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That Jean is even familiar with a middle-of-the-road ditty like "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" will strike some observers as a surprise. But, he says, "I heard a lot of country music when I was a kid. My mom listens to it all the time. She grew up on, like, Kenny Rogers, Crystal Gayle and, of course, Willie Nelson. That's why you could put me on a country record and I could still produce it. The only thing I don't think I could produce is techno, because I can't understand it. It's always going, like, tick-tick-a-tick, tick-tick-a-tick. Maybe if I was drunk or something, it would sound good. But I'm mostly sober all the time.
"Music-wise, I'm eclectic," he goes on. "I listen to everything, as long as it makes me feel good. That's why, if you follow what I've done, you see that everything is so diverse. I definitely move at the speed of music--but I get bored really fast."
Jean's rich background likely has plenty to do with his openness to different genres. He was born in Haiti, and when he moved to the States at age nine, it was to Brooklyn, one of the country's truest melting pots. The blend of musical flavors he encountered there turns up again and again in the music he's made with Pras and Hill thus far. Blunted on Reality, the Fugees's 1994 debut for the Ruffhouse/ Columbia imprint, mates hip-hop to island beats and classic soul (Aretha Franklin's run-through of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" pops up in "Some Seek Stardom"), and The Score nods to Roberta Flack on "Killing Me Softly" and Bob Marley during "No Woman, No Cry," an unexpectedly faithful and sincere rendering of the reggae classic. The Carnival, on which Pras and Hill serve as guest stars, is even more varied. The title track sounds closer to creole music than hip-hop, "Guantanamera" is a familiar folk tune on which Latin icon Celia Cruz visits, "Mona Lisa" provides a nice showcase for the Neville Brothers, and "Gone Till November" finds Jean conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
"Working with the orchestra was great," Jean allows. "Because I'm into real music. When I was in high school, I was a jazz major. So you can understand my frustration with a lot of music that's out there, where no one's actually playing anything. What I try to do is bring a little bit of real music back."
This philosophy carries over to the concert setting. Unlike many hip-hop artists, who rap along with tapes when they're onstage, Jean is a talented guitarist who uses musicians, not recordings, to reproduce his studio concoctions. But that doesn't mean he's a Luddite when it comes to technology. "I think the direction hip-hop is going will be a mixture of things," he says. "Computers are going to come into play regardless; you can't run away from that. But I think they'll be combined with live instrumentation and better lyrical content. That's what people are going to start looking for.
"Once you start listening to something so much, you start listening closer," he continues. "And once you start figuring out what the person is saying, if it's garbage, you don't want to hear it. After a while, you want to get something out of it. Not something that's preachy--something that's clever."
A role model for Jean in this regard is Public Enemy, the headliner on Smokin' Grooves. In albums such as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the outfit, fronted by Chuck D and Flavor Flav, made some of the most impassioned music of the hip-hop era, and it's not done yet (see Playlist, page 79). The overtly political harangues that are the band's trademark do not sell as they once did, however, and many current rappers shy away from topical material in favor of embracing the lowest common denominator. But not Jean: He cites The Score's "Manifest" and "The Beast" and The Carnival's "Year of the Dragon" as examples of songs in which he used Public Enemy as a model. "They're like the fathers of that kind of thing," he says. "They're one of my favorite groups still today. And when we were getting ready to put out our record, I said, 'Okay, guys, we're not going to be glorifying violence, or this or that. We're going to bring awareness to people.'"
On The Carnival, Jean attempts to do so on both "Gunpowder" and "Bubblegoose," which deal with the deaths of three cousins in gun-related incidents. But while these tragedies have made him more cautious about firearms, they haven't made him shy away from them entirely. There's still too much Brooklyn in him for that.
"I definitely think there should be gun control," he declares. "Backgrounds should be checked, and I feel that people have access to guns too easily. But I think that having guns is important, and that people should go to the range and learn how to shoot. See, there's a difference between people living in the ghetto and getting a gun and just blasting each other versus having a gun in your household for protection. Because of the time and the era that we're living in, everyone needs a gun in their house.