It’s a story that music has heard before: a group goes their separate ways after an immensely successful album while desperate fans are left hanging in the balance. On February 13, 1996, the Fugees released The Score, the sophomore album would certify the New Jersey-based trio of Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel, as hip-hop’s new super group. But it would also be their final release together.
With the help of producers Jerry Wonder, Salaam Remi, and John Forté , the Fugees delivered a multi-platinum LP that sold 17 million copies worldwide and earned the coveted Best Rap Album Grammy award in 1997.
The Score was recorded in Booga Basement, Wonder’s homemade studio that became a hotbed of rap talents with Redman, Queen Latifah, Rah Digga among its visitors. Wonder, Wyclef’s first cousin, came to the states from Haiti. “My dad moved from Brooklyn and bought a house in East Orange, N.J.,” Woner tells VIBE. “I was staying with Wyclef’s mom and dad and we had to play church music. When my dad moved to Jersey, he bought the house, me and Wyclef and my other brother were so happy because he gave us the basement!”
Remi, a then up-and-coming producer from Queens now known for his work with Nas, Amy Winehouse, and more, started working with the Fugees’ through Jeff Boroughs, the group’s project manager at Columbia Records. Boroughs asked him to remix “Nappy Heads”, off the Fugees’ 1994 debut, Blunted on Reality. After their initial collaboration, Remi produced a Fat Joe beat that Hill asked to keep for The Score. The instrumental became “Fu-Gee-La,” the album’s lead single. “By the time I played the Fat Joe beat in the session, Wyclef wrote that ‘We used to be number 10,’” recalls Remi. “Lauryn went in the booth and sang through a bunch of different choruses, but when she hit on ‘Ooh la la la’ we were like ‘That’s the one right there!’”
Meanwhile, Forté was a 19-year-old aspiring rapper from Brooklyn who put his music career on hold to work behind the scenes. He joined The Score’s production roster via a friendship with Hill that began when he first saw the Fugees perform. He heard about them through a mutual friend at Columbia. “I end up going to see a show while I was still doing A&R at Rawkus Entertainment,” says Forté . “I remember walking into the Supper Club and these instruments, and I’m thinking to myself that I was in the wrong show. I was like, ‘I’m here to see a hip-hop show, why are there instruments on the stage?’ And the guy at the door was like ’It’s a hip-hop show. Trust me.’”
The incorporation of live instrumental and melodies made the Fugees unique, at a time when Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were the hottest rappers in the game. “I saw the show and they blew my mind and afterwards I stuck around,” Forté continues. “I met [Hill] that night, we became fast and immediate friends. We stayed in touch and that was the beginning of a long relationship.”
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Score, VIBE spoke with Remi, Wonder and Forté, about the album that changed hip-hop.
What are some of your first memories of working on The Score?
Salaam Remi: Before they really even had a budget for the second album, we were working on songs for [the Spike Lee film] Clockers. During that session I had the beat for “Fu-Gee-La” and Wyclef had the first verse. We ended up finding a way for me to do that, so I pretty much recorded the song “Fu-Gee-La” before The Score process was even started.
Jerry Wonder: The first Fugees album didn’t really do well and we were like ‘On the next album we’re going to put a band together.’ The whole concept was we wanted to have live music. “The basement” was a platform where the music for all of us young cats just getting in and freestyling. Pras used to live there, I used to live there, Wyclef used to live there and Lauryn was always there. Then John Forté started coming to the “Booga Basement.”
John Forté : I went out to [New] Jersey reluctantly, and I was playing them my beats. It was a tight small little basement [laughs], always crowded, especially at night. And it was packed, like 20 or 30 Haitians in a basement [laughs], either nodding their head or not. The jury would be out really quickly, if I didn’t get the head nod.
What immediately stood out about The Fugees’ work ethic?
Forté : I remember ‘Clef even before I knew him. When I was getting to know Lauryn — they were always in the studio, they were always working. While I may have been in the studio for three months, The Score itself might have been say years in the making, conceptually. It was constant. I just remember us always making music and trying to come up with beats, and just trying to get something special.
Remi: “[Fug-ee-la]” for Wyclef and Pras parts, took a day or two. But Ms. Lauryn Hill recorded her verse for about seven days straight. [She] was a perfectionist, and would always do her vocals over. She would come in day after day and keep recording. Not that she needed to, or anyone knew the difference, but for herself she always wanted to be better. That was part of her process.
What was the creative vibe in the studio?
Forté: The catharsis was in the actual creative process. Day in and day out, it was friendly competition to do better, to be better, it felt like an exercise in just pushing yourself.
Wonder: We were doing hip-hop with great melodies, and the content was great. We weren’t talking about bitches, or none of that. Like every album you buy now, kids can’t even listen to it. The Fugees album, anybody can listen to it. It was from a reality we came from, we were refugees.
What are the separate aspects that each Fugees’ member brought to the table?
Forté: ‘Clef was the visionary, Lauryn was the songbird, the sweet harmonies that made it all makes sense. Pras he’s the guy who was always open to suggestion. He was just willing to play the part, whatever that was. That in itself was tremendous quality.
Remi: If you look at The Score it says executive producer Pras, co-executive producers Wyclef and Lauryn. Pras was the pop ear of the gang. Pras would always look and see ‘Hey is the hook right? Is it strong enough?’ Wyclef was eclectic, Lauryn’s soulful, but Pras was like “Is this a hit?”
Wonder: [Lauryn] was always creative. She would always come up with great things that we would chop up. Everybody played a position, it didn’t just happen by luck. It was a bunch of kids and we all hard our talents.
How did The Score change your careers?
Forte: Me being near that album energetically, pre and post, was monumental. Opportunity-wise, I was able to tour with them. From a personal vantage point, my view, my scope was widened by my participation in the creation of the album.
Wonder: We never knew it was going to be a classic. I’ve produced seven albums for Wylcef, including The Score. That was my way in. Now I’m on my own doing great things.
Remi: It pushed me to the potential of my own effort. From my input, I brought another side of their potential out. I wasn’t just making beats and giving them to them. When we did “Nappy Heads” Wyclef rhymes for 14 minutes and I took certain parts from here and certain parts from there and pieced together his verse. I really helped them show their talent would become huge potential, even on those days when I recorded Lauryn’s verse I would call her ‘Madam Potential’ and she would always get frustrated. After the 50th time I called her that she got mad and said “Potentially what Salaam?” and I looked at her very calmly and said “Potentially the greatest of all time, if you stick with it.”
Do you think The Score’s success contributed to The Fugees break up?
Forte: I can’t speculate on that, the one that I can say is the simple laws of physics say what goes up must come down. And no one, stays on top forever.
Remi: I think that they just had a dynamic between each other that didn’t always fit. Even times when they were doing The Score when it seemed like they weren’t all going to be together as a group. That’s a personal dynamic that’s beyond my realm of knowledge, stuff that’s beyond my studio session. My studio session was about stuff getting done and keeping it moving.
Wonder: Sometimes you have unfinished business, and I’m not talking about numbers. I think the Fugees feel like ‘You didn’t do well by me, but we’re never going to get together and address the elephant in the room.’ Everybody’s still dealing with a lot of ego. Right now, it’s definitely not a money thing. But you never say things are impossible. If the Fugees could just say it’s really about the fans and let the egos go. Life is too short. We rent this world, and people love them.