The Fugees: Leaders of the New Cool

Sure, they're hip-hop heavyweights. But they're also part of a diverse group of artists, including Beck and the Beastie Boys, who represent an alternative to alternative

Pras, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean of the Fugees Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty

"Oh, my goodness, Roy Rogers is gone!"

So exclaims Lauryn Hill as she swerves around a familiar corner near her suburban New Jersey neighborhood. It's a sultry night in July, and the Fugees' singer is driving me back from Sony Music Studios, in midtown Manhattan, in her mom's wheels, a brand-new sport utility vehicle with all the add-ons. The recent disappearance of a local landmark like the boarded-up fast-food emporium is yet one more reminder that life for Hill has been moving ahead at warp speed.

"We used to be No. 10, now we permanent 1," boasts Hill's band mate Wyclef Jean in a singsong, Bob Marley-style lilt at the start of "Fu-Gee-La," the Fugees' theme song, cri de coeur and call to arms all wrapped in one. With its tough-talking raps, slack island beat and serpentine melodic refrain ("Ooh-la-la-la..."), "Fu-Gee-La" is as perfect an unofficial anthem for hip-hop's future as anyone could hope for. That it also happened to be an accurate prophecy of the Fugees' not-so-distant future is merely icing on the cake.

But it makes little difference to Hill, the svelte, soignée singer for the Fugees, that she has sold 5 million albums, toured half the globe and acted in a feature film, all by the ripe old age of 21. She remains most comfortable at home: more specifically, behind the walls of the modest frame house in South Orange, N.J., where she grew up.

Never mind that it's just two nights before the first show, in New York's Harlem, of Hoodshock, the free outdoor hip-hop charity festival that Hill conceived of and helped organize while touring Europe on the mammoth success of The Score, the Fugees' second album. Never mind that this evening's previous event, a Hoodshock summit meeting, didn't let out till 10 p.m. Tonight, Hill – primed for summer in a snug-fitting orange top, a denim-and-Lycra miniskirt, and a neat, tufted hairdo – is bubbling over with energy as we trundle in the front door of her parents' house.

We're greeted there by a slim man of medium height with a neatly trimmed mustache and wire-rim glasses, dressed in a sleeveless undershirt, shorts, black wingtips and a baseball cap. This is Hill's father, Mal, a computer consultant. Minutes later, a sweet-faced, bright-eyed woman in a print dress descends from upstairs to the middle of the neat but cramped living room and introduces herself as Valerie, Hill's mother and a junior high school English teacher in Newark, N.J. Hill's brother, 24-year-old Malaney, is splayed out on the sofa, watching baseball on cable.

It takes a few moments for it to register that Lauryn Hill – a.k.a. "L," "L-Boogie," or simply Lauryn – actually still lives with her parents. This is the honey-voiced chanteuse and rapper whose respectfully funkified cover of Roberta Flack's 1973 hit "Killing Me Softly With His Song" recently charmed an unwitting nation and turned The Score into the biggest hip-hop sensation of the '90s (the album has floated in the Billboard Top 10 for more than six months). And right now, Hill and her band mates – Jean, 26, and his cousin Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, 24 – are rap superheroes.

Although the Fugees have much in common with their hip-hop contemporaries – popular, cutting-edge acts like the Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest – they also belong in an increasingly unclassifiable group of artists that includes, among others, the Beastie Boys, Beck and Cypress Hill. Like these other pop nomads, the Fugees are pioneering a musical aesthetic as well as a cultural destiny.

This means that mixing the crackle of a needle touched to vinyl with live break beats and looped digital samples of the freshest "dub plates" – one-of-a-kind musical freestyles committed to black wax – is more than just the legacy of a group whose members regard Haiti and Jamaica, Africa and Brooklyn, N.Y., and the New Jersey hood and Hollywood as creative touchstones. It sounds cool, too.

Despite the Fugees' success, Hill's day-to-day existence continues to be a low-key family affair. From the matching chintz furniture to the magenta tulle window treatments to the graduation pictures smothering the mantelpiece, life in the Hill household appears to have been altered little by its youngest member's achievements.

The way Hill tells it, her family gave up being fazed a long time ago. "Trust me, I was a performer since I was little," she says. "I think I'm less of a performer now than when I was a child. I was such a ham, y'all. I was so dramatic."

While her preteen friends were bopping to '80s kiddie faves like New Edition and Duran Duran, the precocious Hill was wearing out the grooves on the old 45s by Gladys Knight and Curtis Mayfield that she found in her parents' basement. By the end of high school, Hill had already appeared as an actress on the soap opera As the World Turns and in a featured role alongside Whoopi Goldberg, in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.

Right now, Hill is just glad to be back in South Orange, enjoying a short break from her two full-time pursuits: the Fugees, who have been touring since January and undergraduate studies at Columbia University (she says she'll probably major in history).

"I don't like to stay away from home for long periods of time, not at all," Hill says as she cradles a cordless phone between her chin and shoulder, readying herself for the evening's final round of phone calls to the West Coast. "Your environment is what molds you. You respond to the stimuli, and when the stimuli change, the response changes, so I always like to come back to the environment that made me respond the way that, musically, brought me to a certain place."

Indeed, place and context are crucial aspects of the cross-cultural bouillabaisse that is the Fugees' inimitable sound "You'll see that my house is right on the borderline of the suburbs and the ghetto," Hill says, pointing to the projects of Newark that loom just beyond her family's backyard fence. "I always had this duality. I went to school with a lot of white kids – it was really like a suburban environment – but I lived with black kids. Plus my whole family lives in Newark, in the city. So I grew up with two kinds of people in my life."

Within a matter of minutes, a flurry of phone calls involuntarily draws Hill away from our conversation. In the meanwhile her brother, Malaney, boots up an old desktop PC squirreled away in the corner of the adjoining dining room and gives me a tour of the Fugees' extensive website (http://www.sony.com/Music/Artist Info/Fugees), which he designed and implemented himself.

He patiently wends his way through copious audio samples, Internet-only remixes, video clips, lyric sheets and tour schedules, as well as recorded greetings from the band members to their fans that are updated regularly via phone while the group is on tour. "Check this out," Malaney says as he flips to one screen and begins scrolling through page after page of text. This is the Fugees' site message center, where hundreds of fans from places as far-flung as Korea, the Netherlands and West Orange, N.J., have posted their digital "shout outs" to the band.

Back in the living room, Hill's father recalls how when Hill was in 10th grade, she asked if she could have her birthday party in the back yard. He told her yes but only to invite her closest friends. Breaking into gentle laughter, he adds, "By the end of the night, 250 people must have showed up."

It's the next morning, and the green-and-white house in East Orange, N.J., looks like nearly every other one on the block – two stories, aluminum siding, driveway to a back garage, basketball net mounted over the garage door. In fact, it closely resembles the Hills' place, which is only a five-minute drive away.

But inside, things are a bit dicier. In the kitchen, paint is peeling off the ceiling, the stove looks circa 1940, greasy hand prints coat the walls. In each room, piles of random junk have insinuated themselves into every corner. It's the kind of place you'd imagine your hip uncle might leave you when he died.

Which is more or less what happened. Wyclef Jean's uncle Renold used to let his young nephew play pop music at his house, knowing that the boy's devoutly religious parents prohibited it at home. After he passed away, his son Renel Duplesis bought a portable six-track tape recorder and set it up in the cellar.

"So I came and I learned how to work it," recalls the rangy, athletic-looking Jean, whose brown eyes burn with an intense inquisitiveness. "And then I said, 'OK, I got a studio now.'" Within months the budding musician dubbed his cousin's rig the Booga Basement and began charging friends $25 an hour to record on the six-track ("It started as a little karaoke party," he jokes). Jean also laid down his own tracks with another cousin, Jerry Duplesis, on bass, "and from there the whole thing just grew miraculously."

All of The Score, except for the album's first single, "Fu-Gee-La," was recorded in the Booga Basement, which today is a bona fide studio with a mixing board, sound booth and wood-grain acoustic panels. "It's not chic, but it comes out good quality, because you feel like you're at home," says Jean with a trace of his native Haitian patois, adding, "it sort of gives you a Tuff Gong feeling," alluding to reggae legend Bob Marley's renowned studio, in Kingston, Jamaica.

Jean, a musical jack-of-all-trades who raps, sings and plays guitar and keyboards, in addition to having written and produced almost all the music on The Score, emigrated with his family from Haiti to Brooklyn when he was 9. The son of an itinerant preacher and the grandson of a voodoo priest, the transplanted Jean suddenly found himself living with nine other family members in a one-room apartment in a housing project on Coney Island, in New York.

Concerned about how ghetto life would affect her eldest son, who by the age of 12 had already been caught shoplifting, cutting school and trying to join a gang, Jean's mother bought him an acoustic guitar to keep him off the streets. His cousin Renel taught him a few chords.

Although Jean couldn't help but fall in love with the rap music that he heard all around him, his father forbade hip-hop – and all other secular music, for that matter – in the house. Only Christian music was allowed; gospel, but also Christian rock – "Anything that talked about God," Jean says. He even remembers hearing Petra, a Christian heavy-metal band he today characterizes as "trash," blaring out of his father's radio.

To circumvent the house rules, Jean began bringing home tapes by 70s prog-rock bands like Yes and Pink Floyd. "You know the early Yes had a lot of keyboards and a lot of voices; it was real harmonic," he says. "I would get anything that sounded close to the Christian rock so he wouldn't be able to tell." He also fell in love with the music of his native Haiti.

By the end of high school, Jean had decided he wanted to be a "rock star"; he played with as many groups as time would allow. Before graduating high school, he got a deal with Big Beat Records and scored a New York club hit with a song called "Out of the Jungle," about South African statesman Nelson Mandela.

The Booga Basement and the East Orange house have since become home base for an enlightened societal perspective as well as a temporary crash pad for young Haitian refugees making the transition into their newly adopted country. The band's name, short for "refugees," is a reference to the diminished status that poor emigrants from countries such as Haiti encounter in the United States.

"I consider 'refugees' always a negative thing," Jean has said. "What we wanted to do was make something positive out of it." Refugee Camp, the name the Fugees first gave to their production crew – a tightly knit community of friends and artists responsible for the group's distinctive low-fi sound – is now also the name of the group's new label and a not-for-profit summer camp for city kids, which will be paid for through corporate sponsorship of high-profile performance events like Hoodshock.

The early Fugees suffered an identity crisis that played itself out on their debut, 1993's Blunted on Reality. Because their handlers coached them to play to the current market, which at the time tilted toward gun-toting, blunt-toking gangsta rap, the group delivered a competent but uncharacteristic disc of upbeat, aggressive raps.

Hailed in Europe as a glimpse of the future, Blunted was summarily trashed in the American hip-hop press for missing the mark altogether. Some critics suggested that Hill, whose rich, sensuous alto is the Fugees' most conspicuous selling point, should leave the guys behind and go solo. In response to those who said the fledgling group wouldn't last another round, the Fugees titled the second album The Score, as in, "It's time to settle the score."

Left to its own instincts, the trio concocted an hour-long opus on which no single track paints the whole picture. Slower and more textured than its predecessor, The Score drifts effortlessly from up-to-the-moment hardcore to reggae to old-school rap to 70s-style easy listening to Haitian-flavored acoustic folk. The glue that keeps it all together is the group's secret weapon: a killer live band with a killer live show to match.

A Fugees concert typically begins with only Wyclef Jean and a DJ onstage, as Jean strums his way through his own self-styled "history of hip-hop" on guitar. Along the way, other characters join them, including Refugee Camp members Mad Spider and Mafia. By the time the other Fugees have climbed into the ring, the audience is experiencing the most blatantly theatrical live act since Parliament/Funkadelic.

"We figured that even if hip-hop kids lost an appreciation for live music, we're going to bring it back and make them love it," Jean says matter-of-factly. "Sony didn't understand that theory at all. I was like, 'Y'all forgetting the most important thing here. We're really street kids. We're not coming out saying, "Keep it real!" I'm just playing guitar, what I used to do on the corner. And it will come off just like that on the stage.'"

On disc, the Fugees are an ingenious mix of old and new, street and sophistication. Rather than flatly eschew the hip-hop conventions that virtually guarantee a core audience's attention, the Fugees tweak the clichés and then incorporate them into a whole new game plan.

"And even after all my logic and my theory/I add a motherfucker so you ign'ant niggas hear me," is the way Hill phrases it on "Zealots," the group's rejoinder to would-be hardcore exclusionists. Tracks like "The Beast" and "Cowboys" retread familiar rap subjects like police brutality and gang violence, but from a refreshingly arch perspective.

"Fugees are still hardcore, but they're not gangsta," says Vinnie Brown of Naughty by Nature, another group that made the Newark scene before hitting the charts. "Locally, you can tell when a group is getting mad props, you can feel the vibe around the way. That's how you know these kids been in the underground circuit and they're going to be credible. Fugees was like that before they landed their deal."

B-Real (né Louis Freese) of Cypress Hill puts it another way: "You have the gangsta shit, you got the intelligent shit, and you've got everything in the middle. The trick is to find where you lie in all of this, and I think the Fugees have figured it out."

***

"Who this?" that's Prakazrel (say "PRAZ-well") Michel answering his cellular phone. In the back of a stretch limo. Spend a day with Michel, and you'll hear "Who this?" dozens of times.

As you might guess, Michel is – both by his own reckoning and everybody else's – the Fugees' money man, the member who got them their recording deal and apparently never stopped dealing. "I was the type of kid that when Clef and them would do a band, I used to be the one who would find a way to make a dollar," he says. "If there was a festival going, I used to be the one who could get us all in for nothing."

More than Hill and Jean, Michel radiates hip-hop superstardom. Thirty seconds into one phone conversation, which has abruptly halted our interview, Michel casually mentions the princely sum of $22 million. With his cornrows etched around his head in a beehive shape, a gold front tooth that sparkles when he smiles, rings on every finger and gold-colored wraparound Oakley shades that seem permanently glued to his head, Michel makes it immediately clear to everyone he comes in contact with that he is living way large.

But as in so many other instances with the Fugees, things aren't exactly as they appear. First of all, the limo was sent by the Late Show With David Letterman to shuttle the group to the Ed Sullivan Theater, in Manhattan, where they will perform on tonight's show. Second, the call was from a friend of the Fugees' sound engineer: "He just won $22 million in the New Jersey lottery," Michel explains. Third, Michel is every bit as focused as his band mates. "Money is definitely my main thing, but the music always comes first," he says.

Let's also add that it's a minor shocker to hear Michel relate his main musical influences: "I grew up listening to the Eagles, Phil Collins, Elton John, Pat Benatar. I couldn't listen to rap. My thing was rock music, pop rock. I got over a thousand CDs, and out of a thousand CDs, I got about 50 rap albums."

Michel, born in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn to Haitian parents who later moved to New Jersey, had a 3.8 average at the end of high school and was accepted to Yale. He chose instead to attend college locally at Rutgers University, where he studied psychology and philosophy (and dropped out after his junior year).

As a senior in high school outside Newark, Michel had the fortitude to ask a freshman, the younger sister of his friend Malaney Hill, if she wanted to form a musical group with him.

"I always had an idea in my mind that the illest thing is to have a girl-and-guy group," Michel says. When he met Hill, he had a feeling, "felt her vibe."

"She was cool," Michel says. "I believe – because I'm a spiritual person, and I grew up in the church – everything happens for a reason. If Lauryn wasn't there, the Fugees wouldn't be what they are now. Not to say that we wouldn't be successful, but it would've been a whole different thing."

It was another Michel contact, Khalis Bayyan, saxophonist and producer for '70s soul sensations Kool and the Gang, who officially brought the group together.

Bayyan (born Ronald Bell, brother of Robert "Kool" Bell) worked out of House of Music, a recording studio in West Orange where Michel, Hill and another woman named Marcy had been laying down some tracks. The group called themselves Tranzlator Crew, because at the time they were working on something called "Tranzlator Rap," on which they rhymed in different languages.

One day, Jean, who already had his own group called Exact Change, dropped by to see his cousin Pras in the studio. "Basically I came to check out the girls," he says, "because Pras was like, 'I got two totally fine babes, man.' I was there right after church in my suit."

Michel goaded Jean into rapping freestyle over a track the trio was working on. But it was Bayyan who recommended they stick it out with the new combo. Within months, Marcy left the group for college. Jean stayed, and the new trio began to play school talent shows and neighborhood showcases.

"We sang, we rapped, we danced," Hill recalls. "As a matter of fact, we were a circus troupe. Maybe we were a little overdeveloped in the sense that we did so much that we were just like, 'Yo, OK, I can do anything.'" She stops to laugh. "We were a piece of work, but you could see the talent."

To get a recording contract, the Fugees auditioned for label representatives right in the Manhattan office of their manager. "I'm taking off my shirt, screaming out of my lungs, jumping on top of his table, going crazy, scaring most of these people," Jean remembers. Many were impressed, a few hailed them as the future, but "everybody came and left," he says.

One of the few that expressed interest was RuffHouse, a Pennsylvania-based independent affiliated with Columbia. Known for its success with platinum-selling Latino hip-hop anomalies Cypress Hill, RuffHouse saw advantages beyond stylistically pigeonholing the trio.

"For example, Clef is the first cat I've ever seen to be able to come onstage and play guitar in front of an entire hip-hop crowd," says RuffHouse co-founder Chris Schwartz, "and win them over."

But growing pains prevented the Fugees from fully realizing their creative vision on Blunted on Reality. "We had no clout," says Jean. The album's producers, including their mentor Bayyan, urged the group toward sped-up mixes and a more forceful rhyming style. "They was like, 'You got to be more aggressive, you got to scream. Listen to Onyx.'" But deep down, the Fugees knew the album misrepresented their strengths. Jean got to produce the album's one standout, a unique track called "Vocab," which featured the group rapping over nothing more than a lightly strummed acoustic guitar.

When producer Salaam Remi's drastically slowed-down remix of Blunted's "Nappy Heads" (minus the oddly inappropriate Kool and the Gang samples) became a popular dance track, Jean took the lead. The Fugees used Jean's clever, roughly textured remixes of "Vocab" and "Boof Baf" as their second and third chances to hard-sell the earthy sound the band had been developing live, and then everything clicked.

These days, not surprisingly, Jean is in heavy demand as a remixer. Recent projects include a cover of Aretha Franklin's "Angel," by British soulsters Simply Red, and an upcoming Aerosmith song. In each instance, Jean re-records all the basic tracks except the vocals, playing nearly every instrument himself (bass-guitar duties are handled by his fleet-fingered cousin Jerry).

"My strong parts are like Prince, being onstage and then being in the studio and creating music," Michel says. "I'm not trying to be a producer that just does everything just to be doing. I like to do credible stuff."

At the Late Show that afternoon, the Fugees are required to run through the same song three times in a row during dress rehearsal. But in a minor streak of luck, the show's producers allow the group to trade the popular but less demanding "Killing Me Softly With His Song" for the latest single, a Fugees tour de force titled "Ready or Not."

With the full band in attendance – Donald Guillaume on drums, DJ Leon Higgins at the turntables and Jerry Duplesis on bass – the Fugees make the most of the moment. Each take ends up looking and sounding remarkably different. One time, Jean races around the banks of empty theater seats as he's rapping. The next, Hill mines the song's hooky chorus for new melodic nuances. Jean and Michel hold their cell phones to their ears throughout the entire final pass.

For the actual show, the Fugees mix it up again. The first lines out of Jean's mouth are "Yo, Mom, I'm on the David Letterman show/We gonna start this like this/And it don't stop." This rendition also highlights Hil's full, raspy alto. The group's Armani Exchange-meets-X-Large style perfectly suits the loose but elegant performance.

But the next day in Harlem, at the first scheduled Hoodshock date, the Fugees learn the hard way that their newly won mainstream influence can alter deeply held biases only so far.

Held on the mall in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building on 125th Street, Hoodshock has brought together more established hip-hop acts like Biggie Smalls and Doug E. Fresh with top-flight newcomers like the Fugees, Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Goodie Mob. From 2 in the afternoon to 7:30 at night, the free concert draws a peaceful crowd of approximately 15,000, even as the big turnout forces New York's finest to block off the thoroughfare to rush-hour traffic.

At approximately 7:50 p.m., as the Wu-Tang Clan wrap up the evening's final set, a lone man standing on 125th Street fires a 38-caliber handgun into the air. In the resulting stampede, at least 30 people are injured.

"Riot in Harlem" is the way the story plays in the tabloids and on the local TV newscasts; the music is hardly mentioned. Even the ordinarily less lurid New York Times reports, incorrectly, that the event's impetus was a voter-registration drive designed by New York's African-American community to oust Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the next election (a claim the paper later retracts).

Giuliani himself holds a press conference at which he blames the event's organizers for continuing the concert with a backup generator even after the police department cut off the power. Hoodshock organizers contend that the generator was designed to kick in automatically if there was a power failure.

"If they were there for the first seven hours of the event, they would have seen [thousands of] people peacefully gathering," Hill later says of the press. "But that doesn't excite them. I even saw TV cameras that weren't on until that incident happened."

Other Hoodshock shows slated for Newark and Miami are canceled by local authorities made nervous by the accounts. But Hill is unperturbed: "The way I look at it, the event was a huge success. All we wanted to do is help the kids. As a matter of fact, camp starts on Friday."

Acouple of weeks later, the Fugees are on a private beach in Malibu, Calif., for the second of three rigorous 16 hour-plus days to finish the video for "Ready or Not." A sequel to the gritty "Fu-Gee-La" video, which found the dynamic trio fleeing jackbooted thugs in the streets and jungles of Jamaica, the new clip is a decidedly more Hollywood affair.

All afternoon, director Marcus Nispel drills them through a scene in which the three race vintage motorbikes along the coast as military helicopters tail them from behind. In reality, the cycles are strapped to a vibrating platform as a shirtless crew member revs a motorized smoke machine, but two real whirlybirds hovering directly above give the shoot a dose of genuine anxiety.

Between takes, the Fugees, cavorting with kids who saunter by on the beach, teach them how to do backflips and then dole out autographs. The clip's budget will clock in at more than $1 million, an almost unheard of amount for a rap video.

"It's the next level," Michel says. "That's what we're respected for – we take chances other artists won't take. We can't just do regular things."

Still, many Fugees fans might wonder what these big-budget shenanigans have to do with the plain-spoken tales and smalltime characters that populate The Score.

"I don't believe in laws or rules," counters Michel, the one who insisted that the "Ready or Not" video include a scene in a submarine, filmed on a Universal Studios back lot. "I think whoever makes the law or the rule meant it to fit their needs. But see the thing is, about breaking rules and laws, you've got to be willing to deal with the consequences."

One of those consequences is that the Fugees have become the hip-hop act that never sleeps. With their rigorous touring schedule and a rabid commitment to their community – future Hoodshock dates and other Newark-based charity events are in the works – it's hard to imagine there's any time left for personal lives.

If the Malibu beach shoot, where Hill's parents hover and gawk like tourists, is any indication, life for the Fugees may well be standing still as they toil in the name of their good fortune.

"We used to be in the studio from the time after school or track practice till like 3 in the morning," says Hill. "Then I'd go home, go to sleep, wake up at 7 and go to school again. The only reason I have the capacity to do so much now is because I always did so much."

And the opportunities keep coming. The Fugees may be starring in a proposed sequel to the 1973 reggae movie classic The Harder They Come, an idea no doubt fostered by the remake of "No Woman, No Cry" on The Score and by Jean's striking resemblance to Jimmy Cliff.

Acting is no big stretch, though. Hill performed marvelously against type as Rita Watson, the surly, rebellious Catholic schoolgirl in the otherwise perfunctory Sister Act 2. And as teenagers, Jean and Hill both appeared in Club 12, an off-Broadway hip-hop musical version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (Jean starred as Malvolio). One suspects this willingness to take on different roles makes the Fugees even more convincing when they're playing themselves.

They're the first to note that not all true hip-hop stories end with a bang and a body in the street. "We're just regular kids who are working really fucking hard and love to make music," Hill says. "We don't really party much, we're not out screwing the whole industry, we're not out taking drugs... Why would I talk about guns? When I talk about my weapon, I'm talking 'bout my tongue, because, realistically, that's the strongest weapon I have. And that's all we're trying to do: be realistic."