mnmlist: The Panethnic Fugees: A Cultural and Generic Analysis of The Score

As of this past February, it has been two decades since the Fugees released their Grammy-winning album The Score. Released at a time of particular disjunction in hip-hop culture, the album blends the sounds of many genres, seeking to harmonize the scope of African American culture. The Score’s fusion of genre and culture, both in its contextual environment of production and its internal composition, reinforces the Fugees’ interest in emphasizing a pan-ethnic African-American identity.

The album’s release in the mid-nineties positioned it at perhaps the most diverging point in hip-hop. The genre was growing rapidly in different directions, impossible to define by any one image or texture. As Common said of the nineties in an interview, “You have to remember that hip-hop had De La Soul. It had the Pharcyde. It had a Tribe Called Quest. It had Souls of Mischief, Kwamé, NWA, Compton’s Most Wanted, the Geto Boys, Rakim, Slick Rick— it was never one thing” (2007). This was a time of expansion and experimentation, with rap expanding into new audiences as crossover rap music became increasingly popularized. The thrill of this creative and expansive exploration of the genre was darkened by tragedy with “the slayings of two of rap’s biggest stars, Tupac Shakur (2Pac) and Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G)”, a result of the violent battle between the East and West Coasts (Bradley & DuBois, 2010, p. 325). The combination of wide-ranging musical development and building social tension made unity in hip-hop culture impossible.

In the midst of this largely unclear development in hip-hop and the culture surrounding it, three teenagers came together in New Jersey to form the Fugees, a band that would seize the plurality of the genre and social context to enormous success. Their name derived “from the slang term for ‘refugee’” (Bradley & Dubois, 2010, p. 394), the group was comprised of two Brooklyn-raised Haitian cousins and a teen girl from New Jersey. Singer and rapper Lauryn Hill grew up in the suburbs of South Orange, New Jersey, and studied at Columbia University. She began to make music with Pras Michel, a Brooklyn-born son of Haitian immigrants, and his cousin Wyclef Jean, born in Haiti and raised in Brooklyn since age nine (Lipsitz, 2006, p. 5). Their immersion in this rapidly developing culture of hip-hop combined with the boys’ Haitian background shaped the direction that the musicians would turn to, a space in which questions of the “transnational and panethnic dimensions of African American identity” (Lipsitz, 2006, p.5) would be explored. Wyclef’s multifaceted musical aptitude originated in his childhood in Haiti. Lauryn Hill presented herself in the Fugees and in her solo career “as a person nurtured by the plurality and diversity of Afro-diasporic life in the cities and suburbs of the U.S and around the world” (Lipsitz, 2006, p.18).

In an interview with the New York Times, Lauryn Hill described the music of the Fugees as “a little rice and peas mixed with a little collard greens, a little mango with watermelon” (Linden 1996). The members of the rap trio each brought unique musical components to the table with their differing backgrounds and influences. Salaam Remi, the producer of several of their lead singles and remixes, spoke of this combination: “Wyclef was very eclectic, Lauryn knew every soul song under the sun— she’s like a jukebox— and then […] Pras has the pop ear” (Iandoli, 2016). Wyclef rapped, sang, and played guitar and keyboard; Lauryn displayed an “uncanny ability to volley between singing and rapping” (Iandoli, 2016); Pras provided the “resonant vocal tones” (Bradley & Dubois, 2010, p. 394). They each brought such distinct individual elements and yet together they were “organic, integrated, despite surface differences” (Hinds, 2001, p. 95).

The Score was the second album released by the group and its success was astounding. The Fugees quickly reached a pop audience with their remake of Roberta Flack’s classic “Killing Me Softly,” (Flack, 1973, track 1) a chilling elaboration on the song that blends smoothly into the rest of the album’s sound while still preserving the soul of the original. This cover introduces the way that the group fuses styles in a way that appeals to audiences of several different genres. The album, as explained by Lipsitz, “featured an innovative blend of hip-hop, soul, salsa, reggae and Haitian rara” (Lipsitz, 2006, p. 5). In particular, the Fugees employ a unique use of sampling that both enhances the multilayered sound of the tracks and also adds further emphasis to this mosaic of African American culture being established throughout the album.

The album’s reggae-rap fusion is most obviously heard in Wyclef’s cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” (Marley, 1975, track 1), but throughout the record, a combination of reggae samples and textures maintain the Fugees’ Caribbean influence. “Zealots” (Fugees, 1996, track 4) samples the melody and delivery of Jamaican musician Willie Williams’ 1978 track “Armagideon Time,” replacing the lyrics “A lotta people won’t get no supper tonight / A lotta people going to suffer tonight” with “Another MC lose his life tonight, Lord / I beg that you pray to Jesus Christ, why / Oh Lord, father don’t let him bury me, whoa.” In rewriting the lyrics of the melody, the Fugees infuse Williams’ song with hip-hop culture, replacing the “lotta people” with “another MC”. This particular genre fusion is crucial to the band’s mission of forming a united cultural identity. According to Lipsitz, “The Fugees recorded The Score at a time when nearly one-quarter of the African Americans in the New York City area hailed from the Caribbean” (Lipsitz, 2006, p. 6). He goes on to explain the extreme increase in refugees and migrants worldwide at that time. The Fugees covered the Bob Marley song, in particular, to dedicate it to all refugees (Lipsitz, 2006, p.6).

Other samples integrated throughout the album further epitomize the idea of a collective African-American voice. In “Zealots” (Fugees, 1996, track 4), a sample from “I Only Have Eyes for You” by the Flamingos (1959), a doo-wop group from the 1950s, appears as an ongoing instrumental motif. “How Many Mics” (Fugees, 1996, track 2) takes its main instrumental theme from Ramsey Lewis’ soul track “Dreams” (1973) and places it in an urban environment with a laid-back rhythm and rap delivery. “Cowboys” (Fugees, 1996, track 11) contains several funk samples from The Intruders, The Main Ingredient, Lafayette Afro Rock Band, and Manu Dibango, some integrated through the lyrics and others as part of the instrumentation. In their cover “Killing Me Softly,” (Fugees, 1996, track 8) the Fugees sample several sounds from “Bonita Applebum,” a song by their contemporaries, A Tribe Called Quest. This mixing of samples transforms the album into a small chronicle of African American music as it has developed over the years.

The lyrics throughout the album speak to such a multitude of racial issues, many of which reflect “the concerns of emerging transnational Black communities whose cultures and concerns cannot be contained within any one national setting” (Lipsitz, 2006, p. 5). On one level they do this simply through the language in which they rap; especially while performing live, the trio would often rap “in English and Haitian Creole, [and] toasted (A Jamaican precursor to rap)” (Linden, 1996). The trio rapped about black criminality and police brutality, not in such an aggressive tone as groups such as N.W.A. but still with assertive delivery. In “Red Intro” (Fugees, 1996, track 1) they describe the criminals to be “trying to be cowboys / They can’t even shoot,” and call the police “pigs,” a derogatory term used to characterize them. This example introduces the topic at the beginning of the album, but the last song, “Manifest/Outro” (Fugees, 1996, track 13) heavily illustrates the issue by combining religious connotations with racial associations. It compares black criminals to Haile Selassie I, the man believed to be the second Christ in Rastafarianism, and compares “crooked cops” to the authorities to whom Judas betrayed Christ for “30 pieces of silver”. Other issues are discussed throughout the narrative of the album as well. In “Ready or Not” (Fugees, 1996, track 3) Lauryn Hill articulates a feminist attack against misogynistic male rappers: “I can do what you do, easy […] So while you’re imitating Al Capone I’ll be Nina Simone, and defecating on your microphone”. Here she demonstrates that she, as a female rapper, is just as capable as a male rapper. She also criticizes the male rappers of the 1990s who dressed like white gangsters such as Al Capone, maintaining her own superiority by choosing to follow in the legacy of African American female musicians like Nina Simone instead. She enhances her argument throughout this song with her smooth combining of singing and rapping, maintaining an assertive delivery throughout.   

As was mentioned previously, the album was enormously successful, eventually becoming “one of the bestselling rap albums in history, with over 18 million sold” (Bradley & Dubois, 2010, p. 394). To this day, its legacy lives on. The racial themes touched on in the lyrics of the songs are still deeply resonant today, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement entering so strongly into the mainstream. Sonically, the influence of the album on current hip-hop music is especially evident in the popularity of hip-hop fused with other genres. Fugees’ meaningful use of sampling also influenced contemporary artists who experimented with both sonic and thematic elements of samples. In fact, Childish Gambino’s new album Awaken, My Love appears to pay its own tribute to the Fugees on the track entitled “Terrified” (Childish Gambino, 2016, track 8), when he samples Lauryn Hill’s “Ooh La La La” melody from “Fu-Gee-la” (Fugees, 1996, track 6). The rest of his album carries over further inspiration from The Score, especially in Glover’s fusion of hip-hop, soul and pop genres.

This particular instance exhibits the point to which the Fugees developed a newer definition of hip-hop during the mid-nineties. Rather than fearing the plurality of the genre, and of African American music and identity as a whole, they celebrated it. In discussing such an extensive number of racial topics, experimenting with diverse samples of great African American artists, and freely blending multiple genres into their music, these young musicians shone a hopeful light on the disunity of the African American identity.