No wimps, no gangstas: Wyclef(left), Lauryn (center) and Pras are killing us softly WELCOME TO GHETTO TOWN!" yelled Wyclef Jean of Fugees, onstage at L.A.'s House of Blues. The date was April 1, the 12th anniversary of Marvin Gaye's death, and Wyclef played a verse or two of Gaye's consciousness-raising 1971 hit, "What's Going On." "Take a moment to remember him," Wyclef told the audience. "He's our history." After the warm-up, Fugee bandmates Lauryn Hill and Prakazrel Michel came onstage. "Fu-Gee-La," the band's current single, was a slightly eerie take on Teena Marie's 1988 soul hit "Ooo La La La." Hill, the most powerful new voice in rap, elevated Roberta Flack's '70s classic "Killing Me Softly" into a modern street epic about lives gone wrong. The band closed with a regrooved version of John Lennon's "Imagine." History had become now.
Fugees' cunning combination of rap and R&B, of soul sentiment and urban blast, is not exactly revolutionary, but it's just what the world needs right now. Their top 5 album "The Score" has gone gold; in one recent week it sold more copies than the band's 1993 debut, "Blunted on Reality," sold in three whole years. Maybe it's Hill's irresistibly cute looks-her fabulousness spills out all over the video for "Fu-GeeLa." Maybe it's really time for an alternative to gangsta rap-one that avoids the wimpiness that brought down Arrested Development. Either way, from "Killing Me Softly" to sharp originals like "The Score," Fugees are bringing something much needed to rap. "We're trying to do something positive with the music because it seems like only the negative is rising to the top these days," says Hill. "It only takes a drop of purity to clean a cesspool."
Formed in the late '80s, Fugees (short for Refugee Camp) began experimenting with all types of music in high school. Hill, now a sophomore at Columbia, grew up in the Jersey suburbs listening to Flack and Donny Hathaway; her father was a local nightclub singer. Wyclef, who moved to the United States from Haiti when he was 8, played in a reggae band with his cousin Pras Michel. Hill initially joined as a singer, but she learned to rap, too. "They told me to listen to Salt-n-Pepa and MC Lyte," she remembers, "but I was like, 'I'm listening to the male rappers like Ice Cube.' That's where I got my flow from." While Pras worked at a supermarket, Hill picked up extra cash acting (she had a role in the film "Sister Act 2"). But don't start thinking this is the Lauryn show. Fugees are a group thing. "When we started, we were mindful of trying to incorporate all our backgrounds into the sounds," says Wyclef. "Black people are a diverse group, so it's important that it all gets in. That's why our sound is different. We're different."