With a sound most often described as “eclectic,” the Fugees landed on the hip-hop charts in 1993 with their Ruff House debut Blunted on Reality. Fronted by the sultry Lauryn “L” Hill, the trio has worked together since high school. Their tight-knit strength has helped them weather the occasional storm that accompanies overnight mainstream success. Intently focused on bringing their own particular version of hip-hop to the public—one that rejects the traditional macho-injected ethos—the Fugees have made dramatic inroads in bringing the genre to a new generation. Vibe’s Cheo Hodari Coker reminded readers that the band’s name is more than just a quirk: “All three felt like refugees—from America’s mainstream culture and from hip-hop itself— hence their name,” and bandmember Wyclef “Clef” Jean expounded on this concept further: “Everybody seeks refuge. We find refuge in the music we make.”
The Fugees coalesced when Lauryn Hill and Prakazrel “Pras” Michel met while attending the same high school in South Orange, New Jersey. They began rapping together under the name Tranzlator Crew and soon joined forces with Michel’s cousin from Brooklyn, Wyclef Jean. The two men’s French-sounding surnames indicate their Haitian origins; both also have fathers who are deeply involved in their religious communities.
Considered the creative force and ringleader of sorts for the band, Jean came to the United States from Haiti at the age of 9 and grew up in a rough Brooklyn housing project near Coney Island. His mother encouraged his musical leanings from an early age, although Jean recalled that when “Pras and I started doing hip-hop, and when I’d come back from the studio, I’d get a whipping from my dad, ’cause I was playing devil music,” he told Rolling Stone contributor David Sprague. Once, when he was still underage, a recording contract fell through because his father refused to okay it.
Meanwhile, the high-school-age Hill was also busy singing in cabarets and acting, and as she recalled in the band’s press biography, “I was fifteen years old, makin’ my little money off the soaps. Wyclef was so determined… I used to hit him off with whatever I could every now and then, and he would buy another piece of equipment. Over time, he accumulated a complete studio.” That studio eventually grew into Booga Basement, which would feature prominently in the Fugees’ distinctive sound later in their career.
By 1993 the group (at that time still known as Tranzlator Crew) was signed to Ruff House/Columbia Records and was working on their first full-length effort. They
For the Record…
Members include Wyclef “Clef” Jean (born c. 1971 in Haiti; son of a pastor), guitar; Lauryn “L” Hill (born c. 1976 in New Jersey; attends Columbia University), vocals; Prakazrel “Pras” Michel (born c. 1973 in Haiti; son of a church deacon; studied philosophy at Rutgers University), vocals.
Hill has worked as a cabaret singer and actress since her teens; group formed c. 1991 in South Orange, NJ, as Tranzlator Crew; signed with Ruff House/Columbia; released first album, Blunted on Reality, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Ruff House/Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
were forced to change their name when a forgotten 1980s new wave act called Translator objected through legal means. Ironically, the Fugees cite such “white” acts and precursors to the ubiquitous “alternative” sound as just one of many influences on their style. Hill mentioned breakdancing to Tears for Fears, while Jean admitted to listening to the Pet Shop Boys.
The Fugees’ first record was released in late 1993. Blunted on Reality won rave reviews early on from critics for its unusual sound, but it seemed as if the group’s label was promoting them as a more melodic “alternative” act to perhaps distance them from the traditional macho braggadocio of the so-called “gangsta” genre. Yet Blunted on Reality rejected the notion of a more palatable, easy-going version of hip-hop. “The self-produced album features a creative mix of raging, freestyle raps, Afrocentric poetry, ragga chanting, and funky insights on street life,” wrote Billboard’s DJ Mar-ius. The album did moderately well on the charts, but Hill’s small role in the film Sister Act II with Whoopi Goldberg brought the band more attention, some of it a bit malicious in tone. Critics of their debut asserted that Hill musically eclipsed her two partners and should pursue a solo career.
The continuing rumors still offend her, she reminds journalists, and answers them by pointing out the deep bonds that unite the trio. Such talk “is very disrespectful. Everybody understands family, and these brothers are like family. I’ve been with them since I was like 13 or 14 years old, and I plan on growing old with them musically,” Hill asserted in Rap Pages.
When producer Salaam Remi remixed two cuts from Blunted on Reality —“Nappy Heads” and “Vocab”—the album picked up some speed on the charts. Yet almost three years passed between records. The Fugees’ sophomore release was produced in their own Booga Basement studio located in East Orange, but only after freeing themselves from the terms of their original production contract. “We decided we weren’t going to let anyone limit us by telling us we couldn’t do something,” Jean explained in the Rolling Stone interview with Spra-gue. The result was The Score, released in early 1996 and an instant success from the start. With a more assertive and focused mix of styles drawn from the band’s influences, The Score rose up the charts quickly during the spring of 1996.
Critics and fans alike praised The Score. Spin contributor Selwyn Seyfu Hinds asserted that the record “fully exploits the remarkable attributes only glimpsed on Blunted on Reality,” and concluded “it feels good to celebrate an eclectic work for its excellence as opposed to lauding it for the sake of hip-hop diversity.” Writing for The Source, Nicholas Poluhoff noted that “all the cuts work off of mid-tempo bass and drum loops and sparse background samples that highlight the fly Haitian flavor of the MCs. The Score is one of those rare LPs that tries to expand the accepted boundaries of hip-hop.”
Produced by Jean and Hill, The Score was also notable for its covers of two older hits—Roberta Flack’s 1973 track “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” Even Time magazine liked the band’s sound and their philosophy. Lyrically, the Fugees are “steering clear of boastful misogyny and empty-headed machismo,” observed the magazine. “They criticize performers who fail to make clear that their violent songs are fantasies, not instructions.”
A heavy touring schedule is the key to bringing these ideas to a wider audience, according to the bandmem-bers and their label—although Hill must arrange her pursuit of a history degree at Columbia University around tour schedules. Spin writer Elena Oumano called their live act “a revamp of an old-time soul revue that’s one of the best shows in hip-hop.” The Source’s Clemente Baptiste described one such performance: “While Pras prowled the stage, slow rolling a glare over the crowd, a stool-bound Cleff went the George Benson route, singing in various voices and allowing his guitar to provide his celebrity. Lauryn’s down sister appreciabil-ity, earthen skin, wind brazed voice and hot-stove eyes wrote the check on which the Fugees’ group success was bouncing.”
Like that of some other recently arrived colleagues onto the hip-hop/rap scene, the stellar focal point of Hill’s talent “signals the beginning of an eye-popping trend in the testosterone-drenched rap industry where the fellas are becoming more comfortable sharing the stage with the lyrical ladies,” remarked Denene Millner of the New York Daily News. And as a whole, the Fugees assert they would like to lead the genre in a new direction: “There are kids into hip-hop who want to do something creative,” Hill told Sprague. “Whether the record industry wants to support them is another question.” In The SoiurceinterviewwithBaptiste, Hill explained: “What we try to do is stimulate the movement toward something else: for different goals, for different values, for real power. It’s definitely musical because that’s what the kids are listening to. So all we try to do is show that you can be intelligent and be the bomb at the same time.”
On Ruff House/Columbia
Blunted on Reality (includes “Nappy Heads”), 1993.
The Score (includes “Fu-Gee-La” and “The Mask”), 1996.
Billboard, December 6, 1993.
New York Daily News, January 31, 1996.
Rap Pages, December 1995.
Rolling Stone, March 7, 1996, p. 14.
The Source, March 1996, p. 62.
Spin, March 1996; April 1996, p. 68.
Time, February 12, 1996.
Vibe, March 1996.
Village Voice, March 5, 1996, p. 53.
Additional information for this profile was taken from Columbia Records publicity materials, 1996.
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