"How Life Changed," XXL's Feature on The Fugee's Rise & Fall [March 2011 Excerpt]

February 13, 2011 | 10:00am EST


Despite the 4,000-square-foot SoHo loft, a collection of watches worth millions and his stack of platinum plaques, Prakazrel Samuel Michel can't always get what he wants. On a crisp December day, the 38-year-old MC is having lunch at Lovely Day, a Thai restaurant a few blocks from his apartment, and they've run out of pineapple juice. He accepts this imperfect outcome--and a glass of orange juice--just as he's accepted more consequential and disappointing results. Some things, like the breakup of his former supergroup, The Fugees, are out of his hands.

It's been 15 years since The Fugees released The Score, a seminal album that sold over 17 million units worldwide. The breakout sophomore effort calcified the members of the New Jersey trio with roles they would never truly escape: Lauryn Hill was the beautiful and exquisitely gifted singer and rapper, Wyclef Jean was the visionary producer and musician, and Pras was the catalyzing force that helped complete the circle. The group's future appeared limitless, but their stunning success was not to last--at least not in the way most fans had hoped. Over the last decade and a half, The Fugees and their Refugee Camp crew have been cleaved apart by romantic entanglements, rifts between childhood friends, jealousy and incarceration. Despite substantial achievements as solo artists and temporary reunions, The Fugees never recorded another LP as a group and essentially broke up the whole camp.

The Fugees' story has it all: unprecedented achievement, wrenching drama and, more than anything, a nagging sense of squandered opportunity. Pras is willing to tell it. "When it was great, it was great," he says, digging into an order of mixed vegetables over rice. He rocks a dark G-Star stocking cap and a puffy blue Le Tigre bomber, with tags still dangling from the label, and looks part aging hip-hop head, part downtown fashion horse. "[But] I felt like we didn't really reach our maximum potential. We could have been basically what The Beatles were, what U2 is right now. We felt like we could have done that." There's a tone of resigned acceptance here. "But variables come in that you can't control."

Raised in suburban South Orange, New Jersey, Lauryn Hill was a natural performer. The daughter of a management consultant and an English teacher, who had respective talents as a vocalist and a pianist Lauryn, spent her childhood replicating routines from Michael Jackson and the musical Annie. In the eighth grade, she was introduced to Pras through a friend named Marcy. Pras, then a sophomore at Columbia High School in nearby Maplewood, New Jersey, was a Brooklyn-born rapper whose family had relocated to Newark when he was 12. In 1989, he invited Lauryn to join him and Marcy in their group, Tyme.
Pras had first met Nel Ust Wyclef Jean in the mid-1980s, when the pair were in a church band together at ages 11 and 14, respectively. ("We were, like, best friends from that point on," says Pras.) Both were Haitian kids who loved hip-hop and rock 'n' roll but were from religious families that frowned on secular music. Born in Haiti, Wyclef had immigrated to Brooklyn with his family at age nine, and then to New Jersey at 13. His father was a Nazarene preacher, but the church alone couldn't contain Wyclef's musical gifts. "'Clef was always a star," says Melky Jean, his younger sister. "When other kids were out there selling drugs and stealing cars, he was inside playing the piano, playing the guitar, writing songs."
At the end of 1989, Wyclef asked to join the group. Pras brought him aboard but warned the older MC not to get too close or friendly with the girls. After Marcy split in 1990, the remaining trio renamed themselves The Fugees (Tranzlator Crew) in a nod to their shared Haitian "refugee" lineage. Roles were defined: Pras was the organizational number cruncher (Wyclef describes him now, somewhat derisively, as the group's "Damon Dash"), Wyclef was the music whiz, and Lauryn was the young prodigy. Wyclef recalls supplying her with albums from Queen Latifah and MC Lyte while working to sculpt her into an MC. "I taught Lauryn how to rhyme," he says over the phone in mid-December from his New Jersey home. "I was sort of like a monk in a karate movie, and Lauryn was a potential-killer, master type."

Pras and Wyclef were not alone in respecting Lauryn's talent. In middle school, she landed a recurring role as a teen runaway on the soap opera As the World Turns, but stood out when she was cast alongside Whoopi Goldberg in 1993's Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. "There was no doubt we were going to be big," says Pras. "The lethal weapon we had was Lauryn. She added a dynamic that no one had seen: a girl who looked good, could sing, could rap. No one had that."

Mentored by Khalis Bayyan of Kool & the **** the group hit the studio and began working on a demo tape. Their grind knew few limits. In 1989, they even auditioned in the Big Beat office for a hip-hop musical based on Shakespeare. "They came in with a boom box and did a whole routine, dancing, rapping and singing," says Stretch Armstrong, a DJ who hosted The Fugees on WKCR's The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show. "It was funny, because they were this explosion of chutzpah in a one-room small office, with only four to five people watching."

After The Fugees signed a production deal with David Sonenberg's DAS Communications management company, their demo landed at Ruffhouse Records, a small label distributed by Columbia Records. Founded in 1988 by Chris Schwartz and Joe Nicolo, Ruffhouse's roster included Kriss Kross and Cypress Hill. Around 1992, label executives met The Fugees in Sonenberg's office and were treated to a spectacle. "Wyclef was in his underwear, sweat dripping from his nose, standing on his guitar amp," says Nicolo. "I sat there with my arms crossed and said, 'I don't like it... I love it.'" The Fugees soon inked a deal with Ruffhouse.
Despite everyone's enthusiasm, the trio didn't take the world by storm. Their 1994 debut, Blunted on Reality, sold less than 300,000 copies to date, and the lead single, "Boof Baf," was forgettable. L-Boogie, however, appeared to be a blossoming star. Some suggested she dump her bandmates and embark on a solo career. Ruffhouse battled to keep Columbia from dropping the group.

Still, reason for optimism was found in the remix for "Nappy Heads," the group's second single. Produced by Salaam Remi, a beatmaker equally adept at crafting both East Coast boom-bap and reggae hits, the reboot turned a clattering track into a silky song with a melodic hook. "[The remix] saved our lives," says Pras. "If that record didn't come out, we would have been dead. That record also helped us build our confidence and helped identify who we wanted to be."

Despite struggling commercially, the group laid important groundwork for future success. Touring turned them into polished performers and tireless promoters--Wyclef was a constant presence in Columbia's offices and haunted New York City radio station Hot 97 like a wraith. "I've never seen a group that was so into their self-campaigning," says Schwartz. "It wasn't a type of thing when we got The Score and were dropping a totally unknown group. The wheels were already greased."

Armed with a better idea of what resonated with audiences, The Fugees began recording The Score in an East Orange, New Jersey, studio dubbed the Booga Basement. Located beneath a house owned by Wyclef's uncle, it became a crucible for local Jersey hip-hop talent such as Redman, Rah Digga and Pacewon of the Outsidaz and even Akon, who was almost a decade away from his 2004 hit "Locked Up." It was an atmosphere where ideas were as communicable as the common cold. "The Outsidaz are known for being battle rappers," says Rah Digga. "Once we started hanging together, some of that battle chic started coming out in them."

Outside the subterranean corridors of the Booga Basement, few foresaw The Score's unparalleled success. The first two tracks, released in early 1996--the single "Fu-Gee-La" and its B-side, "How Many Mics"--ratcheted up interest in the group but gave little indication of the impending explosion. After the LP's February 13, 1996, release, the next single, "Killing Me Softly," sent everything into overdrive. Over minimalist drums from A Tribe Called Quest's "Bonita Applebaum," Lauryn remade Roberta Flack's 1973 love song, with Wyclef ad-libs. The record struck No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart and won a 1997 Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. The LP won Best Rap Album that same year. "What it said to people all over the world was that hip-hop matters," says Flack. "Here we are, 15 years later, still talking about The Fugees, and the reason is the song is a classic."

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