The rapper and producer talks classical roots, Young Thug and Donald Trump
At 15 years old, Wyclef Jean could already play more than 10 instruments, flashing his skills performing in his father's church. But when his school teacher overheard him on piano and suggested jazz and classical courses, he resisted.
“I was like, ‘What? That's for old people. I ain't doing that. I want to be a battle rapper,'” the Haitian rapper and producer said in a late-January phone interview. His teacher wouldn't hear of it, and took him to a jazz class.
“It changed my head,” Jean said. “I started listening to Bach, Thelonious Monk and Gershwin.”
More than 30 years later, Jean has cultivated his early passion for hip-hop into international superstardom, having earned two Grammys as part of rap trio the Fugees, in addition to releasing platinum-selling solo albums. But his music and production work for artists like Shakira and Carlos Santana has often incorporated other genres.
And on Saturday, Feb. 17, he will once again embrace his love of classical music by joining the Columbus Symphony at the Ohio Theatre for “A Night of Symphonic Hip-Hop.” It's the second stop on his national tour of orchestra pairings, which began last month in Omaha, Nebraska.
“I think people were shocked, like, ‘Holy shit, he's singing an entire composition of Jacques Brel's in French,” he said, referencing the piano ballad “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” which he played live. “I love stuff like that.”
His fans need not worry; they can still expect to hear some of his classic songs, including top-10 hit “Gone till November.” Given the original recording features accompaniment by the New York Philharmonic, it should be a great match for the Columbus Symphony.
And it wouldn't be a Wyclef Jean show without guitar, which has been a staple of the showman's career. “I'm like the first hip-hop guitarist,” said Jean, who is working on a prototype for the first “hip-hop guitar.”
“I look at it almost like a new instrument, a new version of what a guitar can be going into the future of modern, contemporary music and also how we do beats,” he said. He also mentioned a desire to make the guitar popular among the new generation.
“They want to learn. Young Thug's like, ‘When is my guitar lesson?'” Jean said.
With Young Thug citing Jean as one of his idols (the first track on his 2016 mixtape Jeffery is called “Wyclef Jean”) and DJ Khaled sampling the Jean-produced “Maria Maria” for 2017 hit “Wild Thoughts,” Jean's influence is ever-present.
But the admiration is not one-sided. Jean recorded his own take on music by Young Thug, Kendrick Lamar and more on his 2017 mixtape, Wyclef Jean Inspired By.
“It's exciting that I can be part of bridging that gap,” he said.
For his next mixtape, Wyclef Jean Goes Back to School, he plans to visit college campuses to record student musicians, hoping to discover new superstars. “I promise you, 60 percent of the talent is hidden in these universities,” he said. “They don't necessarily get that big exposure.”
And Jean would know. He studied briefly at Five Towns College on Long Island, but left to focus on the Fugees.
“The next time I decided to go to school, I went to Berklee [College of Music] for a little bit, and I was like, ‘Oh, I gotta leave because I want to become the president of Haiti,'” he said.
Although Jean's 2010 run for office was unsuccessful, he addresses politics in songs like "If I Was President 2016,” and isn't shy about sharing his thoughts on President Trump, who infamously referred to Haiti as a “shithole country,” according to reports.
“Is the president an asshole? No question. But his term is only so long,” Jean said. “I want to see a rile up of legislation change [and] policy change, not a rile up of just emotional change.”
Jean is at a point in his career where he can freely express himself both on record and onstage, and he has booked “the Carnival Tour” in addition to his symphonic outings.
“The one-man tour, we might as well call it the ‘house party tour' because it's gonna feel like you're in my living room,” he said.