Hip-hop has always reigned supreme in Brooklyn, and last night, at the annual Wingate Concert Series, one of the borough and the culture’s own was celebrated. Forty years after the Haitian-born hip-hop legend Wyclef Jean stepped foot in Flatbush at the age of nine, the Borough President Eric L. Adams awarded him with the key to the borough Jean once called home. The Fugees co-founder is the third hip-hop artist to receive such an honor in a little over a year, following Brooklyn natives Fabolous, and the night’s master of ceremonies, Big Daddy Kane.
Last night (Aug. 16) at Brooklyn landmark Wingate Park felt like opening a hip-hop time capsule and finding the best party in town. Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz ripped JAY-Z and Kanye West’s “Otis” and “N***as In Paris” beat to shreds. The crowd of largely ‘60s babies led acapella renditions of hip-hop classics like Audio Two’s “Top Billin” as joyously loud as teenage Nicki Minaj fans do for her “Monster” verse.
Jean was visibly swept away by the genuine hip-hop love, and accepted his key to Brooklyn by digging into the images of his past tattooed in the annals of his memory. He told anecdotes about the old-school Brooklyn gang Decepticon posse robbing him for his fresh Puma shoes. He boasted about being “the last of dying breed” of musicians who jammed with both Michael Jackson and Prince.
After the formalities, the self-proclaimed “Haitian alien” did what he did best: rock the crowd.
The 25-year rap veteran delivered soul-stirring performances of classics such as “Gone Till November,” “9-1-1,” and “Ready Or Not.” On the latter, the virtuoso MC spit a freestyle over The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya” in the middle of the song, setting the crowd into a roar with lines like “Wyclef, I bring the funk/and I say ‘f**k Donald Trump.”
On the same day a Brooklyn son rises, a soul goddesses’ sun set, as the incomparable Aretha Franklin passed away at the age of 76 earlier in the day. “She represents that soul. The soul is so deep that even if she pass away, you throw on an Aretha Franklin record, she ain’t go nowhere. She still here,” Jean told VIBE. He even recollected on the lasting legacy of “A Rose is A Rose”, Franklin’s timeless 1998 collaboration with his former bandmate Lauryn Hill. “That’s just a moment in history. It’s a moment in time that we all reflect on. A thousand years from now, long after we’re gone, they’re still going to talk about that.”
Jean is currently preparing to release his upcoming mixtape, Wyclef Goes Back To School. The project’s name is inspired by the fact Jean recruited musical talents he found at colleges on the promotional run for his last album, 2017’s The Carnival III, to contribute to the mixtape. Hours before accepting the key to Brooklyn, Jean shocked the hip-hop community with the first single from the project, entitled Letter To Canibus, featuring his former protege and adversary Canibus.
On the song, the longtime collaborators go back and forth clearing the air about their past. “I told him, ‘I’m going to send you a letter. Just respond back to it as pure and as honest as possible, and leave it up to me to do my Haitian Dr. Dre sh*t,” Jean said. The song is his way of ensuring the legacy of one of the greatest battle rappers ever isn’t forever associated by younger generations with Canibus’ embarrassing 2012 King of the Dot battle against Dizaster, where the Can-I-Bus rapper committed the cardinal sin of battle rapping by reading from a notepad.
“My motto is Quincy Jones, and what Quincy did was he gave information,” Jean said. “The information with Canibus is important, because Canibus was the first Internet rapper. Canibus was the first rapper to set up a website. Canibus was the first one to understand the power of online.”
Jean is well aware he’s sold millions of records, won multiple Grammy awards, and claims 10 million people search his name on Google every month. But, to him, he hasn’t even got started yet. “I’m 48. Quincy Jones ain’t start working with Michael Jackson until he was 52, 53. So right now, we’re on the next phase of the legacy.”
As of late, he’s developing artists on an all-female record label called HEADS Music. He’s also working to get into the burgeoning legal cannabis industry, and “be a complete trader for the Caribbean with the cannabis.” But his most ambitious goal is “building the first hip-hop guitar” that will enable anyone to play the guitar like a pro. Using augmented reality, the guitar would teach users the hand progressions needed to play a selected song.
“The same way them dudes got Fender, I’m building a piece of artillery that will not disrespect the Technics [SL-] 1200s, and at the same time, kids could go on and do beats as easy as a Fruity Loops, and make them want to learn instruments.”
Jean seemed at peace at the concert last night accepting the key to Brooklyn, like a man who finds comfort in the clarity that the passage of time affords anyone willing to look. “We never forget what we did in the past, but we live in the present, just so we can see the future.”