It’s been ten years since the Fugees initially broke up, a year after the legendary group released The Score, one of the highest-selling hip-hop albums in history. The trio — Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill and Prakazrel Michel (better known as Praz) — has sporadically reunited in recent years, including a 2004 performance for Dave Chapelle’s Block Party. But the reunions were all short-lived.
Of course, the members haven’t necessarily been waiting around for the group to re-form — especially not Wyclef. Since the The Score, he’s released five solo albums, including the triple-platinum selling The Carnival (1997) — not to mention producing and remixing records and gaining global attention as a political activist. The Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant, the sequel to his debut, was released this week via Columbia, marking his return to that label group since 2002’s Masquerade. Here, he discusses his return to Columbia/Sony, his new album, 50 Cent versus Kanye, nerdy girls and, of course, the possibility of a Fugees reunion.
What’d you do today? How’s the day going?
Today was good. I did a cipher earlier today. We did it for BET, for the opening of the awards show. Sometimes you have to go back to the original. Before everything, I was a backpack cipher rapper. So we did the cipher with about five different rappers to show where the whole thing started.
Where were you in the cipher? Well, you know me. They’re always going to use me to set off the cipher. I used to be a battle emcee; that’s how I came up. One of my teachers was like, “You know, you’re not going to make money writing all those battle raps. You better start writing some songs.” So the guitar came in then.
How do you see hip-hop now versus what it was like when you were coming up?
Well, you have to understand that I’m a producer first, so I grew up admiring Quincy Jones and Dr. Dre as producers. So I always look at things through a different eye. Hip-hop is the voice of the youth and the culture of the ghetto. No matter what they’re going through, they’re going to represent through the music. Sometimes if you don’t pay attention to the pulse, you will find yourself lost. It’s almost like when we were coming up. I remember being the club, and I was doing the Humpty Hump. Then we was doing the Wop and the Cabbage Patch. My uncle was looking at me like, “What is this that you’re doing?” Today we look at all these dances — Lean Back, Chicken Noodle Soup, and Superman Souljah Boy — and we’re like, “Man, what are all these dances?” But I think it’s the voice of the youth, and that’s how they want to express themselves. Then you have someone like Lil Wayne, who’s relevant but more lyrical. I think for the young generation, they don’t understand that what they’re doing is not hip-hop. They feel like it’s part of the same culture; it’s just their version of how to express it.
What’d you think about the recent 50 Cent/Kanye showdown?
Kanye is a producer first, and I think 50 is an emcee first. I went and copped both CDs, and I knew what I would be getting from both of them. I copped Kanye’s because I wanted to see where he was going as a producer, ’cause I know where he’s going lyrically. He’s a great emcee. And once I heard “I Get Money,” it just felt like the old 50. I think it’s exciting for hip-hop. It’s almost like you got to find ways to sell records because people are going to download your shit anyway. You have to find ways to make it work.
The million-dollar question: Will the Fugees ever reunite?
The Carnival II was released via Columbia. What brought you back to Columbia versus going to another label?
As artists, we go through our ups and our downs. I was over at Columbia for over ten years and they know the Wyclef music. It’s very complicated but very simple. It’s complicated in the sense that I’m a very diverse artist, so it’s a blessing and curse at the same time. I could do stuff that could go over your head, and then you pick up on it two and a half years later, like the Shakira record “Hips Don’t Lie.” That’s old material, but it just hit now, right? And records like “If I Was President” didn’t get no radio airplay, but it’s still on the Internet and millions of people know it. So, Columbia got my swagger down pat. They know how to make it so that you can get your “Sweetest Girl” and you can get your Wyclef and Paul Simon record, then you can get your Wyclef and Shakira. It’s just within the marketing; they just got a better marketing strategy.
How do you feel about Rick Rubin helping run Columbia? Rick Rubin running Columbia is a blessing for me, because now I have a wizard. I know when he hears the material he fully gets it. I’ve done some work with him in the past, so I’m definitely excited.
“Sweetest Girl” is the lead single. What characteristics make up the “sweetest girl” in your mind? The joint the “Sweetest Girl” is about the girl that I was with in high school. She was the baddest girl in the school. But the thing about it is, this is what I’m telling the dudes: Let me give you guys a tip. The baddest chicks in high school, they become the busted chicks. And the nerdy chicks, the ones that have braces, after high school they become the Angelina Jolies. I’m telling you. So all of you in school, talk to the nerdy girls. I’m telling you. In high school, you might see a girl who’s fat. Then once she gets out of high school and goes to college, she’ll be like, “Hold up, I don’t want to be this big. I wanna get my swagger on.” Then she’ll get on some extreme diet and become the most bangin’ chick. So the “Sweetest Girl” is all the girls. I know you all of you guys are like, “Dag, Clef got the pimpin’ game down to T.” For real, the “Sweetest Girl” can be any girl. I don’t want no girl looking at this like, “He don’t think I’m the sweetest girl because I’m fat or because I’m skinny.” It’s all within the characteristics. My verse was about the “Sweetest girl, she got on crack/ she still the sweetest girl.” Akon’s verse was about the stripper; she’s not trying to ho, but she’s still the sweetest girl. Weezy’s verse is sleeping with the pastor, and she’s still the sweetest girl. Pick your choice, but don’t disrespect the women for what they do. You go to the strip bar, drop a hundred.
What are you trying to do with this album?
When you put on Carnival II, you’re going to feel like you live in the era of what’s going on currently at the time. It’s like CNN and BBC, but the Carnival II brings it to you through music. You’re going to be able to understand how I feel the world is and how it should be. We always talk about destruction, but we don’t talk about hope. So this album, we’re not just saying they got gangbangers on every block. We not saying that. We’re saying if y’all put YMCAs in these communities, maybe you’d get a different outlook.
The album features a ton of big-name guests, from Paul Simon to Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Who was the hardest person to schedule? Because the artists that I went for, the dream list was crazy. Mary J. Blige, Shakira, Norah Jones, Paul Simon, then Chamillionaire, T.I., Akon. I don’t know whose other album you could put these guests on. The thing about it is that when I said Paul Simon, a lot of people thought I had an imaginary friend because they were like, “How’s Paul Simon gonna come to the studio. Clef, we understand everybody else, but that one, we don’t know how you’re going to pull that one off.” Paul Simon, I will say, was a real surprise for us. I learned a lot just watching him in the studio.
You’ve worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Michael Jackson. Have you ever been intimidated working with an artist? What you gotta understand is that I’m the son of an immigrant. I’m a fan of everybody first. When I go in the studio, my therapy is letting the artist be the artist. When you’re in the studio with me, you don’t even think I’m the producer. So when I’m in the studio with Shakira, I’m a fan. When I’m in the studio with Paul Simon, I’m a fan. I think the real magic comes when the artist is comfortable.
Through the years you’ve worked with a lot of young artists. Are there any new artists to be on the look-out for? Yeah, right now on the “Sweetest Girl,” we got this girl Nia. She’s nineteen years old, by way of Italy and Boston. She was a prodigy at fourteen in jazz, and she just got into hip-hop. She’s on her edge to mix that stuff up, and it’s going to sound crazy. But definitely on the look-out for a lot of talent right now. You know I got my own studio, Platinum Sounds, right? So I’m starting something called Platinum Jams, and then I’m going to setup a website for it. You can come from all over the country and you get to audition on the Platinum Jams. And if you’re coming to my studio to perform, make sure you got some form of musical background. Don’t just say you’re going come rap for thirty-two bars. That’s no good. If you’re doing good, the crowd is going to rock out with you. If you’re doing bad, you’re going to get a boot thrown at you.
Compared to most artists, you seem more involved with what’s going in the world. What were your thoughts when you first heard about Jena Six?
The first thing that came to my head was racism being revealed in a place where it was hidden. See, the new generation of kids, we always say we’re not racist. We’re not into it. But then you see these little towns that hold onto that old regime, and they don’t want to let it go. So, it has to be fair play for everybody, and I don’t feel those kids should’ve been charged with what they were charged with. Coming from Brooklyn, trust me: That was a Walt Disney beating. Those kids should not have been charged if those kids that put up the noose weren’t charged with a hate crime. I think kids go through that stuff coming up. Kids get beat down, but at the end of the day it makes you see everything going on with the prosecutor. You figured this one out, but imagine all the black kids before this that you didn’t figure out who are still in prison because of unfair play. I mean that dude was like, “I can ruin your life with this pen.” He did say that. He gets the gas face.