"With hip-hop, you have to constantly keep proving that you're credible as a hip-hopper. A lot of people get caught up in that myth, and they are scared to experiment musically, you understand? So when Clef comes along, I challenge hip-hop, you know? I'm a part of hip-hop -- I'm what you call a hip-hop musician."
That's Wyclef Jean on the phone, chillin' in California -- California, Pa., that is -- just before the second date of his MTV-sponsored Campus Invasion tour, which features support acts De La Soul and Black Eyed Peas.
One has to wonder, though -- what exactly does Wyclef Jean have left to prove to anyone? After all, along with bandmates Lauryn Hill and Pras, he sold millions of copies of The Score, the Fugees' double-Grammy-winning breakthrough album. His bright, Caribbean-flavored solo debut, Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival, also achieved multiplatinum status. Talking to Wyclef about his latest release, The Ecleftic, you get the feeling that he was aware of record-company pressure to follow up such commercially and critically acclaimed albums but at the same time was determined to make this one primarily for his own pleasure.
"The main thing for me was, I wanted to focus more on the sound," he says. "The idea was to make the album more focused as a whole, as opposed to being all over the place. I wanted it to be chaos, but controlled chaos."
To that end, Wyclef says, he put his faith in the rhythm: "My whole purpose on this album was to make sure that the drums was always hard -- to make sure the hip-hop drums was there, and then to put the music on top of it. So wherever I went in the CD, whether it was Pink Floyd or whatever, the bottom beat is always hard, and the bass is always hard."
It would be tough to think of a more appropriate title for the album than The Ecleftic. The disc is indeed solid in its rhythmic foundation, and it does contain a Pink Floyd cover, "Wish You Were Here." But along the way, Wyclef rolls through a wide range of styles, including street-worthy hip-hop and breezy touches of reggae, with contributions from a guest list ranging from the sublime (Whitney Houston, Earth Wind & Fire, Mary J. Blige, Youssou N'Dour) to the ridiculous (WWF wrestler the Rock and country music's Kenny Rogers, whose cameo finds him freestyling lines from his classic "The Gambler").
"I had my dream list I was working off of," Wyclef says. "As I was recording the music, I was just thinking how I wanted the CD to sound and what kind of surprises I wanted to pop out at people. And Kenny Rogers came to mind. Earth Wind & Fire came to mind. The Rock came to mind. A lot of different people came to mind. I wanted where everyone that was on this CD, for you to say, like, "What are they doing here? How did you get this person on the CD?' So I looked for everybody that was in their own world, you know? Kenny Rogers, that's his own world."
No doubt about that. But how exactly does that world intersect with the world inhabited by a Haitian refugee-cum-hip-hop-superstar?
"My mom listened to Kenny Rogers. She loves country music," Wyclef says. "I mostly hated it when I was growing up, but Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash are my favorites."
And Pink Floyd?
"That came from when me and my brother," Wyclef says. "My brother went to Boston University, and I was mostly in the 'hood, you know? And every time he would come down, we would swap CDs. He would give me all the rock stuff, and I would give him all the rap stuff. And we always swapped CDs for years; that's all we did. And that's how I learned about rock a lot."
The Ecleftic seems to be one of those albums on which nearly everyone can find something to like, from the gritty street anthem "911" to beat-heavy numbers like "Thug Angels," "It Doesn't Matter" and "Da Cypher" to the party-hearty "Perfect Gentleman." Wyclef's rhymes never approach the level of controversy courted by his gangsta brethren, but he does offer some pointed criticism of the police on "Diallo," which protests the killing of Amadou Diallo by New York cops, whom Wyclef calls "vampires."
Another song about the subject, Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin (41 Shots)" drew protests from the men in blue when Springsteen played Madison Square Garden earlier this year. Wyclef says he's not expecting to catch any heat because of his song, however.
"No, because I also say, "Someone please call 911,'" he says with a laugh. "I think, with my music, if you're smart, like a kid can figure out that those are two different stories. And everyone would agree that whoever committed those acts were vampires, you know what I'm saying? That's just logic, man."
The only item of real controversy in Wyclef's life these days -- enough of a factor that he devotes the album's opening skit and first track to it -- is whether and when the Fugees will reunite for an album to follow up The Score.
"Next year, man, definitely. 2001, for sure," he says.
Still -- are relations between Wyclef and his bandmates so strained that he really has to ask them on record to give him a call?
"No, man, that's just me, you know?" he says. "It's, like, the way I wanted to set up the record. A lot of people think, "Yo, when's the next Fugee record?' So I said, I'm going to start the record by calling Pras and Lauryn and talking about that stuff."
Of course, it's not as if Wyclef doesn't have anything else on his plate these days. He's just signed with Clive Davis' J Records to oversee his own label, appropriately called Clef Records, for which he will find, sign and produce new bands. Also in the works are more collaborations like the ones that have enjoyed lots of airplay in the last year or so: Whitney Houston's "My Love Is Your Love" and Santana's "Maria Maria."
The hardest thing, Wyclef says, is keeping his approach to his own records separate in his head from the way he looks at these all-star collaborations.
"For one of my projects, I get lowdown and dirty, you know? 'Cause Clef don't give a fuck," he says. "Musically, I like to break barriers and go crazy. I think when you're working with an artist like a Whitney or Carlos, you have to go into the other head. I have a producer's head, too, you know? When I go inside to the producer's head, I look at Whitney, and first, I'm a fan, so I know the history of her music, and I think, what can I give her that can bring her to the next level but that the music stays credible and hard? That's where I come in. So I would make all the top chords real pretty, but the drums, once again, the beat and the bass, we would always make harder.
"Doing all these things I get to do these days is cool. I'm like a kid in a candy store."