The reconnaissance of musical genius of The Fugues

The reconnaissance of musical genius of The Fugues

“The Score”, a clever mix of Hip Hop, Soul and Reggae

Ruffhouse / Columbia, 1996

“The difficult beginnings of a band that became mythical”

If it is rare enough that a band is granted a second chance in this tortuous music industry, the Fugees are definitely a counter-example. Sometimes artists don’t even get a chance, many of them stopped at the demo stage, without finding any takers with the record companies to get the coveted contracts and advances to produce an album. These artists are in fact unknown to the public since they never managed to release an album, absent from the record stores and totally off the radar.

In 1993, the trio from South Orange, New Jersey managed to sign a contract with Ruffhouse Records, which has a distribution partnership with the prestigious Columbia. The century-old label has an impressive catalog of music in various genres from Jazz to Rock, Funk or RnB, with artists such as Miles Davis, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Mariah Carey, Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion or Earth, Wind & Fire, the list is long. Although Ruffhouse was more modest, it was already producing successful artists such as Cypress Hill and Kris Kross.

When the Fugees’ first album, Blunted On Reality, made its way to radio in late 1993, the success of those early singles was not there. The album arrives in the shelves in the winter of 1994, even if the critics are rather favorable, without shouting at the classic for all that, the sales are not only disappointing, they are catastrophic, 12000 copies sold until the release of The Score, which will give a light visibility to this first failed attempt. At a time when Hip Hop was on the rise and with a recognized distributor, who ensured a decent promotion with three singles, this failure is difficult to explain. In 1994, Hip Hop certainly took a more gangsta turn but the conscious albums were still successful. The long-awaited release of the child prodigy Illmatic, also on Columbia, may have overshadowed the group a bit, but not enough to explain such a failure.

Did the Fugees lack talent or simply the music offered was not to the taste of the listeners? It’s hard to say, but Ruffhouse continued to have faith in the band. The label gave them a nice advance of $135,000 with full artistic freedom to record a second album, proof that Ruffhouse believed in the trio’s talent. Second chances are very rare, especially after such a huge failure and without any reformation of the band, but especially with an advance of $135,000, quite substantial for the time. Many bands have been kicked out for less than that.

“The refuge of prodigies in the Booga Basement”

The preparation of The Score is underway. The group will use the $135,000 to set up Wyclef’s uncle’s basement as a studio with recording equipment, which they will call the Booga Basement. A place they describe as peaceful and allows them to express their talent and artistic creativity without pressure. Rare are the groups that invest so much of their advance for equipment, we remember DJ Quik who was offered an advance of 50 000$ by Profile Records, Quik Is The Name being almost completely recorded, he kept almost all the advance. The Fugees obviously wanted a place of their own, allowing them to refine and perfect their music, without the pressure and control of producers that they deplored for the recording of Blunted On Reality.

The trio set out to make an album in their own image, the musicality reflecting the origins of their authors, Wyclef and Pras being Haitian and Lauryn Hill of Jamaican and British origin. The Fugees will identify themselves in an alternative rap mixing Soul and Reggae with a light touch of Rock and Folk, with a massive use of samples and live acoustic instruments, notably the participation of Wyclef’s cousin, Te Bass, on bass. The trio has made strides since Blunted On Reality, with Wyclef and Pras’ lyrics both more refined and incisive, and Lauryn Hill’s stronger presence on both rap and vocals, allowing the album to oscillate between Hip Hop and Soul. 

Even if the cover could make you think of a mafioso rap album with a direct reference to the Godfather, it is nothing of the sort, except maybe the few references to the Sicilian mafia scattered on the album. The real reason of the choice of this cover is also relatively unclear since it is very far from the theme and the sounds of the album. The choice is perhaps simply aesthetic, and they hit the nail on the head with its elegance.

“The alliance between social rap and pretentious rap”

The intro takes several excerpts of the lyrics of the album on a beautiful guitar riff, before launching into a track where they assert their superiority on the microphone against other rappers, but also on the reasons to make rap, money against passion. This track is strangely reminiscent of Black Moon’s How Many MC’s released three years earlier on Enta Da Stage, although much less aggressive and grimy in the interpretation and the lyrics. The next two tracks follow the same theme. On Zealots, Wyclef bemoans the hypocrisy of rappers who claim to be real while desperately seeking commercial success, and Ready Or Not attacks the competition who would dare to challenge them with Lauryn Hill’s sharp lyrics.

If the first tracks of the album are blustery and remind the beginnings of Hip Hop for its pretentious aspect, the other part is more about racism and society, without falling into clichés and violence. There is a more enlightened and observant aspect than a claim, notably on The Beast which deplores the situation of black Americans in relation to police violence, or the insecurity on Cowboys. More social, Family Business comes back to the loss of family references and the lack of knowledge of the roots in the black societies of the United States.

“An eclectic musicality based on recognizable samples”

Entirely self-produced by the trio itself accompanied by Te Bass, with the exception of Salaam Remi’s Fu-Gee-La, the productions rely on riffs sampled on recognizable hits, when it is not direct covers. Wyclef’s solo, No Woman, No Cry, is a cover of Bob Marley’s song of the same title and Lauryn Hill’s solo is a cover of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly With His Song overlaid with a sample of Bonita Applebum from A Tribe Called Quest. If the covers can sometimes present little interest, the way in which the two respective artists reappropriate the song by bringing at the same time a Hip Hop touch without really denaturing the original is exceptional.

On his side Fu-Gee-La takes the chorus of Ooo La La La of Tenna Marie beautifully interpreted by Lauryn Hill on a sample of If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right of Ramsey Lewis. The chorus of Lauryn Hill is of an unequalled power, her Soul voice is bewitching. And this is not the only example of the album. Zealots borrows a riff from The Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes For You, Ready Or Not samples the rhythm of Enya’s Boadecea with a chorus from The Delfonics’ Ready Or Not Here I Come, while Cowboys covers the guitar of The Main Ingredient’s Something About Love.

Between the different covers, samples of recognizable riffs and interpolations of the choruses, one could wonder if there is a real artistic creativity and musical research on The Score. The covers have always existed in all genres and Hip Hop has always been based on samples, and therefore on borrowing, to then reappropriate the song in its own way. Sampling is one of the first elements of musical research in Hip Hop. Consequently, we must rather wonder about the quality of his covers, the contribution compared to the original and the reappropriation made on the music to give it a new life and a new identity. If we have to ask the question about the quality of this one on The Score, the answer would be undeniably yes. 

“From masterpiece to separation”

Combining rhythm and melody with a clever mix of vocals and rap, The Score is an album that fascinates with its musical eclecticism sometimes at the borders of Hip Hop. The sound palette with multiple inspirations and an inventive use of samples give a great power to the whole with a distinctive identity in the Hip Hop landscape of this time. Lauryn Hill’s vocal prowess, Wyclef’s versatility between singing and rapping and the trio’s lyrical dexterity can only be applauded. The group’s isolation in the Booga Basement definitely had a beneficial effect in the artistic creation of The Score. Free from any constraint, they were able to express themselves in their own way to release music that reflects the band’s identity.  

Following The Score, the band will split to pursue solo careers in 1997. The reasons for the separation of the group are undoubtedly much deeper than a simple will to express themselves in solo. The complicated relationship between Lauryn Hill and Wyclef, who was married at the time, probably got the better of the group, with Pras perhaps feeling like the fifth wheel. Wyclef released his first album in 1997, The Carnival, with several contributions from Lauryn. She would follow in 1998 with The Miseducation, which contained a subtle allusion in the first track, Lost Ones, to her relationship with Wyclef, which seemed to have ended under unfortunate circumstances, further distancing the hopes of a reunion of the trio.

The Score’s success is partly due to its accessibility to a non-Hip Hop audience, made possible by its eclectic sound, its recognizable hits and its bewitching mix of rap and soul-crooning. But this does not alter the quality of the album. The Score is an incomparable in the landscape of the time while remaining fundamentally Hip Hop, combining a clever mix of Rap, Reggae and Soul. The Score is not a masterpiece of Hip Hop, it is a masterpiece in itself. 

By Grégoire Zasa

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