September is a tough month for Wyclef Jean. On the Sept. 11, 2001, he could see, from where he was in Jersey, the smoke billowing from what remained of the World Trade Center twin towers. Just four days before, his father, a reverend, died in a car accident. ”It was the most painful era for me,” he says. While the 34-year-old has persevered, others from his past have not, namely a certain former Fugee collaborator. Clef, as he sometimes refers to himself, lives in between Miami and Haiti, but was in New York on Sept. 12, following a rainy and somber 9/11 anniversary. He met with EW to discuss his new album, titled The Carnival II: Memoirs from an Immigrant, his humanitarian efforts as an ambassador of Haiti, and explains why Lauryn Hill ”needs to see a psychiatrist.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So your new album is slated to come out.
WYCLEF JEAN: Yeah, did you hear it? I’m going to start quizzing you.
I’m the one that’s supposed to be asking the questions.
On No. 9…
Actually I do like No. 9, the track with Chamillionaire.
Ah yeah, No. 9, ”Immigracion.” Did you hear the Selena joint?
Yep. What inspired you to write about her now?
The way I came up with the Selena joint is the way Elton John wrote to Marilyn Monroe. Like, I wish I would had gotten to know her. I would tell her, ”Yo, I’m from Haiti and the way my people look at me and the pride that I instill in them, you instill the same pride in your Mexicans.”
And there’s some of her in it, right?
Yeah, I sampled her voice. And then the singer who’s singing is a Mexican girl by the name of Melissa, which Steve Rifkin signed and she sings R&B — incredible singer. But the deep thing about that song is her father never cleared that sample. But when he heard my version, he was like, ”This don’t sound like somebody’s trying to make money off of Selena.” So he was really excited about the whole movement and cleared the record.
I also liked ”Heaven’s in New York,” loved ”Slow Down,” and the Serj [of System of the Down] track was good too.
”Heaven’s in New York” — basically I feel like there’s no place like America. Despite what we’re going through in the United States… it’s still a good place. I think we lack leadership. So ”Heaven’s in New York” is my tribute to those that lost their lives. The first thing [you hear]: ”Take the twin towers/Put them back in the skyline.” I let things pass for a few years. Here’s a song of inspiration out of somberness.
Yesterday was kind of a crazy day. The rain, and it being the first Tuesday [the day of the week on Sept. 11, 2001] to fall on the 11th.
Yeah, it was a weird day. That’s the year my dad died, four days before 9/11. I mean, that was the most devastating time of my life. I can’t really even talk about it. I think that era just shook me so much emotionally, I slowly had to find my way back.
It’s been six years. Do you feel like you’ve persevered?
Man, I’ve grown. I’m comfortable with myself as an individual. I don’t need hype no more. Sometimes people just thrive off the hype. It’s like I don’t know when my last album came out, but I know this one’s going to do good. Seeing my dad pass, he always said, the truth is always going to prevail no matter what. This album to me is like when Bob Marley did his Exodus and Marvin Gaye did What’s Going On. This is my version of the CNN or the BBC — hate, passion — going through my eyes.
What about the track with T.I., ”Slow Down”?
I’m fighting with the label because that’s my favorite record. I would love for that to be my next single. For me, that’s like when Billy Joel did ”We Didn’t Start the Fire,” da-da-duh-da-da-duh. It’s the emotion of it. To hear my voice singing and then T.I. rhyming, answering line by line. That’s some, like, real Pink Floyd meets hip-hop s—. As much of a hip-hop head as I am, I’m a rock head, you know what I’m saying. When I was growing up, I’d be listening to the Police and cats would be like, ”What the hell is The Police? You got love for the police?” It was like, ”Nah, homey, it’s a band.”
One of our writers interviewed T.I. earlier this year and he was saying that until you started working with him, you weren’t feeling as inspired. Is that true?
I was just not inspired in the rap world — at all. I was inspired [by] world music. I was just like, I’m going to go into the scoring side of it. Like Hotel Rwanda, I got nominated for a Golden Globe [for the song ”Million Voices”]. Maybe my time is over for that world, [I thought], the mainstream, the boom, boom, boom. But when I’d seen T.I. on the carpet and he was like, ”Homey, we gotta get together, we gotta do something, you know what I’m saying.” I was like, Yo, this is a young blood who was like really doing it right now. If he’s checking for me like that, maybe I should just try a few more records. So I went to go see him in Atlanta and I brought all of these new crazy beats that me and my cousin and brother were working on. We start vibing … I think we did seven or eight songs in like two or three days. And I was like, Oh, you know what, maybe I’ll just start producing rappers again. Cats, I tell them, T.I.P. gave me the swagger for the new generation. And now I’m going to run with it.
I was sort of intrigued by the split personality theme of his new album: There’s T.I., the social commentator, and T.I.P. who’s more of a thug. Do you think there’s a parallel there with the hip-hop community where on the one hand you have to be hard, but on the other you want to be the humanitarian?
You know, Clef was born in the hut. I used to go to school on a donkey. I’m from Haiti. Check the news. I’m from a place that’s beyond thug, so like, I never had to pose nothing. You never hear, Oh Clef had his jewelry taken [or] Clef was on the block, he got smacked. Clef got jumped in the club. That don’t exist because I’m a man.
But do you think that pressure exists in the hip-hop community?
I think that there used to be that pressure. It’s not as much now because now you mostly got party records. Even the fool with the gold teeth who’s telling you he’s a thug, shaking his ass. He’s just in the club, having some champagne: ”Ah-ha, everything is good now.” [At the same time] I think we live the reality of the streets.
There are so many guests on this album: T.I., Paul Simon, Serj from System of the Down, Chamillionaire, Norah Jones. Why do you work with so many people?
I’m a producer first. That’s my passion. And then the rhyming and the singing…. I like to bring a bulk of work to you, like Amadeus, you know. So when you get a Clef CD, you’re getting an event for real. If you get Wyclef and Paul Simon or Clef with Norah Jones or Chamillionaire over a Bollywood Bhangra beat, rhyming about Texas, you getting a movie for real. And for me, those are the kind of movies I like to put together.
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