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Know your classics
on 5 August 2002
How many of you here danced to "Killing Me Softly" at your school leavers disco back in y6? Come on, be honest... One of the most successful crossover albums of all time, "The Score" put the Fugees on the map in a big, 10 million-plus-selling way. Conversely, it ruined them. Curious for the story behind the pop? Read on...
The year is 1995. After their first album "Blunted On Reality" (1994) caught the ear of rap's underground cogniscenti, the Fugees, then entitled "The Tranzlator Crew" looked for greater commercial success. All but abandonning the fiercely, ferociously energetic sound of "Blunted" for a softer feel, the Fugees pulled off the hardest trick in the book: they kept the respect of the faithful and conquered the charts simultaneously, leaving as their legacy the best East-Coast hip-hop album of the 1990's.
The most celebrated traits of "Blunted" were also its weakest. An album relying on hectic, fast paced beats with occasional bouts of soul and rapid-fire rhymes meant that in many a way, it was too clever. All three members had interesting commentary to make, mostly based on political situations both within and without the New York community, and were given a unique perspective by the Haitian heritage of Pras and Wyclef. However, unless one were a NY native, or listened excessively to the album, much of it sped by. The style was so advanced as to be abstruse, even for dedicated rap-heads. The album was, and is still, nonetheless a fantastic voyage of a CD, but one which was in the end, unsatisfying.
The internal machinations of the Fugees story have yet to be layed candidly bare in the same manner as the dealings of Death Row have been, and thus reasons behind the radical change that hit with "The Score" just over eighteen months after "Blunted" are still unclear. To say that the Fugees switched horses would be an exaggeration. Instead, they simply slowed the break-neck pace of the one they were already riding. Seemingly gaining five years in age by the recording of "The Score", largely complete by spring '96, the new Fugees, no longer the "Tranzlator Crew" but "The Refugee Camp" came with a wholly different sound, one that smacked of youthful wisdom, premature maturity, inside distance, and other such possible oxymorons.
"The Score" bore several fundamental changes. Whilst maintaining the clever commentary on ghetto life, the 'Hatian' content of the album was cut, taking away at a stroke many of the racial issues that the group had. Instead they concentrated on the wider rap community and its problems under the broader banner of 'Black', such as is exemplified on "Zealots". Essentially a call to a freer rap society more accepting of idiosyncracies the group so obviously possessed, tracks and odd lines put across the obvious Fugees' ideals: artistic liberalism ("Zealots"), peace and candour in the treatment of the black populace ("The Beast"), and a call to end black-on-black violence ("Family Business").
Many other groups of the time were trying to put out this message, but few suceeded with the style of the 'Gees. It is clear when listening to the album that what one hears are some very intelligent MCs, able to record both convincing street talk (listen to the incredibly comic "Chinese Take Out" scene at the end of "The Beast") and quote figures such as Nostradamus in clever analogies ("My life is filled with less hope than the prophecies of Nostradamus", "Family Business"). Meanwhile "Fu-gee-la" has the decidedly West-Indian lilt that characterised them on "Blunted", both in musical style and the heavily assonant rhymes, especially those delivered by Lauryn.
It was these songs that kept the rap fans happy; but to conquer the commercial market the Fugees employed the secret power of the cover. Out of their three major smashes off the back of the album, two were covers. "Ready or Not" was a marvellously menacing, laid back track that summed up everything the Fugees were about - relaxed, in control, playing enemies "like a game of chess". The other two were bigger and covered: "No Woman, No Cry" and "Killing Me Softly". Although many use this to diss the group now that they are unable to reply as a whole, the fact that they did admirable covers that did not have the purists up in arms is a real tribute. It also proved that the group, especially Lauryn, were not ghetto-flashes-in-the-rap-pan, and could, indeed would, move out and up. "Killing Me Softly" sold millions worldwide, and still receives commendable airplay today. "No Woman, No Cry" opened up a musically profitable association with the Marley family, and broadened the group's horizon.
The Fugees couldn't handle the huge success that "The Score" brought. Whilst the split was neither public nor especially acrimonious, it quickly became clear that another Fugees album was not immediately on the cards. They handled it in the way the album had illucidated: cool, laid back, keeping business private, but it was nontheless a sad event when three solo albums came out in '98. The eclectic talents of the spiritual, observant MCs and musicians would never come together again. This mix of the philosophical and the street that chracterised "The Score" would fail to work for any individually. Lauryn's work on "The Miseducation..." was amazing, but how infinitely better it would have been with Clef's clever rhymes that so evocatively vivified and vituperated the street life of modern New York. However, the legacy they have left is a timeless classic offering universal wisdom in amazingly fluid language ("Cowboys" is underecognised for its universal truth to all human societies: everyone really does want "to be a cowboy."), and we must be content with that.
by Brian Melican