The Fugees – 10 of the best

Featuring everything from politics to physics, the 90s hip-hop act sold millions with The Score and brought Lauryn Hill to much deserved fame. Here are some of their finest songs

1 Nappy Heads

It took the erstwhile Tranzlator Crew two years to get their first album released. When the Blunted on Reality album arrived in 1994 the initial impression it gave was of a group following the emerging traditions of post-golden-age “true-school” rap. It was solid and occasionally spectacular music, yet possessed as much globe-conquering star quality as that of their similarly politically outspoken labelmates, the Goats. The debut laid out the Fugees’ singular stall, several tracks tackling the racism Pras Michél and Wyclef Jean experienced in New York, with Brooklyn-born Lauryn Hill talking about how her American friends were prejudiced against her Haitian-refugee bandmates. The record sold poorly but plenty on it is excellent: in particular, the second single, Nappy Heads, is a treat. Over a pugilistic backing track built from Albert King and Earth, Wind and Fire samples, each rapper gives a bravura performance, Clef bouncing through a Louis Armstrong impression during an opening verse that rains syllables on the naysayers, while Hill’s first appearance – four lines inserted in the middle of a longer verse from an animatedly belligerent Pras – hints at the greatness to come.

Watch the video for Tranzlator Crew: Nappy Heads

2 Some Seek Stardom

It was clear from day one that Hill was special, and Some Seek Stardom remains among the finest moments of her career. The lyric is a meditation on social responsibility, hypocrisy and poverty hidden inside a narrative about artists who fail to remember where they come from and those whose craving for the limelight means they lose touch with the everyday. It’s illuminated by occasional lightning bolts of otherworldly insight and evocations of biblical stories, Hill’s gift as a writer being to ensure she allows the listener to focus on every layer of the picture all at once (“Check Jimmy cuttin’ hair at the barber shop / He plays the bass guitar like David plays the harp / His knowledge name is Greek ’cos whenever he speaks / He’s got the wisdom of King Solomon, bags in his eyes from no sleep”). Her delivery takes it into the stratosphere, as Hill raps, scats and sings her way from one vignette to the next. Nothing quite like it had been heard before, and there’s an argument to say that even Hill has never topped.

3 Killing Me Softly (Sound Barrier Remix featuring Bounty Killer)

Killing Me Softly, best known in its 1973 version by Roberta Flack, would be pivotal to the Fugees’ career: but the straightforward cover version that turned them into stars was not the one they’d originally planned. The group’s first tilt at it was a collaboration with the Jamaican dancehall artist Bounty Killer, in which Hill sings the hook and the vamp in the middle eight, but changes the lyrics (“Killing a sound boy with his sound”), and the rest of the track bears no relation to the original.

The idea came from reggae sound-system culture, where the champion DJs get stars to re-record a well-known track, rewritten to make the lyrics refer to the sound-system battle (Clef would later pull the same trick on David Rodigan, after getting Whitney Houston to record a dub plate for him ahead of a reggae festival appearance in the UK). Under copyright law this was considered a rearrangement, which meant permission was required from the songwriters before it could be commercially released. The request was denied, so a straight cover version was released on the album, and as a single in the UK, where it sold more than a million copies. Elsewhere in the world, it was available only on the album but promoted heavily on radio, a tactic that is credited with helping achieve a significant proportion of the many million sales of The Score.

The original exists only on hard-to-find vinyl bootlegs, though another collaboration with Bounty Killer was included on the second of the two-LP My Xperience project, designed to break the dancehall star with American rap audiences. Had the Sound Barrier Remix been given the green light, it’s possible the many detractors who later claimed the Fugees had a talent only for singing other people’s songs and shouting “one time, two time” over the top of them would have realised their mistake.

4 Ready or Not

Watch the video for the Fugees: Ready or Not

A far more representative impression of what the band were about came from The Score’s best single. It was, however, caught up in a copyright controversy revolving around the unauthorised use of a haunting sample from Enya. They did not ask for permission before it was released, and the Irish artist was prepared to sue, but she eventually settled out of court. The song was also often held us as further evidence of the group’s supposed lack of imagination rather than considered on its many merits. The group had become victims of their own, largely unexpected, success: Ready or Not is a straightforward hip-hop record, based around a sampled riff, with a sung hook (adapted from the Delfonics’ Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love)) from Hill between three uncompromising, vivid verses. Yet this kind of record was still, in 1996, a rarity to find at the upper reaches of the mainstream pop charts. Few pop hits have included such uncompromising subject matter: Wyclef’s opening verse is written as a dream from a prison cell, the inmate imagining his own death; Pras offers poetics about the refugee experience, while the opening and closing lines of Hill’s verse are among the finest emcee brags committed to tape. “I play my enemies like a game of chess,” she warns, before telling the gangster wannabes that instead of honing an improbable true-crime back story, she’s going to concentrate on writing better rhymes (“I could do what you do, easy / Frontin’ niggas give me heebee-jeebies / So while you’re imitatin’ Al Capone / I’ll be Nina Simone / Defacatin’ on your microphone”). Peerless.

5 Zealots

It was never a single, and maybe its format makes it too similar to Ready or Not and the Sound Barrier version of Killing Me Softly for it to be routinely considered a standout. Zealots, however, may be the one song to best distil what the Fugees’ were about in a single song. There’s the inspired sample – a lift from the Flamingos’ otherworldly 1959 smash I Only Have Eyes for You, twisted to fit a completely different rhythm. Many rappers have talked about “droppin’ science”, but here the three Fugees do just that: Clef chooses astronomy as his means of dismantling lesser emcees (“Abstract raps – simple with a street format / Gaze into the sky and measure planets by parallax / Check out the retrograde motion, kill the notion / Of biting and recycling and callin’ it your own creation” – oh, the irony), Hill plays around with quantum mechanics (“Two emcees can’t occupy the same space at the same time / It’s against the laws of physics”) and Pras gets technical about the recording process.

6 Kulcha Don featuring the Fugees: Bellevue ‘Da Bomb’

Although it arrived in the midst of The Score’s worldwide success, this single for the New York-based Caribbean expat ragga artist remains a little-known footnote. The sparse, simple track – produced by Clef and his cousin Jerry Duplessis – follows a similar pattern to Ready or Not and Zealots, with the spaces in between the sounds as critical as any of the more obvious elements. Each verse feels possessed, powerful – Clef, the preacher’s son, using apocalyptic imagery to talk about death during a police raid, Pras offering a cautionary tale of a small-time numbers-runner who drinks to forget his mistakes, Hill acknowledging the tempting route out of the day-to-day struggle that drugs offer, but skewering it as a myth at the same time. Even in what was a comparatively minor moment, essentially doing a favour for their record label (Kulcha Don was signed to the same Ruff House imprint), the group were incapable of going through the motions. Everything they touched felt special.

7 The Fugees featuring A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and John Forte: Rumble in the Jungle

The final act of the incredible run of 1996 releases came with this contribution to Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, about the Muhammad Ali v George Foreman fight in Zaire. The track - produced by Clef and Hill – manages to make something portentous and eerie out of a loop from Abba’s cautiously optimistic The Name of the Game, and an all-star cast of guest emcees praise Ali and what he had come to represent. Everyone’s contributions are special, though Busta Rhymes’ learned stanza is a highlight. It is Hill, again, who steals the show, however, this time with a verse that effortlessly sketches Ali into the history of the African diaspora and explains the significance of a fight that meant so much to so many who normally cared little for what happened in a boxing ring: “Ali appears in Zaire to connect 400 years / But we the people, dark but equal, give love to such things / To the man who made the fam remember when we were kings.”

8 Wyclef Jean featuring Lauryn Hill: Year of the Dragon

Despite the huge success 1996 brought, all was far from well within the band. At the core of the trouble was Clef and Hill’s affair – kept a closely guarded secret from the outside world, not to mention from Clef’s wife. When it first ended, recording for The Score almost collapsed – Pras said Hill decided to leave the group, coming back to the studio to record her vocal for Ready or Not on condition Clef wouldn’t be there, and singing the hook with tears running down her cheeks. The pair reconciled and the relationship was rekindled during the ensuing world tour, but once Hill met her future husband, Rohan Marley, few seriously believed the group would ever work together again.

Recording for Clef’s solo debut, The Carnival, took place between and around gigs: the complicated and cohesive concept album was released in 1997, shortly after the final dates of The Score world tour. The record found its maker playing quite a few of the reputed 17 instruments he turned his hand to, and involved experiments with musical forms including reggae, Cuban and Brazilian folk song, and several tracks sung in Haitian Creole. Year of the Dragon is one of its more straightforward moments – a rap song with an eerie, disconcerting atmosphere, in which Clef and Hill trade a series of verses. The spectre of Colin Ferguson – the man who shot six people on the Long Island Railroad in 1993, and who lived in the same area of Brooklyn that Wyclef grew up in – hangs over this track; it’s like a hip-hop equivalent of Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, which follows a handful of New Yorkers during the period when the serial killer Son of Sam was active in 1976. Adding to the desolate, desperate picture, Hill’s voice is parched and thin: she may just have had a bit of a cold on the day she recorded the song, but as she delivers lines like “Sweet Mary don’t you weep / Still water runs deep / So be careful of the company you keep”, their impact is increased by the impressiosn that she could expire at any moment.

9 Lauryn Hill – Everything Is Everything

Watch the video for Lauryn Hill: Everything is Everything

Any serious talk of a quick follow-up to The Score was scotched in 1998, when Hill’s solo LP not only turned her into a standalone artist of historic proportions (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won five Grammy awards, a new record for a female artist), it also blew the lid off the simmering tensions within the band. There would be no easy way back from a song like Lost Ones, with its cold-eyed dissection of an unnamed man obsessed with money, who sleeps with groupies and who tries to “play young Lauryn like she dumb”.

The best track on the album is Everything Is Everything – incidentally, the first appearance on record of John Legend (who played piano on the track). Somehow, Hill wrote and delivered something that lives up to that most expansive of titles. The song is a rap framed by two sung verses, allowing her to show the range of her vocal abilities for the first time since Some Seek Stardom. Recalling that Ali verse in Rumble in the Jungle, her rap at the heart of the song takes the listener on a mind-trip from a New York flop house to ancient Egypt (after telling how “I begat this / flippin’ in the ghetto on a dirty mattress” she’s off to “bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti”) before calling gods and celestial bodies down to commune with us here on Earth to help her prove that “this mixture, where hip-hop meets scripture” can “develop a negative into a positive picture”. Navigating the planet in a single vocal bound, she put herself next to Rakim as one of the greatest of all time.

10 Take It Easy

Against the odds, and despite all the things that had been said on record and in interviews, in 2005 the band reunited for a performance at comedian Dave Chappelle’s block party. No new music was played in that short appearance, but the group did manage to get back into the studio. Sadly, the results were skimpy – only one track, and hardly a classic – but Take It Easy got the Fugees back together for a world tour. They didn’t hit the same heights as their 1996-97 gigs, but they came pretty close.

Wyclef’s and Hill’s solo gigs, both of which followed the Fugees live template (band with a DJ, able to switch between breakbeats and covers at will), found them playing the group’s songs, even rapping other members’ lyrics, and revealing new depths and textures within them. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist devoted part of their hour-long 2007 DJ performance, The Hard Sell, to a routine that relied on the audience recognising the Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes for You from its reuse in Zealots, underlining how deeply the band’s work had impacted hip-hop culture. And in 2005, Talib Kweli recorded Ms Hill, an open letter to Hill in the form of a rap song – something surely unique in pop, a tribute to a still-living artist from one of the best of their contemporaries, underscoring the difference their work had made to them, and how much it continued to mean.


Angus Batey

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fugees announce reunion world tour, 25 years after The Score
The acclaimed hip-hop group will reunite for their first live shows in 15 years to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their Grammy-winning album

Benjamin Lee

21, Sep, 2021 @4:26 PM

Article image
Fugees return to New York for their first gig in 15 years … after a three-hour wait
The rap trio kick off their just-announced world tour to an eager audience but fall into old habits of tardiness

Dream McClinton in New York

23, Sep, 2021 @7:06 PM

Article image
10 of the best: 90s R&B

Hip-hop soul, machine-tooled funk, sexually charged new jack swing – here's your whistlestop tour of one of pop's great eras

Charlotte Richardson Andrews

26, Feb, 2014 @11:00 AM

Article image
Timbaland: 10 of the best
It's time to round up the pick of the futuristic R&B and hip-producer's choicest tracks, from minimal beats to dance-pop with Katy Perry

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

14, May, 2014 @2:17 PM

Article image
Lisa Leone’s best photograph: the Fugees on a Harlem rooftop
‘When Wyclef and Lauryn were finished, some kids unscrewed a fire hydrant and a big block party kicked off’

Interview by Karin Andreasson

14, Jan, 2015 @3:39 PM

Article image
Missy Elliott – 10 of the best
From synapse-popping celebrations of lust to joyous rebuttals of industry sexism, we run down the best tracks by R&B’s queen of hedonistic mischief

David Bennun

06, Sep, 2017 @3:00 PM

Article image
Run-DMC – 10 of the best
From sample pioneering to rebranding Adidas, Run-DMC did more than anyone to take hip-hop to the mainstream

Angus Batey

01, Feb, 2017 @12:03 PM

Article image
Public Enemy – 10 of the best
From the anthemic to the polemic, here are some of the most influential songs by the self-proclaimed ‘Rolling Stones of rap’

Stevie Chick

07, Dec, 2016 @1:09 PM

Article image
J Dilla – 10 of the best
In a short career, the Detroit rapper cemented a reputation as a cult great with underground strip-club jams, Beatles-inspired psychedelia and joyous neo-soul

Sean Murray

27, Apr, 2016 @5:24 PM

Article image
De La Soul – 10 of the best
With their new album And the Anonymous Nobody out now, let’s relive the career of the Daisy Age pioneers

Richard Watson

31, Aug, 2016 @1:00 PM