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Black Music Month Album Appreciation: 25 Years After the Fugees’ ‘The Score’ with Wyclef Jean

In honor of Black Music Month, Billboard has highlighted several seminal music albums that defined the last quarter-century: Drake’s Take Care, Rick Ross’ Port of Miami and Survivor by Destiny’s Child. Billboard wraps the series by riding the time machine back to 1996 and the release of the Fugees’ second and last studio album, The Score.

Critically acclaimed as one of the greatest albums of the ’90s — and certified by the RIAA as 7x platinum — The Score illuminates the disruptive, alternative magic that was the Fugees: Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel. The hip-hop trio birthed the project inside Booga Basement, the New Jersey-based home studio established by Jean’s cousins, brothers Renel and Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis. In addition to writing and producing the album themselves along with Wonda, the Fugees collaborated with other producers such as Salaam Remi, Diamond D and Shawn King.

Peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for four consecutive weeks, The Score reigned for eight weeks at No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Three popular singles were spun off: “Fu-Gee-La,” “Ready or Not” and the group’s intriguing cover of Roberta Flack’s 1973 classic “Killing Me Softly,” largely sung solo by Hill. Earning a Grammy Award nomination for album of the year, The Score later won two statuettes in 1997 for best rap album and best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocal (“Killing Me Softly”).

Billboard recently caught up with Fugees co-founder Wyclef Jean in Cannes, France where he was serving as the Entertainment Lions for Music jury president at the 2021 Cannes Lions Awards (June 21-25). Currently president and chief strategy officer for Sodo Mood Lab, Global, his new music tech app, Jean is busy working on another score: this time for Showtime’s hit drama series The Chi, which premiered its new season on May 23.

Wyclef Jean
Wyclef Jean Heads Music

Reflecting on The Score’s impact 25 years later, Jean notes simply of its genesis, “All we would do was catch the fire every night.”

Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of The Score. What’s the first memory that comes to mind about the album?

The first memory I think of is the Booga Basement Studio and my aunt, who is Jerry Wonda’s mother, cooking upstairs while me, Pras, Lauryn, Jerry and John Forté [vocals, producer] are cooking in the Basement with excitement.

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How would you describe the vibe then as the Fugees stepped into the studio to record?

The best way to explain the vibe was like when I watched [behind-the-scenes film] of Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. They used to have the artists working in the studio with them. And for me, this felt like I was in the studio with Nina Simone, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Guns N’ Roses and Thelonious Monk. All we would do was catch the fire every night.

What was the group’s creative mindset? Had you put together most of the songs beforehand or was a lot of the project born in the studio?

Our creative mindset was like water, like Bruce Lee. We just let it flow. The synergy [on the album] speaks volumes. If Lauryn came with a concept, we all went in like we want to take a rocket to the moon. Same for Pras, same for me. It was just a perfect musical star.

One of my greatest memories was a time in Japan when we were touring on behalf of the album. We were drinking saké for the first time and thought it was water. We were getting ready to perform “Ready or Not” and we were looking for Pras. He kept drinking so much that he ended up toppling over to the ground. It was crazy. We didn’t know it was going to have that effect on us.

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When was the moment you knew the album was going to take off?

We were in Europe on tour and they told us the album was doing great in America, climbing the Billboard chart. [Editor’s Note: The album entered the Billboard 200 at No. 12, shot to No. 7 in its second week and jumped to No. 3 in its third week.] Then we realized we were doing better than we thought. I would say we were a bit clueless [at first]. We knew the album would do well but not explode like it did.

When did you last listen to the album?

Before I started to score season four of The Chi for Lena Waithe this year, I listened to The Score. I wanted to get in a timeless head space.

Why did The Score become such a creative and resonating influence in R&B/hip-hop then and now?

We just wanted to do something timeless. We all had albums we loved and the word “classic” was in our minds. It still resonates now because it’s reality music. It’s all from the soul, so it has no time or place.