13 February, 1995
Mariah Carey, Hootie & The Blowfish and the soundtrack for romance flick Waiting To Exhale were big on the US charts. As for hip hop, the wind was still blowing in gangster rap’s direction. Today, Tupac would release All Eyez On Me, his last album before his murder in September. Eight days later, Snoop Dogg was acquitted of the 1993 shooting of gang member Philip Woldemariam in Los Angeles. Having succumbed to AIDs the previous March, ex-N.W.A man Eazy-E’s lurid, posthumous Str8 Off Tha Streetz Of Muthaphukkin Compton was at number three on the Billboard listings. Yet just as spring was on its way, alternative rap flavours were coming in. Today the Fugees’ second album, The Score, was released.
The group – vocalists/ MCs/ producers Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Prakazrel ‘Pras’ Michel – had its origins at Columbia High School in New Jersey in the late eighties. Recording as Fugees Tranzlator Crew, the trio’s 1993’s debut Blunted On Reality hadn’t ignited, but their Ruffhouse label kept faith. The group set up their Booga Basement studio in Wyclef’s uncle’s home, and recorded in unhurried style over the second half of 1995. Assisted by Salaam Remi, DJ Red Alert, Sly and Robbie, Rah Digga and many more, the results were prescient, soulful and eclectic, taking in old soul, golden age rap, reggae, Pras and Wyclef’s Haitian ancestry and more as it blended covers and samples with bewitching alchemy. Incorporating The Delfonics’ 1968 single Ready Or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love), for example, Ready Or Not sampled The Headhunters and, with permission only obtained post facto, Enya: Killing Me Softly rewired the Roberta Flack hit, and sampled Rotary Connection, The Moody Blues and Little Feat: No Woman, No Cry was the Marley song refracted through a hip hop lens.
“I’m the biggest muthafucking threat the establishment could ever imagine.”
Speaking to Mojo writer Cliff Jones for The Face later in the year, Hill explained the group’s conscious worldview. “Hip hop isn’t just entertainment. It determines how you dress, how you act and how you live your life. You gotta be responsible, tell the truth,” she said. “The truth makes you enemies but I will not support a liberal lie. I’m young, female, black, articulate and educated. I’m the biggest muthafucking threat the establishment could ever imagine.”
The establishment seemed helpless to resist. Lead single Fu-Gee-La was already in the US top 40. Their stage show, with electric guitars, live breakbeats and turntablism, was seen two days after the LP’s release at the Palladium in New York: a week later they recorded their second John Peel session, complete with namecheck and punky visa vignette Haitian In England.
The Score duly entered the UK albums chart on Feb 24, at 87. From June until February 1997 it was a top 20 fixture, spending all but five weeks in the top ten. Killing Me Softly would reach number one in America and Britain, where Ready Or Not would do likewise. The Score would top charts globally, selling an estimated at 15 million copies.
Yet there were already questions. Touring and promotional pressures, plus the demands of a mainstream audience, had, Hill reflected, made it harder for her to write. In his 2012 memoir Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story, Wyclef reflected on his love affair with his bandmate, which had continued after he married. He likened The Score to, “a tragic Shakespearean romance… it’s easy to listen to the music and hear the romance and love… the rest of it wasn’t smooth at all. We were either deeply in love or fighting; there was no middle ground.”
After European dates in May 1997, the group disbanded to work on solo projects, one of which was Hill’s neo-soul masterpiece The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, released in 1998 to even greater success than The Score. 2002’s poorly-received voice-and-guitar live album MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, though, would be her last release to date.
The trio reformed to tour Europe in 2005, but reactions were mixed and in-band relations strained, allegedly due to Hill’s aloof attitude. In 2007, Wyclef told Blues & Soul, “I think (Lauryn) needs a psychiatrist… the state that she’s in, no-one should be letting her do shows.”
Though Wyclef has been the most productive of the three, it’s Hill who retained custody of the mystique. In 2016 she excused a late, short live show in Atlanta by saying, “The challenge is aligning my energy with the time… I am at my best when I am open, rested, sensitive and liberated.” Those who marvelled at The Score live in hope that one day, she’ll get there again.