Fugees Producer Salaam Remi Explains How They Went From Underground MCs To Global Superstars
Twenty years ago, The Fugees released The Score. The February 13, 1996 album transformed the trio of Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras from New Jersey Underground Hip-Hop hopefuls to cultural icons. The RuffHouse/Sony Records album would go six-times platinum in the United States alone, and eventually pivot to everything from The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill to Shakira.
However, between the Fugees’ first and second studio albums, it took some reconsideration to take a 1994 album (Blunted On Reality) that missed the Top 200 entirely to a February 1996 #1 overall effort. So what exactly happened in 1995? Ambrosia For Heads spoke to Salaam Remi, a producer who made four songs with the trio in that transition from remixing to drafting a new horizon. Remi, who had already made a crossover hit with Ini Kamoze’s 1994 “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” has since been paramount in the careers of Nas, Amy Winehouse, and Miguel, among others. In recording and producing the first song for The Score, Salaam helped blueprint a platinum playbook for Praswell, L-Boogie, and ‘Clef that changed the game.
“[‘Fu-Gee-La’] was recorded before [The Fugees] had a second album budget,” recalled Salaam Remi from his office this month. “While we were still working on the other [Blunted On Reality] remixes, I had them in the studio. I was working on Spike Lee’s Clockers soundtrack. They did a song for that. But during that session, I had the beat for ‘Fu-Gee-La,’ and then we started [recording] ‘Fu-Gee-La.’ So I actually recorded ‘Fu-Gee-La,’ and that was done when they got their second album budget,” revealed Remi, later telling AFH that the original beat was created, by request, with Fat Joe’s Jealous One’s Envy in mind. The producer deduced, “Pretty much, The Score was built around ‘Fu-Gee-La.'”
“From the time I got with them on the ‘Nappy Heads’…the only reason that song is called ‘Nappy Heads’ is because we were supposed to be doing a ‘Nappy Heads Remix.’ It was really a new record—different hook, different everything, that it would have been called ‘Hey Mona Lisa’ or something like that,” said Salaam. The video single would inconspicuously be set to the remix, which was the last track on Blunted On Reality. Of the remix single, the Queens, New Yorker explained, “What I did with them was just help them identify—what, of their very talented selves, they actually need to incorporate into a record to keep a record to be engaging—not dumbed down, but to take the strongest parts of their full-flowing creativity and how to [work] that in. [Specifically], how to make sure you got a hook that somebody’s gettin’ into it, how to make sure you’ve got a verse—and chop it up, and how to let the vibe of the music be [juxtaposed] against what they’re bringing to the table. I think it just developed. ‘Vocab Remix’—the one that I did—was in the vibe of and kind of played off the vibe of Dana Dane’s ‘Nightmares’ into [the chorus].” Salaam Remi said that the 1995 sound would stem from the ominous East Coast Rap productions of the day. “It’s what was going on in music at that time, me, what I was on at that time—kinda spooky, dark, but drums that were chopped up break-beats. It kinda kept going there.”
With their producer, the quartet followed suit in the expanded studio session. “With ‘Fu-Gee-La,’ it was a similar thing. I was in that zone. But what happened with ‘Fu-Gee-La’ is that Lauryn [Hill] is an encyclopedia of old Soul songs. So when it came to the hook, she really dove into 10 different Soul classics—and we were like ‘Oh La La La,’ that’s the one that sounds the best. ‘This one feels right.'” Of the two handfuls of versions of the chorus Lauryn had experimented with, it was an interpolation of Teena Marie’s 1988 cut “Ooh La La La” that stuck. However, Remi explained that there was a problem. “She’d actually done [those chorus vocals] on another record for another artist before that—it was in her rhyme. So she had to call that artist and be like, ‘Look, I’m using this for the Fugees’ album, so I’ll change your record and make something else.’ They agreed to it.” According to the song’s producer, the other artist was the latest discovery of previous Fugees producer, Muhammad Bell. Going back to the 1995 session, he noted, “Wyclef [Jean] had pretty much spit his verse out off the top. Then that came. We worked the song out.”
Almost all of the resulting album was self-produced, with Wyclef’s right-hand Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis also deeply involved. However, that pivotal point in early 1995 would serve as a benchmark for the RuffHouse Records trio. “When you look at the other songs on The Score that were the singles, pretty much all of them had some type of haunting musical aspect. If you listen to the musical loop on ‘Cowboys’ and play that against ‘Fu-Gee-La,’ it’s definitely there,” noted Salaam. “It just created the vibe. They saw, ‘Okay, this is gonna be a pattern.’ Then, most of the time when they got to the choruses, they would lean on something else [that was] classic. But they did it in their own way, with the little Reggae tinge and everything.”
However, Salaam was offered greater involvement to the LP. “It was a point where I could have even been the fourth producer—along with them on the whole album. But I was like, ‘Y’all got it together. So y’all go ahead and do it. Then, if you have any questions, just come back. I’ll listen to it, and if I hear anything, I’ll add it, or I’ll tell you what it is.’ [I wanted to] be more of a mentor to them. That’s what I was: the mentor or the sensei as some would say.” Although unpaid after the remix and soundtrack work, Remi continued to advise the group. “I listened to a lot of records, and I heard the beats they were coming up with and what they were doing, and I was like, ‘G’head. Go.’ At that time, their budget wasn’t but so much, and I had already done the record that we did for Clockers which was called ‘Project Heads’ and ‘Fu-Gee-La,’ so those were my two songs for the album.”
Strangely, “Project Heads” was never included in Spike Lee’s 1995 soundtrack or The Score. The song has not surfaced online either, in the 20-plus years since.
Salaam Remi did say that he had a hand in the song that would win the trio their first Grammy Award. “One day Pras calls me and says, ‘Hey, if you were gonna do over [Roberta Flack’s] ‘Killing Me Softly [With His Song],’ how would you do it?’ I thought about it [hums out the beats]. I was like, ‘Hey, you know what? I’d probably do it like [A Tribe Called Quest’s] ‘Bonita Applebum,’ kinda like in that type of vibe. [Pras says], ‘That’s the same thing I thought! I’ll call you right back.’ Click.” Mimicking the quick exchange, Remi pointed out the direction. “If you listen to [The Fugees’ ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’] it’s pretty much ‘Bonita Applebum’ with the bass played the same way that the bass on ‘Nappy Heads.’ So my influence was pretty much in them, without me actually always doing it. That’s part of what this ‘paying it forward’ is. I helped them find their space where they could now explore something themselves. They took what happened on that album, and continued on into their [solo] careers.”
Asked about his opinions of the album as he heard it before the general public, Salaam Remi recalled, “I felt like it was good, and it had [something special]. At that time, I was on the [HOT 97] air with Funkmaster Flex. He’d be like, ‘Ah, The Fugees—‘Boof Baf’….’ It wasn’t a thing where anybody was into them. ‘Oh, you working on The Fugees?’ Then it turned into, ‘What’s up with that [‘Nappy Heads Remix’] record? I like that one?’ [I was hearing this] from a Pete Rock to a Diamond D.”
Another Diggin’ In The Crates artist personally asked for such a beat for his sophomore solo LP. “Fat Joe would be like, ‘What’s up? I need a beat like that one for them.’ Then, I made Fat Joe the ‘Fu-Gee-La’ beat, but he didn’t keep it.” When Salaam was in the lab with The Fugees recording “Project Heads,” he played the trio the track he made for the Bronx, New York Reality Records artist at the time. “Lauryn was like, ‘I love that Fat Joe beat, let me have it.’ That’s where it worked.”
Joe’s mentor and band-mate Diamond D asked Salaam for an introduction to the Garden State trio. “Diamond D was like, ‘Yo, can you hook me up with them?’ And I hooked him up with them, and that’s how the title track came about,” Salaam said, of “The Score.” In many ways, the budding producer was the plug for an album for which he is credited with only limited involvement. Of the organic turn of events, he said, “Things just happened in that way. But I felt like there was something special in their potential, and where it was going. It was Underground Hip-Hop that [with the right tweaks] eventually helped them become cultural icons—for then and now.”
For much of The Score, The Fugees mashed-up music beyond simply sampling. As the case with Lauryn’s Teena Marie allusion in “Fu-Gee-La,” the group basked in referencing influences. “I think that was always a part of Jamaican culture—where Hip-Hop came from in the first place. You would look at the old Jamaican records, especially the ones with the DJs, and you’d hear Yellowman sing an old Country song or whatever else it was. We came to know it [by Yellowman],” said Salaam Remi, in regards to Roberta Flack, Teena Marie, or The Delfonics’ lyrics returning to vogue. Recalling Just-Ice’s 1986 single “Latoya,” Salaam Remi sets it against John Denver’s 1973 cover of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Folk hit, “I’m Leaving On A Jet Plane.” “You couldn’t tell me that wasn’t Just-Ice in the ’80s. ‘Cause I’d never heard the John Denver record.” The Fugees, and their Jamaican influences, brought that approach back in. “They just kept it going, being Reggae-influenced and also Hip-Hop-influenced.”
While Columbia/Sony Records would reportedly buy the group out of contract from RuffHouse amid the meteoric success of The Score, Salaam believes the group’s attachment to a Hip-Hop label allowed them to grow without major label pressures. “In general, they were almost blessed to be on RuffHouse,” he said of the label tied for careers in Hip-Hop spanning from Schoolly D to Nas. “RuffHouse also had credibility, as far as a Hip-Hop label [thanks to] the commercial success of Cypress Hill and Kris Kross—which by the time The Score came out, those two had already passed.” The Fugees, perceived as a disappointment in 1994, would ultimate carry RuffHouse into the 2000s.
Sadly, for The Fugees’ millions of fans, The Score would end the game. The group disbanded due to personal differences following a 1997 tour.