Published Oct 12, 2017In many ways, Wyclef Jean is the personification of the American dream; he grew up impoverished in his native Haiti and became a multi-million record-selling American-based artist-producer who's had a hand in shaping how R&B, pop and rap sound today.
Equal parts musician, producer and political activist, it was his upbringing and love of Haitian, Caribbean, rap and pop music that helped to form his musical tastes. His music has always had a social and political bent, and his sing-rap approach to hip-hop, along with his association with Lauryn Hill by way of seminal rap group the Fugees, had transformative effects on the industry as a whole. The 1996 Fugees album The Score is a seminal hip-hop record and one of the biggest rap records of all time. His eighth studio album, Carnival III: The Rise and Fall of a Refugee, is out now.
1969 to 1987
Nelust Wyclef Jean is born in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti on October 17, 1969. His mother is a labourer, his father a Nazerene preacher, and one of his grandfathers is a voodoo priest. "My grandfather used to get these books from Egypt and study black magic," Jean would tell Rolling Stone in 2000. Jean and his family are poor in a nation experiencing intense social, economic and political upheaval. Looking for a better life, his family immigrate to Brooklyn, NY in 1982 when Wyclef is 13, later settling in the Newark, NJ area. "When I got to America," Jean will tell Ebony magazine, "I was expecting to see money falling from the sky."
Jean speaks only Haitian French, but is able to quickly learn English by listening to hip-hop. He is drawn to music at an early age, citing Haitian-born reggae artist Bigga Haitian as a key influence and reference point. His father buys Wyclef and his siblings toy instruments one Christmas; Jean soon learns to play each one by ear. Recognizing his musical aptitude, his mother purchases a second-hand guitar for him, in part to keep him practicing at home instead of potentially getting into trouble on the streets.
Jean clashes with his father, a preacher, on the merits of a music career, particularly one rooted in hip-hop. His father "never understood the possibility that the music could do more than just celebrate the lowlife," Jean will write in his 2012 memoir Purpose: An Immigrant's Story. As a self-taught musician, he would play interpolated radio hits in his family-run church choir and school jazz bands, performing both religious and secular music. "I was playing piano in my school, and my teacher was like, 'Where did you learn to play these chords?' I said, 'In my head,'" Jean will tell The Root in 2017. "She asked me if I had ever heard of Thelonious Monk. I was like, is that somebody from a karate picture?" He would later graduate from Newark-based Vailsburg High School, and attend one semester at New York-based Five Towns College before dropping out of college.
1988 to 1993
In his teens, Jean draws the attention of some music labels, but as a minor, isn't able to sign a recording contract without parental consent. At home, his father gives an ultimatum: choose between the church or playing secular music; making his choice, Jean is kicked out of his home. He builds a makeshift studio in the basement of his cousin's house. Wanting to break into the music industry as a rapper and musician, he forms a collective dubbed the Tranzlator Crew along with Jean's cousin, rapper/producer Pras Michel, and rapper/singer/producer Lauryn Hill. American-born Hill and Haitian-born Michel, who first met at Columbia High School in South Orange, NJ (along with a mutual friend named Marcy Harriell) had formed a musical trio called Tyme. Jean joins in 1990 after Harriell leaves to attend college. "I was the fourth member of the Fugees," he'll tell Rolling Stone in 2000. "It was Pras and two girls. I was like, 'Shit, who wouldn't want to be in a group with two girls?'"
As the Tranzlator Crew, the group record a few demos before signing to label Ruffhouse, distributed through Columbia. Although sounding a lot like other hip-hop acts at the time in terms of rap flow and cadence, the group set themselves apart by incorporating elements of reggae and soul, along with themes of black identity and empowerment, into their work. In order to make money, Jean works odd jobs including stints at fast food restaurants and as a security guard for a garment factory.
1994 to 1995
The Tranzlator Crew change their name to Fugees — taken from the word refugee, which is used derogatorily to describe Haitian-Americans at the time. The trio work with Kool and the Gang producer Ronald Bell and release full-length album Blunted on Reality in 1994. The record ultimately underperforms, despite singles such as "Nappy Heads," and "Vocab," peaking at number 62 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
1996 to 1997
The Fugees release second album The Score in February, 1996. Wyclef tells Exclaim! that they wanted to make a record that would "explode the universe, in a positive way." The genre-bending full-length album, which features four huge hit singles — "Fu-Gee-La," "Ready or Not," a cover of the Roberta Flack song "Killing Me Softly" and a cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" — becomes one of the best-selling rap albums ever, selling more than 22 million copies worldwide and certified six times platinum in the U.S.
"In 1996, there was so much great music out that for us to sell 15 million records worldwide really meant something. Hip-hop and R&B were at their best that year: Biggie and Tupac had just released their masterpieces, Jay-Z was heating up, TLC was at the top of the charts with CrazySexyCool, and Wu-Tang had us all in check. D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" was out, and Michael and Janet Jackson had just dropped 'Scream.' We had to have skills to take those charts by storm the way we did," Jean would write in Purpose. "The Fugees were raw talent and passion, and it shone through. The musicality was there, because we had lived side-by-side with each other since we started rehearsing in front of that mirror back in Jersey so many years before." The album wins two Grammy Awards in 1997 for Best Rap Album and Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for "Killing Me Softly."
"You're never thinking about the magnitude of it all at the time," Jean tells Exclaim! now. "You just feel like, when you're at a young age, that you can change the world. You feel you're unstoppable and you do things that are different."
1998 to 1999
Amid rumours of a romantic relationship between Jean and Hill, the group seemingly break up to focus on solo projects. In Purpose, Jean writes that the group never really officially broke up. "We never really broke up, by the way, we just stopped talking about getting together to record again. In any case, Pras has made it clear to me that he thinks I'm responsible, and I understand why he feels this. It's because he had to manage Lauryn and me when we became a couple on the road. Every time we fought, he was in the middle, keeping us focused, telling jokes, doing whatever he could to stop things from getting too crazy. Pras was the glue that kept the Fugees together."
Wyclef embarks on a solo career with 1997's Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee All-Stars, known simply as The Carnival. The album features Hill and Pras as executive producers and contributors, along with Celia Cruz and the Neville Brothers. It sells more than five million copies and spawns two hit singles: a take on Bee Gees hit "Stayin' Alive" called "We Trying to Stay Alive," and "Gone Till November," a collaboration with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Jean is featured on R&B group Destiny's Child single "No, No, No." The song, also produced by Jean, is a huge platinum-selling hit. "I always knew Beyoncé would be great," he'll tell The Guardian in 2017. "When Destiny's Child were opening for me on tour, every time they got off stage, she would get changed, then stand at the side of the stage and watch my show like a hawk."
Jean forms his own Refugee record label, and signs rap protégé Germine "Canibus" Williams, who is engaged in a rap beef with LL Cool J at the time. "Lyrically he's the next millennium," Jean will tell Vibe magazine in 1998.
Jean's single "Bubblegoose" is featured on the 1998 album Chef Aid: The South Park Album.
He produces the Canibus single "Second Round K.O.," from the rapper's self-titled debut; the song receives middling reviews.
Lauryn Hill releases her first and only solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, in 1998 to massive acclaim and commercial success. "A lot of people blame me for what has become of Lauryn since then," Jean writes in Purpose, "and the fact that she's not out and about in the music industry. She and I had a very complicated relationship, and I'll take the blame for my side of the pain and confusion."
2000 to 2004
In July 2000, Jean releases sophomore album The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book.
With cousin Jerry Duplessis, Jean co-produces the Carlos Santana single "Maria Maria," featuring little known R&B duo the Product G&B. The song would be named the third most successful song on the Billboard Hot 100 and win Grammy Award in 2000 for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
Jean establishes and incorporates charitable organization the Wyclef Jean Foundation, also known as "Yéle Haiti." The foundation focuses on providing school scholarships/funding, food and related charitable benefits to Haitian citizens.
Jean releases his third album, Masquerade, in July of 2002. The Preacher's Son, Jean's fourth full-length record, is released in October, 2003.
Record label Columbia Records releases Fugees: Greatest Hits, the group's only compilation album, in March 2003. The album includes tracks from both of the group's studio albums, as well as previously unreleased material.
Jean continues to write for and collaborate with other artists; in 2003, he has a moderate hit with rapper Jin, "Learn Chinese," and a major hit with Shakira, titled "Hips Don't Lie."
In a Rolling Stone article on Lauryn Hill, Fugees member Pras singles out Jean as the cause for the group's demise, calling him "the cancer of the Fugees." "You can quote me," Pras says. "He's the reason why it got wrecked to begin with, he's the reason why it's not fixed."
In October 2004, Jean releases Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101.
Jean, Hill and Michel briefly reunite in September, 2004 to perform at Dave Chappelle's Block Party in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. The concert and subsequent film, which also features the Roots, Kanye West and John Legend, sees the group perform hits like "Killing Me Softly."
After 2004's Hurricane Jeanne impacts the country, Jean's Yéle Haiti foundation offers scholarships to 3,600 children in Gonaïves, Haiti.
2005 to 2008
In late 2005, the Fugees set out on a European tour, their first together since 1997; the trek includes stops in Finland, Austria, Norway, Germany, Italy, France, the UK, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, receives poor reviews. The group attempt to reunite again in 2006 with a free concert in Hollywood and a leaked single titled "Foxy." However, the group are on their last legs. Hill tells Trace Magazine in 2005: "The Fugees was conspiracy to control, to manipulate, and to encourage dependence. I was not allowed to say I was great; that was considered arrogance, conceit."
Jean's next album, Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant, is released in December, 2007. Jean tells Blues & Soul in 2007 that the chances of a Fugees reunion are slim. "I feel the first issue that needs to be addressed is that Lauryn needs help. In my personal opinion, those Fugees reunion shows shouldn't have been done, because we wasn't ready. I really felt we should've first all gone into a room with Lauryn and a psychiatrist. But, you know, I do believe Lauryn can get help. And, once she does work things out, hopefully a proper and enduring Fugees reunion will happen."
2009 to 2010
Jean releases a conceptual solo album titled From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansion, in November, 2009. The 13-track project, his seventh studio album, is produced by DJ Drama and revolves around the story of the fictional character Toussaint St. Jean, who is based on the 18th century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture. It is released to lukewarm reviews and commercial success.
In 2010, Haiti is hit with a massive earthquake; Jean's foundation Yéle Haiti raises over a million dollars for disaster relief, including funds for street cleaning crews, hospitals and medical clinics. Jean also files to run for president of Haiti in 2010. Requirements to run for office, however, include living in the country for the preceding five years, and Jean doesn't meet the requirement. Jean releases an EP titled If I Were President: My Haitian Experience; single "If I Were President" is a moderate hit.
"It's the continuation of my music and it represents both sides of life: love and hate, war and peace. It's for all my fans. It's for those who love me for 'Gone Till November' and 'Hips Don't Lie', too," he tells Consequence of Sound in 2010.
2011 to 2015
In 2011, former Fugees collaborator/producer Jerry Duplessis tells hip-hop website Rap-UP that a possible reunion is in the works: "I believe there will be a day when the Fugees get together, but everyone in the group's gotta be ready. The Fugees are definitely going to get back together. The time will come. You've gotta wait, man."
Yéle Haiti shuts down after it's revealed by The New York Times that the organization had mismanaged nearly nine million dollars in funds and not filed the requisite tax returns from 2005 to 2009. Jean maintains that there has been no malfeasance throughout. "I'm going to continue to keep doing my positive work. But I cannot be a part of a situation where my name is bigger than the name of Yéle, and my name is the one that's being dragged under the mud because of Yéle — as if I was the one running the day-to-day there," he'll tell The Daily Beast in 2014.
Jean appears on TV show Nashville in a recurring role as head of a record label.
In 2012, he releases his memoir, Purpose: An Immigrant's Story, which makes several claims about his romantic involvement with Hill. In the book, co-written with music journalist Anthony Bozza, Jean makes the first public admission of his infidelities and romantic relationship with his former bandmate. "In that moment something died between us," he writes. "I was married, and Lauryn and I were having an affair, but she led me to believe that the baby was mine, and I couldn't forgive that. She could no longer be my muse. Our love spell was broken. It was like we were two outlaws in love. We had fights on planes. A few times when it went down, she started swinging at me right there in the seats. People would scatter. We never got arrested, but we came close a few times in Europe."
Jean ultimately takes the blame for the dissolution of the group, admitting that he was "jealous" of Hill's relationship with her boyfriend Rohan Marley, despite being married at the time. "We're all human and make mistakes. I'll keep it real with you. You can't mix business with pleasure. Sometimes I wish that me and Lauryn had never gotten involved, you dig? You learn. So maybe if I could do it again, I wouldn't have gotten involved with Lauryn romantically. But then, I don't know that you would have gotten The Score," Jean tells Exclaim! in 2017.
Later, he tells gossip website TMZ: "There is no way that I would have shown up in the hospital in that circumstance to wait for a baby to be born if it was not mine. The idea of a memoir is to tell the truth. I know that often the truth hurts, but a lie hurts even more."
Hill dismisses his claims, saying in a statement: "A lot of miscommunication out there. A lot of false information out there. And notice, out of all the people who talk talk talk, who's the silent one? And you know why? Let me tell you why I don't chat back. Because I know that my brothers and my sisters are oftentimes pawns in a bigger scheme so when they, under pressure, attack me, I love them still. It's called the high road. Try taking it sometimes."
Despite all of this, Jean tells The Huffington Post in 2014 that he believes the group will get back together one day: "I always say, if big bands like the Rolling Stones can get together and rock out, then why not? I think the future allows itself for that. I'm all for that, 100 percent. I'm the number one Fugees fan."
2016 to 2017
Jean appears on single "Kanye West," from rapper Young Thug's album Jeffery in 2016. Jean is inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in the Performance Arts category. In February of 2017, the J'ouvert EP is released.
In July, 2017, Fugees reunion speculation flares up again when a song titled "The Ish" is leaked to New York radio station Hot 97. "The song leaked today is an old one from past studio days," Jean writes on Twitter, adding "I don't condone it in any way, and had no clue it was coming."
In September of 2017, Jean releases his eighth album Carnival Vol. III: The Fall & Rise of a Refugee. Jean explains the title to Exclaim!, saying "because of the fact that I've failed, I know what it's like to get back up and run. And that's what I want all the kids to understand. The only way I can be me is to go through everything I've been through.
"I feel like an old man every time I tell a young gun what the music business was like in my day, when my group's biggest record came out," he wrote in Purpose. "I'm not even talking about how it was back in the days of Grandmaster Flash or even Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. I'm talking about my day, which was only 15 years ago — but that's how much the world of music has changed. That's a blink of an eye in the history of the business, but back then the things considered impossible today were still possible. Back then, in the '90s, a record could come out and sell 15 million copies if it struck a chord with the world at the time.
"You go from working in Burger King to being able to buy a mansion; I don't care who you are, it's going to change you," Jean tells website The Root in 2017. "There's drugs, drinking, sex; the entourages are getting bigger. I always thought about my dad and mom. One little slip and you get deported back to the island. Faith plays an important part, and the fear of God. You know in a split second he can take it all back."
Essential Wyclef Jean
Fugees The Score
This multi-platinum-selling record reinvigorated a genre in the midst of an identity crisis between "traditional" East coast and "gangsta" West coast rap. Off the strength of Roberta Flack cover "Killing Me Softly" and Lauryn Hill's incredible singing and rapping, The Score built a permanent bridge between rap and pop realms.
Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival
This solo album, released shortly after The Score, sold over five million copies and features "Gone Till November," a quintessential Wyclef Jean single. A perfect fusion of rap, reggae, Son Cubano, pop, soul and Haitian music, with a sing-rap formula that Wyclef honed and now serves as the template for many like-minded artists. It was ranked as one of the "100 Best Albums of the Nineties" by Rolling Stone.
The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book
Wyclef, at a pop culture peak, brings in a diverse array of guests like the
Rock, Kenny Rogers, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mary J. Blige and Whitney Houston. It's a bit corny, a bit self-aware, but hangs together as one of his stronger solo outings with singles "911," "Diallo" and "Perfect Gentleman."