Wyclef Jean Talks Young Thug, Trap Music And The Joy Of Carnival

Feb 5, 2017
Originally published on February 6, 2017 6:57 am

Wyclef Jean and Haiti are inextricably linked: His music carries the vibe and memories of life on the island nation he hails from. Since his days in The Fugees, Jean has used music to address the problems and pleasures of his home country.

His new EP, titled J'Ouvert — after the day when Carnival begins in the Caribbean — is no exception. But nearly 20 years after his solo debut, Jean is making room for some of the voices and scenes dominating hip-hop today. The song "I Swear" is a collaboration with Young Thug, the ascendant, warble-voiced rapper out of Atlanta.

"Well, Young Thug is one of the new rulers in the millennium of hip-hop," Jean says. "He put out a mixtape, and the mixtape, it was like his five idols — so his first song on his mixtape is called 'Wyclef Jean.' He just was trying to track me down. He drove everybody crazy when we got together — he was like, 'Look Wyclef — my tattoo says Haiti, my daughter's named Haiti, my project's named Haiti. Man, I just wanna be from Haiti — I love you so much and everything you do.' So we just naturally connected."

Jean spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the unifying power of Carnival and how the trap sounds in modern hip-hop compare to the boom-bap beats that led the music in the mid-1990s. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTY STARTED")

WYCLEF JEAN: (Singing) All aboard the carnival train.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Wyclef Jean and Haiti are inextricably linked. His music carries the vibe and memories of the island nation he hails from. Since his days in the Fugees, John has used music to address the problems and pleasures of his home country. His new EP is no exception.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTY STARTED")

JEAN: (Singing) Where I'm from, the good die young. Many men I know, they ain't see the sun. Sitting back, reminisce - the Carnival, that's where I got my first kiss.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's "Party Started" from Wyclef Jean's new EP "J'ouvert." He joins us now from our studios in New York.

Welcome.

JEAN: How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm great, thanks. It's obviously Carnival time.

JEAN: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you've named this EP "J'ouvert," the opening of Carnival, the day that Carnival begins in the Caribbean. That celebration comes up again and again in your body of work. What is so special about Carnival?

JEAN: The celebration of culture, the celebration of food, the experience of people all getting together in, like, one place. You might speak Spanish. I speak French. Someone else speaks Creole. But when we at the Carnival, it all just feels like one thing, you know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's listen to a song. This one's called "Lady Haiti."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY HAITI")

JEAN: (Singing) I seen the Earth she grind under her feet. She told me, baby, don't weep. I'm sitting on "Oprah," tears in my eyes...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're talking here about the controversy with your foundation...

JEAN: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Yele, which was giving aid. And then you were accused - or the foundation was accused of misspending the money.

JEAN: Yeah. So it was really a trying time for me because, as much - you know, I love my country. You know, I rep my flag on my back. So I was like - yo, how can I express this through a song, you know? - but childlike. Like, because my country's so fun - we're so happy, you know. And, you know, I get upset when I see, like, NGOs - they put, help this kid. He's hungry. I used to be in the village, and even though I was hungry, I was still happy, you know what I'm saying?

So this whole idea with "Lady Haiti," it's, like, my love for Haiti and, like, just going through it saying no matter what we go through, we always going to be together. And it was important to make you want to dance because Haiti is such a colorful place, such a cultural place. So that was, like, you know, me venting in a very sexy way, I guess.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about another song. This one's "I Swear." Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SWEAR")

WYCLEF JEAN AND YOUNG THUG: (Singing) You give me a reason to live. You're the reason that I never did a bid. And even if they want to judge, you the reason that I love. And I swear - I swear ain't noboby breaking us up. I'm going to stay with you forever, girl. And I swear...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You collaborate with Young Thug on this one, a rapper out of Atlanta. Why did you two decide to work together?

JEAN: Well, Young Thug is one of the new rulers in the millennial of hip-hop, you know. And he put out a mixtape. And in the mixtape, it was, like, his five idols. So his first song on his mixtape is called "Wyclef Jean." So he just was trying to track me down. He drove everybody crazy. When we got together, it was look, Wyclef - you know, my tattoo says Haiti. My daughter name Haiti, my project's name Haiti. Man, I just want to be from Haiti. I love you so much and everything you do. So we just naturally connected, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SWEAR")

WYCLEF JEAN AND YOUNG THUG: (Singing) Take you out your mama house - baby, smile. East Coast, West Coast, going shopping - change the way that you dress, Thousand Island - let you take over, I no longer need an accountant.

JEAN: He was, like, yo, you know, I just learned how to play trap. Let me show you what I do - played me all these incredible acoustic records, you know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you explain trap for me?

JEAN: I'm the perfect person because I'm a jazz major.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ah.

JEAN: OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK.

JEAN: So I'll start it with theory.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

JEAN: So...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, put your professorial voice on, please.

JEAN: All right. So we have bebop. We have jazz. We have blues. We have hip-hop, right? We have different forms of hip-hop. You remember, we had something called the boom bap, right? So now we have something which is called trap. So trap is a fusion of electronic sonics - very auto-tune heavy as far as, like - it more deals with, like, the electronics of the sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RING")

JEAN: (Singing) Caribbean connection put me all the way up. What goes up must come down, so Thugga pick me up. Hey, that's what I call that street cred. Take your chance in the lobby. You going to meet those old dreads...

So it's a combination of when you put that electronic against the voice. So our generation in the '90s was the boom-bap generation. We was moving at, like, 96, 97 tempo. The trap generation - that word replaces boom bap, right? So to my daughter, if you're like boom bap, she's like - Dad, what is boom bap? You know what I mean? She's, like, we be on that trap. You know, like we used to be on that boom bap. So once again, it's a different form of sonics that have entered a new culture within, like, this whole hip-hop invasion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By the way, you did that...

JEAN: I hope I helped.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was...

JEAN: I really hope I helped.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Very clear. And also, I like the way that, at the end, you repeated it again, just like a professor would. Did you get the point (laughter)?

JEAN: Yes...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is what it is.

JEAN: ...Yeah, sure. Definitely - professor Wyclef.

(SOUNDBITE OF WYCLEF JEAN SONG, "THE RING")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I heard you have your guitar and you sang a song about your Uber ride (laughter).

JEAN: I always have my guitar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Really?

JEAN: My favorite writing instrument.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

JEAN: Guitars and piano, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. So you just bring it with you wherever you go?

JEAN: Wherever I go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. How was the Uber ride?

JEAN: Always have it.

(Playing guitar, singing) The Uber ride was good, so good. But New York City's so cold, so cold.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The magic of Wyclef Jean - his new EP, "J'ouvert," is out now.

Thank you so much for being with us.

JEAN: Thank you. Enjoy the EP. Make sure you dance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I will.

JEAN: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLDING ON THE EDGE")

JEAN: (Singing) Invincible emotion. Look alive, look alive. Surrender to the ocean. You could dive, you could dive. But you waiting for the - just waiting for the one moment you could fall, but you might fly, so you holding on the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.