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Wyclef Jean: Hip-hop and country music are alike

By Teo Kermeliotis, for CNN
  • Famous rapper Wyclef Jean admits being a fan of country music
  • Hip hop and country 'have something tangible' people can identify with, he says
  • Jean ascended into hip hop stardom in mid-1990s as member of the Fugees
  • He's produced a slew of hit solo projects and worked together with several music legends

London, England (CNN) -- They may inhabit opposite ends of a record store, but hip-hop and country music are not that different after all, according to one of the most influential rappers of recent years.

Wyclef Jean, the Grammy-winning singer and former member of hip-hop trio the Fugees, says that both music genres have "something tangible" that people can identify with.

"Country doesn't compromise the story for anyone, it tells things they way they really are -- 'my girlfriend done left me today and I'm drinking some Jack Daniels' -- that's what it is today," he told CNN.

"Hip-hop doesn't compromise things either, it's like 'this is the neighborhood, this is what's going on,'" Jean continued.

Describing Bob Dylan as "one of the original rappers," Jean goes on to admit that country, along with hip hop and reggae, are his favorite kinds of music.

Such remarks may fall flat with many hip-hop and country devotees, but are entirely in tune with Jean's lasting reputation of a mad scientist -- throughout his career he's been stepping into diverse musical territories and fusing different styles to create his eclectic sound.

The son of a minister, Jean was born on the impoverished island of Haiti in October 1972. Growing up in a tough environment, he would often turn to music for comfort.

"I remember singing in the rain because it always made me escape what I was going through. When I got hungry I would go sing; when I got sad I'd go sing."

At age nine, Jean moved to Brooklyn, New York, to reunite with his father who had gone to the U.S. to seek a better future for his family.

It was there, in his father's church, that Jean started flourishing as a music talent, developing a spirituality that has been fueling his repertoire ever since.

"My music career started inside a church, similar to Marvin Gaye. My whole entertainment swagger comes from the energy of the church," he said.

In 1987, he hooked up with Prakazrel "Pras" Michel and Lauryn Hill to form a rap trio called Tranzlator Crew. A few years later, they changed their name to Fugees and in 1994 they released their first album, "Blunted on Reality," which received mixed reviews.

My music sees no color, it just sees people -- the more we can unite, the better the world can be.
--Wyclef Jean

Their second album, 1996's "The Score," was an instant hit and propelled them to hip-hop stardom.

It became one of the biggest-selling hip-hop albums of all time, selling more than 17 million albums worldwide, according to Rolling Stone, and earned the band two Grammy Awards.

In 1997, Jean embarked on a solo career with the release of "Wyclef Jean presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee Allstars." The album, a brilliant fusion of sounds and styles, went multi-platinum and paved the way for Jean's subsequent career as a solo artist.

One particular song, the Grammy-nominated "Gone Till November," became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Its music video features a cameo appearance by Bob Dylan, a moment Jean cherishes to this day.

"This is one of the songs I'm most proud of -- having Bob Dylan showing up for the video. 'Gone Till November' is the blueprint to my career as a solo artist," Jean told CNN.

Since then, Jean has released a series of successful solo albums and deployed his songwriting, production and remixing talents for a diverse roster of artists.

He is responsible for a slew of massive hits, including Santana's "Maria Maria," Whitney Houston's "My Love is Your Love" and Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie," while his long list of collaborators ranges from Mick Jagger and Celia Cruz to Serj Tankian and Kenny Rogers.

Jean's new, self-titled album is slated for release this Spring.

Having already dedicated his latest song, "Hold On," to the people of earthquake-torn Haiti, it looks like the sensibility that has fueled his spirit since his early days will continue to come through in his music.

"As a student of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and John Lennon, my message is universal love, that's what we have to strive for," he said.

"My music sees no color, it just sees people -- the more we can unite, the better the world can be."