Wyclef Jean spoke with Okayplayer from his Los Angeles Carnival Tour stop about educating and inspiring the next generation, plus the brilliance of Kodak Black.
Wyclef Jean will forever have a place in hip-hop. As a former member of the group The Fugees and responsible for one of the most timeless rap albums of all-time, The Score, the Haitian rapper shows no signs of slowing down.
Loud and proud at 48-years-old, Wyclef has no problem being the bridge between the youth and the old heads. In fact, he thrives off it. Working with the likes of Young Thug, DJ Khaled, and Kodak Black of the newer generation, Wyclef decides to give back to the community in the best way possible.
With a new album in the works, Wyclef embarks on a journey to do what no artist has ever done before: scouting students for features across colleges all around the States. If there’s one thing Wyclef knows, it’s talent. Following the footsteps of his idol Quincy Jones, Jean is ready to effortlessly inspire generations to come.
Touching down in Los Angeles for his Carnival Tour, a fresh-faced Wyclef steps down from the stage after a successful soundcheck. Whether he’s taking on the role as a rapper, musician, producer, actor, or politician, there’s no doubt Wyclef will be shaking things up in the new year.
Okayplayer: I love the concept of recruiting students for your new project Wyclef Goes Back to School. What was your biggest inspiration behind the project, and how does it relate to your own musical journey?
Wyclef Jean: It relates to my journey because I came from Haiti when I was 10-years-old, couldn’t speak no English. And so by the time that I was 17-years-old, I was the leader of the jazz band. So think about you coming from Haiti—like a small village, no nothing—and I’m competing at seven-years-old. My first plane ride was to Pasadena, California and a jazz competition. So I always believe there’s something about that last year of high school, that first-year college. Then I went to a small college called Five Towns College for music. And I set up a campus dorm, a band. So when we show up in the the grass, it’s like 3,000 to 4,000 people. And people were like “Yo.” So, for me, the pulse of discovery is two ways.
We’re in a modern generation where there’s a few leaders that are from my era that are left, that are relevant. So it’s like Jay-Z is a leader, Puff [Daddy] is a leader; Khaled is a leader, I’m a leader. And then everyone takes a direction. So me, I’m a music man. And what that means is… my idol is Quincy Jones. I read sheet music. I do all that. And for me discovery has always been there. I met Lauryn [Hill] when she was 14 and started putting her on tracks. I met Beyoncé when she was like 16, and then, you know, I gave them their first hit, “No, No, No”. For me, growing up, there’s two sides to the talent. I feel like the TV show and all that area, that’s one side. But then, the other side is the discovery side and to really give focus on the raw. ‘Oh, this person just had five views on YouTube?’ But guess what? They on iTunes right now, and they name is Moira Mack. They went to USC, and they’re going to blow it up tonight.
For me, I believe still in that idea of discovery. This is what inspired the idea of Wyclef Goes Back to School. And also, I’m from a generation coming from the hardware, where the physicality of everything had to be there. After I ran for president and I came back, everything was changed so it was all converted to software. The first school I went to was Avicii’s school in Sweden, you know what I’m saying? I learned the technology. So all of the kids that I’ve worked with from Young Thug to Kodak Black, I just felt like as much as they felt like they were getting out of me, I felt like I was getting the same out of them. It was like a “back to school” moment.
OKP: Talk about recruiting the 20-year-old student, Moira Mack, for your latest single.
WJ: So as we go through this journey, there’s a lot of discovery that’s going to happen. I featured Moira Mack on stage while I performed. We have another tour that we do with an orchestra. It’s a Live Nation event called The Hip-Hop Symphonics. So I was looking for a certain style of vocalist that can sing the symphony. I do a whole 20 years catalog. We start in the ‘90s and we finish in 2018. And this vocalist that we just discovered from the school was able to sing everything from Lauryn [Hill] to Mary J. [Blige] — everything.
Barely 20-something and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ So what we did was, we sprinkled her on the “Sak Kap Fet” song. She’s the one doing the ad-libs. I’m excited because the kids are going to get my style of the production and fuse that with what they do. So she’s on that. It’s a lot of crazy discovery going on, like Rachel. Rachel, we went to her school — and I don’t know if I should mess up the surprise for you tonight — but the beautiful thing about Heads Music and an all-independent women’s label — is the way that Madeline Nelson runs it. It is kind of unique because all of these kids have incredible talent, like some want to sing, some want to dance, some want to act, but then they’re all working.
This is how we came up. It didn’t matter if I was a Fugee, I was still working at Burger King. You know, I say it, ‘I used to work at Burger King — a king taking orders.’ But it’s not where we start, we have a dream of where we’re going to go. For me, this is how the entire idea of what’s exciting about finding these kids came about and then when the fall comes, we’ll do a great college tour, which is dope for me because Quincy Jones always told me, ‘The real, the true reinvention — when people be like ‘Oh, I just reinvented myself’ — is thanks to the next generation.’ The generation reinvents you. So when Young Thug goes, ‘This song is called ‘Wyclef Jean’, he reinvents you. Now, a 24-year-old will go on Spotify and they hear “Hendrix” and that’s the that’s the first Wyclef song that they know, and then they go back. The idea of this combination of 1997 meets 2018 and the way that I’m hearing these samples right now, like Migos is incredible..
Even on the “Narcos” record, they use an old Haitian folk record. So as a producer, I’m listening to what the producers are doing and I’m like, ‘Yo, there’s a whole surge — a melting pot that’s going on.’ It sounded like The Carnival all over again.
OKP: How do you specifically go about choosing your students or talents, and do you ever have any hesitations or worries if they can deliver?
No I don’t, because I focus on what’s called “raw talent.” That’s why you gotta duke it out. When we show up at your school we conduct a battle of the stages. This is dope. [There] ain’t no reality shows. You got real college kids in there. And nine times out of 10, there’s a lot of kids. But you clearly can see the kid with the gift. Like when we went to Moira Mack’s school, everyone was dope. We’re not saying that they weren’t dope, but I am saying that this arena is the draft pick for the NBA. I look for kids that can play all the positions, which is the most important.
OKP: This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, one of the most pivotal hip-hop albums to date. What are your thoughts and feelings as the date gets closer?
WJ: It’s one of my favorite albums of the century. Coming up with Lauryn, seeing the progress, it’s like when you saying you a Fugee and you hear Bono [of U2] call The Fugees “the hip-hop Beatles.” Seeing that growth is a testimony to us as creatives. That’s one of those blueprints that only we could create. All I know is when we started out, there was a rule. The rule was like, ‘Yo, we not going to do music. Anything that we do is going to be a movement and it should be able to live in any space and in any time.’ So when I hear Miseducation, it’s like a thousand years from now, that album will still be there, which is dope.
OKP: What are your thoughts on this new generation of hip-hop? What sets you apart from them?