The Fugees - Biography
By David Downs
Hip Hop icons Fugees formed at the end of the '80s in New Jersey, achieving global notoriety and platinum sales before fracturing at the height of their fame in 1997. The trio released debut vinyl twelve-inch single "Boof Baf" on Columbia in 1993 – a very high-tempo, aggressive, distinctly Caribbean rap jam that did little to indicate the trio would rise to international superstardom. The beautiful, and later-erratic vocalist Lauryn Hill and two young Haitian emigres Wyclef Jean - clowning, cutting -- and his talented cousin Prakazrel Michel ("Pras") stood at the center of the Refugee Camp, a loose affiliation of artists that also included rapper John Forte, later sentenced to fourteen years in prison for cocaine trafficking. The Fugees' fusion of Hip Hop, R&B, Soul, Caribbean, and Reggae as well as each member's solo material sold in excess of 25 million albums, doing extremely well in the suburbs. Fugees became a major front of Hip Hop's mid-'90s push deep into the country. Debut LP Blunted on Reality (1994-Ruffhouse) became a Heatseekers top twenty yet was considered a failure by the ambitious, perfectionist Hill, who was seventeen at the time of its release on a major label imprint. However, The Score (1996-Ruffhouse) became the band's blessing and its curse. Anthemic singles “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “No Woman, No Cry” (covers, both) helped make The Score a Billboard 200 number one. Success, sex, and power pushed the Fugees apart by the end of 1997, however, and they never fully recovered, performing few live shows and releasing some Internet singles. Hill would become a solo titan and major label basketcase – earning more Grammys in one night than any woman in history, then breaking down in tears on MTV Unplugged. Wyclef had the most stable run of successful albums, while Pras turned toward cinema with less notable results. The group is indefinitely on hiatus. Ultimately, the Fugees are a quintessentially American story, filled with immigration, hardship, fortune, and the attendant consequences.
Lauryn Hill was born May 26, 1975 to a high school teacher and computer expert in New Jersey. Her mother played piano and her father sang in nightclubs. Young Lauryn sang in church choirs, gospel groups and showed a strong voice. She loved '60s and '70s soul and by age thirteen, she was playing the amateur night showtime at the Apollo, doing a cover of Smokey Robinson's "Who's Loving You". Gorgeous and self-possessed -- Hill nabbed minor roles on television's As the World Turns and in film Sister Act II: Back in the Habit. Her work with the Fugees began in 1987 in public school with friend Michel.
Michel was born in Haiti and raised in the U.S. and interested in production and rapping. Rap was just blowing up out of Brooklyn and the two began playing on and off, adding Michel's older cousin - Wyclef Jean. Jean was born in 1972 in Haiti, the son of a minister. When he was nine he moved to the projects of Brooklyn, and later New Jersey, where he took up guitar and the study of music, similar to his cousin. The three dubbed themselves the Tranzlator Crew and used Hill's soap opera acting proceeds to pay for equipment. They toured the tri-state area and were signed to major label Ruffhouse/Columbia in 1993. Hill wasn't even an adult. They renamed themselves Fugees, a derisive slang term for refugees, and debut 12-inch Fugees (Tranzlator Crew) "Boof Baf" was produced by Khalis Bayyan , Michel, and Jean to no notable sales.
Their debut LP Blunted on Reality (1994-Ruffhouse) did better, however. "Nappy Head (Mona Lisa)" and "Vocab" took the record to number sixty-two on the R&B/Hip Hop charts and it would later enjoy bountiful sales as fans of more mature work dug deeper. Michel and Jean produced the record with contributions by Brand X, Rashad Muhammad, Bayyan, Stephen Walker, and a notable remix by Salaam Remi. Absent from production credits is Lauryn Hill. The band has said that they were pursuing a more gangsta sound due to the times and major label pressure. Indeed. N.W.A., Dr. Dre and others were re-writing the rules of commercial music. But the Fugees' take on gangsta felt inauthentic. The band almost broke up, with Hill enrolling in Columbia University. Also notable – in later interviews Michel would say that the three-year-older Jean and the underage Hill were having a clandestine relationship at the time.
Regardless of their differences, the Fugees home-recorded album two, according to interviews with Jean, who says he took lead on production. Ditching the gangsta pose for a mix of conscious Hip Hop, Soul and Reggae, The Score was made with basic gear and hand-cut samples, Jean says. Most tracks are built off sampled melodies, with live guitars and bass and keys, as well as Djing. Samples included The Moody Blues; Caribbean artists, Eric B. & Rakim, "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa, The Moody Blues, and Stevie Wonder.
Jean says production started off with “Fu Gee La,” produced by Remi. The song samples Teena Marie's "Ooh La La La" and "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" by Ramsey Lewis. “Ready Or Not” followed, sampling "Boadicea" by Enya, and of course "Ready or Not, Here I Come (Can't Hide from Love)" by The Delfonics. However, it is Hill's chillingly assured vocals that cemented the song as a hit. For soon-to-be monster hit “Killing Me Softly” (a cover of a Roberta Flack tune) Jean says he tuned an Akai S-900 and added delay to make it sound like a drop-tuned Fender Rhodes. He also used samples from "Fool Yourself" by Little Feat, "Memory Band" by Rotary Connection, and "The Day Begins" by The Moody Blues.
Piling on the covers, the Fugees' take on Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" began a career-long association between Marley and the Fugees. The Score became a Billboard 200 number one and a Top R&B Hip Hop number one and went on to be certified six times platinum with worldwide sales in excess of eighteen million units. In 1997, the Fugees would win two Grammy Awards for Best Rap Album and for "Killing Me Softly" as the Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. The three New Jersey kids appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. Gone was the gangsta posturing, exchanged for social conscience and wry sense of humor and fun.
Remix record Bootleg Versions (1996-Ruffhouse) was offered to rabid fans, featuring remixes of past work and a notable remix of “No Woman, No Cry” by son of Bob Marley -- Stephen Marley. Thus began Hill's rocky relationship with the fated Marley family. Hill was already involved with Jean, who was married. However, she met Rohan Marley, (another of Bob Marley's kids) in the summer of 1996 on the Smoking Grooves Tour. The former University of Miami football player was rebuffed, because Hill was still seeing Jean. However, when Hill soon became visibly pregnant, no one knew who the child really belonged to.
While Hill gave birth to a child, Jean dropped the multiplatinum Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee Allstars (1997-Sony). Singles "Guantanamera" and “Gone til November" became party anthems and notable help came from Hill, producer Remi, DJ Skribble, John Forte, Pras, Bob Marley's back up singers the I Threes, the Neville Brothers, a choice sample of the Bee Gees, and the New York Philharmonic. The Carnival became a top 20 hit, leading to a decade of production, rapping and remixing projects, as well as activism for various issues including Haitian refugees.
Hill had her child and named him Zion Marley, later claiming that Rohan was the father and her husband. But after Zion was born, she learned that Marley already had a wife and two children from another marriage. Amid newfound international fame and baby Daddy drama, Jean did not support Hill's solo desires, leading to a serious split.
Hill started work on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill; blocking out Wyclef Jean from any type of production help after he had snubbed her. She worked with a group of artists dubbed the New Ark and the final product became a necessary part of any Hip Hop fan's record collection. Her old-school takes on "Doo Wop (That Thing)" helped it rule the charts in 1998. Covers of Time to Esquire and the February 1999 Grammy awards, made her a household name globally. Hill won five trophies from eleven nominations, including Album of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Song, and Best R&B Album -- the most ever for a woman. She then toured with Outkast and was later sued by four men over production credits. Hill fought the suit but eventually settled for $5 million. In later interviews, associates said the lawsuit, compounded by the searing attention of global fame made her extremely unhappy.
In 1998, Michel, working with Mya and Ol' Dirty Bastard, solo recorded the single "Ghetto Supastar" for the soundtrack to the film Bulworth. It hit number three on the pop charts – the pinnacle of Pras' solo success. The full album Ghetto Supastar (1998-Ruffhouse) received a cooler reception.
In 2000, Jean's The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II A Book (2000-Sony) debuted to substantial sales, if less critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Hill was having more of Marley's children and becoming close with Brother Anthony, a spiritual adviser who studied the Bible with her several times per week. In 2001, she recorded an MTV Unplugged session where she broke down in tears and admitted to being deranged and emotionally unstable. She rejects her earlier press image and role as a performer, she says. Rolling Stone called MTV Unplugged 2.0 (2002-Columbia) "a public breakdown", though it debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 and went platinum. A Fugees Greatest Hits (2003-Columbia) album was then overshadowed by Hill, who berated the leaders of the Catholic Church for its sex abuse scandals at a public benefit at the Vatican where she was invited to sing.
In 2004, the Fugees reunited for a concert in Brooklyn as part of the film Dave Chappelle's Block Party to great reviews. But in 2005, Hill told an interviewer that the Fugees was a corporate conspiracy. She has solo toured several times in recent years, but is often late, unkempt and surly – sometimes being booed. Also in 2005, the Fugees appeared at the BET's 2005 Music Awards and did a European tour to mixed reviews. After a small tour to promote Block Party, Michel confirmed the group was dead, blaming Hill. In August 2007, Michel again said a reunion was extremely unlikely due to Hill, and in 2008 Jean speculated on the Howard Stern Show that Hill was bipolar and in need of medication.
As of 2008, Hill has reportedly spent $2.5 million from Sony on a new record, but none has resulted. Reports state was she was living with her five illegitimate children from Rohan Marley in a hotel in Miami, though she has recently dumped Marley and decamped to New Jersey, reports state. Pras continues to act in less notable roles. Superstar Jean produces and performs for a wide variety of acts, but enjoys arguably less critical acclaim than the tortured Hill.
In closing – the Fugees' story follows a classically American arc: from the Hip Hop dreams of two Haitian immigrants to the Howard Hughes-like hiding of their female vocalist in the top floor of a Miami hotel. Along the way, the trio sold million of records, entertained global audiences and branded their blend of erudite Hip Hop, sizzling Soul and funky Reggae onto the consciousness of a generation of music listeners.