Wyclef Jean Rocks the BPC

Fugees legend Wyclef Jean turned the Berklee Performance Center into a virtual dance party during a Performance Perspectives Clinic.

August 13, 2009

It seemed awfully early on a Monday (a hot, lethargy-inducing kind of Monday, at that) for the kind of raw energy that swept the Berklee Performance Center. The force behind that burst of enthusiasm was rap/hip-hop legend of Fugees and solo fame Wyclef Jean, who's also produced such artists as Santana, Michael Jackson, Kenny Rogers, and Destiny's Child.

In town last month for a Performance Perspectives Clinic offered as part of the Five-Week Summer Performance Program, Jean took the packed audience on a cross-genre journey from his beginning jazz roots to hip-hop to freestyle rap to a reggae finale. Also included in the spectacle was Jean's amazing vocal prowess, imitating each of the instruments on stage; some guitar acrobatics (at one point, he played a searing solo with his teeth); and a dance-off of sorts with students from the audience. By the end of the clinic, the BPC had morphed into a pulsating nightclub. And Jean hinted this may not be his last appearance at Berklee; he's hoping to take classes and possibly teach here.

Jean jammed with a rapidly assembled band featuring Berklee professors—drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and keyboardist Jetro Da Silva—and students on vocals, bass, guitar, percussion, and turntable. This was the first time many of the members had played together. But their tight playing belied the fact that they had only just rehearsed before the show, giving off a groove one would expect from longtime bandmates. Jean would agree: "What you're getting is a pure vibe," he said.

He started off with "Voodoo Jazz," a tune he wrote and performed at the Montreaux Jazz Festival with mentor Quincy Jones '51, and segued into "Gone Till November" and "911," among others.

Interspersed with the eye- and ear-catching displays, Jean shared stories of his humble beginnings in a small, dirt village in Haiti, where rhythm was king; getting shot at age 13 while attempting to retrieve his aunt's stolen purse; discovering jazz; quitting his Burger King job when he landed on MTV; and recording the multi-platinum Fugees album The Score in his uncle's basement.

Taking questions from Carrington and students, he also offered up some poignant words of wisdom on the state of the music industry. Read a few highlights below.

On making The Score in his uncle's basement:

It was the biggest hip-hop album ever, period, for a group. So think about it: if I did something inside of a basement that sold 22 million copies, imagine if you have the dream. Today I will give you the secret to my success. Similar to Quincy Jones, my background starts off with jazz. You dig? We had two guitars, both broken. Most of the time, they were not tuned. So if you listen to The Score, there was a lot of untuned music. People think I'm a genius. The guitar was just not tuned.

On the Fugees' genre-bending sound:

I never think about it like that. For me, it was more like I didn't really separate music: This is jazz, this is country, this is techno. For me, it's like good music and bad music.

On cultural phenomenons:

if you're a songwriter and writing music, understand this: There is a difference between a hit and a cultural phenomenon. They are two different things. So what you should do is try to not make hits. Try to make cultural phenomenons. When you make the cultural phenomenons, it doesn't matter if you're not in the club, because as the artist you'll get your publishing check forever.

On his muse:

Bob Marley is like the soundtrack to my life. He can talk about apples and cherries and he still sounds sexy and like a tough guy. He revolutionized the music, at a time when everybody was doing something else.

On the power of technology:

The future of the music is in the hands of the technology; meaning, you are the consumer. You decide what you want to buy, when you want to buy it. The idea of a physical record store existing and you actually going to wait on line: That's not moving towards the future. Moving forward in the future, it's important that you learn how to sell your music through technology. Selling your music through the internet is the life of real musicians. When you sell it on the internet, the labels are going to come back to you now. If you have to go to a label and sit around and explain what you do, then you're not doing the right thing. The right thing is when you sit in front of a label and they say, "Oh, I've seen you. You were that guy on iTunes. You did, like, 30,000 copies. How can we do business?"