In the American imagination, voodoo is all zombies and hexes, New Orleans tourist traps and American Horror Story. In its Haitian incarnation, it is a ritual of the powerless to right injustice. It’s a response to a chaotic world and an ancestral history replete with enslavement, natural disaster, and endemic poverty. It’s a way of using magic to explain inexplicable mystery and sudden madness. It’s a cracked looking glass to glimpse the rapid rise and fall of the Fugees.
Magic is our standby musical cliché. Whenever you ask an artist to reminisce on a long-ago lightning strike of genius, the response inevitably invokes supernatural euphemism. During the recent commemoration of the 20-year anniversary of the sophomore Fugees album, The Score, co-producer Jerry Wonder described the recording process as “magical.” When the group attempted re-unification in 2005, Pras claimed they briefly “recaptured the magic.”
To his credit, The Score is the classic album as astral comet. A séance with those encased by concrete and those six feet deep, the lone group masterpiece from a crew who conquered the world, then dissolved to pursue parenthood, spiritual ecstasy, global philanthropy, and the occasional motorcycle joy ride in a speedo.
There is, of course, the conventional narrative that starts with the formation of the Fugees in late ‘80s New Jersey. Pras originally conceived them as himself, bookended by two female MCs, but when one dropped out, she recommended her friend, 12-year old Lauryn Hill. The budding singer, rapper, actress and track star attended prestigious Columbia High School in suburban Maplewood, alongside Pras and Zach Braff.
Wyclef Jean joined last. The son of a Nazarene preacher and grandson of a voodoo priest was bred in Haiti, spent formative years in Brooklyn, and moved to Jersey as a teenager. The oldest and most experienced of the trio, Wyclef was originally Nelly Nell, frontman for Newark crew, Exact Change, who rapped in English, French, and Spanish. His first producer, Kurtis Blow dubbed him, “the rap translator.”
In early interviews, Pras and Wyclef claimed kinship, a blood lineage they’ve since disavowed. They met when Pras delivered the world’s worst trumpet solo in an audition for Wyclef’s church band. They kept him around anyway, setting the precedent.
After early recording sessions with Kool and the Gang producer, Ronald Bell went awry, Pras and Hill conscripted Wyclef to fix a hook. The chemistry was instant. They joined forces and christened themselves The Refugee Crew, (Fugees for short), then cut a demo that got rejected by most of the Eastern seaboard.
Ruffhouse Records was the one of the few interested. Flush with Kriss Kross and Cypress Hill cash, the Philly-based Columbia subsidiary offered a deal to release their 1994 debut, Blunted on Reality. Co-produced by Bell, Wyclef, and Pras, it sold 119,000 copies—a total brick. Columbia expected Ruffhouse to drop the group, and you could scarcely blame them. Barely better than its middling reputation, there’s little spark of originality. The beats are boilerplate '90s boom-bap that could’ve come from a Bush Babees or Illegal album. Wyclef and Pras scream-rap like they’re doing Onyx and Das Efx karaoke. Lauryn Hill stole the show on every verse, sparking industry whispers and magazine reviews urging her to go solo.
The lone harbinger that they’d become the highest selling rap group to date was Salaam Remi’s “Nappy Heads” remix. The future Nas and Amy Winehouse producer coached the men to stop yelling on the mic in favor of the looser melodic sung-raps that floated on The Score. As Wyclef told Brian Coleman in Check the Technique, “that was when people started responding and we started understanding where we were going.”
It’s relative success helped convince Ruffhouse to give them a second chance. With a $135,000 recording budget, they bought state-of-the-art equipment and built The Booga Basement, a home studio at Wyclef’s uncle’s spot in East Orange. It became the nerve center for the next six months, a cauldron where they could cook, an underground fortification from which they could re-emerge fully formed and heavily armed.
In Haitian voodoo, no ceremony starts without a vigil to Papa Legba. This is the pipe-smoking, rum-swilling, palm oil-loving, guardian of the crossroads, the intermediary who opens and shuts the door to the spirit world. Without his acquiescence, mortals can’t commune with any of the loa deities. He’s the universal translator, the one who speaks all human languages, the personal messenger of destiny, soul controller.
Before their sophomore foray, the Fugees dropped their Tranzlator Crew alias, but its deeper implications had been long synthesized. They embodied Saul Bellow’s belief that if you’re born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward and thus, hunger for the universal. And until that point, no rap album boasted the universal appeal of The Score.
Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer sold more copies, but hip-hop traditionalists despised them. A Tribe Called Quest discovered the Northwest Passage between hip-hop, jazz, and pop, but most grandparents would’ve blanched at a song called “Sucka Nigga.” P.M. Dawn blended silken melodies with hip-hop aesthetics, but was deemed so soft that KRS-One publicly defenestrated them.
The Fugees fluently spoke every dialect. Your aunt who always complained that they stopped making heart-stopping soul music when Marvin Gaye got shot, couldn’t help but adore Hill’s “Killing Me Softly” cover. Backpack purists who dismissed Biggie as a glossy sell-out gave props for putting on The Outsidaz, Rah Digga, and Diamond D. Wyclef’s “No Woman, No Cry” cover led bong-ripping flip-flopping dorm bros to contemplate a broader world without meal cards.
An intro from Ras Baraka—the current Newark mayor and son of sulfurous beat poet, Amiri Baraka—supplied unimpeachable political creditability. Soccer moms who still only listen to CDs in 2016 (and by still listen to CDs, I mean Adele) adored “Ready or Not,” and its Chaturanga-ready Enya sample. The Fugees even recruited Sly and Robbie for a reggae remix, featuring Akon, a decade before he blew up.
The Score was inescapable in every American high school: from nerds to jocks, cheerleaders to teachers. 6.1 million people are often wrong, but they weren’t this time. It sold 17 million copies across the globe, going international in a way that pre-figured the next decade’s globalization of hip-hop. But how did it happen? How do you go from second-tier tax write-offs to one of the greatest groups of all-time in just two years? How do you win a Best Rap Album Grammy and never properly follow it up?
You can’t start to answer the question without first acknowledging the group’s freakish talent and innate chemistry, that flourished when given the space, time, and money to properly meld. You’d need an entirely new essay to properly assess the once-in-a-generation gifts of Lauryn Hill circa 1996. Or you can just go with her one-line synopsis: "Nina Simone defecating on the microphone."
When she belted the Delfonics-borrowed hook of “Ready or Not,” the entire room started spontaneously bawling. She sang like she had absorbed the grievous sufferings and bloody abrasions of every ancestor, communing with silenced voices that never had the chance to be heard, the next Dalai Lama in the revolutionary soul tradition. Then she’d rap as hard as you’re supposed to when you come up next door to a place called Brick City.
Wyclef is a bloated target these days. He hasn’t had a hit in over a dozen years; his bid for the Haitian presidency was a punch line; he may have embezzled money from his own charity. But for three-year window between 1995 and 1997, only DJ Quik rivaled him for America’s most complete artist. He sang and rapped in English, Spanish, Creole, and a convincing rudebwoy patois. He produced, played guitar, and helped launch Destiny’s Child into mega-stardom.
You can forgive the Canibus fiasco, when no less than Beyonce called him a “musical genius…who had a lot to do with our success.” Or maybe you prefer Bob Dylan who said in 1997 that, “Wyclef is my man. The cat’s got bright visions. Like the dew from the ground that never dies. I wish he was around in the '60s. I’m sure we’d have been playing together. “ There you have it. For an extended exhale, Wyclef was touched by that numinous glow of what some call the muse, some call ephemeral brilliance, and others simply call magic.
For all the jokes posthumously thrown at Pras, his presence was clearly an indispensable component to the group’s survival. The vital “glue guy” that basketball coaches lionize, who helped sooth the fire and ice dynamic between Hill and Wyclef. Blessed with a tuba baritone, the future Ghetto Superstar rapped better than his reputation leads you to remember. He flowed smoothly, dropping imagistic fly nonsense like “I sit 90 degrees underneath palm trees/smoking bidi’s as I burn my calories/Brooklyn roof tops become Brooklyn teepees.” It was his idea to have Hill cover “Killing Me Softly” and then throw it over the “Bonita Applebum” instrumental. Without that inspiration, it’s unlikely the Fugees would’ve become MTV darlings and global icons.
The album isn’t perfect. The infamous Chinese restaurant sketch makes the comedy of Kevin James seem comparatively refined. The political tangents are often muddled. Even though its reputation largely rests on the message songs, roughly half of the lyrics are solipsistic raps about how good their lyrics are. During a bridge on “Zealots,” Hill croons, “See my rhymes, are the type of fly rhymes That can only get down with my crew/And if you try, to take lines or bite rhymes/We'll show you how the refugees do.” But when you sing how Lauryn Hill once sang, you can make the ABCs sound like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Like all those buoyed by evanescent flashes of greatness, the Fugees’ destiny was beholden to time and place. They benefited from the artist development rarely seen in the modern music industry. Building the Booga Basement gave them a crucible to experiment with radical ideas and jettison the bad ones.
During sweltering New Jersey nights in the summer of ’95, it held up to 30 hard-to-impress Haitians, nodding their heads or not. This was the Tri-State Afro-Caribbean equivalent of the Dungeon that birthed Outkast and Goodie Mobb. Almost all original hip-hop bubbles up from the subterranean, and this made it literal. The raw hunger to go from “#10 to permanent 1.” They’re settling the score against doubters who wanted them dropped, critics who saw Wyclef and Pras as albatrosses, and against a system stacked against their survival.
Then there’s the sheer randomness of dumb luck. Salaam Remi originally gave Fat Joe the beat for first single, “Fu Gee La.” The Terror Squad don passed on it, reportedly telling the producer, “either it’s phat, real phat, or not phat at all, but I can’t tell." Lauryn Hill didn’t want it either, but eventually came around at the behest of the others. It became the group’s second biggest hit after "Killing Me Softly"--which hit #2-- peaking at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The X Factor was elaborated on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. But the creative tension from the affair between the married Wyclef and Hill is all over The Score. That’s part of what makes it so intangibly great—the desire to impress a new love, the petty quarrels sublimated into competitive rivalry, an inextricable closeness that can only be carnal. There must have been a lot of very awkward moments for Pras in the studio. That’s to our benefit.
“It was too good to be true,” Wyclef wrote in his 2012 memoir. “The way we related we couldn’t sustain because it was this whirlwind of creativity, this success, this performance.”
If you want to know how special the Fugees were, think about the Black Eyes Peas. By adding Fergie to a sputtering “real hip-hop” crew led by a dreadlocked frontman, will.i.am. replicated their formula, subtracted the soul, and still managed the lasting world domination that the Fugees passed on. The Fugees created an archetype and promptly abandoned it. Do you really think we would have tolerated “My Humps” in a world where The Fugees were still working?
The Score lives in that narrow archipelago between the end of the boom-bap Golden Age and the rise of the Jiggy Era. It’s both the last of the old tradition and the first of the next generation. It helped bring hip-hop to the mainstream without the crass commercialism that mars most attempts. No East Coast hip-hop album had previously combined dulcet melodies with such hard beats, crossing over with experimental pop that catered to the masses. It’s the most safe, seditious record ever made.
If you doubt it’s lasting influence, watch this clip of an 8-year old Drake rapping “Ready or Not.” Or Kanye’s forlorn plea: “Lauryn Hill said her heart was in Zion/I wish her heart still was in rhyming.”
It’s difficult to write about the Fugees without evoking an air of tragedy. There was first a hiatus, and eventually a permanent excommunication following the failed reunions of the last decade. Yet all three began their solo careers with massive success. Wyclef’s The Carnival sold over 5 million copies and is arguably one of the most brilliantly eclectic hip-hop albums ever made (ironically much more so than its sequel, The Ecleftic). While Pras benefited from a drunk and drugged Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who accidentally popped into the studio during the recording of “Ghetto Superstar,” freestyled a verse, and made it a hit.
Lauryn Hill withdrew from society after her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, exceeded the popularity of The Score, became the first hip-hop album to win an Album of the Year Grammy, and briefly made her the most famous musician in the world. She’s attempted multiple comebacks, but none have stuck. If you see her perform, she seems to operate at a eternally altered rhythm, as though she can remember the words but remains permanently maddeningly out of time.
It seems a little silly to ascribe this fractured abbreviated genius to something otherworldly. But it seems equally arbitrary to believe that three people could combine to shine so brightly, but no subsequent combination or re-assembly could produce anything remotely as memorable. The music itself is why the Fugees endure, but the mythology behind it is something entirely distinct. Believing in a crossroads pact with Papa Legba is just as rational as any other excuse. No one was capable of speaking in that many tongues. No one was so effortless in translation. Never before or since has the gate swung open so wide, only for it to slam shut so quick.
Jeff Weiss is a writer based in Los Angeles. He's also the editor and founder of the great music website Passion of the Weiss, which is in need of your donations due to some server issues. You can find him on Twitter here.
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Jeff Weiss is the founder of the last rap blog, POW, and the label POW Recordings. He co-edits theLAnd Magazine, as well as regularly freelancing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Magazine and The Ringer.
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