“I was watching this comedian today,” recalls Wyclef “Clef” Jean — who happens to be the Fugees’ proud, Haitian-blooded, rhyme-sayin’ guitar hero (and the son of a pastor) — “that was talkin’ about rappers, and he said that all they do is ‘grip the mic and grab their dicks.’ We want to show that there’s much more to hip hop than what people think.” The Fugees sound, style and spirit, without question, goes a long way to dispel the stereotypical crotch-grabbing approach to making modern urban melodies. Comprising the other two-thirds of the Fugees’ trinity are Lauryn “L” Hill — a sweet sounding, African-American rapstress whose voice can also carry blissful, strong soul singing — and Prakazrel “Pras” Michel – an amazing verbal acrobat, capable of leaping tall buildings with a single, hip hop tinged syllable. (Pras is Wyclef’s microphone fiending cousin and the son of a church deacon.)

The Fugees have done much to change the movement of hip hop. There is of course, our very first introduction to these cats via their 1993 debut full length, Blunted On Reality. On said debut, the “Tranzlator Crew” (the group’s original name before getting signed) shined a raw blend of earnest, acoustic funkiness that was unheard in the then current age of rap. “The combination is just so ill, so deadly and so powerful,” says Clef, about the incredible concentration of talent that formulates the essence of his band. “This is what hip hop needed for the music to go to the next level where you could pick up a guitar, or sing, and not feel like you’ve gotta front.”

The story, basically, starts off like this: Pras and Lauryn went to the same high school, Pras and Lauryn formed a group and commenced to battling fools left and right. Cousin Clef joined the fold, the crew battled fools from high school to high school, the winner takes everything. Six or so odd years later, the Fugees are in the studio, cutting an album. (The name, “Fugees” is short for refugee, a symbol for the refuge that we each seek in our minds; there’s also the fact that two of the up members are of Haitian descent; since there are so many displaced Haitians who have looked to the United States for political and social asylum, the term “refugee” is sometimes used as a derogatory term for Haitians in general. Either way, the group wears its moniker as a badge of honor.) Before Blunted On Reality, the members of this New Jersey-based, lyric-crafting posse were just three kids who worked, scratched and saved, with a feverish determination, dreaming of the opportunity to one day shock the house till the break of dawn.

“I was fifteen years old, makin’ my little money off the soaps,” replies the sultry, veteran actress Lauryn, who’s been seen in various theatrical productions, including “Sister Act II” opposite Whoopi Goldberg, and, is also currently involved with undergraduate studies at New York’s prestigious Columbia University. When asked about the lean, early, struggling-assed times, Lauryn remembers that “Wyclef was so determined. I used to hit him off with whatever I could every now and then, and he would buy another piece of equipment. Over time, he accumulated a complete studio. “That studio, and the feel that emanates from it, is crucial to the Fugee persona. “We’ve always related to Tuff Gong ,” says Lauryn, who equates and parallels the Fugees’ in-house, basement production slant to that of Bob Marley’s sacred recording place. In the basement is where the Fugee sound began, and today, the basement is where it’s still created even as it reaches out into the world. The Salaam Remi re-mix of “Nappy Heads” (a piece which appeared in authentic Fugee form on Blunted On Reality) became a chart-topping, radio-played hit that helped to sprinkle Fugee logic, in a more conventional way, upon the dancing souls of rap land who weren’t yet ready for their highly skilled sonic refinement. In the meantime, the Fugees toured the globe, perfecting their skills while splashing their ragga-rock & roll flavored, poetic gospel into the minds of new apostles, laying the ground work for their latest album, The Score “It is an audio film is how Lauryn describes the scope of the group’s sophomore long-player. “It’s like how radio was back in the 40’s . . . it tells a story, and there are cuts and breaks in the music. It’s almost like a hip hop version of Tommy like what the Who did for rock & roll.”

The Score is just that — a well scripted and flowing form of ghetto theater that 1996’s prototypical hip hop heads (and red blooded, free thinking music lovers at large) are finally ready for. Heads are checking for the Fugees because they recognize the gift . . . they’ve either witnessed the live Fugees miracle in person, or, they’ve heard from a friend who told two friends who told two friends The Fugees live has the force of Michael Jordan on the court, or Langston Hughes at the typewriter or Malcolm X behind a podium shooting enlightenment to a street corner crowd in Harlem: people watch, they listen, they study, and, ultimately, they’re in awe. Too many rap shows boil down to repetitive on-stage strutting set to tracks. The Fugees, in the tradition of the R&B greats, turn their music into a series of soul-packed epiphanies on-stage.

“At a Fugees show,” boasts the sly tongued, b-boy representer Wyclef, “you could expect the next level. You might see me on the accordion, or the keyboards, you might see L grab a guitar, Pras grab a bass — it’s just gonna be real. I think the Fugees have make a statement in hip hop within the past two years, and we don’t get credit for it. I’ve seen peoples’ shows get a lot better after performing with us.”

The Score (produced by Refugee Camp Productions: Lauryn and Wyclef handling the bulk of the beats, while Prakazrel and his cousin Jerry co-produced), when popped into the playing device of choice, strikes you immediately with the velocity of a comet-fast foul ball knocking out a diamond- entranced baseball voyeur. Old school hip hop DJ and personality Red Alert introduces us to the players and the plot, while also re-appearing here and there only to accent the scenery. Narration, by others, also lashes up here and there only to further guide the moviegoer through the Fugees’ intriguing world view, a view of our world through the eyes of the group’s own reality-drenched cyber-cipher.

The majestic ditties of The Score possess an electric personality. Joints like the group’s first single “FU-GEE-LA” (a space aged scientific cool out rant that floats supreme, vibe-heavy harmony via L’s devastating vocal phrasings), “The Mask” (a seriously satirical, jazzy ragtime-esque tune that addresses our roles as pawns in the game of life, and our need to carry out these roles strictly because of human nature and our need to survive) and “No Woman, No Cry” (an impassioned cover of the Rasta prophet Bob Marley’s classic call for strength) are firm specimens of rhythm commanding long lasting respect, stretching across a spectrum of black musical genres — from revolutionary rap to super slick soul to the easy goin’ chassis of reggae.

After all is said and done, real rap fanatics must agree: the Fugees embody everything that hip hop is supposed to be while maintaining and exercising these elements in the form of a holy musical trinity. The Fugees ARE hip hop: proud, loud, original, sincere, funky fresh (on the beat side), dope (on the rhyme and lyrics side), fearless, beautiful and fearsome. Can I please hear a “yes, yes y’all.?” Fugee-tastic!

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