If you let the last few years tell it, Wyclef Jean is known for everything but music. In 2010, he declared himself a nominee for president of his home country of Haiti, though the country’s Provisional Electoral Council ruled him ineligible for office. He also suffered backlash when media outlets reported that his charitable organization, Yéle Haiti, was mismanaging funds, benefitting him personally instead of raising money for relief of the country’s devastating earthquake in 2010. And earlier this year, he teamed up with the tech company Creative Labs to create Heads Audio, a new headphone company that has audio technology that he calls Super Stereo.
But this summer, Wyclef is getting back to the reason we know about him in the first place. On a sunny June afternoon, he welcomed friends and media to a beachfront property in the Hamptons in New York for a day-long retreat that included an early listen of The Carnival III, the third piece of a trilogy that began with his canonical 1997 debut The Carnival. “This is the closest we could get to the Caribbean,” he joked, greeting attendees. Each attendee was given a pair of headphones to listen to the new album on a temporary link. The record is as diverse as the musical palette that he has tapped into over the years: the Caribbean influences that helped make him a household name, pop charts, with the same type of multifaceted guest list (Pusha-T, Joey Bada$$, Sauce Money, Emeli Sandé, Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates) that made the first album such an adventure. A few hours before he joined a live band to perform for guests, he took a seat with HipHopDX to discuss how he plans to make Carnival III stand with opuses by Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, the 20th anniversary of The Fugees’ The Score, and the controversy behind Yéle Haiti.
Sequels always bring a different amount of pressure and expectation. What made you decide to make this Carnival III, instead of just another Wyclef record?
There are kids who don’t know about The Carnival. For my daughter, the word ‘carnival’ is just a form of eclectic. They’re either going on a ride, they’re going somewhere, or they’re going to the Caribbean. To me, the sonics and everything that’s coming out in this one feels like another travel. When I did the Carnival one, it was a lot of travel and a lot of moving around. It was an experience, you could feel it. As I was laying this down and penning it, the experiences and all part of the world, going through and coming back, it feels like the road back to “Clefication.” All of the roads lead back to music. Sonically, that’s what it started to sound like.
I’m a big fan of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Bob Marley’s Exodus, Santana’s Supernatural, Wyclef The Road Back to Clefication. Just experiences, the human factor. All I was trying to convey with this album, is that we need to get back to love. The whole theme of the album. Whether we’re on the streets, or we’re into politics, or it’s a new job we’re trying to get, the message is just raw love is lost. Beloved kinship. What happened to love? Love overrules all. Whether you’re on the block, where there’s one set of this to one set of that. Love can solve that problem like a simple dialogue, but sometimes, because we don’t have that dialogue, we all lose. Like the song Hendrix [says], everybody loses. Only person that makes money is the funeral parlor.
A carnival is a wonderful thing. It makes you want to dance, it makes you want to have a good time. But at the same time, it’s dangerous too. There’s danger in the carnival. Everything that glitter ain’t gold. But that love barrier can always protect you.
So it sounds like this was definitely impacted by the presidential election, police brutality…
You can hear everything. Marvin Gaye had What’s Going On, Bob Marley had Exodus, I have this. It’s an album, so people forgot what it was like to listen to an album. Three joints be good, so they flicker and flicker and listen to it. I believe in the idea of still painting a story. That story, when you listen to Carnival III, it’s like modern day. Anything you see. We talk about everything: from politics, to what’s going on with the police, to how can we get back to love, to relationships. It can get dark sometimes, but we get back to the light. It’s a celebration of life when you get that album.
You take your time between albums, but these past few years, I think people have associated you with everything but music. Your run for president, and charity stuff. I’m sure you’re always creating, but how does it feel to finally be back in the process of that album cycle?
It’s great, because people have therapists they go to, they have psychiatrists. I just have music. That’s my safe haven, that’s the refuge, that’s what I put everything into. Sometimes if you feel a certain way, you can’t cry. It takes a lot for me to cry in public. I did it when the earthquake happened. But with music, you can. With music you can laugh, with music you can have joy. So to be able to be in that space again, and get an hour of your time just to listen, I think that’s incredible. I look up to people like Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Mandela, I met him and spent time with him. I have a very different DNA on how I see things. I ain’t the rapper that’s going to rap about it and it don’t come to life. I tell the dude, there’s no greater gangsta to say you want to be president of a country, you actually roll out to go do that, and they have to come up with a fake law to take you out because you’ve figured out the whole plan and built the whole structure from the ground on up. Some dudes with that mentality use it in a criminal form. I grew up with them too. So to be able to have that safe haven, like I said on ‘Hendrix,’ when he bought me that guitar, because no matter what they was doing, they’d say ‘your place is this music.’ It always goes back to the music. So for me to take time and not to paste something together, my music is never based on stunts. It’s never based on, ‘oh it’s time, let me put out an album.’
… If you paid attention to the music sonically, what you’re hearing on your headphones at times, you’ll hear different sounds, at times you have to catch yourself. Moving your ears certain ways, like, ‘did I just hear this? An airplane just flew over my head.’ You’re listening to it, and it’s a software that I’ve invented. Everything is stereo. Heads Audio, we’re creating the next version of stereo, it’s called Super Stereo. What you’re listening to right now is two percent of Super Stereo. If you notice, it’s moving like surround sound, but it’s not surround because you’re only listening to two [speakers]. So for me, when we’re in the studio, we want to mix it and give the user [that experience]. The virtual experience; the VR experience, you’re going to be able to get it through audio. For me, it pushes the limit. Hip Hop is so theatrical, it’s so movie-like. I feel like it could go through another software to give the user the experience, like color TV goes to HD. Ever since I did The Score, I’ve been tripping people’s heads out. I remember in the basement, I’ll have you look left and I’ll have you look right. I’m excited because it’s not just the music, it’s the invention of the software.
And then, a lot of new artists that y’all don’t even know. To me sometimes, an album relative today it’s just based on hype because you get it and you just look at the names that you’re supposed to know. So an artist thinks, “this is what makes an album interesting.” So the idea of taking your time, building an art, making something pure, and then you’re like, “OK, if I’m going to do remixes, I’m going to throw panda on this.” But even when them niggas hear it, they have to be inspired by what you naturally do.
Photo: Heads Music
?The idea that the youth that supported Bernie Sanders is going to support Donald Trump, I don’t know where they got that bullshit rhetoric from, it’s not going to happen.” — Wyclef Jean
Recently, a lot of Caribbean sounds have made their way into pop music a lot more than before. Have you noticed that as well?
Definitely, it’s the era of The Carnival. What I was doing on the album in 1997, that’s what everyone is doing right now. If you go back to 1997, that Carnival with all of the calypso and all of those rhythms, that’s it. The DJs are heavily influenced by that. But at the same time, I want to see more artists evolve from the Caribbean and eat from that because it’s definitely a sound that’s part of their sounds. That’s part of us. When I do that kind of stuff, I’ll usually reach out to different people from the Caribbean – whether it’s Beenie Man or Bounty Killa, I always make sure that the culture, I pay total respect to it. As different people eat from the sound, T.I.’s important, pull some of the old legends back. I’m talking about the pioneers of that sound right now, that’s probably in the hills of Jamaica, and have them participate. That would probably mean a lot to them.
But on your end, does that make you want to do more of it? Or does it make you want to drift away from it since everyone else is doing it?
It’s naturally part of my DNA. The way I sing is a Caribbean thing. So I can’t move away from what I am, it’d be hard to. I’m from the Caribbean, sonics are going to sound like that. But I push the envelope differently.
On this album, you also don’t run away from the bars. You have a song with Pusha T, a song with Sauce Money. With all the sounds and influences you have, are your Hip Hop roots still important to you?
I go out and find those guys that people missed out on. Sauce was rolling with Roc-A-Fella, he wrote the Biggie tribute for Puff. And when my little cousins hear it, they’re like, ‘yo unc, is that Nas?’ I’m like nah, it’s this dude named Sauce Money. …
Once again, if you want to out-bar me, just look at me online, see whatever show I’m doing, and just show up and be like, ‘Clef, I want to go at you right now. I want to out-bar you.’ Barring is important because, remember back in the day with karate movies, if you thought you had the best school for kung-fu, another student would come from another teacher…and you’d go at it. Barring for me is something natural. The Fugees come up with this. This is our original forms of Hip Hop, battle rap. I’m heavy from that culture, I was a battle rapper in high school, the best at it. Barring is poetry. For me, that’s always the essence. Maybe because I can still bar with the best of them. Because of my singing, and I play seven instruments, sometimes that gets lost. Once in a while, a nigga will step out of his lane and want to battle another singing nigga, and this is what happens. To me, barring is one of the best forms of culture that we have; that, battling, break dancing, and graffiti.
It’s the 20th anniversary of The Score, so I also had a few questions about that. What made you approach the songs as you having two verses while Lauryn and Pras each had one?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think that I calculated it like that. In the heat of the moment, you’re doing it. To the Fugees, I was what RZA was to Wu-Tang. In doing that, I always thought of the bottom line to it, what was the best way to get to the finished product?
To those analytics, let’s start with “How Many Mics.” The way I heard it, when Lauryn started going, I was like, ‘yo, she can’t stop. If this is going to be a 64-bar record, it’s going to be 64 bars, because we can’t cut nothing from what she’s saying.’ So if you notice that one, my verse is shorter, Pras’ verse is shorter, and then that ends. When you take a song like “Ready or Not,” while I was doing that, I started it out in the Booga basement, I was in a small room with an MP. I just watched a movie called Sleepwalker, and I looped Enya (their song “Boadicea”), that was the sample, and some speed drums. Lauryn came in and said, ‘What’s that?” I said, “just catching a vibe.” She started like, “ready or not, here I come.” That hook to me was so big, it felt like it had to be verse, verse, verse. Some of the stuff, the reason why I took two verses, is because it was two different personalities. We had one, which was the calm Clef, like on “The Beast.” Then you have the other one. Like Busta Rhymes, I have a lot of voices with the animation. So I wasn’t thinking, “I’m about to do two verses.” I was thinking, “I’m about to do two characters.” This character is going to be needed for the anchor.
Where do you rank The Score and The Carnival in all-time lists as far as the skits?
I think they’re definitely up there. (For this album) my man Talent, the comedian who did the Chinese voiceover for me, I called him like, “Yo, I need something.’ We’re definitely going to do something. It definitely ranks up there, The Score and The Carnival. Those are audio classic skits and words. I remember people were smoking weed just playing the skits. [Laughs] Like it was a film. That’s just where we come from, in trying to paint a picture of the hood. We know motherfuckers that like what we’re doing.
Wyclef, Pras and Lauryn set a standard for a constituent of a 5.0-rated album in 1996.
You also dissed Donald Trump on stage recently–
Not once! Many times. I don’t think it’s a diss. I was voicing a political opinion. The same way I could voice a political opinion on Hillary. At the end of the day, I respect Bernie Sanders. I thought he had a movement and the revolution of the idea that the youth could take back the country in a nonviolent way. Don’t just let me be president and say there’s going to be a change, but challenge the mayors. We can all do it together, but y’all gotta stick with me. I believe in that ideology. I wouldn’t be in this country, my parents wouldn’t be in this country (if immigrants weren’t allowed in). So the rhetoric of religion, or my Hispanic brothers and sisters (being kept out by Trump’s wall), I just can’t endorse. That’s me voicing a political opinion. When people hear it, I don’t want them to…I’m someone who can challenge the policies of Donald Trump, not in an emotional way. When he’s talking about trade policies and all that, and he’s going to build a wall for Mexico, and that with his system of immigration, how he’s going to deport people to what he’s talking about, terrorism for dudes born in America. At this point, if you notice, his own party is like, “this is not a good move,” and they’re all trying to slowly divorce him. And he’s like, “I actually don’t need the party, I can just do this by myself.” For him, it’s a word. For someone else, this is how they’re going to send their kids to school. This is how they’re going to take care of their healthcare, this is how they’re going to protect their country. In that sense, it’s my political point of view. The youth is very serious with that. And the idea that the youth that supported Bernie Sanders is going to support Donald Trump, I don’t know where they got that bullshit rhetoric from, it’s not going to happen.
You also got backlash over Yéle Haiti, regarding how funds were used in helping citizens after the earthquake. How would you respond to people who upset about that?
You’re always going to have that, right? It’s all online, but when you read it you can read one fact of the information, or read all of the information. They said Red Cross built six houses but raised over a billion dollars. It’s online, but no one wants to read that. I spoke on Oprah’s show. I was clear on Oprah and I stated what it was. I clearly feel like I was a patsy for a bigger situation: y’all don’t know who the Red Cross is, y’all don’t know who UNICEF is, y’all don’t see their faces. Apparently, those aren’t who people want to talk to. People want to take a celebrity, pin them down, and then see what happens. As you can see, they tried to proceed with what I call a modern-day lynching. But it didn’t work because what I’m doing is pure, it’s clean, and it will always be that. If a black man decides to hold his flag up at the Grammys and say he reps Haiti, it’s cool, as long as you sing, dance and sell liquor and sell clothes, it’s all good. The moment you say that you’re going to empower your people? … We stated very clear, was there some errors in the foundation. We stated what the errors were. But the foul play of why Clef would go ahead and take $16 million, that’s ludicrous. It makes no sense, on many fronts. But those that are very highly attuned, and inclined, and understand how politics work, if they want to have that awareness, they’ll fully understand. It does not discourage us from what we’re doing in Haiti, it doesn’t stop me one bit. You’ll see that after that, I still ran for president of my country, and I still was going to win by the popular vote. They still removed me. I continued to rock, and to be one of the strongest zones in the world, and I’ll continue to do that.