Wyclef Jean - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Although his roots are firmly planted in Hip Hop, Wyclef Jean’s wide-ranging musical savvy spans a plethora of genres. Wyclef Jean’s lengthy career has proven his aptitude for solid Hip Hop and an equally gifted bent for guitar-powered rock anthems.
By the time young Wyclef Neluset Jean was ten, he and his family had relocated from Jean’s birthplace of Haiti, to Brooklyn to New Jersey. While in high school, Jean would study jazz guitar and he would also befriend Prakazrel Samuel Michel (later known under his moniker “Pras”) and Lauryn Hill. The trio began to make music together, initially calling themselves the Tranzlator Crew. The Caribbean influence was certainly evident in the group’s music, with its obvious tinges of reggae and soul music, which they melded into Hip Hop. A truly significant aspect of the Tranzlator Crew was the amount of versatility the members had; Hill had a remarkably visible bent for rhyming as well as a sparkling singing voice and Jean was an adept rapper, guitarist and producer.
The Tranzlator Crew eventually changed their name to The Fugees (short for refugees, as both Jean and Pras were Haitian) and released their debut Blunted on Reality (Ruffhouse-1994). Notable singles like “Nappy Heads” and “Boof Baf” would gain favorable comparisons to progressive Hip Hop acts like The Roots and The Pharcyde. However, despite this positive feedback, the trio’s debut had considerably lackluster sales but would set the stage for their groundbreaking follow-up.
The Fugees would later release The Score (Ruffhouse-1996), which would become one of the most praised and beloved albums in the Hip Hop canon. Aside from the massive influence of soul, reggae and other Caribbean styles, Jean stated that he wanted Hip Hop audiences to experience the same energy as a rock concert. In following, a good amount of alternative music is evident on The Fugees second album. The Fugees indeed walked the walk in terms of their versatility. The Score features Hip Hop subversions of soul classics like “Ready Or Not” and the immensely popular cover of Roberta Flack's “Killing Me Softly” as well as a reworking of the Bob Marley classic of the same-name “No Woman No Cry”, which Jean used as a homage to his Haitian roots. The Fugees also found a remarkable equilibrium between their soulful crooning and their Hip Hop core, which was greatly assisted by production from underground rap mainstays like Diamond D and Salaam Remi. The Score snagged two Grammys as well as a rare 5-Mic rating from Hip Hop magazine The Source, an accolade which is reserved strictly for the most lionized albums in Hip Hop.
Somewhat mysteriously, soon after the ballyhoo of The Score, The Fugees disbanded. Hill and Pras began working on solo projects, while Jean began to produce for various artists such as Destiny’s Child and rapper Canibus, before also yielding a solo project of his own, The Carnival (Sony-1997). While The Score was certainly one of Hip Hop’s more diverse albums, Jean’s follow-up expanded the traversal of genres tenfold. For his Caribbean-tinged record, Jean recruited an vastly eclectic squad of collaborators for The Carnival including iconic Cuban vocalist Celia Cruz (“Guantanamera”), The Bee Gees (“We Trying To Stay Alive”), The Neville Brothers (“Mona Lisa”) and former-Fugee band-mate Lauryn Hill (“Year of The Dragon”). The Carnival also featured the mellow ballad “Gone Til November” which featured a Bob Dylan cameo in the video. The three times-platinum album would become one of the most successful and respected Hip Hop albums ever, and establish Wyclef Jean as able to hold his own as a solo artist.
Jean continued to manifest his fondness for dabbling with other genres of music, when at the 1999 installment of Woodstock Jean paid tribute to Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance at the 1969 Woodstock, by lighting his guitar on fire, just as Hendrix did. That same year, Jean also produced and performed with legendary rocker Carlos Santana, for whom he produced and costarred on the song “Maria Maria” from Santana's album Supernatural (Arista-1999), further inking Jean as one of Hip Hop’s most prolific household names.
Wyclef Jean’s second solo album, the appropriately titled The Eclectic: 2 Sides II a Book (Columbia-2000) continued Jean’s streak of blurring the boundaries between genres. Perhaps the most notable (as well as bizarre) collaboration on Jean’s sophomore album was the song “It Doesn’t Matter”, which was assisted by professional wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The reggae-infused track, which was also used as The Rock’s entrance music when wrestling, featured Jean’s crisp flow, supplemented by the wrestler’s aggressive catch-phrase. Jean once again was joined on-wax by a lineup of artists whom were largely below the mainstream’s radar including Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour and Melky Sedeck. The Eclectic: 2 Sides II a Book also features duets with R&B icons like Mary J. Blige on the fairly fruitful “911” as well as 70’s favorites Earth, Wind and Fire on “Runaway.” Country legend Kenny Rogers also makes a soulful appearance on The Eclectic: 2 Sides II a Book.
Although Lauryn Hill’s heavenly crooning made her perhaps the Fugees’ most recognizable member, Wyclef Jean’s consistent output of music brought him to the forefront. He soon released his third album Masquerade (Columbia-2002). Jean’s third record veered closer to rap than the previous two efforts, featuring collaborations from hardcore New York rappers, M.O.P. and Bumpy Knuckles but the album’s single was the calmer and mellower “Two Wrongs.”
Jean followed with The Preacher's Son (J Records-2003) and while not as successful as some of his previous works, the album is still a decent testament to Jean’s versatile song-writing prowess, featuring rappers like Redman, Scarface and Rah Digga as well as prominent reggae artists like Elephant Man and Buju Banton. Carlos Santana also returns the favor of Jean’s past production with a guest guitar solo on The Preacher's Son’s “Three Nights in Rio.”
In 2004, comedian Dave Chappelle hosted a large concert in New York, which was to be filmed and turned into a documentary titled Dave Chappelle's Block Party. On the bill was a lengthy list of progressive Hip Hop artists including Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kanye West, The Roots and Erykah Badu. The Fugees also reunited for the event, performing their one-time ubiquitous single “Killing Me Softy.” The group also ventured on a European tour and even appeared together on television. However, this reunion was short-lived and proved to be all for naught, as the group openly expressed that there were severe artistic and personal rifts between the members, perhaps ending the marriage between one of Hip Hop’s most beloved groups.
Jean continued to preserver and despite The Fugees failed reunion, Jean remained one of Hip Hop’s most consistent performers. Wyclef Jean had, by now, earned an abundance of mainstream attention. However, the Caribbean influence never faded out of the Haitian-born rapper’s music. A testament to Jean’s loyalty to his origins came with his album Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101 (Koch-2004). A hefty portion of the songs on Jean’s fifth solo album were rapped/sang in Jean’s native tongue, Haitian-Creole. Jean’s music had always proudly sported pride for his native Haiti but Welcome to Haiti was essentially an entire album devoted to the music of the eclectic one’s roots.
Wyclef Jean’s loyalty to to Haiti wasn’t limited to his music and he has contributed copious amounts of humanitarian aid to the country, such as raising awareness and gathering food for the shortages in the country. Jean also as serves as Haiti’s ambassador, raising awareness reharding the country’s turmoil.
Beginning with The Score, many of Jean’s songs were glued to together with almost-cinematic skits. Prolonging these cinematic elements, Jean’s sixth album Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant was intended to be a sequel to his acclaimed debut album The Carnival. Jean melded genres such as dancehall and hard rock on the roaring beats of “Riot (Trouble Again)”, which also featured Sizzla and Serj Tankian of popular band System of A Down. The sequel to his debut was also peppered with appearances from rappers like T.I. and Chamillionaire. And, Jean, who never ceased to astound listeners with unexpected appearances also brought in guests like Norah Jones, Paul Simon and Columbian songstress Shakira to asssit with Carnival Vol. II.
Wyclef Jean is without a doubt one of Hip Hop’s greatest songwriters. A key member in one of Hip Hop’s greatest groups The Fugees, Wyclef Jean has gone on to find a vast degree of solo sucess, holding his own alongside some of the most lauded artists not only in Hip Hop but in music in general.