Clefication: The genesis of Wyclef Jean’s past, present and future
What do you ask a man who formed the legendary Fugees, produced one of hip-hop’s most influential albums, won three Grammy Awards throughout his musical career, and attempted to run for the presidency of Haiti?
“What are you wearing?”… That’s my first question for Wyclef Jean.
It’s three degrees without the wind chill factor in New York City: the coldest winter day yet and the foyer of ABC Studios isn’t much warmer. The work crowd steadily floods from the elevators after the stroke of 5pm; men in suits, women in business attire — ESPN’s Colin Cowherd is the first distinguishable face to make an exit. The first until Clef & Co. file out of an elevator and head toward the vestibule.
His flamboyant attire and immediate mannerisms are recognizable from a distance. Wyclef is approaching the lobby, one hand holding his phone to his ear, the other carrying his acoustic guitar. He’s dressed in all shades of white, from his Giuseppe Zanotti boots to his studded Dolce & Gabbana jacket. “It’s some old-school Dolce though,” he would later tell me.
Of course, fashion isn’t going to be the focus of our conversation, despite the fact that it is New York Fashion Week. I catch bits and pieces of Clef’s phone call and recognize the topic of music even through the sophisticated lingo.
We originally had planned to walk over to a Starbucks around the corner, but found it far too cold to walk even that one-block distance. Instead, the two of us rush out the door and hop in a blacked out Suburban parked conveniently in front of the building.
And now it’s right back to the “What do I ask a man who…” concern. On the one hand, I could spend days talking about the The Score, winning the Grammy for Best Rap Album in 1997, what it was like recording with Lauryn Hill or anything else Fugees-related. On the other, I could spend days digging into The Carnival and its place in music history. This time, neither would be the case — intentionally, that is.
Following a conversation around more current topics, however, I’d learn everything there is to know about the origins and philosophies of Wyclef’s long and laudable career. For one of the world’s brightest musicians, the lifeblood is through a sort of musical genesis — “genesis” being a term Wyclef would use a handful of times throughout our time together.
The back seat of Clef’s ride presents a far more intimate setting than a Starbucks and the bitter cold outside is quickly forgotten. We square up on Sweden. For Wyclef Jean, it’s the destination that followed his political run in Haiti, where he came close to running for his home nation’s presidency in 2010.
In Stockholm, he has friends old and new. The old? “The first time I went to Stockholm was 1999; I hosted the MTV Awards, so for me I have a lot of great musician friends there.” The new? Tim Bergling and Ash Pournouri.
His work with Avicii goes over my head for a moment. “Why Sweden?” I ask, “Was something lacking in other areas of the world?”
“It’s like when Jimi Hendrix went to England, he was searching for something. Marley went to Switzerland. For me as a musician, I was in search. As a student of the pulse, you have to know where the pulse is. Sometimes if it’s not in your city, you have to go find where the pulse is.”
He goes on to tell me that it’s the idea of inspiration that keeps the heartbeat going; putting the complexity of his Hendrix comparison in its simplest form. “I was hearing modern day Wyclef different, like when I heard the record ‘Wake Me Up’ I was like, I could be the one singing that entire vocal.”
“It’s cold.” He’s not talking about tonight’s weather in New York City, he’s talking about Stockholm, as he begins running me through his experience at Ash Pournouri’s PRMD studios. He appreciates the different studios being in separate rooms, and the comfort the studio presents that make him feel at home. “The couches are really fluffy.” It’s clear he recalls these sessions vividly.
“I’d be on guitar and Tim would come in, plug his keyboard in, and we’d sit there and write the songs from the perspective of two song writers. People like to classify genres like ‘EDM producer and hip-hop reggae producer’ but for us when we’re writing the songs, it’s not based off those sounds.”
He explains, “It’s based off the piano, the guitar, the melodies.” There’s nothing forced, there’s no EDM talk, no hip-hop talk, no reggae talk. It’s an organic collaboration between musicians. “That’s the genesis of what we do as songwriters.”
The list of artists who’ve plead their case for Avicii and his work in the studio is long and star-studded, so I ask Wyclef for his perspective on what it was like working with the esteemed producer.
Straight away, it’s an anecdote that explains why Wyclef’s hat is currently emblazoned with the hashtag #Clefication. “He’s the one who gave the album its title, Clefication. Whenever he’d want more of that island swag on the record he’d be like ‘Yo! Give me more of that Clefication,’ so that’s how that came about.” But Avicii contributed far more than accidentally giving Clef’s album its name.
“What amazed me most about Tim is his library of musical knowledge. You’d think Tim was born in the 80’s or something because his music repertoire — from reggae to classic rock — is insane.” I’d heard this one before. But he goes on to cite specific moments of Avicii’s brilliance.
Clef describes an insightful session where Avicii “Just starts singing… Tim is singing the entire record,” followed by another where he references Ray Charles. Clef’s list of stories goes on. “He likes the Mo Town era, so he plays a couple chords and tries to figure it out.”
As if the world has suddenly stopped, Wyclef pauses for a moment; “I find it very, very fascinating.” His eyes light up as his runs his fingers through his beard, flooded with memories of his time spent collaborating with Avicii. Almost at a loss for words, or for lack of time to continue on with stories, he sums up Tim’s work ethic humorously, but with no intention of joking.
“If people want to say ‘Clef’s a genius, or Tim’s a genius.’ I’d say nah man, Tim’s a wizard. The stuff I’ve seen this guy do, it’s really some Harry Potter sh*t. Avicii is Harry Potter baby, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
That’s one I’ve never heard before. We share a laugh, but before I can think about what Avicii would look like with a scar on his forehead, waving around a wand, I dive deeper into the conversation of collaborations and ask who else he’ll be working with for Clefication.
He’s looking forward to a record with Emeli Sandé: “We already started writing this song, it feels like some Sam Cooke, Fugees vibe.” He’s already hit the studio with Afrojack for session he describes as “very dope, once again, the genesis of the music starting with songwriting.” There’s our favorite word again. He’s been working with people he feels are “as cool but as weird” as himself, including his old friend DJ Khaled.
“I want to do something with Rick Ross. I have a guitar idea I want to try out with Drake. I’m a huge, huge fan of Nicki Minaj, I think we can do some big island vibey sh*t that can be crazy. Real energy sh*t, epic and fun.”
Name drops of the hottest artists on the planet are pouring out, as if his own name wasn’t enough to stir excitement around Clefication. What you’ll notice if you trace back his career is that he’s collaborated with some of pop music’s greatest talents — or he discovered said talents on the brink of their future greatness. When I ask if anything has changed in his approach over the course of his career, he quickly answers: “The genesis of it is all the same.”
He goes on to talk about the learning process of producing The Score, the Fugees album that won Best Rap Album at the 1997 Grammy Awards. He fell in love with equipment, certain gears, certain synthesizers. “15 years later it’s still the same thing, if I hear a sound I’m like ‘What keyboard is that, how can I fuse that into sounds.'”
The conversation quickly leads him into production talk, both new and old. The new; “I think y’all are going to really dig the new Wyclef production, a lot of the new sonics and what I’ve been dipping into that could be really interesting.” The old: he dates back to discovering artists such as Beyoncé and Lauryn Hill, producing with them before anyone knew what they were capable of.
Now working with an independent label, he’s able to work with new artists. It’s an opportunity that has rekindled his passion to discover.”A big part of my career is the idea of discovery. I’m always discovering what’s going to be the next thing, that’s more exciting for me than anything else.” Discovery brings us to the new talent he’s excited about: a 20-year-old vocalist he’s heard that reminds him of Erika Badu and another who sings bilingually with ease.
Back to Clefication? “It fits in the space of where The Carnival fit. Just eclectic,” he references his magnum opus. “That was 1997, it’s even easier today than it was back then. When I was doing an album and singing, rhyming, speaking English, Spanish, French, Creole, people were like ‘What part of the store do you want us to place this in?'”
“If you love Beck you’re going to love this album, if you love Coldplay you’re going to love this album, if you love Jay Z’s last album you’re going to love this. For me it boils down to great songwriting, the only thing that changes is the sonics, just modern day sonics.”
It’s definitely exciting, and Wyclef echoes that himself: “What does a Clef guitar sound like against a trap beat and a Clef vocal?,” he asks, then answers rhetorically, “Like, even though the drums change they still say the same.” At the bedrock of it all, “Anyone who likes eclectic music is definitely going to dig Clefication.”
He says an album is always about a body of work, as his forthcoming project is, as well as the product, referencing “Divine Sorrow” to illustrate; “The quality of it, the sonics of it, it just sounds rich. It’s not just throwing Clef with Avicii and trying to do some weird EDM sh*t.”
As we wrap up the interview, it becomes abundantly clear who Clef is as an artist, and what Clefication truly means. From Fugees and The Carnival to Haiti and Stockholm, ‘Clefication’ is the genesis of Wyclef Jean’s past, present and future.