Wyclef Jean on 'Carnival III,' Sampling Sounds of Jupiter & Cultural Appropriation

Wyclef Jean
Karl Ferguson

Wyclef Jean

"Every 10 years, I’ve got a new scheme. So I’m very excited about these next 10 years."

It’s been 20 years since Wyclef Jean graced the world with his versatile debut solo album, Carnival, following his impactful run with The Fugees. Fast forward through two decades of breaking hit records, establishing stars and becoming the self-proclaimed hip-hop guitarist, and the Haitian-born musician is ready to close out his album series as an independent artist working with Sofar Sounds.

Marking as the last album in his Carnival trilogy and his first LP since 2009, with Carnival III Jean is ready to unveil his teachings from his soul search over the last few years with having previously taken a musical hiatus in hopes of becoming the president of Haiti. While that dream was unfortunately deterred in 2010, Wyclef has gotten back in touch with his purpose, recruiting the next generation to help with his new musical journey.

While debates of cultural appropriation have been brought to the surface over pop culture taking on the trend of Afrobeats and island-inspired sounds, the Brooklyn native -- who has made a career from infusing his Caribbean roots into his own hip-hop music -- is in full support of the movement.

Jean is even experimenting with some literally out-of-this-world audio, having sampled sounds from the planet Jupiter onto his recent record, “Borrowed Time.” After building a new taste bud for music, Wyclef seems hopeful for the future of music and even believes that his former Fugees member, Lauryn Hill -- who has not released a full project since Miseducation in 1998 -- would fit in beautifully in today’s climate.

Billboard chatted with Wyclef Jean at Sofar’s pop-up show in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he discussed his new Carnival III album, sampling sounds from Jupiter and what a new Lauryn Hill album might sound like. Check out the full conversation below.

Talk to me about your music hiatus and what sparked you to come back?

For me, I originally took the musical hiatus because I wanted to become president of Haiti. I really felt like we had a shot. My country has been suffering for a very long time and in my country I’m a leader. I’m a leader of the youth. Over like 70 percent of the population is under 21, so I felt like we were going to have a chance. I told my boys that I can always do music. That’s like drinking water for me. I’m not even from the projects. I’m from a hut. I used to take a donkey to school.

I didn’t get to America until I was 10. Music is a gift that the gods give us, but if our people need our help, I really got to take time off and try and help. We all need that at some point. Soul searching is important because when you get to the level, you got to understand where I’m at. I came from Haiti at 10 years old. At 24 years old, I had more money than I could spend. I’m talking 30 to 40 million dollars.

At the end of the day, the Fugees is short for refugees, so we were looking at people like Bono from U2 and Bob Marley. We were thinking that we weren’t even going to do music, we were going to do movements. For me, that’s my DNA and what I’m built on. I would take time off for that. When I left to try and become president, that was right after “Hips Don’t Lie” with Shakira.... Sometimes the hardest thing for you to do is walk away from being a rock star. If you can do that shit, you come back so much more stronger because you find a purpose greater than people screaming every night.

How did you end up collaborating with Sofar in your new music comeback.

I’m part of this indie label called Heads Music. This label consists of all females. There’s an innovation drive that feels like the '90s with a love for culture and a preservation of music. Them understanding the Wyclef brand and that I’m raw. I always hate when an artist is trying to make a comeback musically and then I see you at the Super Bowl. Then it’s like, "Yo, you just killed your whole career before you even started it again." You have kids like Young Thug that’s like, “This song is called ‘’Wyclef Jean,’ so Clef, come in the studio. You inspire me.”

That’s why I pay homage to independent artists. The Fugees got a deal afterwards, but like 17 labels passed on us. We weren't even on Columbia yet. We were on Ruffhouse. Ruffhouse was an independent label trying to do what we did. At the end of the day, I was like, we’re doing these pop ups, but where is the next Lauryn? Where’s the next Beyonce? As a producer this is what I live for. So with Heads Music, we do believe that we’re on the verge of discovery. That’s my passion.

Like Lauryn at 15. Beyonce at 16. Erykah Badu, Mya, I have a thing. Working with Sofar was incredible because it’s going to bring a different kind of buzz to the independent artist, but it will bring a different kind of buzz to me. When Kanye sees this, maybe he’ll be like, “You know, we’re gonna go rock.” The pulse of what we do comes from the independent spirit. I felt like to come out here to celebrate that at Sofar’s pop-ups was one of the best things. This is what we call grass roots. This is the first audience I would like to hear Carnival III. My music is based from creativity and artistic form and not off of hype. That’s where we’re at.

Where does Carnival III rank in the album trilogy?

It’s the final one. What makes it special is that the kids that were 9-12 years old that were listening to Carnival as one of their albums are now they’re producing for Thugger or Fetty Wap. Those are the kids that are in the studios. This is when the uncle meets the nephews. It’s a celebration of the new generation. I didn’t just say we should embrace them.  I brought them in the studio. I gave them some of my secrets and they gave me some of theirs. We mixed hardware and software and put it together. So this ranks very special because I’m paying homage to those kids that was like 9 or 12 and they’re telling me they’re ready to produce for me. That’s the most exciting part of the Carnival III.

Who specifically reached out to you that said they were affected by Carnival and potentially wanted to work with you?

Rihanna, Drake… I mean you have to understand that Carnival is the blueprint. Anything that sounds Afrobeats… it’s a great chapter for me right now because I was doing this and watching it. Dudes were like, "Man, ain’t nobody going to be playing this coconut music. This needs to stay in the islands." I said no. People are going to want to dance, escape, have fun and now everybody wants rhythm. I remember my boys were laughing at me when I said I was going to do martial arts or Zumba. I was getting my waist action on. Dancing has always been part of what I do. To see people adapting the Caribbean culture and that rhythm is dope.

What inspired you to sample sounds of Jupiter on “Borrowed Time.”

I’m a fan of Marvin Gaye, Bruce Hornsby, “That’s Just The Way It Is,” even Tupac sampled that. I always felt like... and any time I say this people are like, "Man, you smoking that Snoop kush, n---a, [laughs], because I’m sampling shit from space. I’m always pushing the envelope. So when I got approached by Apple Music, I’m an audio engineer by trade. They told me they have this shuttle called Juno that goes to space and records sounds from Jupiter and pictures and then comes back on Earth.

So with the new NASA program, what they’re trying to do is... Because eventually we’re going to have another planet in space. So the whole key about it is to get people to start seeing that are more alike than different. As a producer, dude is giving me access to Jupiter! So I said fuck the native instruments right now, give me this Jupiter. So I got in the room with scientists from NASA who played some stuff for me. I had just smoked an L, so I was like this is ill because it’s about to take me somewhere.

I can’t even front. I started listening to these sounds and I was just amazed by how close we are together vs. separation. The record “Borrowed Time” is a record for the time. I can’t see everything passing by the way it is and don’t say anything. So I wanted to write something where I just address everybody as opposed to addressing a certain side.

Do you think that there is any culture appropriation now that many pop artists are using Afrobeats and island-inspired music?

I think it’s all good because what happens is that it spreads the math to a mass that wouldn’t normally get it. When that happens, it allows a new Wyclef to come in that people might not have seen yet coming. It allows a new Shakira or a new Daddy Yankee to come in. People who wouldn’t normally be open to that music might be more open because it’s being used in pop culture. My group that I love is Major Lazer. They’re so dope to me because when they got Justin Bieber to do music, the whole vibe started changing.

They do it from that cultural aspect. With them as a sound system, they get together with Justin, who's pop. You put that together, the music reaches further. It’s good for everyone. Hardcore fans are always going to have their opinions and they’re supposed to because they’re all about preservation of culture.

Being that you have always been outspoken with your platform and used your following to make a difference, do you feel all artists have that responsibility? Or can some truly just stick to music?

I think that this is what makes the universe beautiful is the fact that we aren’t all alike. My little nephew probably wants to do turn up music 24/7 and that’s beautiful. And their Uncle wants to sing, “If I was president…” on “Maria Maria” and that’s beautiful. Avicii wants to sing “Wake Me Up,” Drake wants to sing “One Dance.” I’m telling people that I feel like we’re at the most eclectic time musically.

When I did The Carnival, that was like 1997. I wasn’t even normal. It was not normal to have an album and be of a hip-hop background with reggaeton. You hear Afrobeat and all of that. We got in the game because we loved the culture, and once you lose the sense of the pulse of the youth, you lose your sense of the culture. I remember talking to Quincy Jones and he was telling me, “Forever young, man. You can always feel that heartbeat through the pulse of the youth.”

So through my daughter, it’s impossible for me not to be hip. She’s 12. We can battle in any kind of dances out there and, at the same time, we can compare remixes. She’s so brilliant, that she can hear a Pharrell record and be like, "Dad, you could have wrote this record." She’s telling you based on the work you already have... I think that the new generation is well informed, but gradually though, you grow into that. On The Score, I was militant when I’m talking about "If I could rule the world, everyone would have a gun."

That’s the lyrics on there because at the time, coming from the projects, we’d have to have two guns. This is the perspective of a black man and this is what we’re going through and I’m going to state that. As I got older, my mom did try to take the gun out of my hand, so how do I try and save some of these kids. I start with my family members on that. Your perspective changes.

How do you feel a new Lauryn Hill album would fit into today’s music climate?

Lauryn is like…once again, it don’t matter. That’s like saying how would a Wyclef song fit. Our music ain’t for no time period. Funkmaster Flex played a Fugee leak the other day on Hot 97. That record is 13 years old. Me and Lauryn were like, "This is not no new Fugees." I could speak for her, because I’ve known her since she was 14. You’ve got these artists and they’re just different because they don’t do music, they do vibrations. So it doesn’t matter what era they come.

Carlos Santana was having this conversation with me and I didn’t understand what he meant because we had a lot of success when we did Supernatural. He’s the one I can talk about Jimi Hendrix to. I can ask what kind of shit went down at Woodstock. I saw this footage, man, y’all was hammed up! [laughs] I can have these conversations. He said that we’re just vibrations. That’s what Lauryn is. Once she focuses like a telescope, it’s always a wrap. Whatever else she do is going to be incredible. It’ll stop time. That’s just what she does.

Being that you were heavily involved in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, can you talk to us about the aftermath of Hurricane Irma?

Haiti wasn’t hit that hard, fortunately. But I got family all over. I’m from Haiti Hispaniola, so I have family in the Dominican Republic. I also have family in Cuba. I have family in St. Maarten. My whole family in St. Maarten had to leave and go to Guadeloupe. Here, in the States, we’re suffering a lot of devastation. If we pay attention to it, scientifically, climate change is real. Every couple of years now, think about how we’re moving.

Every couple of years, the storms keep getting worse and frequent. Coming up it wasn’t that frequent. We have to start thinking about alternative energy. Before you, there was the creation of nature, so we have to start creating things and real prevention. These things have been going on for years. They have evacuation centers, but at the same time, by the time the shit has hit, it’s mad casualties.

What else is coming up for this year?

I’m really excited about my upcoming guitar line. You know how Jimmy Iovine told Dr. Dre to make headphones and stay to that? Wyclef is the hip-hop guitarist. I built guitars naturally. So, I’m very excited about my guitar line and I really don’t want to do partners yet. We’re building these incredible guitars because I see all of the young generations, whether it’s the “Black Beatles” or Thugger, everyone is pulling a guitar and it’s so dope.

I’m going to start giving y’all guitar lessons online. I’m excited about that. That Wyclef Jean tutorial. I spent a little time in Berklee. I would have been an ill professor if I had stayed. But I couldn’t. I do brand myself as a hip-hop guitarist. Every 10 years, I’ve got a new scheme. So I’m very excited about these next 10 years.