Last week, Wyclef Jean dropped a 33-track mixtape called April Showers filled with features from Waka Flocka Flame, T.I., and Uncle Murda, among others. It's his first project since the 2010 EP If I Were President: My Haitian Experience, and he's got a lot to say.
After holing himself up in the studio for a while, Wyclef took the dark events of the past few years of his life and channeled them into music. The day that his mixtape dropped, Wyclef held a listening party at the Trump SoHo where he spoke to the crowd about his depression, creating music, and he laughed off his infamous Ducati photo. Complex sat down with Wyclef at Daddy's House studios to talk about how music is the weapon, the creation of April Showers, and what to expect creatively on his forthcoming album.
Interview by Lauren Nostro (@LAURENcynthia)
I have to ask about your assault rifle guitar, or gat-tar. You explained that music is the weapon, can you elaborate that?
The vibe that I had was from the original gun guitar that I saw was from Peter Tosh. His movement was music is the weapon. How do I get instruments back in the hands of kids where it feels like it’s cool again?
We grow up with gun culture. I can show you pictures from when I’m a kid and there's two pistols on my side. They’re toy pistols, but as a kid you’re taught to pull them out and go “Bang, bang,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, right? I thought, ‘Well why don’t you start it as a kid? You’re going to put these rifles in their hands, so why don’t you make them musical instruments?”
If I have converted 20 kids with guns, to put their guns down and get a gat-tar, I’ve just saved 20 lives, and that’s more than any of them are doing.
I was raised in the projects and guns were part of the culture. At the end of the day there’s a side that says, “What is he doing? Why is he promoting guns in forms of guitars when we have this big issue right now in America and the big debate with the guns and all of that? You can’t stop the guns from coming.
If we all don’t put our minds together and start to work on alternatives—because the guns are not going anywhere—more people are going to die. If I have converted 20 kids to put their guns down and get a gat-tar, I’ve just saved 20 lives, and that’s more than any of them are doing. Because all they’re doing is they’re debating about it but they’re not going to the communities where these kids are at.
You're creating a new product with a double meaning then.
If you have Gibson, and Gibson is a man, and the guitars were created were called Gibson. Then you have Ibanez, modeled off of Steve Vai. So why can’t you have the gat-tar modeled after the first hip-hop guitarist? Unlike Steve Vai or Gibson, I’m actually creating a product that is a double psychology of thinking.
I don’t care if I’m popular or not. I’m one of the most controversial dudes with anything I do, because it has to be real. When my daughter goes to the arcade, she likes the gun games. What if there were games where they were shooting and every time they shoot, musical notes appeared? Kids would be learning music theory without them feeling like they were learning the theory. All of these things are things that I’m in the process of doing for the ghetto.
I came from an era where when something was fucked up, we would talk about it, and it didn't matter. I don’t give a fuck if you give me an endorsement deal or not—that don’t have shit to do with me. I ran for president and turned $20 million down. I can’t take any of it with me.
If something’s wrong, I’ve got to speak up about it. Whether it’s Chicago, parts of New Jersey, this thing is getting worse. What ends up happening is, if we don’t put ourselves in a situation, then here comes the National Guard. And that’s where it’s going to lead to unless we start fixing it.
A lot of what I was creating, it was coming from a morbid place, a sad place.
Where were you at creatively when making April Showers?
I locked myself up in the studio. We had over 300 songs. One day, DJ Envy, from Power 105, and DJ Self came to the studio at different times. They know I’m a weird scientist, so they’re like, “You have to start putting some the music out.” We’re creative and we’re like, “I don’t know if this is ready to go yet, let me paint some more.” Motherfuckers are like, “You got 300 fucking songs. You have 17 albums right now.”
The reason why I started with a mixtape is because every culture has a pulse. As a producer, you have to understand the pulse. The pulse of this culture is it’s a mixtape generation. In my generation, on a mixtape, we always heard the frame of mind that the musicians were on. It would get us excited to say, “We’re definitely going to get the album, because we like where he’s going.” That was the idea and it’s 33 tracks because I wanted a lot of the mixtape to be about discovery.
When I did The Score with The Fugees, a lot of it was discovery. Half of the people on The Score, you didn’t know who they were. Even though we have big names, we still have names that you wouldn’t hear on other mixtapes with big names because they might feel like those guys are too local. It makes the variety more interesting, sonically, to listen to. The whole mixtape is like my letter talking to hip-hop.
What emotions were you feeling while recording April Showers?
I was coming from the frame of mind where it was two years of morbid for me. After the earthquake in Haiti, me running for and giving my life to my country, starting an organization, them trying to basically chop my head off, and then running for President. I defied what they said and I said, “I’m still going to run for president” and then getting denied by my council...you spend your whole life trying to move these people forward and now you really have a chance and they pulled it back. A lot of what I was creating, it was coming from a morbid place, a sad place.
If you look all around this studio, you will see different pictures. My daughter drew these pictures, and she’s 8-years-old. She brought the 21-year-old Wyclef out again. She made me want to have fun. That’s why you’re starting to get records like “Pop Ya Belly Ring.” The idea of discovery is what I find most exciting on the tape.
Being in such a dark place, what was the most emotional track you created on the tape?
“Glow of a Rose.” I express my feelings completely from the candidacy to my charity. It’s the deepest joint to me, because I got into everything. My presidency, how I felt at the time, I didn’t hold anything back.
Whether it’s Waka, whether it’s Chief Keef, whether it’s Young Chop, they all know who Wyclef is. When they come to see me, they want something different.
What was it like working with Young Chop? Were you mentoring him or was he teaching you things?
We have a seven minute piece of what the vibe was like in the studio, because it almost was like Teddy Riley and Quincy Jones but modern day, because I’m the older dude and he’s the young dude. But I took a trap song and I put it in song form. That has never been done before. His computer and the fruity loops is equivalent to my guitar. That’s how I want people to respect the technology. Technology has become an instrument. That’s what I learned from Young Chop.
Waka Flocka Flame was at your release party and was on the tape. What’s the dynamic like between the two of you?
Whether it’s Waka, whether it’s Chief Keef, whether it’s Young Chop, they all know who Wyclef is. When they come to see me, they want something different. They come to see like, “You that dude. You triple OG.” That’s what they call me—triple OG. They’re expecting something different.
This is just the intro of what I’ve got coming with Waka. On my upcoming album, everyone’s like, “Waka’s rhyming for the first time. We actually can understand everything, Waka.” That’s what you call evolution. If the kid comes to see me, I’m going to be like, ”Look, tell your story.” That’s what I tell the kids, just tell your story and I’m going to build something around it to make it make sense.
You’re their triple OG mentor. So, when can we expect your next album?
We’re going now for the album and it's called The Carnival Begins. Remember Batman Begins? It's The Carnival Begins. The energy of the album is back to the essence. What kind of frame of mind was I in before The Fugees.
It was all about the most eclectic music of the world, with the foundation being hip-hop. I’ve always loved to spit, I’ve always loved to rhyme. When you hear “Ready or Not," those were very foreign kinds of sounds, you’ll be getting that on the album. But then there’s the idea of, “Where do I come from?” I’m from a place that’s very festive, very carnival like, and I want to turn up that side.
Think about it: if I can mix the vibe of a modern day carnival and I can put The Score into 2013, what that would sound like? Then I can throw in a few track like Shakira “Hips Don’t Lie” in there. That’s what the sonics of the album is going to be like.