Words by Jesse Fairfax
Where most acts fear the risk of premature obscurity from the dreaded sophomore album jinx, The Score transformed the Fugees from the average set of New Jersey hopefuls into international superstars. Influenced more by hood knowledge and West Indian culture than bohemian jazziness, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel developed their own distinct sound while following the 2:1 male to female blueprint left behind by Digable Planets. Aside from this dynamic, what both groups shared in common was splitting up after two albums; the major difference being the Fugees would end up a household name when all was said and done. Miraculously, they reached the pinnacle of limelight without compromising much in the way of integrity, all the while carrying the torch for underground Hip-Hop.
Off-putting and far from polished in their infancy, the Tranzlator Crew was on a fast road to nowhere with their 1994 debut Blunted On Reality. Hardcore and polarizing to a fault, they stood in their own way of making anything resembling a hit record. After the largely forgettable “Boof Baf,” Salaam Remi’s magic touch steered the trio in the right direction with his radio ready remix to “Nappy Heads.” Further indicative of the album’s limited potential, “Vocab” also had to be remixed into something halfway palatable for viewers of popular video shows like “Rap City.” Suffice to say this initial foray flopped, but luckily they were given another chance at a time where the record business had adequate resources to extend them additional opportunities to iron out their kinks.
Reconfiguring their style, the trio literally retreated underground to Newark’s Booga Basement studio in efforts of putting their best foot forward. Getting back in gear with Salaam Remi would once again prove fruitful as he was responsible for The Score’s lead single “Fu-Gee La.” Placing their own spin on the mid-’90s surefire formula of borrowing from old hits, Lauryn Hill rehashing Teena Marie’s “Ooo La La La” revamped the Fugees’ sound, finally making them suitable for commercial consumption. Rather than bending over backwards to further their chances of success, instead they made elements of their established routine catchy so as to expand their audience. The theme of authenticity would ring true as the group’s unforeseen big break into the mainstream caught the world off guard.
Upon pressing play on The Score’s CDs or cassettes for the first time, New York Hip-Hop diehards were graced with the iconic tone of Kool DJ Alert’s voice. Making his mark breaking records during the weekend late night shift on the tri-state area’s 98.7 Kiss FM airwaves, (also an extension of the Native Tongue family tree) Red’s stamp of approval practically solidified your respect during the late 1980s golden era and the years to directly follow.
The Score’s intro was akin to the opening scene of a movie, as poet (turned present mayor of Newark) Ras Baraka narrated the necessity of the Fugees bringing justice to a culture that had begun to lose its way. From its title to the skits and everything down to the artwork, the album took on a decidedly cinematic tone. The cover referenced The Godfather, but instead of fitting in with Rap’s mafia fantasies of the time, the three emcees played the role of militant troops attacking politicians, police and the system at large with messages that remain relevant today. Making an impact commercially and socially, they toyed with the idea of making consciousness cool while less forceful and harsh than the likes Public Enemy, ultimately proving to be a force larger than life. Provided strong label backing, each of their videos (“Fu-Gee La,” “Ready Or Not,” “Killing Me Softly” and “Cowboys”) brought this movie star theme home full circle, with the group achieving a fully executed vision at last.
At a time where mass marketed Hip-Hop transitioned away from embracing edgier women like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte in favor of sex kittens like Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, Lauryn Hill stood on her own island as a vestige of class. After a show stealing performance on (recently departed New York legend) Big Kap’s posse cut “Da Ladies In Da House,” it was apparent her feminine wiles and effortless gift of lyricism was swift competition for emcees irrespective of gender. Past being the Fugees’ secret weapon, her energy personally endeared her to the group’s creative genius Wyclef, an eclectic musician/rapper whose musical influences included icons such as Jimi Hendrix. Widely considered the odd man out, Pras’ unorthodox accent worked against him at times, but in retrospect he mostly caught flak because limited attention spans dictated we could only focus on two stars. Playing his part as the loyal middleman, he was key in the grand scheme of things if only as a mediator when ‘Clef and Lauryn would eventually wind up at odds.
In a turn of events few could have predicted after the failure of Blunted On Reality, fate would send the Fugees out of the stratosphere with their cover of Roberta Flack’s hit ballad “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” Learning from Bad Boy Records and The Trackmasters who hijacked familiar samples to crack the charts, Lauryn Hill borrowed well known melodies on “Fu-Gee La” and “Ready Or Not.” but “Killing Me Softly” made her (and the group by extension) a global sensation. While Hip-Hop heads praised her ability to flow like water, the subtle nod to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum,” soulful harmony and a heaven sent bridge would render her a pop sensation with a far greater reach than the group’s members could have imagined. One can only wonder whether Wyclef’s competitive spirit drove him to record The Score’s remake of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” a moment that made considerably less impact.
Though the Fugees maximized their crossover appeal, The Score was intended to be a dark look at society’s ills, a righteous duality that would serve as a precursor to modern masterpieces like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Sticking to their guns, the all or nothing approach also represented Hip-Hop realms that were far off the beaten path. With The Score going on to sell 6 million copies domestically (and even more worldwide), it was the most light niche acts like Diamond D and the Outsidaz (Rah Digga, Pacewon and Young Zee) had seen up to that point. A departure from gritty camaraderie came when Pras took what seemed to be unwarranted aim at the Gang Starr Foundation’s Jeru The Damaja on the deep cut “Zealots.” It’s possible this vintage exchange on video inspired it, but either way Jeru went on to return fire on his fall 1996 release Wrath Of The Math with “Black Cowboys,” but this would pale in comparison to Wyclef exchanging jabs with LL Cool J a year later (collateral fallout from LL’s beef with Canibus who was then safely nestled under Clef’s wing).
Shortly after reaching the top of the world, the Fugees would cease to exist as an ongoing concept. Much speculation arrives at a personal affair between Lauryn and Wyclef being at the root of their demise, leading to what many fans (not so secretly) clamored for: a solo effort from their strongest link. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill not only redefined L Boogie’s career as she focused more on soul baring cathartic R&B than Hip-Hop, it would win 1999’s most esteemed Grammy for Album of the Year.
Wyclef would go on to fare well and capitalize on the Fugees’ glory with The Carnival, a mashup of boom-bap and Caribbean influences with guests including Celia Cruz and The Neville Brothers. As for Pras, he made surprise appearances on big records including “Ghetto Superstar” and The Carnival’s “We Trying To Stay Alive,” which also helped further launch the career of crew offshoot John Forte (though he’d go on to take an extended hiatus from music after facing time for drug trafficking charges). Destiny sent the once tight unit in separate directions, but without the success of The Score none of their future strides would have come to pass.
Deprived of a chance to grow together after becoming public figures, in September 2004 the Fugees would come together once more to headline Dave Chappelle’s filmed block party. This performance gave fans ultimately unrequited hopes of a formal reunion, as we all flashed back to the prior decade when our most forward thinking artists were able to share space and attention with those who were making less inspired hits. In retrospect, perhaps The Score was merely meant to be a moment in time and any further follow ups would have attempted to force chemistry that was no longer there. Twenty years later there’s no telling how their combined energies could have continued to impact lives globally, but the Fugees and their unique ability to bring street smarts and impeccable melody together shines strong.