Wyclef jean is supposed to be making like Sting today, but instead he's just making it up. Wyclef (he's primarily known by his first name) is sitting behind a drum kit on the sixth floor of the Hit Factory, a recording studio in Manhattan, tapping out a jazzy rhythm while his cousin and frequent producing partner Jerry Duplessis plays along on bass guitar. The pair, who are here to tape a rendition of the Police song Walking on the Moon for the pilot of an mtv series on musical influences, are indulging in an unscheduled jam. Wyclef, who with Lauryn Hill and Prakazrel ("Pras") Michel made up the Grammy-winning hip-hop trio the Fugees, pounds out a rock beat, shifts to something funkier and finally settles into a reggae groove that sounds distinctly like Bob Marley's skittering Lively Up Yourself. Then Wyclef, who is more of a guitarist than a drummer, puts down his sticks and walks away laughing, like he just got away with something.
That's Wyclef: you can't pin him down, not to one instrument, not to one style, not even to one country. He was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Newark, N.J. He's a rapper and a singer, an entertainer with an ear to the streets and an eye on the top of the charts. He has written and produced hits for Santana and Whitney Houston and has also worked with Destiny's Child and Sinéad O'Connor. "He's like a chameleon," says Melky Jean, Wyclef's sister and frequent supporting vocalist. "He can adapt from rap to pop to country because, growing up, that's what he used to listen to; he never limited himself."
With the Fugees, whose 1996 record The Score sold more than 5 million copies, on indefinite hiatus, Wyclef has ventured out on his own. His 1997 solo debut, The Carnival, sold almost 2 million copies. Now his new CD, The Ecleftic-2 Sides II a Book (Columbia), is garnering some of the best reviews of any rap release this year. Rolling Stone called it "the most pleasingly direct yet musically adventurous hip-hop long-player you're likely to hear all year." The hip-hop magazine Source gave it 412 microphones out of 5-half a mike more than Eminem got in the same issue. "I wanted this album to be really musical, but with an edge," says Wyclef. "I wanted to bring in people from the projects and college kids in the dorm. I didn't want to skip over anybody."
Fame and fortune could easily have skipped over Wyclef, 29. "I grew up poor," he says, recalling his childhood in Port-au-Prince. "I had two pairs of pants for the whole year, one pair of shoes. Sometimes I'd go to school barefooted." When he was nine, the woman he thought was his mother told him she was actually his aunt and that his real parents, who had left the country when he was four, were ready to take him to the U.S. Instead of feeling betrayed, he was overjoyed. "I always felt I would be in the ghetto forever," he says. "Then they said, Someone else is your parents and they're taking you to America. I said, Yeah!'"
Artistically, Wyclef is still on the move. His sonic curiosity has broadened since The Carnival, and his songwriting skills have sharpened. He's like a pop-music search engine, filtering through genres, highlighting what's melodious and spirited. For Wyclef, it's important to come up with varied material that showcases his skills as a rapper and a singer. His reasons are personal: "My mom, she's not impressed with any of the rap stuff that I do. She's always, like, What songs are you singing?'"
Ecleftic boasts cameos from country star Kenny Rogers and pro wrestler the Rock. A Marley-ish protest song about police brutality (Diallo) is balanced by a lighthearted tribute to marijuana (Something About Mary). Along the way, there's a sexy duet with hip-hop soul singer Mary J. Blige (911) and a nostalgic, rap-infused cover of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. The CD's most striking song, however, may be its first, Where Fugee At, a blunt call for Wyclef's bandmates to come back together: "Lauryn, if you're listening/ Pras, if you're listening/ Give me a call I'm in the lab in the Booga Basement ..."
There have been reports of tension among the Fugees after the critical and commercial success of Hill's 1998 solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. So will the Fugees ever record another album? "People welcome you into Jerusalem to crucify you," says Wyclef. "If we just go into the studio and the s___ is garbage, the same people [calling for a reunion] will be, like, This is garbage. They should have just kept doing what they were doing.'" But Wyclef's cousin Duplessis predicts the Fugees will get together again because "everyone will get a big check."
Although Wyclef just talked to Pras a few weeks ago, he says he hasn't had a conversation with Hill in two years. There have been rumors that Wyclef and Hill had a romantic fling earlier in their careers. Is that old affair the true source of their current estrangement? Wyclef smiles, almost shyly. "I think so," he says. "I think that's really the heart of it." For her part, Hill declines to comment.
Typically, when band members release solo albums, one individual reveals himself to be the Simon of the group, and the others are uncovered as mere Garfunkels. When the Police broke up, Sting turned out to be a Simon; Andy Summers was a Garfunkel. So far, both Wyclef and Hill have turned out to be Simons, and Wyclef's new CD only further confirms his Simonhood. Why should Wyclef let the pressure to reunite get to him? He's duetting with Mary J.; he's got half a mike on Eminem; and he's following in the footsteps of his idol, Sting. Wyclef may be traveling solo these days, but he's walking on the moon.