Wyclef Jean Brings Carnival to Town

Album and traveling band take eclectic approach to hip-hop in an effort tobring back positivism in rap.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- Wyclef Jean was right on the money when

he

named his traveling road show after the title of his 1997 solo album,

Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival.

Initially known as the vocalist, guitarist and songwriter with the

eclectic, wildly popular hip-hop ensemble the Fugees, Wyclef was both host

and ringmaster of his Carnival road show during his recent live performance

at John M. Greene Hall on the campus of Smith College. It may have been

billed as a concert, but it felt like a party where rap, pop, R&B, reggae,

Cuban music and jazz came together in a circus of sound.

"What I try to do with the show is make it as festive as possible because

people have this stereotype about hip-hop, that it's violent," said Wyclef

after an extremely energetic two-and-a-half-hour performance. "It's all

about the tone that you set.

"I can play a place with a bunch of drug dealers and kids with guns," he

explained, "and ain't nobody gonna fight because of the tone and the energy

that I set."

The thread that runs through Wyclef's solo album, his live performances and

his overall approach to making music is positivism, a celebration of

living. As one-third of the Fugees, Wyclef has played an important role in

counteracting the negativity of gangsta-rap artists who concern themselves

with violence, drug dealing and life on the streets.

Racking up multiplatinum sales, the Fugees' 1996 album, The Score,

demonstrated that one need not disparage women, glorify drugs and violence,

or dwell on the dark side of life to make a commercially successful hip-hop

album. The group blithely combined covers of time-tested hits such as Bob

Marley's "No Woman No Cry" and Roberta Flack's "Killing

Me Softly" with a conscious, musical brand of rap. And with ... The

Carnival, which occasionally mixes hip-hop and elements of traditional

Caribbean music, Wyclef reminded audiences that breaking down genre

boundaries was an integral aspect of hip-hop during its infancy.

"I just try to mix things up," Wyclef said. "I try to give the crowd a

little of what they want to hear and a little something that they never

even thought they'd hear. I love to keep a crowd on its toes."

He and his crew managed to do that during the Greene Hall concert. The show

began with Wyclef's DJ spinning Run-D.M.C.'s classic "Peter Piper" and

ended with a-ha's new-wave-pop hit "Take On Me" blasting over the sound

system, but it still kept a hard-core hip-hop audience excited. It

demonstrated that rap's old-school spirit is still as viable now as in the

late '70s, when hip-hop innovators Grandmaster Flash, Kool DJ Herc and

Afrika Bambaataa used to mix songs by rockers such as the Rolling Stones,

Parliament, AC/DC, Kraftwerk and the legendary James Brown for revelers at

South Bronx block parties.

Wyclef obviously remembers that hip-hop was founded on good times. (In

fact, "Good Times" is the name of the Chic song used as the backing

instrumental for the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," arguably the

first recorded rap song.)

"The festive atmosphere I try to create is the thing that links the [...

Carnival] album to the live show," Wyclef said.

"When you see it, you can feel it. It's all about the improvisation and

feeling the crowd out ... freestyling. Not doing something that's

predictable. What we try to do is become the crowd. That's what the

carnival is," he explained. "Everyone will give you a big response when you

come out, but to keep them at that level, you've got to be really

entertaining."

Even though he does his best to throw a good party, Wyclef said he also

feels it is his responsibility to deliver a message. For instance, there's

the duality of "We Trying to Stay Alive." The song

retains some of the fun-loving disco vibe of its sampled source, the Bee

Gees' "Stayin' Alive," but its lyrics address the anxieties of being a

black man in America. In addition, Wyclef is willing to speak out about the

brutality of some law enforcement agencies, which he did during the Greene

Hall show. "You've got to make a statement about the police," he said.

Ultimately, though, it is Wyclef's commitment to mixing and transcending

genres that sets him apart from his peers. "I think real hip-hop is a

combination of what Puffy does, what Wu-Tang does, what Busta does, what

the whole Death Row clan [does] and what the Refugees do," Wyclef said. "I

think it's a combination of all of that which keeps it interesting."