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Clefication: Conversations with Wyclef Jean, Bravo's Kirk and Laura Knight and Spike's Jon Taffer, Plus a Gecko Turner Exclusive

03/17/2015 12:00 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015

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photo credit: Migwa Nthigah

A Conversation With Wyclef Jean

Mike Ragogna: Wyclef, how is the recoding coming on your next album Clefication going?

Wyclef Jean: Well, it's going great. We're definitely not finished yet, though. As musicians, we are constantly just writing music every day in the studio. Then once in a while we get an itch to put out a body of work. For me the itch came back after I ran for President of Haiti and went through the fire and came back home. I went to Stockholm and spent some time with Tim Bergling. We went into the studio in winter and we just started recording. It's really just two producers and two writers, when you break it down to the genesis of what it is. We got in and in the course of like three days we wrote twenty songs. That was just the start of the process for the body of work that will turn out to be Clefication. The name really came from Avicii. Every time I'm in the studio they're like, "Yo, give us a little more Clefication!" So Clefication is like the swag of Wyclef. It's the human application to the music. I play all the instruments live in real time, and there's a certain swag that I do to my voice, little things like Marley used to do. They call it the Clefication. I guess Clefication is the human music application.

MR: Though you're not finished recording the album, Afro Jack, DJ Khaled, Emeli Sandé and other popular musicians already appear on Clefication. How do you invite your guest cast to the project? Is it simply calling up your friends and saying, "I think you're right for this?"

WJ: When I put albums together it's like making an audio film. Every generation has a modern day story that they're trying to tell. Within Clefication I'm trying to tell the story of life, love, happiness, ups, downs; it's like a film script. I just look out there and think of people. DJ Khaled and I go way back, so I knew that for a certain sound that I'd need he and I would have to get together, based on our past experiences working together. I spent a lot of time in Amsterdam with Afro Jack, so I understand the movement of what he does and I always wondered, "What happens if you put a Wyclef acoustic guitar against an Afro Jack record?" Emeli Sandé is just hands down one of the greatest vocalists and writers of all time, in my personal opinion, so I've been dying to get together with her. I just felt that her ability to write and sing and transform is different.

MR: You've already given us a taste of the album with your performance of "Divine Sorrow" on the American Music Awards. What was it like coming back to debuting work in such a large "win-or-lose" kind of format?

WJ: I always think I'm very fortunate, but when I came into the music business one thing I learned from Quincy Jones is that the music game is like a marathon. The game doesn't really start until now and this is what determines if you're going to be around or not. The AMAs were cool for me because my daughter is nine, she doesn't know who the Fugees are, she just went back to school and got to tell everybody her daddy was on the American Music Awards. I have to stay cool for my daughter, no matter what happens. Dads have always got to stay cool for their daughters. [laughs]

MR: You went to Europe for a couple of years to get a little creative inspiration, right?

WJ: Yes. It's similar to when Marley went to England and hooked up with Chris Blackwell and started using a lot of that country stuff inside the reggae. Inspiration is all over the world. I think sometimes to get inspired you have to move around. I just wanted to go back and forth to Europe, there was a lot of things that I was listening to in my head that I wanted to convey. I spent a lot of time going back and forth.

MR: You joined Ash Pournouri in Sweden, right?

WJ: Yeah. The kind of swag that Ash Pournouri has reminds me of a Chris Blackwell, he's just younger. His spunk for music, his passion for music is there. When I sat with Ash, who's one of the executive producers of this new album, he was like, "Yo, you know the 'Clef brand is the music brand. When you come to Europe I just want to put you in a room with a bunch of cool kids who are doing what you're doing in Europe and are great friends of yours." I definitely credit him to starting a process of what would carve out eventually to be a more focused body of work as opposed to just another record, you know what I mean? That's how I hooked up with Avicii.

MR: And Clefication went to PRMD, the label that you and Ash and Avicii are on, right?

WJ: Yeah, the beautiful thing about Clefication is that it's coming out on HEADS Music and PRMD. There's two little independents, one is HEADS Music which I think is brilliant. They actually came and recruited me, which I love, because they have a lot of young acts that they wanted me to produce. I love the idea of the combination of what HEADS Music is doing. Their CEO is very brilliant, her name is Madeline Nelson. She came to recruit me for production. Ash came and was like, "Yo, let's do an album," but she came and was like, "Yo, I have all these acts, I need you to do what you did for Destiny's Child and all of them." I was like, "Wow, this is a great marriage." So I did the deal with HEADS Music/PRMD Distribution 88, that's Warner's.

MR: You've produced, written songs, recorded, and even entered politics, especially by running for president of Haiti. Do all those pursuits come from the same place within? How do you fulfill yourself in each of those categories? Are they sometimes done at the expense of each other?

WJ: That's a great question, it's never really been asked like that. I definitely think it's real hard. How do you go about poli-sci one day talking about world events and policy and trade and then the next day, you're like "Divine Sorrow." The thing is, in my subconscious mind, even if you go back to the Fugees days, I've always called our music "Policy Music." We do stuff that makes people dance, but it always has a subtitle in the back of it. It's definitely not an easy thing, juggling it all at the same time, but I just feel like you can't just sing. When we listen to John Lennon or Bob Marley, it's up to us to push the policies forward. For me, it'll always be a mixture of both. When I saw the movies of Fela Kuti I identified with a lot of parts that were similar to how my life is; running for president, defying the system and how it comes at you like they're going to take your throat out. For me, it's all part of the same thing. I never want my legacy to be, "Oh, this is the guy who came from Haiti and just made people sing and dance." I really don't think that's what people will remember in a thousand years. I think people will remember the work that was done.

MR: You always put so much into your personal projects and those you produce for other artists. Do you feel like it's your mission to just kick everything up as far as you can every time?

WJ: Yeah! The genesis of what I do comes from me as a composer. As a composer or a maestro, when you stand in front of the orchestra, the job is to push them as far as they can go so that it's the best thing that the audience has ever heard. I definitely crack the whip in the studio, but I have a certain psychosis of how I work with each artist.

MR: Let's look at Haiti. What would you have done if you'd been elected president?

WJ: Well, in Haiti, my first focus was, "What are our two greatest assets at the time?" One was human capital. The majority of the population is a youth population, which means that you could put them back to work. The other asset that I feel like we naturally have is the soil. The idea of importing and exporting was a situation I felt would work. Setting up agri-banks. We're only an hour outside of Miami; anything that we wanted to grow we could grow in that climate. I think that between the soil and human capital we could have put a lot of people to work. Even when we talk about education, what's up with the kid who's like sixteen or seventeen years old who's not in school or not interested in it? How are you going to get him engaged? He's human capital. There are different schools you can set up that are not your traditional institutional school. Plumbing school, engineering school, trade schools. This is some of the stuff that I felt could help put situations in gear.

MR: Do you contribute to a few of causes behind the scenes?

WJ: Yeah, today, they still call me the kingmaker. They're like, "We don't understand it, man, you could be up here in two seconds and tell us what's going to happen in Haiti before it even happens." I'll always be part of Haiti. I came from that country to America, but the thing about the American dream is you have to give a piece of that to someone.

MR: Do you find yourself sometimes having to choose between working on musical projects and working on social projects?

WJ: Yeah, definitely. I put my whole career on hold to go back to Haiti and help my country. That's part of my absence. I didn't leave because I was on the bottom of the charts and couldn't write music, you know? I was like, "Okay, I just wrote the biggest pop song in history, now let me take a few years off and help the people." It's the same with Bono. It's not an easy balance, but it's something that's in our consciousness. It's something that's natural to what I believe. Service is very important to me.

MR: How does it affect your creative process? Does it slow it down at all?

WJ: No, it's still the same. The first single, "Divine Sorrow," we partnered up with Bono, who's a good friend, and we started to talk the whole single idea with the Red campaign after going to Africa and seeing the initiative. We decided that we would partner up with Red and the Global Fund and make one hundred percent of that first single go toward the Global Fund to raise awareness of HIV. It's not just one cause, it will always be many causes. Okay, yeah, it's Haiti, but in the same way if you look back at the Fugees, we were there at Rock The Vote, we were there at Concert For Tibetan Freedom. For me it's the human aspect of us and the natural obligation. Each one teach one. If one falls, the other helps them rise. That's not really within a music space or a social space, it's within a mankind space, whether we're talking about the falling of Rome or the rise of Africa or the rise of Europe, whether we're talking about it through sports or music or books or philosophy, it's all the same concept. Are you going to do more than just write that philosophy? Are you going to be Sigmund Freud? Are you going to give them something extra?

MR: When you look at Ferguson, SAE and beyond, what are your thoughts?

WJ: Well, I think there are a few things happening. I think the trust between communities and their law enforcement has been lost. Another thing that's happening is, it's not like it has not been here before, but with social media and people constantly having cameras now it's quicker to get it to the forefront. When you're like, "Man, what happened?" It's because what you're seeing now is being transmitted through the internet, but imagine when those cameras were not there. This is an issue. We can't run from the idea of, "Do we still have a race problem?" The key is that the majority of us are not racists, but that little racist notch is trying to say, "That is America," and we're saying, "No, that is not America." There are parts of America that has to be worked on. I was not surprised by what happened at the SAE fraternity, but it's that someone caught that on tape. Those guys wouldn't be saying that if they knew they were being recorded, but once again, for them to say it somebody had to instill that hatred in them. These are the things we have to fight against.

MR: There are many who feel socially-minded artists should just "shut up and sing." Do you feel the atmosphere has gotten better for artists who promote causes these days?

WJ: Definitely. I think social media has really helped that. It has given people a voice, and lets us hear other voices aside from the radio. I think social media has made it a little easier to communicate and convey your message.

MR: Do you think you've educated or influenced some of the acts you've been involved with?

WJ: When you're an actor you're inside of the film and you sometimes don't get a chance to look back and think about it. I think I'm just in that wave right now of moving forward and hoping people move with me.

MR: Wyclef, what advice do you have for new artists?

WJ: If you really want to do this, you have to watch the movie Whiplash. That's a good movie minus the slapping in the face. Multiply that movie times one hundred thousand and that is the music business. That is the music business. If you decide you're going to be inside of this music business, you have to be ready for the rise and for the fall. The only thing that's going to keep you inside the music is originality, and you constantly have to be passionate about it. The first thing is the passion. If you have real passion and somebody says you suck, you've got to be more passionate to do better. If you don't have real passion and somebody says you suck, you're going to be ready to quit. Make sure that you're ready for this arena if you want to be in the music business.

MR: Cool. You're going to be performing at South By Southwest, right?

WJ: Yeah, I'm definitely going to be headlining Pandora hip hop night, I'm going to also be bringing some HEADS Music artists, it's going to be very cool.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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GEKKO TURNER'S "THAT PLACE BY THE THING WITH THE COOL NAME" EXCLUSIVE

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According to Gecko Turner...

"Chicken Wire is a party starter. This Sly Stone-infused track tells the story of a crazy woman who runs away from her husband. 'She ran away and joined a circus, went crazy for the knife thrower...' The song builds up to an unexpected finale when the band gets hot..."

This is the first song taken from the forthcoming album by Gecko Turner, That Place By The Thing With The Cool Name, out on April 27.

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photo courtesy Anderson Group Public Relations

A Conversation with Bravo's Kirk and Laura Knight

Mike Ragogna: Kirk and Laura, you are the ultimate power couple with combined success that borderlines obsession, starring in Bravo's Newlyweds: The First Year. In order to make this merger work, what are some of your biggest compromises?

Kirk Knight: Our lives are extremely busy and we can easily get wrapped up in everything outside of the relationship. We make a conscious effort to make time for one another every day, without distractions. Compromise is one of the major components to a successful relationship. The key is to find balance in the relationship while not compromising yourself. Tall order for most people.

MR: What are some past habits, issues, possessions or lifestyle elements that either needed major compromise or to be jettisoned after the marriage?

KK: I am extremely analytical and my business has required me to make decisions quickly that I believe are right. When I make these decisions in business I am not seconded guessed, nor do I like to be. Sometimes that can bleed into my relationship, where I may be short and come across righteous. In a relationship, you really need to listen more to your spouse and come together as a team to develop the best decision for your marriage.

LK: Before dating Kirk, I was always independent as an adult. It took time for me to think in terms of we instead of I. Accepting that element of a relationship brought us closer together as a unified front.

MR: It's pretty much a given that "reality" shows are not exactly that. To what degree are you okay with the cameras being in your faces, recording the daily joys and dramas? And doesn't that affect the intimacy of your marriage, especially at a time when you need to explore more depth in your relationship?

KK: The cameras are filming for just over a year, but we also have a couple cam, which allows us to film moments that the film crew cannot. This really gives an added perspective to sharing with the public. When doing a reality show, you truly need to make the decision to share and open up your life for the public to see--this includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. We discussed doing the show in great detail before we agreed. Ultimately, we believe in our relationship and the foundation we have created. The cameras can affect your relationship if you are not prepared for the reality of filming a yearlong reality show. Laura and I do really well with the cameras being there, but we like excitement and are very much risk takers. The intimate moments may be interrupted at times, but for the most part we live our lives--it just happens to be in front of an entire film crew. We still have our private time or at least until our sex tape is released. The sex tape is being released in 2015.

MR: Might this television aspect actually be part of what contributed to the success of your marriage?

KK: We embrace adventure and where most people would get stressed, we shine. I think our relationship is successful because of who we are as individuals and most importantly who we are together. I believe each adventure we encounter will ultimately help us to grow and strengthen our relationship.

MR: What do you make of the show's success?

KK: I can't say enough about the show--it is intriguing and exciting. I was a fan before we did the show and I love watching the joys and challenges couples face when merging their lives. Filming for 12 months is not that typical for a reality show. This series really gets into our lives and shows our trials and tribulations. There will be a lot of people that can relate to what our first year brings. Many will be shocked and I believe all will be intrigued.

MR: Is there any major evolution in the way the show is being shot since the first season? Any huge surprises coming?

KK: We have some major decisions and roadblocks in front of us. I believe some of these issues will leave the viewers in tears, some will have them laughing out loud and others may just have them in shock. Through the good and the bad, we encounter a lot of relatable issues that couples across the country have either faced or will be faced with during their first year of marriage.

MR: What advice would you give to other reality show stars or newlyweds in general?

KK: Before making the decision to be on a reality show, you need to have a strong relationship and be comfortable with who you are as individuals and who you are as a couple. Communication is key and the largest part of communicating is truly listening and hearing what your partner is expressing.

MR: Any plans after the show wraps? Rumor has it you're working on razzd.com right now plus an app to go along with it.

KK: Razzd.com is a website and mobile app (available in the app store) that allows people to argue regarding any topic or headline. This is how the site works... One person records a video explaining their side of an argument and challenges someone else, who in turn records a video with an opposing view. Then the videos go live for the public to comment and vote on who they believe is right. After 3 days, the person with the most votes is declared the winner.

After each episode, Laura and I will be "Razzing" each other on the main topics we have gone through on the show so the public will be able to vote on who they believe is right and wrong.

People love to be heard and want to voice their opinions. Everyone in this world, while in an argument, has said "if you ask anyone they will agree with me" - well now you can ask everyone. We have all wondered who is right and who is wrong and now we can finally find out. I want everyone to get their chance to share that. Razzd.com is more of a podium for people to express themselves, challenge each other and be entertained, while deciding who's right and who's wrong.

MR: Sorry to ask this, I mean no offense by it, but what happens if one of the couples don't make it and want a separation or divorce? Is the show prepared for such obstacles? 

KK: Having your lives exposed to national television for a year is going to capture the couples at their best and worst. This may ultimately add to a level of stress that may contribute to a relationship deteriorating. Problems are magnified and scrutinized to a much greater level when shown to a national audience. Couples may not survive and in such an event the viewers will witness their downfall. Every relationship has its trials and tribulations--some will survive and some will not.

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photo courtesy Fifteen Minutes Public Relations

A Conversation With Bar Rescue's Jon Taffer

Mike Ragogna: Jon, you're the host of one of Spike's most popular shows, Bar Rescue. Why do you think that is?

Jon Taffer: They enjoy the transformation and I hope the no bullsh*t attitude that it takes to get the transformation.

MR: What originally got you into mixology?

JT: You know I started attending bar in college and I have gotten a lot of customer contact and the energy of the bar. I can't tell you that I love mixology per se. I love the bar business. By which mixology is a large part but I love music just as much, I love neighborhood bars just as much.

MR: What are your personal favorite drinks and how do you doctor them for your personal taste?

JT: I am surrounded by the best mixologist in the world so I get to try to the greatest products and recipes. I tend to lean towards scotch, I tend to prefer "Godfather"; however, I have an extensive bar at home and sometimes I'll play around with juices and flavored vodkas and stuff myself and have some fun. And dare I say, yes, I have played with fluffed marshmallow vodka and liked it. There it is; I put it out there.

MR: You've helped elevate the success rate for several bars, thus the series title "Bar Rescue." When and how did you see the need for such a position and what has your level of success been?

JT: I know the level of success based on independent websites that track it. It's about 80%. And when you consider that every person on Bar Rescue tells you they are weeks from closing, I am proud of that outlook. In fact, I challenge anybody to do it better. I never knew there was a need for this, I got into this because it was an entertaining television show. Once I started doing it, I realized, wow I am actually changing people's lives. Then I realized there is a need to do it and I realized I had a need to do it, I was the right person to do this. I can actually get through to people and connect with people in a special way. This show has taught me that and now it is hard not to do that if the opportunity is given to me. The emails that I get from them, the phone calls that I get, notes that I get on how they bought a house, this and that, is very inspiring to me.

MR: I bet you're not surprised by how popular the show is.

JT: I am surprised, I thought I'd do a pilot and go home, honestly. Then I thought I'd do season one and go home. Now, I've finished 85 episodes. Last week we were consistently one of the top cable shows in our time slot. And one looks at the ratings to see how successful we have been, and how long it's lasted. What really surprises me is how often the episodes are watched and demographics of our audience. Which is almost 50% female.

MR: What are some of the techniques and suggestions that you offer? What's the most common cause for a bar's lack of success and is it easily reversible?

JT: You know I've said this before, it's the only answer I have for this, and its "excuses." People blame the economy, the president, the congress, their neighborhood, construction, the weather, they will come up with a hundred reasons why they failed today. Yet in that exact same situation somebody else is making money. So their excuse is bullsh*t. Accepting that excuse would make me a contributor to their bullshit so I don't. Everybody who is failing, is failing because of themselves. Period. And it's up to them to change it. Don't blame it on anyone else, only blame it on yourself and that will change the course of anyone who is failing. If you own your failure, you'll own your success.

MR: What's been your best Cinderella story to date?

JT: A few come to mind. Spirits on Bourbon. Their sales are up over a million dollars a year.

The Barbershop Chair does over $50,000 a month. They sell 16,000 Resurrection cocktails every month. They had to buy a warehouse in Baton Rouge to store 80,000 mugs. Moon Runners. That was a family that was really in trouble. Now, the rest of the bar is doing great, family is doing great, they bought a house and they are opening a second location.

MR: You've been known to get up in people's grills to emphasize points. From your perspective, what is it in your various approaches that makes the difference in a client's success or failure?

JT: I have to get through, you know other people have said to them, the same things that I am saying. I am not the first person to tell them that the bar is dirty. So I use pride. I try to appeal to their pride. If that doesn't work, I use fear. What's going to happen when you lose your house? Where's your family going to stay? If that doesn't work, then it's boot camp time. I beat the sh*t out of them till I get through candidly.

MR: How has Bar Rescue's affiliation with Spike benefited the series beyond demographics?

JT: First of all, I love working with Spike. They have given me the freedom to do the show with honesty and based on reality. Nothing is scripted. Nothing is preplanned. The trust that Spike has placed in me is special. As an end result, because of Spike's trust in me, and their support of the show, we are able to provide the most authentic reality show on TV and I believe that is what drives our success.

MR: What advice do you have for those in the hard beverage industry?

JT: Look at me, I started as a bartender and had no formal college career. This is an industry that unfolds unbelievable opportunities to anyone, in any education level, with any background. If you really want it, I believe you can have it and I also believe that this is the greatest industry in America. I do.

MR: What's next up for you and the series?

JT: I am very excited about TafferTV and BarHQ. What is next for the series is that for every episode we try to raise the bar. You know, we have mixed up the format; we try to find bigger challenges, and bolder opportunities, and it's working. The show has gotten more popular; more bars are submitting to be rescued, which has given us a bigger pool to choose from, which is allowing us to wind up with even more compelling episodes.

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