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Rhymes of Passion

"It's kinda hectic, man," says Wyclef "Clef" Jean, rapper, songwriter and sonic engineer for the Fugees. "A lot of things are going on."

And, Jean should have added, those things are pretty damn nice--the kinds of things that happen only to a band experiencing its commercial breakthrough. The Fugees' first long-player, Blunted on Reality, received primarily positive reviews and mild sales success upon its 1994 release, but that response is nothing compared with what's happened since their latest disc, The Score, arrived in CD-store racks a month ago. The new album is considerably more adventurous than the band's debut--a fact that, given the ultra-conservative nature of the music environment right now, might be seen as a commercial negative. But, shockingly enough, the Fugees (Jean, Prakazrel "Pras" Michel and Lauryn Hill) are being rewarded, rather than punished, for taking some risks. Powered by the cannily seductive single "Fu-Gee-La," The Score became one of the ten best-selling albums in the country in only its second week of life. What's more, the breadth and depth of the material on it suggest that the platter won't be doing an instantaneous disappearing act, like the majority of rap long-players. Careers in hip-hop aren't noted for their longevity, so it's impossible to state with certainty that this trio will be with us for the long haul. But the odds of survival look good--because, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, the Fugees aren't a gimmick. There's substance in their grooves.

Moreover, this is the rare hip-hop combo that can actually perform its music live. Jean, a skilled guitarist, insists upon that. "The old-time groups, like Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and the Gang, were real--they weren't put together by someone," he insists. "Those guys could really sing and they could really play music, whereas a lot of groups today are just pasted together. But the Fugees aren't pasted together."

The quality of a band's work means little to record-company types, of course; they're more interested in keeping the nation's cash registers ka-chinging on a regular basis. However, the good notices earned by the Fugees for their music and their live shows appear to be adding fuel to a hype juggernaut that will either lift them to new heights or leave them in tatters by the side of the road. Jean lists the latest demands on his time in a voice that's equal parts excitement and weariness: "Even as we speak, we're shooting four hours' worth of footage for The Box [a popular video service], and then tomorrow we're shooting a video for 'Cowboys,' one of the songs on the album, and after that, we're shooting another video, for 'Killing Me Softly.' And we're doing a remix of 'Killing Me Softly,' too."

And on top of that, the group has just returned from lunch with the president of Ruffhouse, their record company. Such an invitation is only proffered to combos that have been identified as priorities, and Jean knows it. "We expected things to move a little slower," he admits. "We weren't really expecting this. It's enormous."

It's also an indication that there's a vast public hungry for hip-hop that dares to explore subject matter other than drive-by shootings, gang funerals and hoisting forties with your homies. The Fugees are certainly capable of creating such narratives, but they've also got other experiences from which to draw. Michel was once a philosophy major at Rutgers, and Hill, an actress who appeared in the Whoopi Goldberg movie Sister Act 2, is juggling rap and studies at Columbia University. According to Jean, these life histories help them to explode the usual cliches. "See, we feel that blacks in general are really intelligent, but there are these stereotypes about us--especially rappers," he points out. "We're all supposed to have bad attitudes, and we're not supposed to be able to play instruments. All we do is walk around holding our microphones and holding our crotches, right? But that's not right, and when you listen to our album, you know it."

Not all of the words on The Score are especially fresh: Witness "How Many Mics," a familiar boasting opus brimming with lines like, "You loop over and over/Claiming that you've got a new style/Your attempts are futile/You're puerile/Your brain waves are sterile/You can't create/You just wait to take." But in addition to its predictable gibes, the number overflows with enjoyably incongruous references--to Tommy Mottola, John Travolta, Alec Baldwin and even the forgotten 1984 Corey Hart hit "Sunglasses at Night." Later, on "Ready or Not," a tale that deals in part with urban violence, Hill chants a lyric that speaks even more eloquently about the Fugees' contrary approach. "While you're imitating Al Capone," she intones, "I'll be Nina Simone."

In conversation, Jean doesn't skewer gangsta cliches quite so explicitly. He recognizes that rap buyers have certain litmus tests that they use to determine a recording's worth, and street credibility remains one of them. Hence he makes a special effort to say, "Everything that we do started off on the streets, you understand? It's the street vibe.

"But we do other things, too. We're the first rap group in history where we're still seen as being a street band even though we've got a guitar player who's really playing. A kid who listens to a hardcore band like Mobb Deep will still listen to the Fugees."

Others will find the Fugees an intriguing blend of diverse cultures. The son of a minister, Jean was born in Haiti and moved to Brooklyn at age nine. A few short years later, he began making music with Michel, his cousin; Hill, a New York native who was then a freshman at the high school Michel was attending, eventually made the group a threesome. Before long, the Fugees--a slang term for "refugee" that they adopted after ditching their original moniker, Tranzlator Crew--had inked with Ruffhouse/ Columbia. Blunted on Reality appeared a short time later, and "Nappy Heads," a single with shouted hooks and a good-time feel, received considerable airplay. But the album as a whole wasn't easily distinguishable from the mass of hip-hop releases. It was diverting, and interludes such as "Da Kid From Haiti" hinted at a more personal vision, but the production, by a series of industry pros, was of the cookie-cutter variety.

That's not the case on The Score, on which the Fugees took the production reins. "I feel it's my job to produce things that are going to the next level," Jean says--and to that end, he's built on the accomplishments of rap pioneers. The film-strip "bongs" that sound between several cuts immediately call to mind a similar effect on De La Soul's classic 3 Feet High & Rising; likewise, the Fugees' eclectic musical influences have much in common with De La's. "Zealots," for example, borrows the melody from the Flamingos oldie "I Only Have Eyes for You," while the Hill-sung recasting of "Killing Me Softly" should strike anyone who loathed the Roberta Flack original as an extremely pleasant surprise. Just as vital is the disc's overall sheen. Jean, assisted by Michel, constructs a sound that uses live instrumentation and clever samples in a singular manner. The Score is rich, spacy and continuously captivating--one of the few hip-hop CDs that actually rewards headphone listening.

The words, meanwhile, are piled on thick and sometimes ring with a political subtext. But even "The Beast," an anti-police-brutality yarn, takes time out for quirky images (including a reference to "that tall kid Mutombo"). The Fugees don't hector, and neither do they shoot for the lowest common denominator. "We aren't trapped by formula because we're dealing with three very different entities here," Jean notes. "You have Lauryn, who's very soulful, so she brings that part of our thing. And then you have me--I'm Caribbean mixed with hip-hop. And Pras has that background, too, but he comes at it in a really different way. It's the combination that makes us untouchable, you know?"

That may be true, but Jean isn't taking the Fugees' chemistry for granted. He's smart enough to know that simply making a strong record isn't a guarantee of perpetual prosperity. That's why he plans to do every video and make every public appearance he can in order to lay a foundation for the future. And if the president of Ruffhouse wants to take him to lunch, well, where's the menu? "We're trying not to lose touch with reality," he says. "Even if we start selling millions of albums, we want to keep our core audience. Because not everyone who buys our album is going to be faithful. So we want to please our real listeners. That's who we fight for every day."

The Fugees, with the Roots and Goodie Mob. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $21, 830-TIXS or 447-0095.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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