Wyclef Jean is a hip-hop luminary, multi-instrumentalist, composer and vocalist who is as likely to perform with a symphony orchestra as he is to lead a band doing his music, from his days with the Fugees and onward.
The multifaceted approach, Jean said, is modeled on that of Quincy Jones, the composer/musician/producer whom Jean calls his inspiration. Jones, who worked with Ray Charles as a teenager, was a jazz trumpeter, bandleader and musical director. He became an arranger and producer, most famously working with Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.
“I’m like a DNA of Quincy Jones,” Jean said in a recent phone interview. “He’s who I look up to. Think of this era — I’m a musician, an artist and a composer. You’re getting to hear the catalog from Wyclef the composer at all the performances. The crowd gets the juxtaposition of material they might not have even known I wrote, from ‘Maria, Maria’ I wrote for Santana and ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ with Shakira, right up to 2018.”
Taking the music to 2018 means that Jean will incorporate songs from “Carnival III,” the album he released in September, into performances like his stop at the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City on Tuesday night (3/6)
That record, his first studio album in six years, is filled with songs that Jean dubs a “global gumbo,” touching on everything from African-tinged jazz to gospel, R&B and hip-hop. It’s the third record in a series that began with “The Carnival,” his first solo record from 1997.
“The ‘Carnival III’ completes the trilogy,” he said. “We’re always doing music, music don’t stop. This material felt like it fit into the ‘Carnivals.’ But this will be it. There will be no more ‘Carnivals’ in this life. I wanted to close it. In 2017-2018, this is the mind of Wyclef today.”
The full title of the new album is “Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee.” That’s something of an autobiographical reference for Jean, who was born in Haiti and immigrated to the United States at age 9. Now 48, Jean said the refugee story, at its heart, is the story of the United States.
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“It’s ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, isn’t it?,” he said. “Whether you’re from Italy or Haiti, it’s that immigrant story. It’s the story of the country. This is why the food tastes the way it does. It’s why the music sounds the way it does. That’s where everything comes from. We’re all immigrants.”
Jean, who maintains a close relationship with Haiti — he even tried to run for president there in 2010 — was asked whether that message needs to be further emphasized in light of President Donald Trump’s apparent vulgar comments about Haiti and African nations.
“Agree 100 percent,” Jean replied.
He has written, produced and performed hits since his group, the Fugees, broke through in 1996 and is known for his work in hip-hop and rock. But he’s been into classical and jazz for decades.
“At the age of 15-16, I discovered jazz and classical music,” he said. “My whole thing was to get to Carnegie Hall. I actually was the first hip-hop artist to play Carnegie Hall with a philharmonic orchestra. When you listen to ‘Gone till November’ (from the first “Carnival” album), you can hear it. I’ve always incorporated symphonics in what I do.”
Hence, his “A Night of Symphonic Hip-Hop Tour” that will find him playing with five orchestras through the spring. For most of his dates, though, he’ll be doing a one-man show in support of “Carnival III.”
That tour will be on a stage set up to resemble Jean’s studio, where he has crafted hits since he began working on Fugees’ recordings by in the 1990s.
“You get to see me in the studio, in the creative process,” he said. “You get to see how I wrote ‘Killing Me Softly,’ ‘Hips Don’t Lie’. ‘Gone till November,’ all of them.”
That writing process, Jean said, isn’t calculated. It isn’t aimed at producing hits, as is the case with much contemporary pop and hip-hop music.
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“I don’t know what’s going to be a hit,” he said. “Anything I write, I get from an emotion. I can make music and make you feel like dancing. I can make music and make you feel love. I can make music and make you feel afraid. It’s all about the emotion.”
Jean’s going to be spending much of the spring on tour. But he’s already working toward his next goal — finding artists for Heads Music, the woman-founded and operated indie label with which he now works.
“The next thing is going to be: who is the next Beyonce, who is the next Shakira, who is the next Lauryn Hill, who is the next Michael Jackson,” Jean said. “My number one thing now is discovery. What’s the next phase? I’ve got that ear where I can spot the talent when it’s raw.”