Wyclef performs at the grand opening of the Renaissance New York Midtown Hotel. (Photos: Sean T. Smith)
When Wyclef Jean thinks of hotels, he immediately thinks of old school glamour.
“I was a jazz major in high school and I never got to travel,” says the Grammy Award-winning producer. “But I used to go into hotels and I would look at the walls and see people like Sammy Davis, Jr., or I’d see Sinatra eating at a restaurant, you know? Or, I’d see Sidney Poitier. And, I’d be like wow, I was born in the wrong era.”
After blowing up on the hip-hop scene as one-third of the Fugees, fast forward to a career of producing infectious tunes that has taken Jean around the globe and back again. It’s in the hotel that he finds a moment to catch his breath.
“A hotel should feel like a refuge, like you’d find a refuge in the city …That’s what makes a hotel feel cool,” he says.
Marriott TRAVELER caught up with Jean at the grand opening of the Renaissance New York Midtown Hotel, in the heart of the Garment District, where we talked about the places and people that have inspired him in his travels. (Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
How do you pack? Do you pack light or do you over pack? What are your top two or three essentials when traveling?
I travel half of the year. I’m on stages all over the world and the hardest thing to do is to pack, because I love clothes. Every country I go to, I go shopping. But the thing that I usually pack when I’m leaving is my guitar. The guitar is very important, but it’s tricky. When you are traveling on private planes it’s no problem, but when you are traveling commercial you have to make sure that your guitar is in a certain case that is going to be compatible to closets. If I have a concert, I usually pack five outfits, very army, military-style. They could be the dopest clothes, but I really roll them up and try to make them as small as I can, and pack them. People are like, yo ‘Clef, don’t you have stylists to do that stuff? I like doing it myself, so I roll the clothes myself and I pack them myself. That’s so that when I get to where I’m going I don’t have to go to baggage claim. I hate going to baggage claim. Also, watches are very important….Shoes are very, very important. Every time you see me, my shoes is so swaggy. I gotta come in Brooklyn with that. That’s just how Brooklyn do. You know?
You’ve been all over the world. What places inspire you creatively? What are your favorite places in the world to visit?
Some the places that I’ve been that I would recommend: North Africa. Morocco is incredible. I love the food, the culture; the constant energy you feel in the city. There’s a lot of talk about Dubai. People love Dubai and I can’t front on Dubai; I love Dubai, but the cultural experience I got was actually in Abu Dhabi. Consider Dubai like the big city, like New York City, and consider Abu Dhabi like old Brooklyn. It’s like the camels are really there, for real. You go for the desert. The energy. And, of course, the Caribbean is a great place. Haiti has some incredible places. There is a place called Jacmel, which is incredible with white beach sand. St. Lucia. Incredible. If you ever go to St. Lucia do a mud bath. There’s volcanic black sand, magnetic sand. It’s good for your skin.
Play Navigator. Name one surprising place in New York City that a first-timer should go.
I would probably say B.B. King’s. B.B. King’s is real cool because some of the bands [that play there] are forgotten. You might be here and be like man I want to hear a real cool jazz set. If there is an old R&B band that I miss or an old blues band, I always look at what B.B. King has. It’s a very, very cool spot.
How does music impact the way you navigate through life?
Music has definitely helped me navigate through life. I mean, think about Shakira. I wrote “Hips Don’t Lie.” The connection with Colombia … the culture is insane in Colombia. I got a chance to work with Carlos Santana. I wrote a song called “Maria, Maria” – it’s the idea of Mexico and the rich music coming out of Mexico. Also, one of my favorite musicians is Youssou N’Dour from Senegal. The rich sound coming out of Africa, just the vocals, the languages. That’s what art is, you know? I always think that the connection between music and traveling, and what I do is so important. Some people consider me to be probably one of the most eclectic producers of our generation; to go from Lil’ Wayne to Whitney Houston…I think that’s because music is global.
Something that people might find surprising about you?
People might find it surprising that I’m from the Caribbean and I can’t swim.