Photo Credit: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Image
How The Fugees Greatest Triumph, 'The Score', Became Their Swan Song
Released 25 years ago, The Fugees' The Score was the album that transformed the group from ultra-talented, iconoclastic MCs to global superstars.
With their eclectic style and musical dexterity, The Fugees, comprised of Lauryn Hill, Prakazrel Michél, and Wyclef Jean, stuck out among the crowded hip-hop scene of 1996 by being unequivocally themselves.
The Score, released on February 13th, 1996, turned the trio into global superstars. After toiling as a group that lacked much recognition, they emerged at the forefront of pop music without compromising their artistic integrity. But The Score was to be the last official project released by The Fugees. In fact, their classic sophomore album, which went six times platinum in the United States, was The Fugees' greatest triumph and their swan song.
How The Fugees Started
Wyclef Jean and his younger cousin Pras Michel both were born in Haiti and came to the United States as children. Both being preachers' kids in Brooklyn, New York, Clef and Pras developed as musicians by playing in their family’s churches, blending elements of gospel, reggae, and soul.
Clef and Pras both relocated to Newark, New Jersey as teenagers and lived in neighborhoods with large populations of people from the Caribbean diaspora. At Columbia High School — located in Maplewood, New Jersey — Pras met a freshman named Lauryn Hill, who was already a gifted singer and MC. Pras introduced Lauryn to Clef and The Tranzlator Crew and the The Fugees (short for Refugees, a nod to their Caribbean roots) was born. The group eventually caught the attention of Ronald Kahlis Bell, a co-founder of the legendary funk band Kool & the Gang, who guided them in the early days.
Eventually, the group signed their first record deal with Ruffhouse/Columbia and finished recording their debut album, Blunted on Reality.
Released in 1994, the response to their debut was lukewarm; the album received mixed reviews and never cracked the Billboard 200 charts. The Fugees could have been relegated to the fringes of the hip-hop scene. A blip on the radar — ultra-talented but iconoclastic, they were almost lost in the shuffle. But their fortunes changed dramatically when the trio from New Jersey linked up with Salaam Remi, a young producer who at a young age already racked up credits for Biz Markie, Shabba Ranks, and Black Sheep. He laced them with a banger in the form of the "Nappy Heads - Remix." The song would become the first Fugees record to hit the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 49. It was Remi’s penchant for infusing melodic dancehall and reggae rhythms with break-beats and samples that created an organic, diasporic connectivity with The Fugees.
“I had a reputation for bridging the gap between Jamaican artists and the rap artists with what was happening in hip-hop radio in New York," Remi told Okayplayer. "
The origins of the song came when product manager at Colombia Records Jeff Burroughs reached out to Remi. He thought if Remi could make hits with Jamaican artists that he could have the same level of success with Haitian rappers. Remi agreed and invited them to his house for a session.
“Lauryn, of course, had Sister Act 2 [: Back in the Habit] poppin' off so it was just me and Clef," Remi said. "He rapped for 13 minutes. So I pieced together what I thought worked, we took it from there, and it became “Nappy Heads [- Remix].”
The song was more than just a hot track from a group with enormous potential. It was a foreshadowing of things to come.
The Making of The Fugees' The Score
Photo Credit: Ruffhouse
When The Fugees began to work on The Score, they were intent on placing their imprint upon the music. Instead of following the trends of the day — such as sampling loops of familiar songs — they would give birth to a sound that was uniquely their own, implementing their own musicianship into the equation. According to Wyclef, The Fugees didn’t just want to make an album, they wanted to launch a movement. In a 2016 interview, he said, "When we went in to do The Score it wasn’t like to do music. We were in the neighborhood and we wanted to create a movement.” Clef envisioned that The Score would have a cultural, era transcending impact that was on par with Pink Floyd's The Wall.
Armed with an advance of 135,00 from Ruffhouse, and full creative control despite the poor sales of their debut, the trio began working out of the Booga Basement, a studio in the hood of East Orange, New Jersey where Wyclef and his cousin Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis hashed out ideas and concepts. Recording for The Score began in June 1995. Over a span of five months, a vibe was curated and they began to create magic with minimal equipment. "I don’t think people pay attention; the idea that the fact that the entire CD was created in the hood,” Wyclef told Vibe. “It was created actually with almost no equipment."
The Fugees seemed to be running on all cylinders with everyone making significant contributions to the project. In a 2013 interview, Hill explained the group dynamics during the process. She said, "I think there were probably two co-bosses. Me and Clef were co-captains, and then you have Pras and Jerry Te Bass. Duplessis, who is the bass player in Refugee Camp was also influential in the Fugee sound.”
The Fugees were now free to mesh several different genres and influences to form one succinct sound. From Afro-Cuban to reggae to soul to hi-hop, they left no stone unturned. They seamlessly blended hardcore with socially conscious ideals, a hybridity that would prove to have crossover appeal. Hill called it"a little rice and peas mixed with a little collard greens, a little mango with watermelon." They filled the void between the gangster era dominated by the West Coast rap and the impending shiny suit East Coast-based era that was waiting around the corner.
The first single, “Fu-Gee-La,” was a clear departure from the sonics of their previous work. Using a hook that remixes Teena Marie’s “Ooo La La La,” it was the perfect reintroduction to the masses as they deployed a new sound with Pan-African vibes. Remi, who produced “Fu-Gee-La," originally crafted the beat for Fat Joe.
“During that session, Lauryn was like, 'Play the Fat Joe [beat.]' When I played the beat, Wyclef jumped up and said, 'We used to be a number of ten, now we permanent one…,' Remi said. "He spit his entire verse on the spot.” Immediately, Remi knew that they had something special and he recorded them before they even had an official budget for the album.“I was almost like the fourth Fugee," Remi said. "God gives wonderful gifts and I’m glad that something I contributed helped to set off The Score.” "Fu-Gee-La" was released in the end of 1995, and the song, which peaked at number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100, was a sign of things to comes.
Their follow up single “Killing Me Softly” became a global smash and is unequivocally one of the best covers ever. Pras, often considered the black sheep of the group, came up with the idea. "Killing Me Softly," a brilliant cover of Roberta Flack’'s classic, is a masterclass in hip-hop production. The track interpolates A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum,” which sampled "Memory Band" from Minnie Ripperton’s psychedelic soul band, Rotary Connection. Oddly enough, they didn’t realize what they had. According to Wyclef, they had no intention of the track being considered as a single. "We didn’t think that wasn’t going to be no single," Wyclef told Vibe. "We more thought like 'Fu-Gee-La.' We didn’t even think like 'Ready Or Not.' So don’t let the people that are creating music, the actual musicians that are geniuses in creating the art, don’t have us pick the singles, we are terrible. We just know how to create this body of work."
If “Killing Me Softly,” which would peak at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts, is the biggest song of the album, then “Ready or Not” is arguably the best song from the LP. “Ready or Not,” which reworks a Philly Soul classic from The Delfonics and builds upon Enya’s Boadicea, is a quiet storm monster that personifies the ethos of the group. With an infectious hook and hard-hitting verses, “Ready or Not” captures The Fugees at the peak of their powers. Accompanied by a big-budget video that was shot like a short film (which became the norm for in the mid to late '90s) it solidified their status as superstars.
Other standouts include “Cowboys,” which was produced by John Forté, and features Outsidaz rappers Pace Won, Young Zee, and Rah Digga. The track is one of the more underrated posse cuts of the ‘90s with each MC delivering standout verses. On “No Woman, No Cry,” an ode to the icon Bob Marley, the group gives a moving, modern interpretation of a reggae standard. On the title track, Diamond D brought his signature, D.I.T.C. sound, and a hot 16 to boot. Essentially, The Score was the collective vision of The Fugees, a display of their growth, depth, and versatility and it worked like gangbusters.
The Score became The Fugees greatest triumph, a critically acclaimed, commercially successful album. It was a testament to their determination and faith they had in themselves to produce a cohesive body of work that was representative of their diverse musical pallet.
But the album would also be the group's final stand together.
After The Score
Immediately in the aftermath of The Score, all three members released successful solo albums. Wyclef dropped first, with the dazzling, multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated Wyclef Jean featuring The Refugee Allstars Presents The Carnival in 1997, with assistance from Pras and Lauryn. Ms. Hill was next up to bat and she dropped a classic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hillby 1998, for which she won several Grammys including Album of The Year. The final release of The Fugees first round of solo albums was the underrated Ghetto Superstar later that year. The trio enjoyed much success as solo acts but it never galvanized them to recreate the magic that they gave to the world with The Score.
After The Score's enormous success, the relationships within the group began to fragment. Allegations of lack of support on solo projects, inflated egos, sexual entanglements, and the challenges of fame, were just some of the causes of the bitter break-up. But like with all break-ups, it’s easy to offer simplistic answers to complicated questions. Success has a way of revealing chinks in the armor that have been ignored. For The Fugees, The Score may have been a blessing to experience but a burden to bear as it is a cautionary tale of how the best of friends can become strangers overnight. Explaining it from his perspective, Wyclef said, “Now, as a man and looking back, definitely take blame in the sense of having fell for Lauryn at the time. It was important that I explained it in the sense of vulnerability, meaning not as ‘feel sorry for me’ type of dude but as a human being.” In essence, The Fugees were going through the ebbs and flows of the human experience just like anyone else except that they were in the public eye as one of the biggest musical acts in the world.
Although they reunited for special appearances and an occasional, unreleased track would leak on the internet, they would never release another official project. Reportedly, the group has turned down million-dollar offers just to tour and play their hits.
The Score was the embodiment of The Fugees ethos and its influence still looms large throughout the culture. It was their genre-defying magnum opus. “What the Fugees became to the culture was amazing," Remi said. "Wyclef opened the door for a will-i.am and The Black Eyed Peas, an Akon, a T-Pain as far as what he became as a creator and also a group leader. Lauryn Hill has influenced everyone before and after her as a musician. It was a big deal and I'm very proud to have been part of that journey.”
For most, The Score was destined to be a chapter of great significance in the Fugees narrative with many more to be written. But instead, it was their zenith, a touchstone moment in time that has left the world with 25 years worth of “what ifs.”As each year passes, the mystique of The Score and aura of The Fugees expands and legions of fans — including Wyclef — still hold on to a shred of hope that the band will get back together.