No year in hip-hop history sticks out quite like 1996: It marked the height of the East Coast–West Coast feud, the debut of several artists who would rule the next few decades, and the last moment before battle lines between “mainstream” and “underground” were fully drawn. The 1996 Rap Yearbook, a recurring series from The Ringer, will explore the landmark releases and moments from a quarter-century ago that redefined how we think of the genre. Today, we’re exploring the impact of The Fugees’ The Score.
“Ooh la la la,
It’s the way that we rock when we’re doing our thing.
Ooh la la la,
It’s the natural law that the refugees bring.”
It is not often that you encounter music that you know will change the world, but when I first heard “Fu-Gee-La” by the Fugees—sitting in my bedroom at an English boarding school, a 16-year-old listening to late-night radio—I knew what was coming. It reminded me immediately of the journey that my own family had taken, having fled a dictatorship in Uganda in the 1970s to resettle in England. From the opening notes of that song, which would become the anthem of the rest of my youth, I was convinced: This group is about to release classic art. One notable thing about that track and the rest of their seminal second LP, The Score, was that it sounded old. Really old. I was long used to listening to artists who invoked the spirit of previous eras, such as Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan, but the utterly haunting chords and drums on The Score sounded like they had been recorded at the dawn of time. This album sounded Old Testament old, as if it could have been the soundtrack for the Jews when they left Egypt, led by Moses and pursued by a vengeful Pharaoh. Even though the album contains several moments of lightness and outright hilarity, it had the overall air of a dignified and mournful retreat. This was the music, I thought, of people who had either seen or sustained major trauma. Such genius, I believed, could emerge only from a place of pain.
One of my best friends at school didn’t know what was coming, maybe because the key theme at the heart of The Score—how to remain resilient, even as you are being violently displaced—was not a feature of his family’s history. Yet, he came to love the Fugees almost as much as I did, which was testament to the genius of this group. When I listened to Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras, I heard people who were talking about the often melancholic road to freedom. When my friend listened to the Fugees, he was first captured by the irresistible grooves of “Ready or Not” and “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” That’s not to say I was any smarter than my friend; the Fugees had crafted a record from their studio in New Jersey that spoke to people from vastly different backgrounds. It was only after a few days of listening to the rest of the record that my friend came down the corridor and into my room, somewhat concerned. This Fugees record, he said, was actually very dark. It didn’t shy away from unsparing depictions of racism, violent crime, and extreme poverty, each of which was far from anything he or his family had experienced. Over the next few days and weeks, he continued listening, and was captivated by it even more.
There are maybe two main types of political statements in music: the blatant, and the atmospheric. If we are looking at the blatant statement, then we might consider something like Public Enemy, with their 1990 record “Fear of a Black Planet”—a work whose cry for liberation screamed from every verse, every visual. Then there is the atmospheric, where the work creates an environment so beguiling that, at first, you don’t understand that you are being summoned to join some kind of revolution. The Score is atmospheric, and that is why it mattered so much when it came out 25 years ago and still does today.
The Score matters because there are places where the blatant political statement, extremely effective as it is, cannot go. When I was 12, I was at a fairly conservative school where a Black friend was ordered to remove his Malcolm X T-shirt by a member of the staff. As my friend retreated to his bedroom to change, the staff member offered her verdict on the civil rights activist. “Horrible man,” she scoffed. However, if she had seen a T-shirt bearing the faces of the Fugees, she might not even have looked twice, even though their underlying message was just as radical as so many of Malcolm X’s speeches. The Fugees disguised resistance as art, the same way that enslaved Africans once hid martial arts from their colonial masters by pretending that they were a dance.
They needed this disguise all the more, particularly because—as historian and professor Tricia Rose has observed—this was an era when major radio stations and media outlets were aggressively promoting hip-hop that celebrated materialism, which generally made it harder for music with the content of The Score to cut through. So much of that period featured feuds that were aggressively stoked by outsiders, especially by media outlets seeking controversy: It is poignant to remember that, even at the height of the supposed Cold War between the East Coast and the West Coast, rappers from both of those areas hung out with each other—Pras, a friend of Tupac’s, was in touch with him shortly before the rapper was murdered. That the Fugees managed to fight their way through that toxic fog, and to show the world that their style of hip-hop was commercially viable—it sold 22 million copies worldwide—is an understated part of their legacy.
At the core of the Fugees’ resistance was their assertion that, contrary to most current and historical narratives, it was cool to be a refugee. The name of their group, chosen to honor the Haitian heritage of Pras and Wyclef, suggested that a refugee was an outlaw, a warrior-spirit; the name of the album, The Score, implied that the act of fleeing one’s country for another was as daring as carrying out a heist at a heavily guarded casino. (If anything, it is much more so.) This reframing of escape as a courageous act rather than a cowardly one spoke to those times, and it speaks to ours now.
When the Fugees released The Score, the West had just witnessed—and, if we are being honest, refused to prevent—two of the most horrifying human rights abuses in recent memory, both of which had led to the mass exodus of people from their homelands. In just a few weeks in 1994, hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered by their fellow citizens—in many cases, their neighbors—in Rwanda. In 1995, over the course of just 12 days, the same thing happened to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. In the global consciousness, the stock of the refugee was therefore particularly low—people in conflict zones were meant to be killed and not heard. The Score arrived in that world, defiant and unashamed, daring and endlessly epic.
If we fast-forward to the present day, we see that the position of the refugee is similar, perhaps worse. When war came to Syria in 2011, the thousands of people who escaped were largely seen as part of a crisis, their suffering portrayed as a burden for the countries they ran to rather than a tragedy. When those people, along with others fleeing horror of similar intensity in Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, started drowning in huge numbers as they attempted treacherous trips to Europe, the response of much of the European media and politicians was merely to mock them. In the most infamous case, a British tabloid referred to refugees as “cockroaches”—a description which drew a horrified rebuke from the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, who compared it to language used by the Nazis.
The Score recast these people, the most disposable of all humans, as mythical figures. “I, refugee from Guantanamo Bay / Dance around the border, like I’m Cassius Clay,” raps Pras on “Ready or Not.” And this album did not portray images of gentle souls, either. These were not the type of refugees who would arrive in a new country and live quietly and fearfully in their buildings, hoping that no one paid them too much attention. In other words, the Fugees were not “good immigrants.” Their work was a blend of heavenly melody and lethal wit. As Hill put it, they were “sweet like licorice, dangerous like syphilis.” Even their heritage was radical, with Wyclef hailing from Haiti—a nation long maligned for its poverty, but which in the early 19th century was the home of the world’s first successful revolt against enslavers.
The more I think about it, the more I feel that The Score wasn’t so much an album as a piece of found footage, discovered in a cave in a perfect state of preservation. A rich blend of soul, dancehall, rap, and reggae, it seems as timeless as hieroglyphics. The album cover art displays the faces of the three Fugees as if they were stars of a Blaxploitation film, and the record itself follows the format of a movie, even opening and closing with a credit sequence, joyously and raucously called out by Kool DJ Red Alert.
This instant classic was the Fugees’ final album, and while some might lament their short career, it is worth asking how much further they could have gone. By several accounts, their personalities were destined to be in perfect balance for only the briefest time. Yet what personalities they were: Wyclef, the dreamer; Lauryn, the warrior; Pras, the guardian. And what skills they had; their lyrics blessed with the deceptive simplicity of Aesop’s Fables, and Lauryn’s flow so elegant that it was seemingly engineered by Mercedes-Benz. Hill’s masterful singing sent the Fugees into the stratosphere, allowing her group to soar beyond the reaches of rival rap crews who could not hit the same notes as she could. Decades before the ubiquity of the MC who could also croon, she could channel the greatness of Nina Simone and Rakim in the same set.
If anything, Lauryn Hill is still somewhat underrated. Twenty-five years later, hip-hop still has not seen a performer as accomplished in all areas of vocal delivery. It is ironic that an album as cinematic as The Score would end up being a mere trailer for her debut solo record, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which won five of the 10 Grammys for which it was nominated. It even went one better than The Score, claiming the award for Best Album, the first hip-hop album to do so.
Yet, in truth, neither The Score nor Miseducation were mere hip-hop albums. They were cultural artifacts from the moment they reached the ears of their listeners. There are few other records in history that could grace a barbecue, a dancefloor, and the forefront of a revolution. There are almost no others that, when heard by a Black person in an overwhelmingly racist environment, would give them not only a sense of comfort but superiority to those who were oppressing them. This was an album so infectious that my friends and I knew each of its skits line for line. It became such a part of our everyday language that I would ask my cousin, “How many mics do we rip on the daily?” and she would instantly reply, “Many, money, say, me say many, many, many.”
Recently, I was told that my father’s favorite song was Jimmy Cliff’s “Hard Road to Travel,” whose message about perseverance under pressure makes it something of a spiritual ancestor to “Fu-Gee-La.” Learning this, it struck me how much of a sense of struggle the children of refugees can inherit from their parents. It also struck me how many artists, in turn, can claim The Score as an ancestor to their work. It’s hard, for example, to listen to the politically charged dancefloor-fillers delivered from the early 2000s onward by the Canadian rapper k-os—most notably, his song “Superstarr Pt. Zero”—without thinking of the Fugees’ remarkable second LP. French duo Les Nubians cited them as a major influence. Hill’s richly introspective writing created greater space for acts such as Floetry, whose compelling blend of soul and spoken word took them to five Grammy nominations. More recently, the German rap group BSMG have produced Platz an der Sonne (A Place in the Sun), a 2017 masterpiece that tackles the same grand subjects as The Score—police brutality, colonialism, Black liberation—with a similarly thrilling energy.
Twenty-five years since its creation, I am more sure than ever that The Score is an astonishing political statement. Yet its greatest achievement, I think, is its ability to unite the mind and the waistline in a way rarely seen since the days of Bob Marley; and, with its bewitching blend of joy and lament, to smuggle the desire for revolution across the borders of our otherwise reluctant souls.