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.

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.

"If you've been following the news, you know there have been some incredible massacres in the suburbs," he says. "And some of those would never happen in the ghetto. People go to the extreme with certain crimes in the suburbs because they just assume that people won't be ready. That's versus Flatbush Avenue, where they know they couldn't rob just anyone--because that's cowboy town. And you've got to be careful if you're transporting money, too. For example, if you're on Smokin' Grooves and you're doing forty shows, it's obvious that everyone knows where you're gonna be at--and even some guys who love you would still rob you. Some guys find that a thrill, you know? That's why I have bodyguards--and you know they have carry permits."

Such are the changes two years have wrought: Jean has gone from being a struggling musician to an ultra-successful celebrity whose protectors must pack heat to keep him safe from fans who wouldn't mind separating him from his wallet. Nonetheless, he insists that he isn't bothered by the necessity of having a gun within reach at all times. "I grew up with that," he says. "So it doesn't bother me as much as it would bother someone else who's not from my background. I mean, that's the real America."

Smokin' Grooves, with Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, Wyclef Jean with Cannabis and the Refugee Camp All-Stars, Busta Rhymes, Gang Starr and Black-Eyed Peas. 6 p.m. Sunday, August 9, Red Rocks, $27.50, 830-

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