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17102: (Arthur) Wyclef Jean is learning the 'show' in show biz (fwd)
Turning His Tables: Wyclef Jean is learning the 'show' in show biz as he
takes a leap into the limelight with his new album
By Rafer Guzmán STAFF WRITER
November 2, 2003
If you were wondering what Wyclef Jean is up to these days, you don't have to
look far. All of a sudden, the laid-back rapper is popping up in some
At his record-release party in Manhattan's Millennium Hotel last month, Jean
performed with Elephant Man and Wayne Wonder for an audience that included Don
King and Donald Trump. On a recent Thursday, Jean stopped lunch- hour traffic
in Times Square to play a quick concert atop a double-decker bus. In his new
video for the single "Party to Damascus," Jean rides around in a taxi with
Queen Latifah, Fat Joe and scores of other hip-hoppers. He's even generating
press the way 50 Cent, Eminem and Jay-Z have, by stoking a well-publicized beef
with another rapper.
All this may sound a bit flashy for the down-to-earth Jean, who's best known
for his world-beat brand of hip-hop and his benefit concerts that raise money
for the people of his native Haiti. But Jean's latest album, "The Preacher's
Son," is due out Tuesday, and he needs to sell it to hip-hop fans who may have
lost track of him in the last few years.
"I'm just the dude who wants to sit and play my guitar and write songs," says
Jean, holed up in his midtown Manhattan studio on a recent afternoon. But as
he's beginning to learn, "In the industry, what ends up making it is show
business - what do you have to show?"
During his tenure with the Fugees, the groundbreaking group he formed in New
Jersey with Lauryn Hill and Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, Jean gave off a low-key,
Rastafarian vibe, wailing in a voice clearly modeled on Bob Marley's. The
trio's 1996 album, "The Score," became a multiplatinum success on the strength of
its hip-hop interpretations of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His
Song" and Marley's "No Woman No Cry." Still, critics wondered if the members
could do more than just cover songs.
On his first solo outing, 1997's "Carnival," Jean established himself as an
ambitious, eclectic composer whose ears were attuned not just to hip-hop but to
music around the globe: Among his collaborators were the Neville Brothers,
salsa icon Celia Cruz and the New York Philharmonic. Jean also proved that he
could not only cover songs but write them. When Arista Records wanted to sell
Whitney Houston to the hip-hop crowd, Jean was called in to help write the title
track on her 1998 album, "My Love Is Your Love." The album hit No. 13 on the
Billboard charts. The next year, Jean's collaboration with Carlos Santana,
"Maria, Maria," became a No. 1 single.
But Jean's penchant for oddball musical partnerships may have worked against
him. His 2000 album, "The Ecleftic," which featured Earth, Wind & Fire and
Kenny Rogers, sold fewer than a million copies according to Nielsen SoundScan
figures. And last year's "Masquerade," which featured a campy duet with crooner
Tom Jones, failed to even go gold.
Jean admits the albums had weak points. "'Ecleftic' was all over the place,"
he says. "You know where you look at a painting and you don't know which
picture to grab onto? 'Masquerade,' it felt dark and somber," he adds, noting that
it was recorded soon after his father, a reverend at a New Jersey church, died
in a car crash.
"The Preacher's Son" marks a new stage in his development. It certainly bears
Jean's stamp - a strong Caribbean flavor, subtle political themes, a whole
posse of collaborators - but this time, the songs are aimed squarely at radio
stations and dance floors, and the guest stars are some of the hottest names in
music, from Missy Elliot to Wayne Wonder.
Jean says much of the credit goes to Clive Davis, the J Records founder who
recently lured Jean away from Columbia, his musical home for 10 years. (The
move may have been inevitable: Davis and Jean already had formed a joint-venture
label called Clef Records in 2000.)
Davis, a music industry legend who nursed the careers of Houston and Santana,
among others, took a no-nonsense approach with Jean. "Clive was like, 'Don't
come here with nothing but songs,'" Jean recalls. "He said, 'You did all that
other stuff. Now, can we focus? Don't come to me saying you want to keep it
real. We gotta get back to the songs.'"
According to Jerry Wonder, Jean's longtime songwriting and producing partner,
the pair put in 16-hour days working in the studio. "It was like, no more
playing around," he says. "Clive's calling you up at 3 or 4 in the morning
saying, 'How's the mix?' That gets you focused."
Jean says he rerecorded some tracks dozens of different ways at Davis'
request. One song, "The Doctor," began as an R&B ballad, then turned into a slow-
draw reggae tune. Eventually, Davis suggested a high-energy ragamuffin version.
"I was like: Where the -- did Clive learn the word ragamuffin?" Jean recalls.
"I forgot that when I was born, Clive was probably partying down in Jamaica."
Jean says the album reflects his days as a child in Newark, "looking out the
window of my father's church in the 'hood, looking at society and talking
about everything in the community." The songs range from the crypto-political
"Party to Damascus" (a Romeo and Juliet romance between an American soldier and a
Middle Eastern girl) to the closer-to-home concerns of "Baby Daddy" (a
shout-out to all those men trying to raise children not their own).
Then, there's the album's first single, "Industry," which envisions a rap
world free of destructive rivalries. "Imagine if Biggie and 'Pac never got shot,"
Jean sings. "Benzino shook hands with Eminem/And on the same record I heard
Eve, Fox and Kim."
The song's basic message: "Let's keep everything on wax," Jean says. "Let's
not let it go beyond that and have to have casualties. I feel everybody should
respect each other as men."
But Jean himself is beefing with his former Fugee cohort Pras - and the words
haven't all been on wax. Jean recently released an underground single, "Fake
-- Pras," belittling the rapper's contributions to the Fugees and suggesting
he give back the Grammy he won with the group. Pras recently called Jean "an
evil dude" and "a cancer" on a morning radio show in Manhattan; Jean poked fun
at Pras' musical skills in the rap magazine XXL.
Jean sees no discrepancy between the peaceful message of "Industry" and his
exchanges with Pras. "I had a lyrical battle with Pras on a piece of vinyl," he
says. "What I did was, I KO'd him in the first five seconds. But that was
vinyl. That's as far as it went." He also points out that "Industry" offers an
olive branch of sorts: "Sometimes when I sleep, that's when I wake up/I kinda
hope the Fugees didn't break up."
The friction also extends to the other Fugee, Lauryn Hill. She and Jean were
once romantically involved, and some have speculated that her 1998 album, "The
Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," was directed at Jean. A recent article in
Rolling Stone revived questions about the pair, especially now that Hill has become
something of a music industry recluse.
"The thing that everyone's trying to bring back is something that happened
seven years ago," Jean says. "Lauryn is all grown-up now. Wyclef's all grown-up
now. As kids, we've made mistakes. And when we make mistakes, we move on." He
adds: "If there's any way of sitting down and having a conversation with her,
I would love to do that, because I'm past that stage."
Jean insists, as he always has, that he'd gladly regroup the Fugees, who
never officially broke up. For now, though, he's concentrating on his own career
and his newfound sense of showmanship. "It's a whole other aspect of me that I
never went into," he says. "It feels young, it feels fresh, and it feels like
I'm having fun again."
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