Wyclef Jean. What to say? The three-time GRAMMY-winning emcee humbly agreed to sit down at SXSW and chat with myself, videographer Ben Watson and photographer Rayana Chumthong about his upcoming Avicii exec-produced album Clefication, his alter ego and the largest hip hop subculture in 2015.
What we were not prepared for, individually or collectively, was Clef's off-the-cuff spoken word session at the end of our interview. In the video above, you'll see a song-length freestyle that touched on a wide range of topics, including the former Fugee's days collaborating with Big Pun, police brutality in America, and Tupac as a member of the clergy. It was a show-stopper, and I immediately forgot all of the remaining questions I'd queued for the following interview.
Should we expect more EDM influence on Clefication, with Avicii being involved?
Well, I think the idea of the EDM actually comes from house music. So in 1990, my first record was a house record, check it out—Afrikali, Out Of The Jungle. So, when I got with Tim [Bergling, Avicii], I went to Stockholm. It was natural because my relationship with Norway and Sweden and all these places started in 1999 when I hosted the European MTV Awards. That’s when I fell in love with Sweden; I was playing at this place called Café Opera with Swedish House Mafia. So for me, I just look at it as music. So whether we say EDM, or dance music, or hip hop, the biggest song of pop history is still “Hips Don’t Lie.” That’s the biggest dance song. So if we’re gonna talk about dance music, I actually wrote the biggest song that made people dance.
When I’m in the studio with Tim, I’m excited because to me he’s not an “EDM producer.” Whether it’s hip hop, rock, reggae, he reminds me of myself when I was doing The Carnival. The song “Divine Sorrow” just lended [sic] itself to me as an introduction of my return, and how I wanted to come back like the rise of the phoenix, with everything I’ve been through, through the fire. I wanted to come back first with a hymn; it reminds me of a hymn. Just a way of saying, “Thank sadness for bringing joy.”
So the album is definitely versatile just in the sonics. It’s sorta like if you picked up Ecleftic or The Carnival, it’s gonna be very eclectic, where you gonna get hip hop, you gonna get reggae, a bit of rock. My style is like, I’m a cook, I’m a chef of culture. I love to brew it all. So right now we gonna put out two or three singles while we workin’ on the body of work. We definitely gonna have some hip hop on there, too. That’s like the foundation.
I loved your alter ego Toussaint St Jean’s hip hop record in 2009, From The Hut to the Projects to the Mansion. When you say the foundation of Clefication is hip hop, how is that different from when Toussaint performs? How do you separate the two?
It’s great because I do these records, and then people be like, “Okay, where’s this gonna live?” And you just called it. So Toussaint was inspired by the Haitian revolution, and I did that whole record like if Toussaint [Louverture] was a rapper and he came back in modern day as a rapping revolutionary; this is probably what he would talk about. Because to a Haitian kid at the time, they looked at me as a modern day Toussaint.
The idea of hip hop within Clefication will be definitely more direct, more just on how I feel. You know, I came up as a battle emcee first, you know. As a Fugee. So, I think to do a record and just straight up spit, I don’t know what I’m gonna call that record. But one record has to be called “The Spit” or whatever, just to go in like, emotionally go in and say, “Yo, this side of my brain still focuses!” You know what I mean? I think it’s gonna be kind of cool and exciting. I don’t know if people still think that side of my brain still works [laughs].
You think people have doubts?
Of course! It’s hip hop! Hip hop, the culture, it’s not about what you did yesterday. It’s about, “Yo, could you go bar for bar right now with me?” That’s all that matters. So yeah, that side of the brain definitely still works.
Does Toussaint only live on that one record? Or is there a future for him?
Definitely there’s a future for Toussaint within the space. The way that I look at my music is when you walk into a room and it’s all different art pieces by different artists. And depending on the artist, you might get two or three, this one you might get one, this one you might get five. So I definitely think there’s a future for Toussaint.
Speaking of artists, there are some names that I’ve really appreciated lately that myself and our readers would love to know your opinions on. Have you listened to the new Joey Bada$$ record?
So, I know Joey Bada$$, you know I followed Joey way before. You’ll see me doing records with Dizzy Wright, so I’m very in tune with that kind of culture. See, when I was going through the Sony building and I met Nas, Big L, and he was barely 22, 23 going through that building. So, me, when I hear Joey Bada$$, he reminds me of the influence of that '90s music and how he was moving. 'Cause sometimes it be like, “Does this still exist? Is it still around? Did we really influence people in the '90s?” So, it’s sorta like when you see a rocker coming back and he’s rocking the guitar, he’s killing it. And you’re like, “Who influenced you?” And he’s like, “Yo, Nirvana.” So, when you see a kid like Joey Bada$$ or Dizzy Wright, or my homie Chance the Rapper, I’m very excited with that kind of movement.
I’m glad to hear you say that. I know a lot of people who love Joey, but I still don’t feel he’s getting the attention he deserves.
Well, what happens is, within any form of music there’s what’s called a “climb.” And a climb too fast can be a destruction. And I think that with Joey Bada$$ there’s only room to keep growing and growing and growing. And you know what’s funny, when he gets to that level you waiting for him to get to, everything else is gonna be discovery. Everybody gonna be like, “Oh this is dope! That’s dope!” And you gonna be like, “Tsk, y’all like four albums late!" [laughs]
Well, with respect to that climb and how destructive it can be if it happens too fast, do you have feelings about Kendrick Lamar?
Kendrick Lamar is a breed of rap. It’s real, you know what I mean? For me, it’s like Kendrick Lamar remind me of one of the kids from the block that’s a spitter. The voices, the singing, the rhyming—it's hip hop in the sense of...it’s not a fast climb.
Right, and I have been following him through Section.80 and Overly Dedicated but something about it still just seemed very quick.
I think, once again, timing is important. They always say “capture lightning in a bottle,” right? And when it’s your time, it’s your time, right? And when it’s past your time, how do you remain on a balance, right? But of course, I mean, Kendrick Lamar’s incredible.
To you, what is the biggest thing happening in hip hop today? Artist, style, or movement?
Battle rap is the biggest culture right now in hip hop.
Really? I can’t say I closely follow the battle rap segment.
Battle rap is the biggest hip hop culture online. Battle rap reminds us of why we used to go see KRS-One. That breed of challenging individuals and sparring lyrically where the views are over a million. A battle rapper, a real successful one now, tours the entire globe. Which is something that didn’t exist before. Let me give you a few names: Arsonal [Da Rebel], Murda Mook, Daylyt. So there’s a whole movement. It always goes back to the block, and to the essence of the raw rhyming.
Do you personally have any interest in a return to battle rap?
Well lemme tell you. Wyclef Jean done ran for president of Haiti, he's done some of the most craziest breaking types of records you could think of. Battle rapping, for me, is a hobby. It's embedded inside of me, it's just part of my DNA. Like…
It’s been a few years since I entertained my peers
You wonderin if I still got the golden ear
Well it’s like ridin a bike: Once I sit and start to pedal
Instincts kick in, it’s all natural
But this is deeper than rap, I ran for president of Haiti
They kicked me out and said I had no resident
Five years mandatory
What was sweet turned sour
Bottom line, they ain’t want a nigga havin all the power
So when I say I ran a paramilitary it ain’t metaphorically speaking—I had a military
And still speak broken English, yes I does this
A battle rapper train on a trillion bars a clip
Foes and enemies meaning the same in the dictionary
This ain’t Pictionary
You gonna see the pet cemetery...
And that's not even half of it. Watch the entire incredible freestyle above, and click here for all of our reports, interviews and photo shoots from SXSW 2015.