Two decades ago in London, Wyclef Jean, 50, was channel surfing when he ran across Live…with Jools Holland: appreciating the BBC program’s bridge between dialogue with popular artists while exposing new artists from various parts of the globe. The triple Grammy-winning artist, musician, humanitarian and producer behind songs by Santana, Shakira, Destiny’s Child and Mary J. Blige thought to himself he’d like to have a similar platform one day.
‘Clef revisited the idea once covid-19 sheltered the world in place. He created a YouTube series, Run That Back, that features him virtually chatting with a range of music-related personalities like Clive Davis, Lena Waithe, Gunna, will.i.am, A$AP Ferg and Rapsody. ‘Clef also remixes his guests’ music, wails while he improvs on guitar, shares exclusive backstories about his own successful career, cuts in performance montages, and plays snippets of new artists’ music.
“Artists go crazy when they’re not doing nothing,” ‘Clef said via Google Meet. “I started reaching out to my friends and good partners, and it’s just been magical. The jewels the guests are dropping are inspirational to someone like my 15-year-old daughter.”
The show’s title is a homage to a command typically reserved for DJs or producers when there’s a musical scale that makes the crowd stop in its tracks. Two years from now, ‘Clef would like to fully develop Run That Back in-studio.
“There’s always that moment in the conversation where you’ll see the guest’s eyes pop out, and it’s something that they’re not expecting,” ‘Clef said. “We still needed proof-of-concept – the data – to show we could pull this off.”
Digital is where ‘Clef has been searching for the next chapter of his career. Two years ago, the founding member of The Fugees sketched out plans for a score company for film studios. He started designing and coding a mobile app instead, Sodo Mood Lab, that compiles a database of various aspiring composers seeking to get their arrangements and sonics placed. Allowing real time customization, Sodo Music Lab eliminates barriers to entry specifically targeting Black and various ethnic groups.
“Executives would tell us to get on the Billboard charts, radio, tour the world to eventually conquer it,” the preacher’s kid said. “I need more kids to know that there’s another space for them. You get so much money from a 30-second clip, the engineer looks to see what type of airplane he’s gonna buy.”
“People are putting their content on social media, but the companies are making money off the data,” the former Haitian presidential candidate said, referring to Sodo Mood Lab as “scoring with soul.” “We’re in this situation of gluttony, and I’m all for moving out of the plantation mode. I might have the next Hans Zimmer from Detroit who’s 21. You gon’ hear some shit that’s not on any platform that exists.”
‘Clef is developing and scoring an autobiographical animated film for Netflix, Prince of Port-Au-Prince. Rather than chronicling his successful years, Prince of Port-Au-Prince traces the eldest of five children’s humble beginnings: referencing moments like riding a donkey to school or eating red dirt because his family was so poor.
“The most interesting parts of my life are from ages one to 10 and how I escape from poverty by imagination,” the Golden Globe-nominated creator responsible for music for Life and Hotel Rwanda said. “It’s the story of the true Slumdog Millionaire. Where I come from, there are 10 million just like me, so those who are fans of the Fugees or The Carnival, those albums will make sense to them.”
Earlier this year, ‘Clef raised $25 million for his new company, Carnival World Music Group, that supports songwriters and producers in underserved and developing countries. The venture, in partnership with music financing firm Sound Royalties, is yet another gateway for ‘Clef, the first hip-hop artist to perform at Carnegie Hall accompanied by a philharmonic orchestra, to uplift those whose origins are rooted in the African Diaspora.
‘Clef admits these days, he’s listening to more music out of the Middle East. “We gotta be fair,” the “wordsmith battle rapper who grew up on Broadway musicals” said. “Now, my masters revert to me, so I can’t complain, but I have to complain for the next generation. We never hear kids in the ‘hood or rural communities say they wanna be the next Charlie Parker or Thelonius Monk, but they’re out there.”
With plans to drop his own line of guitars over the next two years, ‘Clef is proud his three-decade career continues to evolve and influence generations of artists. Pinpointing moments like Young Thug releasing the song “Wyclef Jean” or a video surfacing of a teenage Drake reciting “Ready or Not,” ‘Clef’s conversations on Run That Back with his celebrity friends refresh in his mind how accomplished he is while also acknowledging how inspired he is by everyone else.
“That forever student is big in my playbook; that’s what keeps music exciting to me,” ‘Clef said. “I’m just getting started; I really haven’t felt like I’ve done anything yet. Covid teaches you even when you stop moving, the rest of the Earth still keeps rotating. If I don’t have these conversations with my peers, when am I gonna have it?”
“It’s just mutual respect and a lot of love,” ‘Clef concludes. “It doesn’t matter the generation. If we don’t paint history, someone will write it for us.”