There is something about ”Fu-Gee-La,” the video for the Fugees’ new Top 40 single, that seems eerily familiar. Is it the lush tropical setting? The blaxploitation visuals? No, it’s that shirt — a shiny black rayon pullover with a huge gold-star applique. In the video, Fugees rapper-producer Wyclef Jean flees The Man while wearing The Shirt, but he’s not the first Caribbean musician to do so. That was seminal rude boy Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come, the film that introduced reggae music to America more than 20 years ago.
”Our album tells the story of rebel music,” says Lauryn ”L” Hill, distaff member and silky vocalist of the New Jersey-based Haitian-American rap trio. ”It was so wicked, the image that Jimmy Cliff had in that movie; he’s a rebel and a musician. Also,” she adds, ”Wyclef looks a lot like him.”
The Fugees are too busy (and too original) to dwell on such comparisons. Three weeks ago their second album, The Score, debuted at No. 12 on Billboard’s Top 200. At press time it was No. 3. The band come to grips with their stunning success by uttering the breathless mantra: ”We’re blowing up bigger than Mariah.”
No kidding. On a recent Monday, the group — whose third member is rapper Prakazrel Michel — played two sold-out shows at New York City’s Tramps. On Wednesday, Black Entertainment Television interviewed them in D.C. On Thursday, The Box followed suit. Friday included back-to-back photo shoots for national magazines. And the following Monday, March 11, marked the start of a 70-day, 36-city tour, during which the band will shoot the video for its hip-hop cover of Roberta Flack’s ’70s classic ”Killing Me Softly With His Song,” another of The Score’s hits — despite its never having been released as a single.
The song’s success has been particularly gratifying for Hill. ”Black radio made it number one,” she says, ”then everyone else jumped on it. There’s a whole generation who have no idea who Roberta Flack is. To see young street hoods bouncing their heads to Roberta, these kids who don’t even dance…”
Hill’s vision of a community brought together by music was manifest at the Tramps shows. It was 1:45 a.m. before the second set began; still, the crowd radiated palpable positive energy. In the attitude of their audiences, as in their mix of Caribbean rhythms, reggae, and rap, the Fugees emerge as hip-hop’s version of the Grateful Dead: a determinedly genial, musically eclectic, unifying force.
”That crowd had a good vibe,” remembers Jean. ”Yes, 500 black people can get together in one place without violence.”
”Our music speaks to the need,” Hill says, ”the longing, for positive music. There’s something missing, and we fill that void.”