Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 56, we’re breaking down all things Lauryn Hill and the Fugees.
Lauryn Hill was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1975. She knew what she wanted to be early on, and I’m guessing she knew what everyone else wanted her to be even earlier. Here she is in 1988, about to do Amateur Night at the Apollo.
Sing for us. Yeah. Then Lauryn gets booed.
This clip resurfaces periodically and triggers a bunch of blog posts, some with the headline, “Young Lauryn Hill Gets Booed Offstage,” but as author, critic, and fellow podcaster Hanif Abdurraqib noted awhile back, young Lauryn Hill for sure does not get booed offstage. She gets booed, quite robustly, but she guts it out and finishes the song, to equally robust applause.
Fast-forward three years to 1991, and 16-year-old Lauryn Hill has joined the cast of CBS soap opera As the World Turns, playing the role of Kira Johnson, a troubled young runaway who falsely accuses Scottish adventurer Duncan McKechnie of making sexual advances toward her at the Earl Mitchell Center. Yes, that Duncan McKechnie, the fan-favorite As the World Turns character who faked his own death from 1981 to 1986—that was an actual plotline on this show? What was he doing for five years?—broke out of jail in ’87, and was found not guilty of murder later in ’87, and anyway it turns out that guy wasn’t even dead. Thank you to Soapcentral.com for that information, which I’m sure is entirely accurate. Here’s Kira singing “You Who Brought Me Love” at—I believe this is Duncan McKechnie’s wedding, actually. One of Duncan’s three marriages. This clip is worth seeking out just for the half-dozen fraught melodramatic soap-opera gazes exchanged between various tremulous As the World Turns characters as Kira is singing. This show was on the air for 54 years. Roberta Flack had sung “You Who Brought Me Love” on her 1988 album Oasis, by the way. I think it’s fair to say Lauryn does Roberta justice, and not for the last time.
Fast-forward three years and Lauryn Hill, a.k.a. L Boogie, has joined an adventurous teenage hip-hop trio called the Fugees. As in refugees. Also featuring Haitian singer-rapper-producer Wyclef Jean and his singer-rapper-producer cousin Pras. The first Fugees record, released in 1994 when Lauryn was 18, is called Blunted on Reality, and it stinks. Well, OK. I had a remarkably severe adverse reaction to Blunted on Reality the first time I heard it, I think because it only occasionally sounds like the Fugees as the larger world would come to know and love and I suppose mourn them, or more to the point it only occasionally seems to sound like the Fugees themselves heard themselves.
Two years later, in 1996, Lauryn, Wyclef, and Pras are gonna be on the cover of Rolling Stone with the headline “ARE THE FUGEES THE FUTURE OF ROCK & ROLL?”—I remember being mildly scandalized by that headline when I was 18—and in that cover story Wyclef will lament that on Blunted on Reality, their label masters and producers did not understand what the group was going for at all, especially when it came to Wyclef’s vocal style. Wyclef says he was told, “‘You got to be more aggressive. You got to scream. Listen to Onyx.’” End quote. Yes, the Onyx that did “Slam.” So here we have Wyclef Jean, in 1994, on a song called “Nappy Heads,” trying to rap the hook like he’s in Onyx. The original version of “Nappy Heads.” Not the remix. Alas.
You know Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck,” the classic GZA line “Who’s your A&R, a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar”? I quote that all the time. I can just picture the Fugees’ early A&R guy, fumbling through “Foxy Lady” on a Fender Stratocaster atop Mount Rainier, before calling up Wyclef on a chunky satellite phone and being like, You should rap like the dudes in Onyx. Just stupendous artist mismanagement. No wonder these people don’t trust anybody else. I have come to appreciate the Blunted on Reality record for those moments when the Fugees transcend their circumstances and ignore everyone else in the room. The far more celebrated “Nappy Heads” remix, for example, produced by Salaam Remi. The “Mona Lisa” version. Here’s what Wyclef sounds like when he’s not goaded into grabbing the mic in a rage.
And here comes Lauryn Hill. The chemistry, and really even the volatility between Wyclef, Lauryn, and Pras is crucial to the Fugees’ greatness—I’m not here to play favorites, I’m not here to be the billionth person to insist that she was the immediate breakout star and should’ve gone solo immediately. Because that was already happening, that kinda talk, after their first record. What I will say is, especially by comparison, Lauryn does sound fully formed from the start. There’s no warmup, no gestation period, no sitting around waiting for her to come into her own. Ignoring dopey A&R suggestions came as naturally to her as everything else did.
“Vocab” is another great song on Blunted on Reality. The beat’s mostly just Wyclef on acoustic guitar; it’s simple, it’s perfect, it knocks you over with a feather. It’s the Fugees. Plus, once again, the remix is even better.
Let it be known that Lauryn Hill was rapping “People think they really know me” and “I pay the toll fighting for my own soul” before she even got famous. Blunted on Reality flopped. Didn’t sell. Didn’t get great reviews. Didn’t succeed. Not shocking. Not a bad thing in the long run. It succeeded, really, in the sense that it did just well enough that the Fugees knew not to make another record like it, but they still got to make another record. Which they called The Score. As in, it’s time to settle the score. The Score came out on the day before Valentine’s Day in 1996; hit no. 1 on the Billboard album chart; reigned as the bestselling rap album of all time for a while there; eventually sold 22 million copies worldwide; and made Wyclef, Pras, and especially Lauryn super famous. Suddenly they were the future of rock ’n’ roll.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.