By Franklin Soults
Half a year ago, the Fugees were an obscure hip-hop trio from New Jersey with a two-year-old debut album that had gone almost nowhere and a perpetually budding reputation among hip-hop heads for great live shows that included "real instruments." Then, on the second Tuesday in February, Columbia/Ruffhouse Records released the group's second album, The Score. In its second week, the album zoomed into Billboard's top five on both the pop and R & B charts; as we pass through the second full month of summer, it has slipped to number six in R & B but hasn't budged in pop. The group has sustained this amazing success through an equally amazing achievement: being all things to all people.
Rap magazines give the Fugees props for standing tough and taking on the problems of the street with fresh ideas and hard skills, while mainstream giants from Time to the New York Times praise them for leaving behind the gangsta poses that signal "the street" to most outsiders. Out on the street, this apparent contradiction is only reinforced by the group's ability to breach markets normally considered mutually exclusive. The buzz started with hard-core rap fans, but it has been sustained by devotees of nearly everything else. All over the radio, the Fugees are inescapable. If you're a casual pop consumer you may not have heard the crew's two official singles, "Fu-Gee-La" and "Ready or Not," but you couldn't escape the covers of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" and Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" if you lived in Greenland.
Omnipresence inevitably leads to backlash, and "Killing Me Softly" is no exception. After all, Roberta Flack already died a thousand soft deaths with her huge hit in the winter of 1972-'73. Her masochistic portrayal of an adoring, helpless female fan was so enervated it even managed to creep out a third-grader like me. Yet the Fugees have supplied a brand-new generation of radio listeners with brand-new uses for the song. Fugee Lauryn Hill closely follows Flack's serene phrasing, aching tone, and overall gentility, but her passivity is undermined by a goofy sitar sample, a funky hip-hop rhythm track, and some rowdy joshing from her male crew members. On one level, it signals that "Killing Me Softly" is now just another catchy, ready-made groove--a fact demonstrated by the response it generates in concert.
But on another level, the cover is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the group's misappropriation of the title metaphor. "Killing me softly" is a phrase that the Fugees repeat throughout The Score as shorthand for the way poverty and racism take their toll on inner-city blacks even when the bullets aren't flying. The phrase is so potent I wonder if rap fans understand it even without hearing the album first. On the other hand, the double entendre may be sailing right by the Fugees' mainstream audience without registering at all.
It's a good example of how the Fugees manage to stand in two places (or more) at the same time. This inimitable trick is perhaps the only one that could, in this deeply fragmented moment, unite the hip-hop and pop audiences, yet it could only come off by the Fugees' deft sleight of hand. Unlike De La Soul's Daisy Age revolution, which turned off hard-core fans, or Public Enemy's apocalyptic rage, which alienated the pop audience, the Fugees' brand of genius pleases everybody because it's a quiet synthesis, not a brash innovation. In fact, it's so smooth, nonbelievers have a hard time seeing how unprecedented it truly is.
There certainly isn't anything new about the Fugees' rap style. Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, Wyclef Jean, and Lauryn Hill (who go simply by their first names) are wonderfully gifted word slingers, flipping multiple rhymes in every line with nonchalant ease and incorporating popular culture from Al Capone to Nina Simone. Yet only Lauryn has a tone that could be called distinctive--gritty yet playful, as if she were delivering her pointed raps with a sly grin. Wyclef's rubbery, rude-bwoy delivery and Pras's deeper, slightly menacing tone are straight from the MC textbook, and even Lauryn owes a partial debt to the way that hard-core innovators like the Wu-Tang Clan fucked with meter first. If this deference immediately pleases the hip-hop faithful, to most outsiders it makes no difference. What matters is the way they make the text accessible to all through two elements that take longer to absorb: the music behind the raps and the message within them.
As Wyclef has often repeated, the Fugees wanted to find a production style for The Score that would pay homage to Bob Marley's legendary Tuff Gong studio in Jamaica--an organic sound with both roots and reach, not to mention radical, inclusive, and ultimately optimistic politics. They achieved that by rooting The Score in hard-core rap's cool, understated tone, and then enriching that tone with musical hooks culled from all over the cultural map: a doo-wop sample here, Wyclef's live rock-guitar riff over there, Lauryn's rich soul singing everywhere. These hooks are so smoothly integrated with the beats and rhymes that at first the mix hardly sounds unusual, but in time, they catch and hold.
Though the rapping style does capture hard-core's tone, lyrically the Fugees refuse to give in to either the ghetto fatalism or the criminal mentality that have long been the sine qua non of hard-core rap. The Fugees can come off as tough as any strapped gangsta, but they explicitly direct their anger at the system and disassociate themselves from the young fools playing cowboy. Likewise, they can fixate on their mortality with as much self-aggrandizing morbidity as Tupac Shakur, but if they know that "just walking the streets, death can take you away," they never give in to despair. Ultimately their attitude is better encapsulated by "No Woman No Cry," a cover they enliven with more empathy, hope, and sweet humor than you'd ever expect from that well-worn classic.
The Fugees' identification with hip-hop doesn't seem to be a matter of forming ranks with their own, as is the case with many young rappers, but of reaching out, of crossing borders. In short, they live up to their name, a slang term for refugees. That seems especially true for 26-year-old guitar-slingin' Haitian-born Wyclef and 20-year-old Columbia-matriculatin' Jersey-born Lauryn. Musical collaborators since Lauryn's freshman year in high school, the pair hunkered down in Wyclef's basement studio to coproduce The Score with the time and freedom to get it right (something they regretted not doing on their first album). The resulting masterpiece speaks not only to their rare natural talent but also to their extraordinary biographies.
Wyclef came up from Haiti as a boy (I've heard anywhere from age nine to a "young teen") and both he and his Brooklyn-born cousin Pras were raised by stern, deeply religious parents. Lauryn long ago escaped the inner city for the bright promise of academic success, modeling contracts, even bit parts in films like Sister Act II. As a team, they breach hip-hop's vicious gender gap and unspoken class gap, and call out the antiimmigrant bigotry that lurks just off the shores of Afrocentric black nationalism. (Having worked with the Haitian community in Boston, I can attest to the tension between young Haitian immigrants and African-American teens--a tension that the Fugees may be helping to ease.)
Many delighted critics have suggested that the Fugees might even show hip-hop a way out of its mire of bullets, blunts, and bitches. Roni Sarig wrote, "Their assault on gang-sta's dark reign could signal the most momentous shift in popular music since Nirvana smelled teen spirit." But this misjudges the nature of the Fugees' achievement and the extent of the dilemma they've overcome. Everything about the Fugees celebrates their multiple identities, makes the most of their separation from any one community. In the short term, this kind of escape is not a clear option for most young African-American male rap artists. Caught between the rock of subcultural ossification and the hard place of mainstream co-optation, they will continue to cling to the rock (and their glocks, and their cocks) so long as the mainstream maintains its open antagonism toward their community.
In the long run, however, the Fugees might turn out to be some kind of augury. Already their success represents a renewal of hip-hop's early promise to shatter and re-form pop music's divided demographic. More than a match for "Smells Like Teen Spirit," their album and concerts make the whole alternative revolution feel like a momentary distraction from the dominant phenomenon of what Hendrik Hertzberg and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have dubbed "The African-American Century": a time that has seen the "growing centrality of the black experience to the maturing national culture of the United States." With a little luck, they could also represent a new role for hip-hop--offering rap's first shout out in the American Multicultural Century soon to come.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Fugees by Marc Baptiste.