"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."
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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.
That's not the case on The Score, on which the Fugees took the production reins. "I feel it's my job to produce things that are going to the next level," Jean says, and to that end he's built on the accomplishments of rap pioneers. The film-strip bong sounds heard between several cuts immediately call to mind a similar effect on De La Soul's 1989 classic 3 Feet High and Rising; likewise, the Fugees' eclectic musical influences have much in common with those of De La Soul. "Zealots," for example, borrows the melody from the Flamingos 1959 doo-wop hit "I Only Have Eyes for You," emphasizing that ancient nugget's "shoo-bop shoo-bop" refrains. Also striking is the disc's overall sheen. Jean, assisted by Michel, constructs a sound that uses live instrumentation and clever samples in a singular manner, making The Score rich, spacy, and continuously captivating -- one of the few hip-hop discs that actually reward headphone listening.
The words, meanwhile, are piled on thick and sometimes ring with a political subtext. But even "The Beast," an anti-police-brutality yarn, takes time out for quirky images, including a reference to "that tall kid Mutombo." The Fugees don't hector, and neither do they shoot for the lowest common denominator. "We aren't trapped by formula because we're dealing with three very different entities here," Jean notes. "You have Lauryn, who's very soulful, so she brings that part of our thing. And then you have me -- I'm Caribbean mixed with hip-hop. And Pras has that background, too, but he comes at it in a really different way. It's the combination that makes us untouchable, you know?"
That may be true, but Jean isn't taking the Fugees' chemistry for granted. He's smart enough to know that simply making a strong record isn't a guarantee of perpetual prosperity. That's why he plans to do every video and make every public appearance he can in order to lay a foundation for the future. "We're trying not to lose touch with reality," he notes. "Even if we start selling millions of albums, we want to keep our core audience. Because not everyone who buys our album is going to be faithful. So we want to please our real listeners. That's who we fight for every day.