Wyclef Jean Talks New Album “The Carnival Begins,” Impacting Hip-Hop And Lauryn Hill’s Greatness

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By: Vibe / May 8, 2013

It’s been a minute since Wyclef Jean dropped some new music, and he’s using 2013 to change that. Last week (April 29) the acclaimed rapper, singer-songwriter, producer (and politician) released his mixtape April Showers as a precursor to his forthcoming album. The 33-track long jambalaya of styles and sonics — or “vibes” as he continuously refers to them as — gives us a sense of exactly where he is in life, and more importantly, where he’s headed.

While relishing in the relative success of his tape and promoting his new line of gun-fashioned guitars (the “Gattar” is pictured above), Clef spoke to VIBE about the focus of his upcoming album The Carnival Begins, summer daddy duty, and why he’ll always sing Lauryn Hill’s praises. –Stacy-Ann Ellis (@stassi_x)

VIBE: Last week you dropped your April Showers mixtape. Are you happy with the feedback so far?
Wyclef Jean: It’s been pretty insane. It’s crazy for me because music, I do in my sleep and that’s not the legacy of what I want to be remembered for. The music industry has a thing where it constantly has to keep coming and proving itself again. It’s like sports: can he come back and hit a home run? In my brain, I’ve passed that limit. I think of what will move the race forward. I’ve had so many records that have not worked in the United States but have worked in every other part of the world. I came to understand that music is universal and some people are just chosen to do universal music. The feedback on the tape has been crazy. It’s not enough of us from my era that are doing it like that. It’s almost like whenever we want to come back, we try to adapt to what the kids are doing. The kids heard The Score and they heard The Carnival, so they’re trying to do what we’re doing. When they get with us, they’re expecting you to do you. Once you’re not doing you, it doesn’t excite them. But what happens when you fuse Wyclef and Young Chop together? Wyclef with TI? Wyclef with Kirko Bangz? I think that’s what was missing, that fusion, because the music can still be credible and still be incredible. Everyone just felt like okay, finally we don’t have to be in a box. People hear it and say, oh shit, Waka Flocka is rhyming and we’re understanding what he’s saying? Yeah, because the dude don’t want to be in a box all his life, but who’s gonna come there with the music?

You took the thoughts right out of my head because I noticed the diversity of your features — some old some young, some new, some veterans — and I was trying to figure out your intentions.
Well if you read the feedback online you could see what the intention was. I’ve never been in a box. I really have fans that are from 14 or15 years old to 60. I ain’t put an album out in how many years and I show up in Sweden and the whole crowd is kids singing every song. I’ve come to understand its not me. It’s something. Whatever created me to do what I do, it’s ageless and it keeps a pulse. My pulse is always music. I love music. I love nuance. Everything that comes out, I download it when I’m taking a plane. I’ll give you an example. I’m with my little cousins at a barbecue and they’re all turning it up. [This is] when i’m getting ready to take a trip, so I say download me Chief Keef, download Kendrick Lamar, and download that old Wu-Tang, I need that. That Cypress Hill. And I’m going to Abu Dhabi. As a producer, I always want to know what makes the kids tick. My daughter is eight and when she moves a certain way, or you see how a kid sometimes is when you play a song and they just start jiggling? They’re just going by a nerve reaction. I wanna know why they’re ticking, why are they moving. Why when Waka Flocka says flex, what makes them go nuts? Something’s going on there that maybe we’re not aware of, so as a producer I like to learn all that.

What goes into how you pick your features?
A lot of things people don’t understand about me. I’m a jazz major first and I’m a fan of Quincy Jones, so if I want to be anybody musically, that’s the guy I want to be. My music is built off of composition. and what that means is I like to cast a feel to make it interesting. In this generation, you gotta think yo, how many mothafuckers are like ‘Clef in this generation?’ Where dudes can still be relevant to radio, still can do music, but then I can sit down and talk to them about music? They don’t exist. So the cast is built like [George] Gershwin or Porgy and Bess. I look at it from a satellite point of view. It could be fucking Kenny Rogers, and you’ve seen me do that before. So when I looked at it, I was like what would be interesting from a satellite point of view if we took all the cultures and blended them inside one tape? The rap culture. The battle culture inside of rap is important too. A kid who ain’t gonna fuck with the tape because its like ‘man fuck this shit.’ When he looks and sees Smack DVD with Murda Mook? Let me go. then he hears them dudes on them beats and he’s like okay cool. Then he hears T.I. His verse is one of the hardest verses on the entire tape that I heard in a minute because everything he says, I believe it. Then you can have a Troy Ave, who’s just buzzing out of Brooklyn, a young kid with a message. Then we have people that people don’t know because the important part of the tape too is the discovery. When you hear somebody and you’re like who’s that? What’s that? That’s how we cast it.

How does the title tie everything together?
The idea of April Showers has several meanings. I just remember being on the block, like yo they’re about to spray up the block. They come around with them April showers. That same community, which could be so dangerous, produces the most beautiful rose. So April showers really bring May flowers and at the end of the day no matter what the struggle is that we’re going through, there’s a way to rise up out of it. That was just the vibe of April Showers and what can appear to be rain at the same time can be a blessing. Like I said, it wasn’t me. It came out in April showers. It was raining and showery all day, I couldn’t even plan that. It was a good sign, I was looking at Twitter and people were just going nuts. We were close to like 50,000 downloads in less than 24 hours. I couldn’t create that. I was like people are going to take this either two ways: they’re either gonna be like this old man is reaching or damn, we dig this. We like music and we miss that kind of music. Where are the fans that like The Carnival? Where are the fans that like The Score? Where are the fans that like Tribe? They’re not dead. If they get this tape they’re going to really enjoy it. I wasn’t thinking to do a tape for a kid. At the end of the day, the kids are gonna dig it because they already dig who I am. All I gotta do is come back and be me. I was more worried about my Carnival fans, the Fugee fans, the “911” fans, the “Gone Till November” fans. The ones who know me for credible music. If they hear this shit, and it doesn’t sound authentic, then I might as well call it wraps.

Any personal April Showers favorites?
I have a favorite track — “Bang Bang Bang.”

Did a specific situation inspire that song or was it something you just needed to get off your chest?
“Bang Bang Bang” is talking about Chicago. What’s going on in Chicago is going on in every hood in the world. When I sing “If I Was President,” the kids fuck with me. I’m most comfortable when you just give me a guitar and I just sing. I’m like a hippie. At the end of the day, that’s what my voice caters to. How many mothafuckers can just stop in the middle of a mixtape and say, let me just grab an acoustic guitar and sing a song. The ending is dope because I sing and just show them a little love because most of those kids grew up with no papa. At the end of the day, we’re criticizing them but what do we really do? To me, that’s the song I’m most proud of. That’s me giving the youth my message.

Do you think the message will be received?
There used to be that myth that the music industry will tell you what’s gonna work, what’s not, if you don’t do that, they only listen to beats and all that. When kids hear Wyclef, there’s a specific thing they hear in their head. The hood calls me the ghetto Bob Marley. I ain’t never met Bob Marley. I guess me and him had ancestors in similar tribes. I never called myself a singer, I just said I catch a vibe. Yo, remember I told you this: “Bang Bang Bang” will be the hood anthem in every hood. Rocko, the one who signed Future, came in here and was like, ‘I need this right now!’

What kind of visuals can we expect from this project? I believe you already got started on the video for your favorite song.
Every seven days counting from when “Mid Life Crisis” gets out, you will get a new visual from the mixtape until the album. We shot the visuals [for “Bang Bang Bang”] in Chicago on the east side. It’s not a blue screen, no. I’m in the streets. I shot it in December. The gangs were passing through, and as long as you keep your fitted hat in the middle, you’re good. They would see me and be like, “Yo! Wyclef!” Someone on Twitter was like get outta there man, you’re gonna get shot. All you gotta do is show them a little love. That’s all they need.

Besides that, what other issues do you think people should pay more attention to now and be getting from their music?
Just the idea that everybody should stop judging one another. And we have to think about who makes rules. Who says you can or cannot do. We all know what’s wrong and what’s right and we know what’s evil, so at the end of the day I don’t think you should be judging anybody because they’re gay, straight, or bi. That’s not your job. Because they’re white or because they’re Asian. We see through the course of history some of the greatest leaders — both women and men — have risen and it had nothing to do with any form of prejudice. It was because they’re people. At the end of the day, if we’re gonna raise our kids or if we’re going to show love to the people in the hood, the idea of one blood and us understanding as human beings, we really gotta treat each other better as humans. It’s important.

Is this theme going to carry over to your next album?
The album is called The Carnival Begins, and it’s like when you watch Batman. This is like what happened before The Score, we had Blunted on Reality. What happened before Blunted? I was actually signed to a house label doing music for Big Beat Records. I was barely 19 and I recorded this song called “Out of the Jungle” when Nelson Mandela was just being freed. I used to go to Carnival, J’Ouvert and I used to spit like it was my last day on Earth because I didn’t know what I was going to do. When I did music, I was always in a place in the air, where you never knew what country it was going to land in. But I was having fun. The Carnival Begins is going to be fun. A lot of people are on it. I’m working on making the kickoff where Cuba meets Haiti, so think of a record where Wyclef and Pitbull meet each other in the same city. It’d be a zoo. And you put the carnival floats together. What would that be? That would be a world carnival. So I want the first single to feel like a world carnival. So there’s a vibe i’m working on right now called “Feel So Good Right Now.”

Have you put your finger on a release date?
Definitely. I think the album [should come out] September or November. The first single should be ready to go in the next two weeks.

Speaking of summertime, that’s usually synonymous with fun and travel. What’s going on in Wyclef’s world this summer?
I’ll be touring. I know we’re in Norway, France, England, we’re all over. That’s gonna be exciting. But, the thing I’m most excited about is two things: teaching my 8-year-old daughter how to ride a bicycle, and the other thing she wants to do is go fishing. She says, “Daddy, fishing is the best because you can go and get your zen on. You sit there and stay patient dad. It teaches you how to be calm and patient and to wait.” So I gotta do these two things this summer with her.

Music-wise, what are you excited for this summer?
My favorite thing about music is dancehall music. I love dancehall and reggae. So hopefully this summer I can make one of the big reggae festivals just to sit and catch a vibe.

What future collabs are you hoping to make?
Right now the most important thing is my label, Refugee La Republique/All Handz on Deck and we have a few artists that we’re launching. They’re on the mixtape. We got Trini, she’s a Trinidadian girl. We have another one Jarina De Marco who opened up for me when she was 12. And then we have some people that are just buzzing online. I’d like to see where that goes.

Recently you did an interview where you sent out some positive vibes to Lauryn Hill, and now she’s got some new music coming out. Would you be open to collaborate with her?
I’m a producer. Lauryn Hill ain’t never shot my momma’s house. I don’t have no problems with Lauryn. I mean, it came to a time where sisters hated me for Lauryn Hill. They were like, “He has broken her heart. Let’s hang this man!” But I’ll say it again: Lauryn Hill in this time is one of the best artists of our generation and it’s important that it remains like that, because if she goes under a lot of the culture will go under. But there’s still something. There’s a part to it. There still has to be a Quincy Jones in the situation, because I know what part of it she does and I know what part of it I do. I know how a lot of those records were made. Even past me, even on The Miseducation [of Lauryn Hill], there still were producers around. Once the producers leave, the music won’t be the same. The passion for any producer is to find a Lauryn Hill. Once they find a Lauryn Hill, the sky’s the limit. If I were to send a message to her as she does her new music, it would be: You don’t have to be a producer because you’re one of the best writers that ever lived, and that’s more important than producing the record. It’s okay. Jay-Z ain’t doin’ beats, that’s not what he does. But when he spits on the beat, and Swizz or Timbaland does the beat, and the shit he’s saying on that beat? You can forget about it. That’s how I feel about Lauryn Hill, because producers will get excited. You can’t have beats and your beats are sitting there until a prodigy jumps on the beat. I feel like Lauryn’s one of the greatest writers, one of the greatest singers in our time and it’s important that she gets that back.

What new artists will take music to that next level?
I think Kendrick Lamar. He defines the idea of going back to an album and not a song. Drake. Anybody can say anything they want about Drake but he’s a hell of a songwriter. He understands how to put the shit in format of songs. I think he’s dope. Those two have a gift. I tell people man, ASAP Rocky. When you listen to him and you look at him… I have a song called “Hip Hop” on the mixtape, and when I’m looking at these dudes, I’m going to ASAP’s show and it reminds me of an old Wu-Tang Show. It’s just different and high energy. I wanna see some more females though, man. I see they’re trying to find their [swag].Think about it. Top five showstoppers of the world: Beyonce. Alicia Keys. Adele. Rihanna… But do you see how hard it is? Think about how we go to the 70s and let’s do that. We’d be like boom, boom, boom. I think that’s what music needs to come back to. The only way we can do that is if we nurture the young generation and make them as dope as we were.

Photo credit: Stacy-Ann Ellis