CES 2008: Wyclef Jean talks Motorola, ringtones, Shakira and… Bob Dylan?

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I’m still at the Billboard Digital Music Live summit, and we’re ready for the main event now. Keynote speaker in the afternoon is Wyclef Jean, the multi-million selling ex-Fugee who’s collaborated with stellar acts like Shakira, Destiny’s Child and, er, Brian Harvey.

He’s due to announce a big new digital music deal, and give his views on the industry. Read on for the liveblog as it happens – and pray his lips don’t lie…

He’s working with Motorola. “I got to find a new way to introduce my music. I might do 60 or 70 songs for an album, but I can only put 20 on the album. So the idea that I can promote music through a telephone, it’s great. It allows me to get out new music.”

What will he be doing? Gigs around the world, exclusive tracks that aren’t on his albums – he apparently has 60-70 songs lying around ready to distribute to fans.

How has digital distribution changed things for Wyclef? “It’s not only through the telephone and computer, but sonically in the studio there’s a big change, in how we record the music. I try to fuse the live fusion of what I do, and keep it raw – but still with some form of technology inside it. It took me a couple of years to figure out what was going on.”

He says that kids can get gadgets to lay down beats in a few seconds nowadays, but “what the computer can’t do is originality” he says, meaning that you need the idea, and the musical talent to make use of that technology. “You have to be a great great musician, but it’s important to still learn the technology, because you don’t wanna get left behind.”

Is he thinking about new stuff like ringtones when recording in the studio? “When I did the record Hips Don’t Lie for Shakira, which is the biggest song of all times – I had to get that out of the way! – you’re just thinking about doing a great song for people to dance and have a great time. You have no idea it’s going to turn into a phenomenon. I couldn’t get away from that song – every phone going…” And he does an excellent impression of a ringtone version of Hips Don’t Lie at this point.

So yes, he’s thinking about songs coming out of a tiny mobile phone or laptop speaker when recording. “I wanna test the sonics, so the song still sounds like you want it to sound. If you get that mix perfect for the cellphone, it’s gonna sound hot on a real system…”

I should mention Wyclef’s hat at this point. It’s cool. Cooler than Don Was’, although Was has the edge when it comes to footwear. You don’t get this level of fashion analysis at a Bill Gates keynote, so be grateful.

More from Wyclef. A computer lab has just been set up in his hometown, backed by Wyclef, for Haitian kids to use this new technology. “If you wanna advance a country, you have to bring technology inside the country,” he says. “It’s very important to teach these kids about the technology of the world, so they don’t get lost when they go out into the world.”

Any projects he can talk about that he’s working on now? The Hotel Rwanda soundtrack was his first Golden Globe nomination, although he lost to Mick Jagger. “I’m like Obama, I wanna win everything!”

So he did music for Run To The Sahara, a documentary about three runners in the Sahara, in order to raise awareness of water issues in Africa.

So what about next year, some big gigs with Motorola, and promoting a new album. But what else? He takes his hat off to answer this question. He’s bald! He says it’s “the year of the Kojaks”. And amid the general hilarity, he doesn’t say much about the next year, other than his documentary about Haiti, and a tour.

It’s slipping into music, rather than tech talk now. How did he get Paul Simon on the new album? “He’s a genius, and one of the greatest songwriters. I was intimidated when I was in the studio with a few people, one being Paul Simon, the other being Bob Dylan. You don’t know what to say!”

Apparently, getting Dylan was a stroke of luck, which involved making a speculative call via an exec at Columbia Records. “I said ‘Y’know what’d be cool, if I get Bob Dylan in my video!” And he said to me, “Bob Dylan don’t even appear in Jakob Dylan videos! So what makes you think… But I’ve got a crazy imagination, and finally he makes the call, and we had to send something to Dylan. He heard the song, and likes it, so now we’re shooting at LAX. Y’know how a kid has an imaginary friend, and everyone’s going along with it, knowing there’s no friend there. That was me at the video shoot – ‘Bob Dylan’s coming along’ – and everyone’s ‘yeah, yeah’. And then Bob Dylan appeared. Nobody had believed it – the guys with the cameras were shaking! He walked in in his black coat, like Johnny Cash, and he came over and said ‘Wyclef, what you want me to do?’”

He does a very good impression of Bob Dylan, too. At this point, I should apologise for the abandonment of any attempt to discuss technology. He’s very entertaining though.

Shakira is also on his new record, along with Mary J Blige, Will.I.Am – “who people call the young Wyclef” – and Norah Jones. “It’s just a cast of great people, and I had a great time working with them.”

He’s also enthusiastic about the fusion of new and old songs. He cites a gig he played, in Sweden, where The Temptations were in the venue (for some reason). “I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t know what the Temptations look like. Two guys came on, grabbed the mic, and I threw on that ‘I got sunshiiiine…’ song. I don’t know if they were the real Temptations, but they had the suits! It’s something about when you hear those records, they make you feel a certain way. We have to breed a generation of kids who love music so much, they wanna get back to those songs.”

A question, why do the deal with Motorola? It’s about introducing “the Wyclef brand” to people who don’t know it, and getting media attention.

And that’s a rap.

CES 2008 Special
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Stuart Dredge