Thursday, May 27, 2010

May 27: The Fugees, "How Many Mics"

Artist: The Fugees
Song: "How Many Mics"
Album: The Score
Year: 1996

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It is a rather frustrating reality that throughout the course of music history, the banal, uninspiring performers seem to release tons of copycat material, while the truly innovative, genre-changing artists only produce a handful of records.  Whether it was Hendrix passing away just as he was reaching a new creative peak, or the countless list of artists who never made a second or third record, it almost seems "unfair" to music lovers that for every performer on this list, there seem to be a dozen musicians of lesser talent that are able to put out dozens of sub-par recordings.  Then of course, there is the situation of a group "imploding," and it seems that in most cases when there is an abnormally high concentration of talent, the group break-up is almost inevitable.  Case in point, during the middle of the 1990's, the hip-hop genre was splintering off into a number of sub-genres, and new styles and approaches to hip-hop flourished.  Among the innovate artists that emerged at this time, there was perhaps none more important or impressive than the New Jersey based trio, The Fugees.  With only two full-length releases to their name before calling it quits, their music is by far some of the most original and thought provoking in the entire history of the hip-hop genre.  While their debut record was a solid premiere, it was their 1996 album, The Score, that made them household names, and it remains one of the greatest hip-hop records ever made.  With a trio of hit singles, the album went all the way to the top of the charts, and even though it was not one of the singles, one can easily make the case that The Fugees rarely sound better than they do on their song, "How Many Mics."

In nearly ever aspect, The Fugees stand far apart from their peers, and one cannot deny that they consistently brought some of the most original and creative musical arrangements.  Without question, "How Many Mics" is one of the smoothest and funkiest songs of the era, and the fact that it came from the East Coast, which was predominantly known for the more "hardcore" sound, makes the album even more significant.  It is within this song that one also gets a peek into just what a wide range of musical tastes The Fugees had, as the core riff is a sample lifted from The Moody Blues song, "Twilight Time."  The looped sample, as well as the way in which the drums hit hard enough to make the track "bounce," yet are not nearly as overpowering as a majority of other songs of the era exemplifies the balance which The Fugees so regularly achieved.  "How Many Mics" has a very "cool," almost jazzy feel, and it is a fantastic way to lead off an album that is filled with sonically adventurous, yet relaxed sounds.  The rolling, thumping bassline which also takes a prominent role on the track was performed by Jerry Duplessis, who is the cousin of Wyclef Jean, and after his work here, Duplessis would go onto play alongside many of the most creative hip-hop acts of the following decade.  While the music on "How Many Mics" is both original and fantastic, the fact of the matter is, the sounds are a bit toned down, and this is largely done so that the focus of the song remains on the vocal work by the three group members.

The way in which the trio made their voices and rhyming styles work together is one of the key reasons why The Score was such a monumental release.  In nearly every aspect, the three emcees have their own vocal approach, and this diversity in style keeps their songs uniquely interesting.  The common aspect that links the three emcees is the fact that their verses stand as some of the most vivid and intelligent ever written, and whether Wyclef is referencing Sony Records CEO Tommy Matolla or referring to the "Haitian Sicilians," the way in which he spins these subjects is unlike any other rapper in history.  Similarly, Pras Michel finds ways to link everything from Corey Hart's single, "Sunglasses At Night" to Dolomite, and it further reinforces the idea that this trio of emcees were clearly lyrical poets far beyond that of any of their peers.  Yet as superb as Wyclef and Pras' verses are on "How Many Mics," as is the case on nearly all of The Score, it is the verse from Lauryn Hill that shines brightest on the track.  Even before one gets to her lyrics, it is on this track that she first shows off her uncanny ability to switch delivery rhythms mid-song, and she almost instantly solidifies herself as one of the most talented emcees in hip-hop history.  From her first line, it is clear that Hill is in a class all her own, and she sets a fantastic tone as she opens with the thought, "I get mad frustrated when I rhyme, thinking of all them kids that try to do this for all the wrong reasons..."  Whether she is questioning the authenticity of other performers, or finding ways to name drop cult-films, Lauryn Hill delivers one of her most impressive performances, and combined with her two partners, it catapults "How Many Mics" to stand as one of the strongest tracks on what is an iconic album in hip-hop history.

It is almost unfathomable that with only a pair of albums, The Fugees remain today one of the most revered and highly respected groups in the overall history of the hip-hop genre.  Bringing lyrics and music that were creative and years ahead of their peers, The Score stands in stark contrast to nearly everything else that was going on in hip-hop at the time.  Backed by a funky groove that is quieter, yet just as powerful as the more aggressive sounds of their peers, it is a perfect reflection of The Fugees overall approach, as they clearly come from the school of thought that believe in the idea of "volume does not equal better or more powerful."  This style works perfectly for the trio, as it is their lyrics and delivery style that make them shine, and while Wyclef and Pras are unquestionably a pair of the most creative musicians of their generation, Lauryn Hill completely re-wrote the book on "what" was acceptable for female emcees, and may very well be the greatest female hip-hop performer in history.  Bringing all of these elements together, The Fugees were able to release a trio of hit singles from The Score, and it is amazing that all three found success whilst sounding almost nothing like one another.  This again reinforces the idea that the songs of The Fugees were far more about the individual vocal performances than they were about the music or beats, and there is perhaps no more perfect an example of the unparalleled talent within The Fugees than one finds on their 1996 song, "How Many Mics."

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