For ’90s hip-hop heads, Wyclef Jean will always be known as one-third of the legendary group the Fugees. And anyone paying attention over the last few decades probably thinks he or she knows everything about Jean: how he became a sought-after producer, his near-presidential run in his home country and his starring role in a love triangle. But as the premiere of the new season of TV One’s Unsung shows, there’s more to learn, particularly about his upbringing and his roller-coaster personal journey.
This is the first time Jean has been featured in a documentary about his life, and it is revealing of how far he’s come: from literally eating the red-clay dirt in Haiti to immigrating to America at 10 years of age and living in the projects in Brooklyn, N.Y.—where he felt rich in comparison with the village he grew up in—to his eventual success as a rapper, producer, actor and social activist.
“You go from working in Burger King to being able to buy a mansion; I don’t care who you are, it’s going to change you,” Jean told The Root. “There’s drugs, drinking, sex; the entourages are getting bigger. I always thought about my dad and mom. One little slip and you get deported back to the island. Faith plays an important part, and the fear of God. You know in a split second he can take it all back.”
Born to deeply religious parents, Jean and his five siblings weren’t allowed to listen to secular music. But he figured out a way around that by adapting songs from the radio for the band at church. It’s a tactic he would use in much of his production work later, changing traditional R&B songs into harder-edged hip-hop cuts.
“As a producer, I’m always thinking. The first thing I was producing was the choir in church. You’re always trying to funk it up every Sunday,” Jean said. “It could be a song you know and you’re like, ‘How am I gonna put a spin to this?’”
One Christmas, his father bought him and his siblings Muppet instruments, an idea born from one of the few programs, The Muppet Show, that Jean and his siblings were allowed to watch. Jean learned how to play several of the instruments by ear.
“I was playing piano in my school, and my teacher was like, ‘Where did you learn to play these chords?’ I said, ‘In my head,’” Jean remembered. “She asked me if I had ever heard of Thelonious Monk. I was like, is that somebody from a karate picture?”
That teacher helped get him into a jazz school, which changed his life. He combined his street background with music theory and improvisation. It would help him later in producing in a variety of genres, from Latin to reggae, rock and hip-hop.
When the family moved to New Jersey, he started a hip-hop group, the Tranzlator Crew, in high school with Marcie Harriell (who left the group and later became a Broadway actress) and Lauryn Hill and Pras, which they later renamed the Fugees (short for “refugees”). His parents’ displeasure at his choice of music continued. Jean’s father insisted that he couldn’t serve two masters; it’s either God or the devil, he told him, and the music he was doing wasn’t God’s music. His father kicked him out of the house, and the group formed a studio in the basement at his cousin’s house.
The group created and shopped their demo with the help of a member of Kool & the Gang, and the only label that didn’t reject them was Ruffhouse Records. The Fugees’ 1994 debut album, Blunted on Reality, was a critical hit, but it didn’t do well commercially, selling only 12,000 copies.
As the group was recording its smash sophomore album, The Score, Jean was sleeping with his then-fiancee, Marie Claudinette Pierre-Jean, and with Lauryn Hill, an affair that continued after he married Marie Claudinette.
On Unsung, Ruffhouse label co-owner Charles Schwartz, along with other Fugee members, blamed the group’s eventual breakup on their acrimonious relationship that emerged from the affair. (Both Hill and Pras declined to be featured in the episode.)
Jean and Hill continued their solo careers. Jean would release 11 studio albums and produce and write for heavyweights like Beyoncé, Shakira and Carlos Santana.
Throughout his success, Jean’s parents were not happy with his choice of music.
“He did say he was proud of me,” Jean said of his father. “And proud that I made something of myself. They were the ones that had to knit things in a factory until their hands bled. They’re the ones that had to pick up the welfare check and try to give you a way to survive. The greatest thing I got to do before my dad’s eyes closed was to tell my parents, ‘Thank you.’”
Jean is still in the game with a new album, Carnival Vol. III: The Rise and Fall of a Refugee, due out in September. For his Unsung debut, he hopes that people feel that they can do what he did. “I want the person that feels like they’re so average to feel like, ‘Holy crap!’ I want them to feel inspired.”
The new season of Unsung premieres with back-to-back episodes beginning at 9 p.m. Sunday with Wyclef Jean and at 10 p.m. with Jagged Edge.