s the Garveyites?” If you read the Garveyites, you would understand what I went through, and you would understand why I had to go through it.
Fam, I ain’t gonna lie to you. The stuff that, a lot of the negativ[ity] that was coming, a lot of it was coming from my own people. They’re like, “What the Hell you think you can be president for, buddy? What, you study political science?” I’m like, are they they looking to see the president of Brazil [Dilma Rousseff]? Like, are they really doing history to really see what it takes for you to be president?
DX: It got pretty ugly for a minute, especially with all the Illuminati talk…
Wyclef: It’s real simple: if you are a man and you have something to say, and you’re going to mess with a structure which was created thousands of years before you, and your policy and your agenda ain’t in the concept of what’s created for the Earth, which [existed] long before us, B? I’m looking at y’all lying, talking about the Illuminati and y’all talking about Masons. Do y’all really know what y’all saying, or are y’all just talking? The Devil’s greatest illusion is to have y’all think he don’t exist. When y’all talk about the Illuminati or y’all talk about Masons or y’all talk about all of these concepts, information that you know is not mystery. It’s common information y’all are talking about.
Now let me take y’all somewhere else: Before all of us even came to be—I’m saying you, me, our parents, their parents—did anybody know we were part of a slave trade? Like, y’all forgot about that? And I ain’t just talking about Black people. Be careful! Black people did not start the world slave trade. Black people became slaves later, be careful. So, if we come from that structure that means there’s a world agenda, which goes around. It’s not a Black thing. Kennedy was not part of the world agenda. Ghandi was not part of the world agenda.
DX: So it was bigger than just the politics we saw on the surface?
Wyclef: If it was a political move that I was doing, then it would have been a group of people in a room who advised me. They’d say, “Man, you want to get into politics? You want to start a foundation, man? Don’t make it no NGO, because there’s a certain structure and that’s how things go.” But for me, I learned from that. After a man goes through all of that, and someone says you gotta live in your country for five years and a bogus law is created for me, and then, you in the West go, “Man, well, he had to be in the country for five years.” Anybody picked up the goddamn Haitian constitution? Anybody say, “Wasn’t he a diplomat five years prior to that with a diplomatic passport in his hand? Who gave him that?”
When I look at my history in my country, I’m always flagged up 100%. So even when they don’t like me, their kids like me. Because when I look at the history, Jean Jacques Dessalines [leader of the Haitian Revolution], who was one of our leaders, [died] on October 17, . They chopped him up, he gave the Haitians their independence, [and] the Haitians chopped him up. And a lady came on the street and started putting his body back together. Y’all chopped him up on October 17? I was born on October 17.
Haiti’s Reconstruction And Wyclef’s Ultimate Legacy
For me, it’s important that before I go on my next journey musically of building my new record company [All Handz On Deck], that I take it to the essence. I want a 15-year-old to know what I used to do. It’s important, ‘cause if he sees me running for president, then he hears “April Showers“ and he sees me spitting, he’s looking at this interview like, “I didn’t know! I didn’t know what Wyclef did. I thought the guy ran for president and he sang with Shakira [on] ‘Hips Don’t Lie.’ Wow, you mean he’s from Hip Hop? You mean he be rapping like that?” Then all of a sudden, it’s gonna give the youth a whole ‘nother energy that I need them to ride with. That’s why we’re putting out “April Showers.”
I ran for president because I felt there was an emergency and an urgency. And I knew that the youth would follow me. I knew I’m no punk; I am no punk. I would die for my country in two seconds, and they know that. I was like, man, a reconstruction of a country through…billions of dollars of funds coming in through the structure, we can employ a lot of the youth. I want my country to be fly like Jamaica. I want my country to be fly like Hispanola, which is part of Haiti, or the [Dominican Republic] where you go and party and have a good time. In order for me to do that, I will [need to] take my success to another level in the next seven years. And before my eyes close, I want to see high rises in my country, and want to look back and say, “I put that university up myself.”
DX: Given those aspirations and what happened with your aborted presidential run, can you and the Haitian government coexist?
Wyclef: I think for me, I can work with good government. Michel Marteily is the president right now. Anybody can say whatever they want, ‘cause once you decide you’re going to put yourself in a political situation, then you’ve got to be ready for the task. But I’ll tell you one thing, since [Marteily’s] been president, I haven’t seen Haiti on the news where it’s like, the youth has been running around with guns in the middle of Port-au-Prince going, “Pow-pow-pow-pow,” cowboy city. The first key to president for me: To establish political stability.
I look forward to working with government, but I think one of the things that Haiti needs is investment. When you show me a poster, and your say, “Please help the kids of Haiti, they need food,” but when you come to my country after you put up that poster and say they need food, you go to the orphanage and give them food. Then, Friday-Saturday-Sunday, you’re on the beach in my country—the white beaches with the blue water—and you’re eating crab. You’re jumping in the ocean. Matter of fact, motherfucker, you’re not jumping, you’re having a Haitian jump in the ocean ‘cause your ass can’t swim that deep [laughs]. Y’all know I’m talking real shit right now. They Haitian jumps, swim under the shit, pull up conch and come up with that nice conch. You fry the conch, throw some lemon [on it] nice, then y’all come back to America and say, “Yo, the country’s so bad, please help the Haitian people.”
Why don’t you keep it real: Yes we have poverty. Say that, but at the same time, these people have pretty beaches, and why don’t some people go invest in that country, ‘cause it could be a beautiful place. That’s all I want to see, man.