Wyclef Jean raps a cappella for a small collection of music industry students.
Drexel University sophomore Ricky Martin called his mother on his way to One Drexel Plaza to tell her Wyclef Jean, a musician they both admire, was about to speak to a small group of Drexel students about his experiences on stage and in the studio. He was hoping to see something interesting, maybe learn something from a Grammy-winning artist with more than two decades’ worth of industry knowledge, but he couldn’t have predicted that when he called his mother back he’d be telling her about the verse he rapped alongside an idol.
At the end of an hourlong question-and-answer session Oct. 13 for music industry students in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, Wyclef picked up a guitar to kick off an impromptu jam session and give a few lucky Dragons the chance to sing and rap with a hip-hop legend.
For sophomore Marquel, who stepped to the mic first, it was “a dream come true.”
“I came here hoping something cool would happen,” he said afterward, “and it did.”
Wyclef’s visit came together in just a few days thanks to music industry professor Ryan Schwabe, who conducted the Q&A, and music industry senior Caylie Landerville, who completed two co-ops and is now a college marketing representative with Sony, the label that released Wyclef’s new album, “Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee,” last month. She didn’t get up to perform with him, but it was still a special opportunity to hear from the former Fugee about his path to success, how he’s stayed relevant for so long and the virtues of musical collaboration.
“It really is awesome to see some of these artists who are so successful and have had so much going for them in their lives still be a person and still want to relate. That’s why they create music,” said Landerville. “And getting to hear that and see that means a lot, especially to people aspiring to be in the music industry, because it can be intimidating.”
Inside Drexel’s new music studio, which is set to officially open next month, Wyclef told the standing-room-only crowd that trusting their own judgment is the key to making something special.
“The complete knowledge of self has to be embedded in your brain,” he said. “You have to know that you can do it.”
Wyclef talked about his journey from a childhood of poverty in Haiti to forming the Fugees and producing songs that helped redefine hip-hop and fusion music. He didn’t always have the money to afford expensive equipment, so he studied the way sound is created in order to tweak the instruments he did have to get the sounds he needed, he said. A strong understanding of the fundamentals of jazz and blues has underpinned all of his artistic endeavors. By focusing on musical theory, he can blend salsa and trap music and make it sound good, or translate dubstep to an acoustic guitar, or, as he does on his new song “Borrowed Time,” incorporate sounds from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Jupiter into a downbeat pop single.
Even after 25 years of hits, though, he’s still evolving.
“I always believe that in music you can never stop learning,” said Wyclef.
He feels compelled to pass his knowledge on to the next generation, he added — along with a healthy dose of humor and advice. Before launching into a two-minute a cappella rap that had students’ smartphones standing at attention, Wyclef spoke about how a sense of discovery fuels his collaborative style. He’s intrigued by talent, regardless of hype or style, which is part of why his music is full of so many different sounds.
“I’m like the hip-hop Gershwin,” Wyclef said with a laugh. “I like to put plays together.”
The students who took a turn rapping with the former Fugee got to witness that ethos up close and personal. For sophomore Chris Hechler, it was a “nerve-wracking but freeing” experience.
“Getting up and performing in front of all those people, speaking from the heart, especially with someone I really admire,” said Hechler, “I can’t imagine too much better than that.”
In between backing students on guitar and piano and freestyling in French, Spanish and Japanese, Wyclef told the audience not to worry if their sound isn’t received well at first. It can take a while for the industry to appreciate new ideas, he said.
“That was really inspirational to hear, that even if everyone’s not into the art or music that you’re creating right now, someone else will appreciate it down the line,” said Landerville.
Above all else, Wyclef reminded the students to follow their own interests and not be dissuaded by anyone pushing back against their vision.
“Y’all are the pulse,” he said. “Always move with your gut naturally.”