Invoking the spirit of Bob Marley, avant-garde hip-hoppers the Fugees reinvented rap with their genre-blending recordings. With traces of reggae, folk, rock, soul, country, and Creole, the music of the Fugees symbolizes the interconnectedness of the African diaspora.
Vocalist Lauryn Hill grew up in the suburban environs of South Orange, New Jersey, in a household stocked with Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight records. Hill was introduced to Pras Michel through a mutual high school friend, and the two came up with the idea for a rap group that would rhyme in different languages. Calling themselves Tranzlator Crew, Hill, Michel, and another female vocalist recorded some songs in a West Orange, New Jersey, studio. Michel's cousin, multi-instrumentalist Wyclef Jean, decided to stop by the studio and check out his relative's new group. Jean soon replaced the other female vocalist as the third member of Tranzlator Crew, and the trio of Hill, Michel, and Jean began hanging out regularly and exchanging musical ideas in the basement of Jean's uncle's house across town in East Orange.
Renaming the group the Fugees, the trio began auditioning for label representatives and caught the ear of Ruffhouse cofounder Chris Schwartz. Ruffhouse, which also discovered Latino rap group Cypress Hill, signed the group and released the mediocre debut, Blunted on Reality (#62 R&B, 1994). Except for the folky "Vocab" (#91 R&B, 1995) and the dancehall groove of the "Nappy Heads" remix (#49 pop, #52 R&B, 1994), Blunted on Reality failed to showcase the trio's talents.
The group really found its voice on the followup The Score (#1 pop, #1 R&B, 1996). Brimming with postcolonial discourse and a gumbo of Afrocentric rhythms, the album exploded into the pop music world. Hill's evocative take on Roberta Flack's 1973 hit "Killing Me Softly" (#2 pop, #1 R&B, 1996) was incessantly played on pop, R&B, hip-hop, and Adult Contemporary radio and won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Other prominent songs like "Fu-Gee-La" (#29 pop, #13 R&B, 1995), "Ready or Not" (#22 R&B, 1996), and a cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" (#38 pop, #58 R&B, 1996) helped The Score win the Best Rap Album Grammy as well. The Score eventually sold more than 17 million copies, making the Fugees the biggest-selling rap group up to that time.
Following 1996's Bootleg Versions (#50 R&B), a collection of remixed and unreleased tracks, the group split up, reportedly so members could pursue solo careers. The first to release an album, Jean emphasized his Haitian roots with Carnival (#16 pop, #4 R&B, 1997). Its "We Trying to Stay Alive" (#45 pop, #14 R&B, 1997), "Guantanamera" (#23 R&B, 1997), and "Gone Till November" (#7 pop, #9 R&B, 1998) all achieved chart success, while "Jaspora" and "Yelé" feature Jean rapping and singing in the Haitian patois. After producing a number of R&B and hip-hop recordings, including Destiny's Child's "No, No, No (Part 2)" (#3 pop, #1 R&B, 1997) and Pras's "Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)" (#15 pop, #8 R&B, 1998), Jean recorded The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book (#9 pop, #3 R&B, 2000).
Though Pras' album Ghetto Supastar (#55 pop, #35 R&B, 1998) made some noise, it was Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (#1 pop, #1 R&B, 1998) that dominated 1998's pop-music headlines, distinguishing the songstress from her Fugee counterparts. Her romantic involvement with Rohan Marley (Bob Marley's son) and the birth of the couple's first child was reflected in such hits as "Doo Wop (That Thing)" (#1 pop, #2 R&B, 1998), "Nothing Even Matters" (#25 R&B, 1999), "To Zion" (#77 R&B, 1999), and "Everything Is Everything" (#35 pop, #14 R&B, 1999). Her "Lost Ones" (#27 R&B, 1998) and "Ex-Factor" (#7 R&B, 1999) helped inflame the rumor that the end of a love affair between Hill and Jean led to the Fugees' breakup. Hill swept 1999's Grammy Awards show, winning five awards: Album of the Year, Best R&B Album, Best New Artist, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and Best R&B Song. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill later stirred controversy when four musicians on the album claimed that they helped write and produce certain songs that were credited only to Hill. In February 2001 Hill settled the legal dispute by paying the musicians an undisclosed sum of money. Since high school, Hill has also pursued acting, appearing in the daytime soap As the World Turns as well as 1993's Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
She made one of the best albums of the Nineties with 'Miseducation' and then had a public breakdown with 'Unplugged.' What happened?
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