Rhymes of Passion

"It's kinda hectic, man," says Wyclef "Clef" Jean, rapper, songwriter, and sonic engineer for the Fugees. "A lot of things are going on."
And, Jean should have added, those things are pretty damn nice A the kinds of things that happen only to a band experiencing a commercial breakthrough. The Fugees' first long-player, Blunted on Reality, received primarily positive reviews and enjoyed moderate sales upon its 1994 release, but that response is nothing compared with what's happened since The Score, the group's most recent disc, arrived in CD stores in February. The new album is considerably more adventurous than the band's debut -- a fact that, given the ultra-conservative nature of the music environment right now, might be seen as a commercial negative. But, shockingly enough, the Fugees (Jean, Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, and Lauryn Hill) are being rewarded, rather than punished, for taking some risks. Powered by the cannily seductive single "Fu-Gee-La" and the Hill-sung recasting of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," The Score is one of the best-selling rap albums of the past five years and has been nestled for three weeks in the top spot of the Billboard Top 200 album chart. The breadth and depth of the material have kept the album from pulling an instantaneous disappearing act, as generally happens to the majority of rap albums. Careers in hip-hop aren't noted for their longevity, so it's impossible to state with certainty that this trio will hang around for the long haul. But the odds of survival look good, because, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, the Fugees aren't a gimmick. There's substance in their grooves.

Moreover, this is the rare hip-hop combo that can actually perform its music live. Jean, a skilled guitarist, insists upon that. "The old-time groups, like Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool & the Gang, were real," he insists. "Those guys could really sing and they could really play music, whereas a lot of groups today are just pasted together. But the Fugees aren't pasted together."

The quality of a band's work means little to record company types, of course; they're more interested in keeping cash registers ka-chinging on a regular basis. However, the good notices earned by the Fugees for their music and their live shows appear to have added fuel to an ongoing hype juggernaut. "We expected things to move a little slower," Jean admits. "We weren't really expecting this. It's enormous."

Their extraordinary popularity also indicates that there's a vast public hunger for hip-hop that dares to explore subject matter other than drive-by shootings, gang funerals, and hoisting forties with your homies. The Fugees are certainly capable of creating such threadbare narratives, but they also have other experiences from which to draw. Michel was once a philosophy major at Rutgers University, and Hill, an actress who appeared in the Whoopi Goldberg movie Sister Act 2, is juggling rap with her studies at Columbia University. According to Jean, these life histories help them to explode the usual cliches. "See, we feel that blacks in general are really intelligent, but there are these stereotypes about us, especially rappers," he points out. "We're all supposed to have bad attitudes and we're not supposed to be able to play instruments. All we do is walk around holding our microphones and holding our crotches, right? But that's not right, and when you listen to our album, you know it."

Not all of the words on The Score are especially fresh: Witness "How Many Mics," a familiar boasting opus brimming with lines like "You loop over and over/Claiming that you've got a new style/Your attempts are futile/You're puerile/Your brain waves are sterile/You can't create/You just wait to take." But in addition to its predictable jibes, the same track overflows with enjoyably incongruous references -- to Tommy Mottola, John Travolta, Alec Baldwin, and even the forgotten 1984 Corey Hart hit "Sunglasses at Night." Later, on "Ready or Not," a tale that deals in part with urban violence, Hill chants a lyric that speaks even more eloquently about the Fugees' contrary approach. "While you're imitating Al Capone," she intones, "I'll be Nina Simone."

In conversation Jean doesn't skewer gangsta cliches quite so explicitly. He recognizes that rap buyers have certain litmus tests that they use to determine a recording's worth, and street credibility remains one of them. Hence he makes a special effort to say that "everything that we do started off on the streets, you understand? It's the street vibe.

"But we do other things, too. We're the first rap group in history where we're still seen as being a street band even though we've got a guitar player who's really playing. A kid who listens to a hardcore band like Mobb Deep will still listen to the Fugees."

Others will find the Fugees an intriguing blend of diverse cultures. The son of a minister, Jean was born in Haiti and moved to Brooklyn at age nine. A few years later he began making music with Michel, his cousin; Hill, a New York City native who was then a freshman at the high school Michel was attending, eventually made the group a threesome. Before long the Fugees A a slang term for "refugee" that they adopted after ditching their original moniker, Tranzlator Crew A had inked with Ruffhouse/ Columbia. Blunted on Reality appeared a short time later, and "Nappy Heads," a single with shouted hooks and a good-time feel, received considerable airplay. But the album as a whole wasn't easily distinguishable from the mass of hip-hop releases out at the time. It was diverting, and interludes such as "Da Kid from Haiti" hinted at a more personal vision, but the production was of the cookie-cutter variety.

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