Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Take Five: Wyclef Jean Loving Them Old White Guys

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 8, 2008

Lauryn Hill: Less equivocal in her affections

I’m not sure why exactly, but sometime around the recording of his 1997 solo debut, The Carnival, Wyclef Jean decided that he was going to be hip-hop’s patron saint of old white dudes. I can probably count the number of Wyclef songs I know that don’t feature, quote or in some way give props to caucasian fogies on one hand. Of course at the time this was probably considered a career booster for these guys–lest we forget, it was not all that long ago that Wyclef Jean was considered a serious and relevant recording artist–and as his career has regressed, it’s possible that the whities are giving Mr. Jean a bigger lift than he is them. In any event, the culture clash is never less than fascinating, and here are five of the better/funnier/less seamless examples.

  • We Trying to Stay Alive” (Bee Gees). For Wyclef’s very first solo hit, he opted to update The Bee-Boys’ 1977 classic “Staying Alive” for the post-Fugee era. He even got his Saturday Night Fever on in the video, though the turn it takes into “Beat It” territory half-way through I never quite understood. Song has actually held up pretty well, and set a worthwhile precedent later to be followed by Snoop Dogg (“Ups and Downs” samples the Gees’ “Love You Inside Out”) and DJ Khaled (“Brown Paper Bag” works the string break from “If I Can’t Have You”–technically Yvonne Elliman, but close enough)
  • Gone Till November” (Bob Dylan). Ordinarily, a simple lyrical reference to an old white guy (“So I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door, like I’m Bob Dylan”) wouldn’t be enough to be included on this list, but somehow Wyclef convinced Dylan to make an appearance in the song’s video as well, pictured above. The truly amazing thing is that Dylan’s cameo is literally just the duration of that line–most of the time, you figure if you’ve got one of rock music’s all-time legends for your video, you might want to get a little more mileage out of it than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk-on. I guess Dylan had some time on his hands after winning all those Time Out of Mind Grammys, and it would probably take a couple more years for his PR people realize what a joke Wyclef was. (For some reason, I can’t find the video version of this on mp3–surely it must be out there somewhere?)
  • “To All the Girls” (Willie Nelson). The completely forgotten final single from The Carnival–I didn’t remember a thing about it aside from the title–is a very half-hearted spin off of Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson’s 1983 duet “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” with that rascally Wyclef hipping it up by making it “to all the girls I’ve cheated on” instead. You could argue it’s more of an Iglesias tribute–it’s his voice that Wyclef mimmicks early in the song, after all–but it’s Willie who gets the shoutout by name, and no doubt Willie for whom Wyclef has the deeper appreciation. By the way, the original was one of those songs I’d always heard about but never actually heard, and after listening, I know why–kinda sucks, doesn’t it?
  • Kenny Rogers – Pharoahe Monch Dub” (Rogers, Obv.) Wyclef had actually already done a mini “Gambler” tribute when he sang a few bars of it in The Fugees’ excellent “Cowboys,” but I suppose it was only a matter of time before he went the distance with a full-song revision. He even gets The Gambler himself to sing the chorus, changing the gambling metaphor to be something nonsensical about turntables or some such. Also co-opting parts of Monch’s “Simon Says,” the song is really a  pretty big mess–maybe Wyclef should have just left the Rogers quotes to brother-in-arms Pras, whose sole hit “Ghetto Superstar” ripped the chorus to Kenny and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream,” and far more successfully.
  • Fast Car” (Paul Simon). The most recent example, and the one that inspired this thread. It’s great to hear Simon’s voice on a pop song again–no one else sounds quite like him, for better or worse–and the song itself is actually far less embarrassing than you’d expect from Wyclef in 2008. Still, you gotta wonder how these collabs even get started, exactly–do Simon and Wyclef have mutual friends? Did they meet at a Gordon Lightfoot concert? Do they belong to the same country club? Meanwhile, what about all the old black guys out there that could use a leg up from Wyclef–what are they, chopped liver? How long do you think Al Green waited for Wyclef to call before he settled for ?uestlove to engineer his comeback? Joe Tex? El DeBarge? C’mon, ‘Clef–diversify a little.

4 Responses to “Take Five: Wyclef Jean Loving Them Old White Guys”

  1. jr said

    I’m guessing you already know this, but Joe Tex has been dead for over 20 years. which would kinda put a damper on any comeback plans. not that there aren’t still plenty of old black dudes w/awesome voices out there who Wyclef could be restoring to glory.

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