Q&A: Wyclef Jean Talks “Carnival” Album Series, Working With Women & New Mixtape

Wyclef Jean
via Heads Music

Celebrating his return to music after eight years, as well as the release of his latest studio album, Wyclef Jean is currently traveling on his Carnival Tour — his first full tour in 10 years.

Establishing himself as a multi-talented musician, Wyclef Jean has written, performed, and produced — both as a solo artist and as the founding member of hip-hop group the Fugees. In 1996, the Fugees released their classic album The Score, which featured their reinvention of Roberta Flack’s 1973 ballad “Killing Me Softly.” The album hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has been certified 6x platinum since.

His latest album, Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, dropped last year in September and features contributions from Supah Mario, The Knocks, and more.

While on tour, we caught up with Wyclef to talk about hip-hop culture, 20 years of the Carnival series, working with a woman founded indie label, and his new mixtape, Wyclef Goes Back to School, where he’ll be featuring up-and-coming talent from 20 colleges across the country.

via Heads Music

Let’s talk about the Carnival III?

Yea, so the Carnival III is a trilogy. It completes Carnival one and two. What makes the Carnival III kinda special is because the kids that were like 12 years old, 13 inspired producers like Supah Mario that produces for Drake now or The Knocks, who are doing a lot of big things. This album, the Carnival, was a lot of their blueprint. So they were very excited about the Carnival III. We all got together and put the sonics of 1997 meets 2018. That’s the best way to describe it. This is what happens when 1997 meets 2018.

We’re talking about the two generations coming together that have inspired the music sonically, covering over a 20-year gap?

Definitely, 100 percent. I’m like a sonic buff. As a producer, that’s one of our things. I like to look at a lot of these young kids and how they’re moving and how they listened to the Carnival coming up, and how they incorporated their sonics. That’s what made it incredible like man beats machine.

What would you say your most memorable studio session was working with new talent?

It’s really timeless. I never know. I remember I was having a conversation with Carlos Santana, and he was like “Yo, we don’t do music, we create vibrations.”‘ He said “Vibrations are limitless, it doesn’t matter any era, any genre, they will feel the vibrations.” Three days later, I get a call from DJ Khaled and he’s like, “Yo, I want to sample to record you wrote for Santana,” and then he and Rihanna did the record over and it became a hit again. So, for me, the most memorable part of the Carnival is to see how the young generation, how their eyes were glowing in the studio with me, and then me having a feeling of inspiration being in the studio with them. Now, I understand how it feels when Quincy Jones was in there with Michael Jackson, or when Teddy Riley was in there with Mike. There’s no better composition because the pulse is always in the youth. So, when you’re forever young, you always know what the new dance is, you always know what the sonic is, you always know what the tempo is.

Would you say you learn a lot about today’s music and the younger generation from your daughter?

Yes. She’s the pulse. Everything I do from now on is about her, right? She’s the pulse. It’s hard for me not to stay hip with her, because, if you’re a rapper and you’re dope, she knows who you are, from the underground on up. She’s in the suburbs and her friends are listening to A$AP Ferg. They’re only like 12 years old, you know what I mean? That’s just incredible.

Who do you listen to from the newer artists releasing music today?

I listen to everything. I listen to A$AP Ferg, I listen to Drake, I listen to Kendrick Lamar, I listen to Migos, Future, I listen to everything. It’s so funny because when I hear certain melodies that they’re doing, I can remember and refer certain things back to the Carnival. I love a lot of the melodic stuff because I’ve always combined singing and rhyming together. I’ve always loved the idea of melody rhyming.

Can you talk a little about your relationship with Young Thug? Did you hear he changed his name to Sex?

It’s all love. That’s my nephew man. Nothing but love for Thugger. He keeps pushing the envelope. He’s incredible. I think it’s dope. Prince changed his name to the symbol, you know what I mean? They key is reinvention. Once the crowd has completely figured out who you are, then you’re no longer. You know what I mean? So, the fact that someone can constantly be like, “I’m gonna change my name, I’m gonna change the vibe.” This is what art is. Art is freedom, and I think a lot of people forget that and they just do one thing. When you do one thing for too long, it kinda gets boring to people.

You’re currently on the first full tour that you’ve put on in about 10 years. What are your favorite songs to perform? Are you excited to perform any new songs from the Carnival III?

I just love that the show is like a time capsule, you know? The show takes you from 1996, 1997 and we finish in 2018. It’s insane to have so much music and continue to put music out that sticks with the theme. For me, it’s incredible we can go from “Ready Or Not” to a record that’s called “Hendrix” from J’ouvert that’s streaming over 50 million, you know? The song that I love rocking from the new one is a song that’s called “Turn Me Good,” very sexy vibe, and another record called “Slum.” My favorite though is a record called “Warriors.”

You mentioned streaming. The way mainstream music is released now days has obviously changed since the release of the first Carnival album. I thought it was interesting how the release of each Carnival album can be used as a benchmark in history, on the way music is released. Can you talk about the streaming numbers and the success of “Hendrix” and what that means to you?

Yea, definitely. It’s a conversion, right? Because you go from vinyl to CD and cassettes and now were in the streaming generation right? So, from cassette rates to streaming rates now. It’s interesting because very few artists from the 90’s can successfully cross over to the different platforms. When you do the analytics, you’re like “Holy sh*t.” If “Hendrix” is streaming like 30, 40, then 50 million, if that was back in the day, that would have been a 45. That’s considered a single. It would have literally been like 50 million people just picked this thing up.

It’s just so crazy how things spread quicker and worldwide. So, the numbers are massive instantly because of the world appeal, which is incredible. Once again, if you noticed we didn’t put the Carnival III out, we put an EP out first because the word was changing. So, I was like, “Nah I’m not trying to be an artist that comes back and people be like ‘Who’s this guy performing with this person.’ ” You know what I mean? Whenever we’re coming out the grassroots are always the most important things. To me, an EP reminds me of an old 45-inch, when you put some music out before you put the album out, and get people warmed up. With the EP’s and the mixtapes, people get a tone and a sensibility of where you’re at mentally. If you haven’t been out in a while, why do an album? Put out an EP, so the fans that used to connect with you can be like, “Oh sh*t, this motherf*cker is still here and he’s still doing it and he’s still relevant.” You can’t just throw music out there. You gotta grind. You can’t skip it. You gotta put in the grind part.

“Thank God For The Culture” is probably my favorite song off the Carnival III because I am a huge hip-hop stan and the way you made reference to different artists and different songs and albums really resonated with me. What does hip-hop mean to you?

Hip-hop is life to me. We were just doing hip-hop ’cause it was sorta like this wasn’t the Bible. Coming from Haiti, I was going to be part of a gang regardless and hip-hop allowed me to be apart of a musical gang. Graffiti, you know what I mean? The breakdancing. The art of the poetry. Can you imagine? Without hip-hop, I wouldn’t be here today. There would be no Wyclef Jean, there would be no Jay-Z, there would be no Eminem. The power of hip-hop. No Biggie, no Tupac. Wow. Do you see how boring the world is starting to get as I’m telling you this? So, “Thank God For The Culture”…

Do you feel like hip-hop history should be appreciated more?

I think that every generation will go back and find different parts of history. Like Thugger, he found parts that he liked. Every kid will find what they’re gonna dig into. I don’t feel like every kid is responsible to say you should know this or that. To each his own. You might have a kid who’s like, “I don’t want to know anything; I just want to know what I’m doing.” Right? Muhammad Ali came in, he didn’t care who the boxers were of the past. He was like, “I’m Muhammad Ali and I’m going to rip you apart.” Then you have an artist like Kendrick Lamar, different artist, that you can see they were like, “Okay this was my inspiration, that was my influence.” J. Cole; Nas, that’s my influence. So those artists, they always rise up to the top.

Being a big-time producer yourself, can you give us your top five producers of all time?

My top five of all time is Pharrell, Jimmy Iovine, Quincy Jones, and I have to put a conductor in there and a composer Gershwin, my man — he did Porgy and Bess like the most insane stuff. And the fifth guy — who I love the most — is Salaam Remi, who did Amy Winehouse, The Fugees. He’s one of my favorite of all time.

What about your top five hip-hop groups?

For me: Eric B & Rakim, ’cause they set a tone and foundation. I think Public Enemy is another one because they basically defied what everybody said that they were going to do. Basically, they did it their way, which was insane. I think another group that set the god damn stone for us is Sugarhill Gang. They should be recognized because these dudes did a whole landmark of where the music was going. I thought that was incredible. Snoop and Dr. Dre, the baddest duo that I’ve ever seen, that I think is definitely insane. The fifth would, of course, be The Fugees.

Being a Fugee or refugee has actually been a consistent theme in your music. What can you say about the subtitle of the Carnival III: The Fall And Rise Of A Refugee?

The whole idea is to let people know it’s not what you do when you fall, but what you do when you get back up and rise. That’s the whole concept. That’s basically what I try to push and just let people know that tomorrow will be better. Don’t let anybody tell you different. That’s the whole idea and it’s okay to fall. It’s not what you do when you fall, but what you do when you rise.

With March being women’s history month, and women’s empowerment and the current #MeToo movement being huge themes in today’s news, I wanted to ask you how does it feel working with a female-founded and -led indie label? I was really impressed with you linking up with Heads Music.

I think women are the power. My mom is a woman, you know? At the end of the day, I think its a great label. I think they’re innovating and I don’t think no one does it like a woman. I don’t care what anybody says. Women are passionate, they’re smart and they put — we men will put 100 percent and a woman will put 1,000 percent into it. For me, I love Heads because it’s an indie label which focuses on finding who the next artist is for the future. I’m very excited about that.

A new project you’re working on, Wyclef Goes Back To School features talent from 20 colleges across the county. Can you give us a little insight on that?

In my college days, I was in the dorm and I had a campus band. Every week, we would show up on campus and there would be 2- or 3,000 people. I feel a lot of talent comes from the campuses and from the campuses will rise the most incredible talent. I think what happens is with this mixtape, that we already started to do, we’re going to recruit some of the dopest talents throughout America. Some of them will make the take and even if they don’t make the take, when we come back for the college tour, if they’re that dope, we’ll have them open up for us. It’s kinda very exciting. We already started with a girl from USC. The first girl that we went and rocked with, her name is Moira Mack.