Lots of non-hip-hop fans groove to their complex beat, but they’ll tell you their roots are firmly in the ‘hood.
The quickest way to unsettle a member of the Fugees is to suggest that the trio’s soulful, stripped-down sound--devoid of the worn-out P-Funk samples, directionless boasts, cheap misogyny and caviar dreams that characterize much of today’s rap--relegates the New Jersey group to the genre of “alternative hip-hop.”
“Listen, there’s nothing alternative about us,” says rapper Prakazrel Michel, not masking his contempt for a term that suggests the music appeals only to a fringe rather than the heart of the hip-hop audience.
“If we were truly ‘alternative,’ brothers in the ‘hood wouldn’t be getting with our music,” he continues. “You got heads right now pumping [to our music] in their Jeeps. That’s the test to me, man.
“It’s one thing to be on the radio, but when they turn off that radio and put in your tape, that’s when you know you have universal respect. You got the Mobb Deep fans loving it and the Red Hot Chili Peppers fans loving it. . . . That’s mass appeal.”
Since the Fugees’ 1994 debut album, “Blunted on Reality,” sold only modestly, the group caught the pop world off guard when its second album, “The Score,” recently broke into the top five in just its second week on the charts--a lofty position the album maintains after five weeks.
The Fugees’ new single, “Fugee-La,” has already gone gold (500,000 sales) with heavy MTV play of the video just starting to kick in. Radio programmers have jumped all over the album, playing various tracks (especially the group’s spirited remake of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song”) as if it were the latest Babyface project. The trio’s shows tonight and Monday at the House of Blues are sold out.
More important than sales, however, is the individuality of the music. Unlike P.M. Dawn, Spearhead, Digable Planets, Arrested Development or other critically acclaimed but commercially cold acts in the alternative hip-hop contingent, the Fugees have been able to inject unique elements into their music without sacrificing the gritty touches that appeal to their hard-core hip-hop fan base.
By redefining the creative center of hip-hop, the trio is stepping out as the freshest and possibly most important progressive hip-hop act since De La Soul taught rappers back in 1989 that you could make interesting and successful music without relying on venomous stares and snarling poses.
“People are recognizing our sound on a mainstream level, but we are not making mainstream music,” Michel, 24, says. “I’m not making Vanilla Ice music, but we’re getting just as much attention as Vanilla Ice.”
The Fugees--keyboardist Michel (whose stage name is Pras), guitarist Wyclef “Clef” Jean and singer Lauryn Hill--came together eight years ago in East Orange, N.J. The name is short for “Refugee,” which refers both to Michel’s and Jean’s Haitian backgrounds and their unique place in hip-hop.
“The name speaks about our heritage, but all people of African descent, be they American, Jamaican, Cuban or whatever, are refugees,” Jean, 26, explains. “If you came to this country on a boat, you’re a refugee . . . and we all came here like that.”
On the same topic, Hill, 20, adds: “But we also call ourselves Fugees ‘cause we seek refuge in our music. Everybody is seeking refuge from something . . . their jobs . . . the ghetto, whatever.”
Cousins Michel and Jean (pronounced gee-ON) started performing as teenagers in New Jersey rap and R&B; groups, against the wishes of their fathers--church officials who tried to keep them from listening to any secular music. But it was impossible to avoid hearing the R&B; and hip-hop records that bombarded the streets of their childhood.
In fact, hip-hop music helped the pair bridge the cultural gaps they faced as young Haitians, especially Jean, who immigrated from Haiti in his early teens. (Michel was born in Brooklyn and Hill, the group’s non-Haitian, is a New Jersey native.)
While Michel’s and Jean’s fathers are proud of their accomplishments, they still don’t exactly condone their sons’ musical careers despite the uplifting messages of the songs.
“To them it’s pagan music,” Michel says. “Anything that has nothing to do with God is devil music for them.”
Hip-hop, as it happens, probably saved Michel from becoming involved with the truly evil activities in his neighborhood--ones that consumed many of his friends. Despite his sheltered home life and his keen intelligence (he scored a 1350 on his SAT as a high school junior and was accepted to both Yale and Rutgers, opting for the latter), he went through a confusing period as a teenager when he ran with local gangs.
“I’ve had a gun put in my mouth while someone threatened to pull the trigger, and I’ve been shot at and all that,” Michel says without a glimmer of pride. “I was so stupid, fighting for a block that I didn’t even own, getting shot at and being near a lot of my friends when they got killed.
“I got lucky, because God felt like that wasn’t my true role. I’m not gonna rap about that, like a lot of other rappers do in the name of ‘keeping it real.’ If you went through Vietnam and have flashbacks, you don’t always want to talk about that stuff. I just want to live, be happy and chill.”
Jean entered the music business with his own group, Exact Change. When Michel later formed a group with Hill, Jean sat in on a studio session and was so impressed that he joined them in what became the Fugees.
Even though the debut album didn’t explode on the charts, the group refused to sacrifice its vision and emulate the styles of hit hip-hop acts. To support the combination of urban realism and social consciousness that fuels its themes, the group stuck to its raw but melodic mix of strong raps, harmony-rich choruses and live instrumentation.
On the new album, the music resonates with a potent mix of fluid bass lines, taut kick drums, Spanish-style acoustic guitar and other influences, including a touch of doo-wop and reggae.
“We’re trying to bring that Tuff Gong feel back,” Hill says, referring to Bob Marley’s famous reggae label. “We want to make music for the kids that grew up like us. Some people might think, ‘They play instruments, so we can make this group more accessible to white folks.’
“But we’re not going for that alternative label. All we’re trying to do is bring musicality back to the ‘hood . . . a raw essence that’s been lost.”
The Fugees play tonight at 9 and Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Sold out. (213) 650-1451.
Hear the Fugees
To hear excerpts from the Fugees’ album “The Score,” call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5727.
In 805 area code, call (818) 808-8463.