Music

Wyclef Jean on His First Reggae Album, Jamaican Influences and New Fugees Mixtape

Throughout his Grammy-winning career as a rapper, musician, songwriter and producer, much of Wyclef Jean’s recorded output highlights Jamaican music culture’s vast influence. There’s the Fugees (Wyclef, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Pras Michel) covering Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”; his co-writing/co-producing a reggae hit for Whitney Houston (“Your Love Is My Love”); starting his own Jamaican style sound system, Refugee Sound; and making dub plates, the specialized recordings that are essential to ‘killing’ an opponent in a sound clash. Yet he’s never recorded a reggae album — that is, until now.

One Night in Kingston is Wyclef’s debut roots reggae venture, recorded at The Compound in Kingston, Jamaica, a studio/rehearsal space owned by reggae artist Tom Jones, a.k.a. Panic, the album’s executive producer. Panic is also a writer on the project and a featured artist on the track “Walking to Higher Ground.” “I’ve known Panic for over 20 years; he said, ‘yo, we need a Wyclef Jean reggae album,’ so he brought me into the studio,” Wyclef explained. “I don’t know when it’s coming out. I never put a date on music because that means it isn’t good. Music has to be like a Lauryn Hill album, the best album of all time.”

At the 2024 BET Awards on Sunday (June 30), Wyclef shared the stage with Hill at the Peacock Theater in Los Angeles, helping close out the show alongside her son, YG Marley. Ms. Hill’s only studio album, the diamond-certified The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, hit at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, won the album of the year Grammy in 1999 and was named “the best album of all time” by Apple Music on May 22. Three days after the latest honor, Billboard sat down with Wyclef inside a spacious villa in Discovery Bay, Jamaica, to discuss One Night in Kingston. Wyclef was on the island to host the Sashi Experience concert later that night; John Shop Records, owned by Sashi co-founder Duwayne John, will release One Night in Kingston with an as-of-yet unannounced label/distribution partner. Panic says the first single will drop in July.

“Panic is a genius, and the album’s combinations are insane,” offers Wyclef. “There’s a track with me, (veteran reggae singer) Luciano and (Ghanaian dancehall/Afrobeats artist) Stonebwoy. That’s Haiti, Jamaica and Africa on one track, never been done before. I have a song with (dancehall artist) Jada Kingdom: we connected at the Caribbean Music Awards (hosted by Wyclef in August 2023.) As a sound (system) man, I wanted to feature young Jamaican artists. That’s my pulse, rocking with the youth, getting their energy out there.”

Wyclef interrupted our interview to pick up his vibrating cell phone, which signaled the arrival of Lauryn Hill’s dub plate of “Ex-Factor,” the second single from Miseducation. Instead of the romantic difficulties depicted in the original, the lyrics to Hill’s new dub are aimed at a rival sound system: “no sound can clash like Refugee, and no one ever will,” sings Hill with the impassioned soulfulness heard on the original. “Ex-Factor” is one of several customized recordings Wyclef prepared for the Sashi hosting gig (which also included Wyclef doing handstands, jumping into the crowd and obliging fans with selfies and calling an audience member onstage to freestyle lyrics). Immediately after listening to the “Ex-Factor” dub plate, an ecstatic Wyclef thanked Lauryn, via voice note, as only he could: “Ms. Hill, I just want to leave Jamaica and give you a thousand kisses; you can have the fences up, the dogs out, I am getting through every motherf–ker!”

Wyclef resumed our conversation by explaining the impact Jamaican sound systems have had on his musical endeavors, including Fugees’ 1996 debut, The Score. “I was introduced to sound system culture at 14 when I heard a tape by (Jamaica’s) Stone Love,” Wyclef recalled. “Sound systems bring an eclectic musical blend; the selector can be playing reggae and then go into (Eurythmics’) ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).’ That’s like my eclectic love for music. Somebody saying this is rock, this is rap, this is country, my brain doesn’t register that. My brain registers, I either love or hate the song.”

Wyclef compares the Billboard 200-topping The Score to a sound system tape. “Ms. Hill introduced me to the depths of soul music, I introduced her to sound clash culture, that’s what’s so dope about it,” Wyclef continued. “We originally did ‘Killing Me Softly’ as a dub plate, with lyrics like ‘killing a sound boy with his sound.’ When we sent it for clearance, people were like, ‘what is it? we can’t clear this.’ (Brooklyn sound system) King Addies’ selectors Baby Face and Tony Matterhorn cut the first Fugees dub plate for ‘Fug-Gee-La’ for their clash with LP International. Attending that clash changed my life. I was like, ‘oh sh-t, now I want to build my sound and collect dub plates.’”

Born in Haiti, the world’s first free, Black-led republic, Wyclef (who ran for the presidency of the Caribbean nation in 2010) immigrated to the U.S. at nine years old. He grew up listening to hip-hop and winning school rap battles. A self-taught musician who plays 14 instruments, teenaged Wyclef also played upright bass in a jazz band, sang in the choir and listened to heavy metal, country and classical music. As an artist/producer, he’s touched on all genres with a varied, extensive list of collaborators, from Avicii to the New York Philharmonic to Shakira. Wyclef’s immersion in Jamaican culture hues a large swathe of his catalog. The biggest surprise surrounding One Night In Kingston is that Wyclef hasn’t previously recorded a reggae album.

“Clef’s roots are in Jamaica as much as they are in Haiti, he has synergy with the people,” commented Duwayne John as he played One Night In Kingston for Billboard at The Compound; “One In the Chamber,” featuring Jamaican singer Lila Iké, laments a failed relationship and was the first track Wyclef recorded there. “The energy was right and from that track came the entire album,” Duwayne remarks.

The album’s reggae rhythms were played live by The Compound Band, who individually tour with marquee Jamaican artists including Stephen Marley and Buju Banton. With Panic working in Kingston and Wyclef based in the U.S., One Night In Kingston came together via digital communication. “The musicians play the music, I send it to Wyclef, and we talk about the direction. Our mindsets and writing styles are similar, that’s why making this album was effortless,” explains Panic, who then shared their intentional approach. “The album is reggae with elements of [what] Clef calls that ‘Travis Scott reggae.’ Kids are turned off by the same old reggae their grandparents listened to. YG Marley (son of Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley) took his grandfather’s song (Bob Marley’s ‘Crisis’) and made it new (‘Praise Jah in the Moonlight,’ which peaked at No. 34 on the Hot 100). Even before YG broke, we knew it’s that ‘now’ element that has been missing from reggae.”

Wyclef is working on his first Refugee Sound tape highlighting his collection of dub plates that includes Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Kenny Rogers. A mixtape of unreleased Fugees material is also slated for release, which coincides with the recently announced Ms. Lauryn Hill and the Fugees 2024 tour dates, where they’ll perform selections from Miseducation and The Score. Wyclef confirms that Fugees’ lineup is intact although Pras Michel is awaiting sentencing following his April 2023 conviction on 10 criminal charges, including conspiracy and witness tampering. “Pras toured with us in 2023, he’ll be touring with us this year,” notes Wyclef. “Tell everybody who missed us last year — Fugees are picking back up. You want to catch us now.”

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