Beyond the Fugees

Pinning down Wyclef Jean, one of hip-hop's hottest commodities.

When last we checked in with Wyclef Jean ("Rhymes of Passion," March 21, 1996), he was desperately trying to remain on his feet in spite of the wave of global fame that was threatening to engulf him. A few short weeks earlier, his group, the Fugees, had released The Score, an album that shot off like Bill Clinton on Monica Lewinsky's dress the instant it reached stores. The disc's first single, "Fu-Gee-La," was already a smash, and Jean and his partners (Prakazrel "Pras" Michel and Lauryn Hill) were in the midst of preparing to shoot the video for "Killing Me Softly," the tune that would send The Score through the multi-platinum roof. "We expected things to move a little slower," Jean admitted at the time. "We weren't really expecting this. It's enormous."

Today, Jean's pace is, if anything, even swifter. He was scheduled to sit for an interview just prior to the first date of this year's Smokin' Grooves tour, but he wasn't around at the appointed time, and his publicist couldn't page him for a very simple reason--he'd recently thrown his pager away. (He did so, according to the publicist, because "we kept paging him on it.") A second attempt at dialogue came even closer to happening, but Jean was left on hold for two minutes--just long enough for him to grow impatient and split. Fortunately, an intrepid record-company assistant tracked him down several hours later. "I've got him," the publicist boasted at the time, sounding not unlike Charles Grodin as the big-game hunter in the Seventies remake of King Kong.

In conversation, Jean is polite and moderately attentive, but it's clear that his mind is on other things--dozens of them. The Score and 1997's The Carnival, a more or less solo offering that's still on the pop and R&B charts after more than a year, established Jean as a producer whose command of soul, reggae and other Caribbean forms is every bit as strong as his rap sensibility, and as a result, oodles of famous people have been begging him to update their sounds for them. Among the most prominent of those to whom he said "yes" was Gloria Estefan; the Jean-helmed "Release Me" is one of the few highlights on her latest CD, Gloria. The song, according to Jean, "has the flavor of Cuban music mixed with my hip-hop influences. You still hear the timbales and the bongos, but you also hear the big hip-hop drums." He notes that Estefan phoned him at the behest of her children: "She has kids, you know, and they're huge fans of mine. They were like, 'Mom, do the record with Wyclef--I'm tellin' ya.' So she did it, and while she was doing it, she was like a mom to me, too. I didn't feel any diva out of her. I just felt love."

Film work is also taking up a sizable chunk of Jean's time. He's in the midst of scoring Life, an upcoming Eddie Murphy-Martin Lawrence vehicle, and he just teamed with Stevie Wonder for a remake of 1980's "Master Blaster (Jammin')"; the tune will appear on the soundtrack of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, an adaptation of a novel by Terry McMillan, who's best known for Waiting to Exhale. "I just made it seem like the '99 version of 'Master Blaster,' with me and Stevie on the same record," Jean says. In addition, Jean has assembled his own stable of artists, and at least two of them can already testify to the magic of his touch. Pras, Jean's Fugees cohort, is currently residing in the upper reaches of the Top 40 with "Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)," a tune that features cameos by Ol' Dirty Bastard and Mya as well as a goofily prominent Bee Gees sample, and new Jean discovery John Forte has watched his "Ninety Nine (Flash the Message)" become the second-hottest rap single in the nation. The Forte cut sports an inexplicable musical reference of its own; its hook is borrowed from "99 Luftballoons," a 1984 curio by German trivia question Nena.

Such borrowings imply that Jean is taking the Puff Daddy path--passing off karaoke renditions of past hits as something new. But most often, he uses elements of other tunes in a manner that doesn't abandon creativity. Take "To All the Girls," from The Carnival. The ditty springs from another exceedingly unlikely source--"To All the Girls I've Loved Before," a lachrymose Eighties duet that paired Julio Iglesias and a slumming Willie Nelson. But neither a new remix, retitled "Cheated (To All the Girls)," or the album version sounds much like its blueprint. The latter, in particular, warps the romantic intentions of the Iglesias/Nelson offering by turning the track into a womanizer's plea for a second chance. But the apparent sincerity of the protagonist's words--"To all the girls I cheated on before/It's a new year/I got new changes here/I swear/I can see clear/Now the cloud's disappeared"--is undercut by Jean's pointedly swaggering delivery and a handful of self-mocking asides. When he admits, "You don't believe me, though," you know that the object of his affection is right to have her doubts.

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