Celebrating 20 years of a hip hop masterpiece, Getintothis’ Neil Docking looks back at The Fugees’ magnum opus, and the enduring talent of their female lead.
When this writer was at school there was a lad in the class called Tim who always seemed so effortlessly cool. It was striking that he never seemed to take any stick, despite having an unruly mop of ginger hair, which surely should have provided plenty of ammunition. Perhaps that was because everyone knew he was hard, even though he seldom felt the need to prove it. He was quite softly spoken but dead funny, and in the popularity stakes it helped that he was great at football, with a wand of a left foot.
If that wasn’t enough, from the age of about 13 he started wearing a long blue Adidas coat and brown Rockports to school, while yours truly was stuck in a sensible black jacket from M&S and a pair of bloody Clarks (thanks mum).
As we got older he liked a smoke and always had his headphones in, even during lessons. One day I overheard him and his mate Andrew chuckling away, as they quoted this incomprehensible
exchange, pretty much word-for-word.
“Hold on? What’s this? The two of you? At once? Okay, then. You want beef?”
“No no no, we want beef to eat. We got no beef.”
“I want four chicken wings fried hard, what the fuck is you talking ’bout?”
“All right. I’ll kick your monkey asses my fucking self.”
“Whoa whoa, what are you coming over the counter for?”
“You think I open a restaurant in the middle of the hood and don’t know what’s going on? I fucking represent.”
“I’ll fuck you the fuck up!”
Fans of The Fugees will instantly recognise the above from the hilarious (and by today’s standards deeply un-PC) Chinese takeaway skit on their second album The Score.
My only knowledge of the group back then was their huge UK number one hit, Killing Me Softly. Which I thought was crap.
In truth it was dad who thought it was crap. He’d told me as much, as we’d sat watching Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel perform it on Top of the Pops. Sadly, this view was regurgitated like a parrot.
It was that brief time in your life when you naively took everything your dad says for gospel. This was the man who introduced me to so much great music, from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin to David Bowie and Marvin Gaye, so there was no reason to doubt him when he said it wasn’t a patch on the Roberta Flack version and they were just a bunch of chancers.
The reality was hip hop had passed him by. And truth be told it wasn’t this writer’s thing either – not in 1996 when I spent most my time dreaming of being Liam Gallagher. Yet The Score became one of the first albums that opened my ears to a genre which ended up soundtracking my adult years.
When Tim passed over his headphones for a quick listen, the first thing I heard was Fu-Gee-La, to this day one of the greatest and most anthemic tracks of the 1990s. Listening to it 20 years later, as the bass rumbles and Wyclef‘s voice first booms out “we used to be number 10, now we’re permanent one” it encapsulates so much of the group and the record’s eclectic genius. Jean brings a hard street rap edge to the song, without the incessant misogyny so prevalent at the time, before the pure sing-a-long pop of Hill‘s infectious chorus, borrowed from Teena Marie, bursts into life.
After she establishes herself as the dominant lyrical force in the collective with the flourish “See hoochies pop coochies, for Gucci’s and Lucci, Find me in my Mitsubishi, eatin’ sushi, bumpin’ Fugees”, it then features possibly the best bars in the career of the harshly derided Pras.
Shining in a short burst, he spits “I sit 90 degrees underneath palm trees, Smokin’ beadies as I burn my calories,” before following up with: “From Hawaii to Hawthorne, I run marathons, like Buju Banton, I’m a true champion, like, Farakkhan reads his Daily Qu’ran, it’s a phenomenon, lyrics fast like Ramadan”.
You can instantly hear how heavily Salaam Remi on production was influenced by the Wu-Tang Clan. Much of the LP with Wyclef and his cousin Jerry ‘Wonda’ Duplessis at the helm also has the same cinematic-score like feel of the East Coast’s finest supergroup, evoking RZA‘s best martial arts movie soundscapes. It’s definitely present on the looped classic doo-wop behind Zealots, or the backdrop to the gun-slinging bravado portrayed on Cowboys, when the trio are joined by fellow New Jersey crew Outsidaz.
This was music accessible to the masses, but not a million miles away from the boom-bap roots of The Fugees‘ debut Blunted on Reality (almost the last album they made after disappointing sales). The way the tracks blend into each other and are split by snippets of broken conversation or background noise makes the record sound rough and ready, but at the same time it’s so skilfully assembled and lovingly crafted, and comes together to form one long, intoxicating tale. As Hill observed, “It’s almost like a hip-hop version of ‘Tommy’, like what The Who did for rock music“.
There’s no doubt Wyclef and Lauryn were both great storytellers. Jean calling upon his experience of life in his Caribbean home Haiti and Hill utilising the academic excellence so evident in her wordplay. During their short-lived relationship they certainly brought out the best in each other in the studio – in this case Wonda‘s basement, which they referred to as the ‘Booga Basement‘ – if not when recording stopped and their ill-fated affair led to the band’s demise.
Even Wyclef would have to concede however that at the centre of The Score‘s success is the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Lauryn – a woman with the unique ability to rap every bit as well as she could sing.
Her opening verse on The Beast for example is just ridiculous, with intricate lyricism and rhymes galore, as she rides a wavy beat that wafts in and out of your eardrums: “Conflicts with night sticks, illegal sales districts, Hand-picked lunatics, keep poli-trick-cians rich, Heretics push narcotics amidst its risks and frisks, Cool cliques throw bricks but seldom hit targets, Private-Dick sell hits, like porno-flicks do chicks, The 666 cut WIC, like Newt Gingrich sucks dick.”
After The Fugees split, she released the neo-soul classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but as an MC (and arguably the greatest ever female rapper) her best work can be found right here.
Personally, any lingering doubts I may have had about the band were vanquished the first time I heard Ready Or Not. The trio took the upbeat soul of the Delfonics‘ track of the same name and twisted it to form the basis of an astonishing attack on fake gangster rappers.
With a haunting intro, consisting of the filtered (and originally uncleared) sample of Enya‘s Boadicea, Lauryn‘s beautiful voice soars over a kicking drum, before Wyclef’s mournful opening verse, in which he spells out the grim reality of true crime and prison life. He then enters into a dream-like state as he imagines being shot during a robbery and questions whether he’s alive or dead: “My girl pinched my hips to see if I still exist.”
Just as you think Wyclef might have stolen the show, Miss Hill responds with another killer barrage, full of witty and savage put-downs of posturing MCs, which ends with the immortal line: “So while you’re imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone, and defecating on your microphone.”
The music video for the track, which reached number one in the UK, was outrageous – a million-dollar production kicked off by spinning helicopter rotors, jet ski spray and missile explosions, accompanied by the chiming sonar ping of a submarine. As Pras explained: “People want to see drama, man. You figure. A kid pays sixteen dollars for your CD. Let him see a good video.”
It made the group look like bona fide stars, but in Hill‘s case, that feat had already been well and truly achieved. After Killing Me Softly (in hindsight a virtuoso performance, for the most part relying entirely on just her gorgeous vocal and a simple drum machine beat) she was The Fugees in many people’s eyes.
A year later, that cover won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by Duo or Group. Probably more than anything else, it’s responsible for The Score going six times platinum and becoming one of the best selling hip hop albums in history.
But whether you loved it like Tim, or hated it like dad, there’s so much more to this record than its most famous track, as I’m so glad I belatedly discovered all those years ago.