Preaching to the next generation

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Wyclef Jean talks to WILLEM MARX about the music, the money and the messages behind his new album Wyclef was on stage, running through some tracks at an industry showcase for his new album, The Preacher’s Son. Mixing in some seamless free-styling in 6 different languages (including Japanese) and playing his guitar riffs with his teeth, as if kissing the strings, the idea of interviewing the man was slightly daunting. Despite his astounding virtuosity, he remains in many ways an enigma. Catching up with him after the show, it was difficult to reconcile the man sporting an enormous platinum and diamond dollar-sign chain round his neck and mobbed by an incessant stream of adoring female fans, with the god-fearing, family-loving son a Haitian preacher, who moved to Brooklyn’s projects before his son had reached his teens. The title of his new album is far from irrelevant; many of the songs carry a message. ‘Industry’ is about the violent perception of the hip-hop world; Wyclef hopes to change the “higher authority’s thinking” on the subject. ‘Next Generation’ contains a powerfully simple message in lyrics such as “We are the next generation, not afraid to die / All we fear is what’s waiting in the Afterlife / Coz I don’t know what is there on the other side.” Explaining the thinking behind the lines, Wyclef talks of trying to “document” a “generation who are merely a reflection of their own environment,” when I quiz him on the references to guns and crack throughout his songs. Another example of Wyclef’s “preaching” comes in a track entitled ‘Party to Damascus’, an awesome fusion of oriental melody and hip-hop rhythm. The song suggests that the best solution to the many current problems in the Middle East is, as Wyclef succinctly puts it, “rather than fighting they should be having one big party.” He “understands the streets” and believes that artists such as himself are “poets expressing what they are.” I ask about his incredibly diverse range of influences which spans Latin to gangsta rap as well as his collaborations with and sampling of stars from Pink Floyd and U2’s The Edge to Missy Elliot and Mick Jagger. His response is typically straightforward, “I’m just taking these sounds from all around the world and taking the music to another level – going back to the culture and the idea of song-writing.” His desire to return to basics, using the Compra rhythm of his birthplace Haiti as part of the hip-hop framework which he grew up alongside in New York has led, he claims, “to a greater focus on melody”. He no longer “just concentrates on the rhyming, but the music.” Wyclef is very proud of his roots, and believes that a tolerant attitude to diversity, a sense of multiculturalism, is typically dependent upon your own upbringing. “Coming from Brooklyn, everybody to me had to look like this certain group of people, but as I grew and learnt, I realised that wasn’t the case.” Looking relaxed in his baggy jeans and red sweatshirt, he advises that we all “learn to appreciate human beings, actually all types of people from around the world.” But it’s difficult to connect such statements with his current existence: the suite at the Metropolitan Hotel on Park Lane, the fancy cars (he claims he has “over 50 very fine motor vehicles”), and the constant references to vast sums of money which hint at a slightly less balanced perspective. Such observations, however, fade into insignificance when he performs. His presence is electric, and he obviously enjoys himself immensely when up on stage. Not rated as an MC in the same class as say, 50 Cent, whom he places in his top ten “most respected artists,” it is nevertheless mesmerising to see him crafting words out of nothing, improvising on a theme, indeed reacting to what is going on around him as he lyricises. Wyclef’s linguistic diversity is equally fascinating; he was brought up speaking Haitian creole, which despite persisting popular opinion, is not a form of pidgin English, but a totally separate language. Bearing this in mind when experiencing the fluency of his English rhyming, and also witnessing the ease with which he switches to Spanish, and the enjoyment he takes from changing again into French or German, while still keeping time, making sense, and fully rhyming, his “ear,” both musical and linguistic, is highly impressive. Santana also makes it into his top ten, in fact in the top spot, and ‘Clef’s skills on the guitar, while perhaps not quite good enough to rival his hero, (who he claims demonstrates that “if you stick to your own act, you are bound to break through”), are definitely a large part of his self-defined position as a “musician and now a song -writer”. As he states in an earlier album, Masqueradeˆ, protesting against critics who had claimed he had forgotten his hip-hop roots, his “mistress is a guitar, classical like Mozart”. One of the most significant aspects of this album is its producer, Clive Davis. After the move from Sony to BMG, he was a pillar of support following the death of Wyclef’s father two years ago, and a strong influence on the vocal aspect of his music. Davis says that the album is a “watershed.” To see such a fine artist, “raising his game” as Wyclef would have it, intending to improve the world’s lot, while considerably enriching himself in the process, should be applauded, even if the message is preached. Wyclef would like to extend his sincerest apologise to Oxford students for postponing his visit to the Oxford Union. However he will be addressing students in November. He will also be playing a live acoustic set, so keep an eye out for the event by checking the website (www.oxford-union.org).ARCHIVE: 1st Week MT2003 

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