“What I love most about classical music is the discipline,” said Grammy award-winning singer, rapper, songwriter and producer Wyclef Jean.
“You can just get up there and go, ‘ba da da da di di da da di da da da da da da,’” Jean said, singing the melody of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor” commonly known as “Fur Elise.” “It takes training. It takes commitment. It takes math.”
He knows first-hand about the passion – obsession really – that comes with composing and duplicating the sound as a classical musician. His love for symphony started in high school, where he played classical piano. “I was introduced through my classical teacher and she introduced me to a jazz teacher,” Jean said. He also played guitar. Through jazz he also mastered the drums and upright bass.
He started listening to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. He studied Gershwin and Quincy Jones. “I fell in love with the idea of not only learning how to play instruments in my dad’s church and conducting the choir, but how I can convert this into conductor form,” Jean said. He eventually mastered 15 instruments. He applied the theory he learned and applied it to his groundbreaking career – first as a member of the rap supergroup The Fugees, then as a solo artist and producer.
Jean was thrilled to point out that he was the first hip-hop artist to perform with the famed New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. He recorded his hit “Gone Till November,” with the Philharmonic. “I consider myself like the hip-hop Amadeus,” Jean said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
He lit up talking about the energy of the evening several years back as a guest soloist with the nation’s oldest symphonic orchestra. Next Friday (March 9) he’ll relive the moment in St. Louis bring his “Night of Symphonic Hip Hop” with the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall. The show is playing in select cities across the country. “The vibe is incredible because it’s fusion,” Jean said. “I think we forget sometimes that the best records we love – whether it’s Bach, Thelonious Monk or Michael Jackson – we love the idea of fusion.”
It was fusion that made Jean famous. As a member of the rap trio The Fugees alongside Lauryn Hill and his cousin Pras Michel, the group blended reggae, soul, pop and even disco for their groundbreaking sophomore album “The Score” back in 1996. The album was a critical and commercial success – selling more than six million copies in the U.S. alone and earned the group Grammy Awards for “Best Rap Album” and “Best R&B Performance by a duo or group with vocals.”
“Hip-hop is a culture and that’s where we all come from. I used my Caribbean influence and my soul upbringing and combined the two together,” Jean said. “Hip-hop will be the most powerful piece of art and will never go anywhere – because it’s the only form of music where you can pull any genre into and it blends with that.”
“The Score” was the final album from the Fugees, but Jean picked up where the score left off both with his solo projects -starting with his double platinum, Grammy Award nominated solo debut “Wyclef Jean Presents The Carnival” in 1997 – and work as a songwriter and producer and featured artist for the likes for Carlos Santana, Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Shakira.
He has watched himself become an elder statesman of hip-hop. “Now you are in a new era,” Jean said. “It’s crazy when you have kids like Young Thug, who is 24 or 25, and they are naming songs after you. It’s incredible to see as the generations move, how they keep reinventing me.”
Last year he saw DJ Khaled score a summer hit with “Wild Thoughts,” which sampled the Santana 1999 hit “Maria Maria” that was produced by Jean. “If you can put out a body of work that is honest and real, they are going to find it,” Jean said. “It’s the same way I dug in the crates and Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.”
He has no plans to rest on his legacy and has maintained a steady stream of releases in the nearly 25 years he’s been on the scene. Last year he dropped his tenth solo studio album. And he’s back at it in 2018 with his latest single “Sak Kap Fet,” from his latest mixt tape “Wyclef Goes Back to School.” He looks to the new generation for inspiration in the same way that he sought out the throwback sounds of R&B, soul and reggae classics early in his career.
“In order to stay fresh, you have to be relevant,” Jean said. “If my daughter is singing something at 12 years old, I want to know what she’s singing, why she’s singing it and who is it.” His latest work bridges the generations of hip-hop while paying homage to the Caribbean influences from his native Haiti.
When he hits the stage in St. Louis next week, he says the audience should prepare themselves for “time travel.” “We’re going from 1996 all the way to 2018,” Jean said. “Come see the man behind the music.”
A Night of Symphonic Hip Hop featuring Wyclef Jean will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday March 9 at Powell Symphony Hall. For more information, visit www.slso.org.