A funny thing happened to Wyclef Jean that led to the recording of From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansions. He was approached on the street by a young autograph seeker, who was disappointed to find Jean was not Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas. Rather than throwing a tantrum and ending up on TMZ, Jean decided to back away from the pop tendencies that have characterized much of his recent work and reestablish his reputation as a rapper. Not an easy task, given that indelible quality of the video for “Hips Don’t Lie,” but Jean seems committed. He created a new alter ego, Toussaint St. Jean, specifically to give voice to the project, and decided to record in a “mix tape” format, with DJ Drama providing the beats. It might be easy to dismiss this as one more millionaire rapper trying to reclaim the edginess of his youth, but Jean is quick to point out that he never went soft; he went exploring. From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansions is a reminder that no matter where he goes as a musician, Wyclef has remained in touch with his roots.
How exactly does From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansions fit into the mixtape genre?
It comes from the era when I was coming up, and the mixtape was how music got out there. From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansions is recorded in that style. It’s beat driven with pure spitting over it. The focus is on Clef spitting rather than the music in the background. In a lot of my music, the arrangement can overshadow the lyrics. I didn’t want that to happen to here. Drama is the narrator, and his job is to provide the bridge between the songs. He’s not up front with the gangsta grizzly, but it’s right under the surface. This album is approached from a purely hip-hop point of view.
Is From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansions looking back on the early days of your career or exploring an alternate path?
It’s a celebration of the early days. I started out on the island, made it up through the projects, and up to the top of the game. From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansions is who I was back in the day, spitting all day long and trying to get by.
Why did you feel the need to return to your roots at this point in your career?
You don’t know where you going if you don’t know where you’ve been. I’m about to go as far out as I’ve ever been on the new album. If I want people to follow me there, they need to remember that before all of the collaborations, before “Hips Don’t Lie,” I came up on the strength of my words.
How does From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansions serve as a bridge to your next album?
The thing is that before I bring in a totally new point of view and try to create something that shows where I am now, I wanted to create something for all those people that “He don’t spit no more.” Wyclef Jean is a singer. This was the time to go big, to go back to the roots. From the beginning of my career, there’s never been an album that was all Wyclef. When I do a concert, I usually start off just with my guitar and come out for about five songs to get the party done started. People create their own versions of my songs, and they would ask why I never did anything like that on a record.
How did the creation of the Toussaint character figure in the process?
Toussaint was the revolutionary, and he was the reflection of my own tendencies toward evolution and revolution. That’s what hip-hop allows. I can be the preacher’s son. I can be Toussaint. He’s far from who I am on a daily basis, but he represents a different side of my brain. Creating him put me in the place I needed to be to tell the story.
I kept thinking of The Harder They Come when I’m listening to it. Was that in your thoughts at all?
I love Jimmy Cliff, and that movie is unrivaled. I wasn’t consciously trying to update that story or replace it, but it was there subconsciously when the album was being made. The CD is a narrative that doesn’t stop on the island. I took those steps, and so Toussaint takes them.
Why do you think that so many in the hip-hop community reference Scarface instead of The Harder They Come?
I don’t know, really. I’ve never really bought into Scarface because it’s so unrealistic. There are so many points in that movie when Pacino would have been killed in real life. That’s what’s different about The Harder They Come; it’s a real story. In the islands you don’t play. It doesn’t matter if it’s your song playing on the jukebox or not; some guy’s going to try to jook you for a drink. If you disrespect those guys, they’ll cut your face. That’s reality, and that’s what in The Harder They Come.
Were you ever tempted to go deeper into the character, possibly take your name entirely off the album?
Toussaint is a character, but he’s still me. I’m considered to be the modern-day Toussaint, but I don’t believe in using violence in my revolution. I thought about “Wyclef introduces Toussaint St. Jean,” but that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, because he really is me. He’s a reflection of the part of me that’s spitting.
Is this the last we’ve seen of Toussaint, or will he feature in your upcoming album?
Some of these joints will lead into the material on the new album, so there’s a good chance that he’ll be on the album, at least in spirit.
What would you say to those who are critical of the album’s content, given the positive message of your recent work?
Those people need to go pick up Blunted On Reality and The Score: “Grab your guns, boy, .45 by my side.” I’ve been telling these stories for my entire career. People like me for Shakira, but this isn’t the album for them. This album is directed to the audience who will understand those kinds of stories.
Then how is Cyndi Lauper making an appearance on this album?
I just came from a party in Philly with some of the most hardcore DJs in the city, and that was the track that they were playing the most. Cyndi Lauper doesn’t seem like the first choice for this kind of record, but she’s known in Flatbush. People in Brooklyn will appreciate her part in the song. And there’s really only one man who’s going to give you something like that. When I hear M.I.A., it sounds like what Cyndi was doing back in the ’80s. I could have had M.I.A. come in and do a verse, but having Cyndi on the album will poke more eyes. That’s really something only I could do, you know? There are things happening in my head that are just crazy. Toussaint is a part of that, and Cyndi is a part of that. It’s all Wyclef.
From the Hut, To the Projects, to the Mansion will be released on Nov. 10 from R.E.D. Distribution.