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