Wyclef Jean

Aug 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Sarah Benzuly


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“Producers are really…you just know that you're created to produce.” Subconsciously, Wyclef Jean knew from a very early age that music would play a very large role in his life. Born the son of a preacher in Croix-des-Bouquet, Haiti, Jean's family moved to the Marlborough projects in Brooklyn when he was nine years old. Soon, he found himself immersed in the musical side of his father's church: playing music, acting as choir director, creating arrangements for the choir and the church band, and recording and producing choir albums with his cousin Jerry Wonda. During his teenage years, he took up guitar and studied jazz in his high school's music department. He was hooked!

Jean (pronounced the French way) may still be best known for his work with the best-selling rap group, The Fugees, but a slew of multi-Platinum solo projects (including a Best Male R&B Vocal Performance Grammy nomination for “Gone Till November”) and working with numerous other artists led him away from the band and onto his own musical path. Fusing streetwise hip hop and rap with as many different styles of music as he could (most notably reggae), Jean's solo albums have rocketed up the charts and even landed him his own record label: Clef Records, a joint venture with Clive Davis' J Records. Bridging the gap between his conservative Caribbean upbringing and the wild environments of Brooklyn and New Jersey, Jean has been able to move effortlessly between different musical genres, signing and producing an eclectic roster including such unlikely artists as Mick Jagger, Kenny Rogers and Tom Jones. However, his greatest successes have come from producing and collaborating with Destiny's Child, Maya, Carlos Santana, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson.

Like so many of his hip hop counterparts, Jean has taken personal control of nearly every aspect of his career: producing/composing/arranging his own work and other artists in his studio with partner Wonda. What began as a project studio in Norton, N.J., the Booga Basement has expanded into a full-size recording space in midtown New York City, now dubbed Platinum Sound.

Why were you interested in opening up your own studio and bringing it over from New Jersey, as opposed to just working in Manhattan's commercial studios?

It gets tiring knowing that you get a 12-hour block, and after 12 hours, you have to leave. You have to pay overtime. You never get used to a space because you keep changing spaces. And then when you do get used to a space, at the end of the year, you pay $5 million for it. So as opposed to doing that, it was better to just have a place where we could just come to every day and work.

We had the Booga Basement [project studio] in Jersey. Actually, this was all Jerry's idea, because I was not for it.

How come?

Because that shit cost a lot of money. I was like, “Yo, we should take our time.” He's like, “Okay, cool. We'll buy the space first. Once we get the space, then we'll take our time.” Next thing you know, we have this space. We had one SSL board, and then some clients came in and they were like, “This is hot, but we heard that another studio's the only one with the Number One SSL board: a K.” I was like, “J, what the f*** is a K?” And he was like, “Yo. That's the hottest SSL.” I said, “Man, we gotta get that, because that's the Number One thing.” And we're trying to be one of the Number One studios in New York City, which we are.

It's very stressful [having your own studio], if you're going to do it right. When I think about the biggest studios in New York, they're owned by people that are not musicians or artists, and artists come in and spend their money there, and they'd rather do that, as opposed to getting the headache. So they pay someone else to get the headache. In this situation, we grew up with a studio [Booker Basement].

Do you think that's happening a lot in hip hop? Artists who are just popping up and opening their own studios?

Definitely. Puffy's got Daddy House. Everyone is starting in line. I think with everything that's going on in the world today — financially and the economics of society — it's very important to be self-sufficient with your business. I don't only think that you should have your own studio, but you should also have your own studio, your own mastering facility, your own post room so you can cut your own videos. Because when you're an artist, if you get a 10-year run — some are over 10 years — and you're successful, if you make over $20 million, then you gotta figure the money that you dished out and you spent on videos and studio time and all that stuff, you were just better off investing $4 or $5 million. You would have been saving yourself a whole lot more money. That's why I encourage everybody to get self-employed.

What kind of equipment were you looking for?

Our dream was always to get an SSL. I would say everyone that I'm in the business with — whether it's Carlos Santana, Whitney, Michael Jackson, different people — everyone loves the sound of the SSL. We're getting in that form of business: to make sure you have not only what yourself as an artist is looking for, but what your clients are going to be looking for.

What other pieces of equipment were you looking for when Platinum first opened?

I like Neves. I love the pre's, EQs, compressors; I love the SSL compressors. Those were the things we were looking for. We never imagined that we would have two SSL boards.

What was it about the SSL consoles that you liked?

I think it's about the warmth of the console: We wanted an analog console. It gives you exactly the sound that you're looking for. If the sound of the console makes the music come out too clean, I think with a lot of hip hop, a lot of reggae, a lot of rock, just straight-up thrashing…I think the sound of the SSL is more hard-core to what you're looking for. And at the same time, you can reverse the console and do a music score on it. I think the magic of it is making it sound dark when you want and then turning it around and making it sound epic. I've worked with a lot of consoles and they're great. I'm not knocking them. But they ain't no SSL.

You guys are going for a really warm, analog-type sound.

Yeah, 'cause it's rebel music, baby!

Were there any special room treatments to make sure you kept that rebel sound?

We brought in [designer] Frank Comentale. He did Chung King, Hit Factory, a lot of different studios. It was very important to bring him in and be a part of the whole design, because we love the way the room sounds at the Hit; we love the warmth. He was great. We also had Andy Grassi — one of our mix engineers — give his input regarding the wiring, design and room specs during construction, as well as Scott Jackson to make the deals, to get the equipment and keep us running.

So you and Jerry are both producers. Do you switch off production duties on a single project or are you both behind the board at the same time?

The way we work, it's like we're brothers, you know? We're cousins. And we play everything. I would say Jerry's probably one of the top five best bass players I've ever heard in the world. So Jerry usually comes with the crazy bass and drums. Specializing in that real hard-core…

Low end.

Yeah. Definitely. I specialize in lyrics and melodies. I'm good with themes.

So you bring everything to the table all at once.

Yeah. That's how we do it. But it's funny, because Jerry taught me how to play bass. His brother taught me how to play guitar when we were little. So we switch off instruments. We play keyboard, piano. The way we learned all this was, when you're in the studio at a young age, you're not aware that there's a union where you can hire musicians. So you have all of this equipment and you just learn how to play it yourself. We're like, “We're not gonna get no drummer. We'll play the drums ourselves.” That's how we learned it. But I would think the way that we produce is like Sly and Robbie, or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; that sort of vibe. We vibe together.

What Wyclef and Jerry represent as producers is we're innovators. So when you get a Wyclef/Jerry Wonda record, don't count on it sounding like anything that you'll hear out there. You have two choices: You will either like it or not like it. But we can guarantee one thing: It's not going to sound like what's out there. We try to bring a lot of live musicianship to the music. A lot of grooves. We're Caribbean; we from the islands. Out of the music industry, I'd say we're the Caribbean producers of the world.

Do you think being family brings an added bonus to working together? Kind of like “keeping it in the family”?

They call us the “Haitian Sicilians,” because we definitely family! Here's my brother, Sam, he's the lawyer; he handles that. Then there's Jerry's brother Renel; he handles the label stuff. We definitely keep it family-oriented.

Do you and Jerry have a certain way of producing other artists? Or, is it similar to recording and producing your own releases?

When we produce our stuff, we're cool. But when you're producing artists, you take the role of a psychiatrist — a musical psychiatrist. You have to work slowly with an artist to show them how to do it. It's all about just doing the best music for the individual. That's what you're getting paid to do.

But our music is more rebel music. We do music for society, for humanity, to help and to heal. I don't do music so it's the Number One Billboard on a bullet all the time. We sold so many albums, and we gonna keep on selling, because that's just the way it is. We got the Platinum Sound formula.

What's that formula?

You gotta be born with it, baby. We walk with the lip, we talk with the slang. And we pretty. We pretty, baby. We move like Ali in his young days. We good with the jab, good with the stab.

You guys have worked with artists who were just starting out. What was it like working with Destiny's Child and watching them explode on the music scene?

We're fortunate enough to work with everybody when they're just getting started. And they come to us and say, “Clef, Jerry, could y'all give us a lift-off?” Working with Destiny's Child was incredible. We see the potential. In the line of work we are in, you can see who's gonna blow and who's not gonna blow. And what I loved about Beyonce and Kelly the most — when I worked with them in the studio — is their attitudes: humble, they laid back. And that's the attitude that determines how long you're really gonna last in this thing.

How did you guys go ahead and produce them, especially because they're so vocal-oriented?

It was definitely a unison thing. We were trying to find a style that would fit what we were trying to do: We had to come up with a song that would blow up.

A radio-friendly song.

Yeah. So I had to make sure that the style was gonna fit. Beyonce sung the lead and they did backgrounds. That song was “No, No, No.” The way we did their vocals was, individually, you stack harmony. “Okay, you go in there, do the alto note. Okay, that's great. Come back out. Do the soprano note.” We recorded them on the SSL and used Neumann mics.

What about any outboard gear, digital effects, synth programming?

Well, that's my engineer. He's the master of effects, to the point where we like, “Yo, man, too much effects, dude. Keep my shit raw, man!” [Laughs] For outboard gear, I know we use a mix of classic and cutting-edge gear, including Eventide, AMS Neve, Lexicon, Avalon and Manley.

You're working in analog and digital. What do you like better?

It depends on what it is. I think for scoring, definitely digital. Reggae stuff, I like it analog.

So was your approach to working with Destiny's Child the same as when you worked with Maya?

No, it was a different approach for Maya. Nobody knew who she was. I got a call from Jimmy Iovine, and I was doing a record for Frye, and Jimmy was like, “Can you throw her on the hook?” At the time, she had a very soft voice, so my approach was definitely different with her. It was a real nice voice. I just made her feel comfortable and let her know that she can do it, like in Waterboy: “You can do it!” So she got in the booth and we started cutting her vocals. She was on a hook, so I had her sing it a few times and sampled back what we liked, and that was it. We used the SSL and had a 48-track. That was analog.

What was it like working with Michael Jackson?

He's cool with us. We got no beef with Mike. You mean, is he weird or something?

No, I mean, is he the King of Pop?

Yeah. Without no doubt. He's definitely the King of Pop. People can talk about Michael Jackson as much as they want. But the minute Michael Jackson actually shows up and you see it's him, you're just like, “Oh shit, that's Michael Jackson!” You forget all that bullshit you said about him.

So what is he like in the studio?

He cool, he laid back. He talks to us. What I picked up on Michael Jackson — because I study people when I watch them — the way that he counts his rhythm with his feet and his neck at the same time is crazy.

What do you mean?

Well, you know you count with your feet — 1,2,3,4 — and that's one rhythm and then his neck is going in another rhythm. So he's hearing multiple things at once. And I don't know anybody who does that. Everyone usually moves in one pace.

How did you end up doing “Maria, Maria” with Santana?

Clive Davis sent us out there to work with him. He thought it would be a good combination. Basically, we wrote this song. And, once again, me and Jerry just sat down and started vibing it. I knew Carlos' background, so I wanted to do a song, “Maria, Maria,” because of the movie West Side Story. It was cool being that he is Spanish. And we flew to Carlos Santana in San Francisco.

I heard you are beginning to do some work in film scoring. Have you done anything recently?

Yeah, actually I have with [director] Jonathan Demme. I was scoring one of his documentaries, called The Agronomist, and he lost his studio. To the point where he said, “Do you guys have an Avid room? All I need is the Avid room and I won't go nowhere else.” So then I went to Jer and was like, “Yo, we need some more room. We gotta get an editing suite in here.” So, we did that. And then there's one of our movies — Independent Street movies — called Shottas. It's like a Jamaican-style Reservoir Dogs; coming out on DVD in April. The whole soundtrack and the DVD — the whole thing — we're doing it in our own studio.

How did you approach film scoring? Is it a different way of working for you from producing?

We're from the Quincy Jones school. So it's more than just doing beats. When you score, it's more like you need some form of musical education to understand the point of view you're coming from. So if it's a scene and you're crying, I would probably attack that with strings: Strings bring forth emotions. When it comes to scoring, I'm like Alan Iverson on the basketball team. I'm not knocking no older composers, but it's like I can just see it and just do it. I don't really think about it. It shouldn't be that complicated. What you see is the emotion, and I think any complication takes away from what it really is.

You are also the CEO of Clef Records. Any new artists you've recently signed?

We got a lot of stuff coming out this year. We want to try to look out, because in the next seven years, we plan to just take over the whole industry. Clef Records is really eclectic. We have an artist by the name of Aisha from Texas. On Booga Basement, Jerry's label, we have City High. And right now, we're getting ready to sign a rock kid out in Wayne, New Jersey. Young blood; 20 years old. The last rocker out of Jersey was Bon Jovi, right? You haven't seen some new young blood. We also have an 18-year-old rapper that we signed. His name is Hollywood. We have a lot of different things. Just look out for the “R” logo, the Refugee Enterprise. That's what it's called now.

Do you guys produce all of the artists you sign?

We produce, and we have producers we work with. We have a kid named Teflon; he was signed to the Rough Riders. We also have another producer, Shay Taylor, and my little brother Sedek.

Are there certain qualities that you look for when you're bringing in new producers?

Just whatever's the hot shit.

Do you see any conflict between being the role of A&R, with developing and bringing on new artists, and being a creative producer?

Yeah, you get conflicts all of the time. But you have to know how to play the chess game. We come with results, and we come with solutions. If you tell me this ain't gonna work because it won't play on black radio, for example, because it's not hard enough, then I think, “Well, ‘Maria, Maria’ played on black radio.” We have records that can prove our theory makes sense if you just give it a try. If we didn't have any results, then the war would be on.

In 2000, you pre-released “Diallo” off of The Ecleftic album over the Internet. What are your thoughts on the rampant Internet file sharing?

It hurts everything. It affects every artist. Masquerade was on the Net for like four months, five months before it came out. Right now, everyone's trying to see if they can come up with a code where they can prevent that from happening. I think the fans should definitely get music. A lot of times, they might look at artists and say, “They have millions of dollars, they don't have nothing to lose, so if we go and download a song, it's cool.” The only thing I would say to a reader is, we work 24/7 so that we can make sure that we feed you some good music. But it's still work for us: That's what we do, that's our hustle. If you're going to get it, be courteous to us. Because probably when you're sleeping or getting up to go to school, that's when we're just leaving the studio, and we'll be gone for three hours and then come back and be working another 15 to 20 hours.

So what lies in the future for you?

I started on a series of my albums that will be coming out every six months. The idea is a continuation of where Bob Marley left off: rebel music. I picked up that whole vibe, and I'm moving toward the future with it: the vibe of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, that type of thing. Because I'm a musician. I think that my duty is to put out music, so my next album is probably going to be the first all-melodic album. Look out for Preacher's Son. That's what it's called. You feel me?

I feel you, Wyclef.

Sarah Benzuly is Mix's associate editor.

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