Even as he tools around town in his custom Cadillac—the one with the pink mink interior—or parties with Midas types like Donald Trump, hip-hop hipster Wyclef Jean remembers when another rapper ruled. Back in the '80s, when he was waiting tables in New Jersey, Jean recalls, "this kid sees me with a big M.C. Hammer afro and says, 'Daddy! If s M.C. Hammer!' So the dad comes over and says, 'Look, I know you're not him, but it's my son's birthday.' He slips me $500! Listen, for $500 I'm gonna be Hammer. I'm gonna sing 'Hammer Time.' "

Now, almost two decades later, it's Jean, 34, who's the man of the moment. With his fourth solo album, The Preacher's Son, in stores and a world tour on tap, the Grammy-winning Fugees cofounder and all-star producer—he's helped score hits for Whitney Houston, Carlos Santana and Destiny's Child, among others—says his time has come. "I feel it, the vibe and the energy," he says. "Get ready for the shows, man. It's gonna be off the hook."

Giddy as he feels, Jean says the high comes on the heels of "the worst period of my life." In September 2001 his father, Gesner, an evangelical preacher, died in an accident. That same year Jean's wife, fashion designer Marie Claudinette, 38, lost her mother and an uncle. "We went through a death spell, losing three people back-to-back," says Jean. "Then, after a year of mourning, I finally understood: To conquer death, you have to celebrate life."

In a way he's been doing that from birth. Born poor in Haiti, where he acquired what Whitney Houston calls his "cool island vibe," Jean remembers "dancin' in the rain, butt naked. Freedom! Happyjust to be alive." Then, at 9, he was shocked to learn that the couple visiting from America, Gesner and Yolande Jean—and not the relatives who raised him—were his real parents. More shocking was the violence-swept Brooklyn housing project where the Jeans moved. "It was the roughest, toughest place," says Jean. To keep him and his siblings out of harm's way, Jean's father gave them toy drums and guitars—but not lessons. "We could play absolutely no notes," says Jean. "Man, was we making noise!" When the family moved to East Orange, N. J., in the mid-'80s, the kids made a heavenly din in the funeral home their father converted into a church. "The freight elevator still had a coffin in it," Jean says, "but once we got adjusted, the ghosts weren't so bad."

Jean's talents as a rapper and guitarist earned him his first record deal at 17, but his father "didn't have a clue that I lived a double life, church boy and rap- per" until Jean and his Fugees band- mates Pras Michel, 31, and Lauryn Hill, 28, were well on their way to stardom. With their 1996 album The Score selling about 20 million copies worldwide, Jean says, "the planes went from commercial airlines to jumping on the Concorde. The bank account getting ching, ching, ching every week." After a lengthy estrangement, Jean's father found away to make his son's lucre from what he considered "the devil's music" do the Lord's work: "My dad would come to my house and he'd be like, 'You have more sneakers than Will Smith!' He'd raid my closet and half my Jordans would be gone, my Armani suits. He'd just bag 'em and go give 'em away."

While father and son patched things up, Jean and his fellow Fugees had a contentious parting. "I was young, I was crazy, I was a ladies' man," says Jean, laying part of the blame for the band's dissolution in the late '90s on his affair with Hill. When he stopped seeing Hill, Jean confessed his infidelity to his wife, whom he had met in his late teens and wed in 1994. "I was outraged," says Marie Claudinette, who briefly left their suburban New Jersey home. "I went crazy on him. I beat him up. I did everything an average normal woman would do. I think if he didn't confess, if I found out differently, I wouldn't have bothered." Now, friends say, the couple's marriage is stronger than ever. "They've been through tough times, but they're still together," says Patti LaBelle, who performs on Jean's new album and has bought stage outfits from his wife. "If s a wonderful relationship."

Jean, like many fans, is all for a Fugees reunion—"I would love that!" —but he says his former partners (both declined to be interviewed) have not returned his phone calls. "All I can do is keep calling and eventually somebody will call back." So for now, it's 'Clef time. "I love performing," says Jean, now rehearsing for his upcoming tour. "It's time for that right now-to celebrate life and give people hope." As his father would say, Amen to that.

By Steve Dougherty. Mark Dagostino in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Mark Dagostino.