Fugees fans want to blame my affair with Lauryn Hill for destroying the band and harming her career. It isn't true
BY WYCLEF JEAN 9/17/12
Excerpted from "Purpose: An Immigrant's Story"
I feel like an old man every time I tell a young gun what the music business was like in my day, when my group’s biggest record came out. I’m not even talking about how it was back in the days of Grandmaster Flash or even Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. I’m talking about my day, which was only fifteen years ago — but that’s how much the world of music has changed. That’s a blink of an eye in the history of the business, but back then the things considered impossible today were still possible. Back then, in the nineties, a record could come out and sell 15 million copies if it struck a chord with the world at the time. Back then, radio could still make a somebody out of a nobody, and you couldn’t get recorded music for free unless you taped it live off the radio. People would line up to buy an artist’s new CD the day it came out, because to hear it, you had to own a piece of plastic with that song recorded on it.
A record that talked about what was going on at the time was something that everyone had to have back then because it was more than a record: it was a moment. Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” was one of those records. Biggie Smalls’s “Ready to Die” was one of those records. Tupac’s “Me Against the World” was one of those records. Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” was one of those records. And the Fugees’ “The Score” was one of those records. Everybody who loves hip-hop has a memory from the summer of ’96 involving one of the singles off “The Score.” Don’t even try to tell me y’all don’t. And unlike a lot of those other records, songs like “Ready or Not,” and “Killing Me Softly,” crossed over to pop fans, too. Our second album was one of those records responsible for bringing hip-hop into the mainstream, and making it the driving force in music for the second half of the nineties into today.
In 1996, there was so much great music out that for us to sell 15 million records worldwide really meant something. Hip-hop and R&B were at their best that year: Biggie and Tupac had just released their masterpieces, Jay-Z was heating up, TLC was at the top of the charts with “CrazySexyCool,” and Wu-Tang had us all in check. D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” was out, and Michael and Janet Jackson had just dropped “Scream.” We had to have skills to take those charts by storm the way we did.
The Fugees were raw talent and passion, and it shone through. The musicality was there because we had lived side by side with each other since we started rehearsing in front of that mirror back in Jersey so many years before. There was love in that music, too, the love between Lauryn and me. We had become a real couple, even though I was with someone else at the time. It didn’t matter; she and I had our own musical and romantic language, and you can hear that in the music we made together. That’s why it touched people; that’s why it’s so real. You can hear the tension in the music, all of that impossible love. It was like we knew it wasn’t going to work from the start, but we couldn’t shy away. It’s not that it was wrong; it’s just that it was too good to be true. The way we related we couldn’t sustain because it was this whirlwind of creativity, this success, this performance. It was a fantasy that we engaged in because it was almost as if the music and the group and what we were doing drew us in. It was like all of that depended on this love we shared. But it wasn’t real-life love. And we found that out—boy, did we.
“The Score” is raw storytelling: it’s a candid picture of who we were and the times we were living in. We didn’t make it in a slick upscale studio; we made it in a basement in the ’hood in New Jersey. Our recordings were pure — no tricks in sight — and it connected with music fans around the world. We had built our fan base one country and one city at a time, so when we came at everyone with “The Score,” they were ready.
I remember after we did the remix for “Nappy Heads” with Salaam Remi, we went out on the road to Germany to do a gig with Das EFX. It was weird. They were some big hip-hop group in a very traditional style, and we were opening up doing our thing, with all our instruments and all that. We were always about having a band and a DJ because we were so much more than just rappers: we were a group. The live instrumentation sparked our performance, because we were musicians in every way. Our drummer at the time was a cool cat named Johnny Wise, who is known for how well he plays break beats. That was his main thing; overall his drum skills were pretty unique and not exactly technically perfect. But that was all good to me, because having a nontraditional drummer was important to me. It didn’t matter if he couldn’t play rock or jazz as well as what he did with us: the point was, no one played the breaks in our songs better. When Johnny got on the set and started laying it out, L, Pras, and I lit up and we did our thing. I had to feel that shuffle beat he laid down, because I was the Cab Calloway of the Fugees, leading everyone, showing them which way we were going to move.
Those German shows were unusual because no one was expecting us. We’d smash them usually, but there was one night that we were in some area overrun by skinheads. I don’t know who booked a hip-hop group in that bar, but we walked in and the word “nigger” was spray painted real big on the wall. That was an interesting welcome. Honestly, I had no idea why or how that shit got there. Coming from the States, it made no sense to me. I didn’t think racism like that existed outside of the United States, because why would it? Racism here, and that word specifically, is a product of slavery and American history. What did Germans know about “nigger”? But fuck, there it was, on that wall for all to see, in the depths of this country. We were far from home but that same hate was all around us.
We opened up and the show went alright, and then these German hip-hop groups played, who were dope and cool, but nothing could really offset that racism vibe that we felt the minute we walked in and saw that word on the wall. So it was a weird night. I didn’t feel like I was in danger, but I didn’t feel welcome or comfortable either, and there were all these German groups performing music that was invented by black people from the Bronx and the Caribbean. Still, I’ve got to hand it to those German rappers. I remember thinking how no one at home was going to believe me when I told them that I saw German hip-hop acts who knew what they were doing. I could hardly believe it myself.
Our European travels took us to France, Iceland, England — just about every festival going on at the time — and that is how we built our name from the ground up. The funny thing was that when we landed back in New York with Das EFX, who we’d been supporting, all of us heard our song on the radio in the car on the ride home.
“Yo, yo, this is the Fugees with ‘Nappy Heads,’ on Hot 97, where hip-hop lives!”
We had been opening up for these guys and there was our song coming out of the radio. Apparently it had become one of the most played tracks in the few weeks we were gone and nobody had told us. Our stock had gone up from being in tenth place, playing support slots on European tours, to being the headliner right there in our hometown.
That summer we played Jones Beach and I was about ready to lose my mind. It felt like we’d spent years rehearsing for that very moment, and this was something I couldn’t deny. No one could take that moment from us, standing there on that stage with the ocean behind us, playing our hearts out to a hometown crowd. All that rejection, all of that choreography learned in front of that mirror, all of it to go from a room in Germany with racist remarks on the wall to a sold-out crowd at Jones Beach. The minute I opened my mouth and sang, “Mona Lisa …” the entire audience sang the rest with me. They knew every single word. Our success didn’t come overnight, but when it came, it came faster than the blink of an eye and it was overwhelming, like the top of a roller coaster.
The whole time, Lauryn and I were falling into a daring kind of love, while I was already in love with my future wife, Claudinette, across town. I need to rewind the tape a bit to explain all this.
I met Claudinette when I was about nineteen, and she is a few years older than me. She was fly, she was established, she was modeling in New York, and just so she wouldn’t pass me by, I tricked her and lied about my age. I said I was twenty-two or something, so she’d go out with me. Her family is very religious and traditional, so I brought her to my dad’s church and courted her the proper way and we started dating. This was about the time when I started rehearsing with the Fugees and moved into the Booga and started spending time with Lauryn. I spent all my time with either one or the other of them, you know what I mean? Lauryn and I were pursuing a dream together, and that goal, as well as our mutual love of music, was the language that brought us together. And there was an attraction there; I’m not going to lie and act as if it was just because we spent time together that we ended up together. Lauryn’s beautiful, and because of her looks and her talent and everything we shared with each other — from songs to books to lyrics — love was bound to grow. I was with both of these incredible women at the same time, which isn’t something to be proud of but it was definitely unavoidable. I couldn’t say no to either of them. I mean it when I say I loved them both, because I did. I knew this situation couldn’t last, but I didn’t care; I was going to try to work it for as long as I could. And I think most men in my position would have done the same. I now know it ended up causing more trouble than anything — for all of us — but at the time that was the last thing on my mind.
By that time Lauryn was driving and she had a Jeep, and after we worked in the studio creating, we’d take her Jeep up to Eagle Rock Mountain, which is a state park that borders Montclair and West Orange and has a view of Manhattan in certain parts. It was like Lover’s Lane where I grew up: you’d drive up there and make out and look at the stars. If you had a Jeep you could take it off the beaten path and feel like you were in nature, so we’d do that, just look at the stars and talk about our hopes and dreams. It was romantic, but my main attraction to Lauryn wasn’t just her beauty: it was her mind. Her age and what was in her head did not match up, and that’s what people always said about me. I’ve always been called an old soul, because the way I think and talk about life is the way an eighty-year-old who has seen everything would. Lauryn is like that, too, so we connected in every way all those nights under the stars. It was inevitable that we’d fall in love.
Claudinette to me was like Wonder Woman: she was modeling and making money and I didn’t have a penny. When I lied to her and told her I was nineteen, she didn’t believe me. Not for a second. She knew I was a kid but she didn’t care. She was smart and going to school and I had barely graduated high school. And she believed in me; that made me feel like a million bucks. Actually I used to borrow money from her to go to the clubs because she wanted me to hear what was going on so that I could be better at what I wanted to do. She was mature and supportive — beautiful, driven, and independent.
She came from a good family and she loved me as much as I loved her. She fell in love with the real me: the comedian, the character, the silly, witty kid.
Before I moved into the Booga full-time, when I was still trying to live in my dad’s house, Claudinette’s family would take me in when my dad and I fought and he kicked me out. She’d hook me up with some blankets and I could sleep in their basement as many nights as I needed to. In return I got her hooked up in my dad’s church, where she began to sing and became an important member of the congregation. Our relationship was natural and it was comfortable. But on the other side of town, something else was going on. With Lauryn, just being in the studio so much together, working on our music as a team gave us an attraction toward each other. Being part of something bigger than you can do that, and sometimes there’s nothing more to the relationship. It’s like a romance on a film set that ends at the wrap party. But that wasn’t what we had. It was more than that. Spending all our time together brought us together. It started in the studio, working on those routines and our rhymes. I mean there was one time when I was around Lauryn twenty out of the twenty-four hours in a day. The thing I have to say about my wife, Claudinette, is that she supported all that hard work I was putting in. She trusted me and loved that I had a purpose, a goal, and a team to pursue that with.
During that time, Lauryn and I ate, slept, woke up, ate, slept, and did music; that was our world. And when we began to tour together, every night was like a fairytale world and we were living in our dream. We’d each have our rooms but we’d always end up in the same one. It felt like that relationship was real, and it was. It was love; it was lust. It was more intense than some teenage romance, because we knew ourselves. It was the type of pure love that burns bright but burns out fast.
Our friendship began as a mentorship where I taught her to rhyme and brought her into rap culture. And like I said, she ate it up. She was a natural. Pretty soon she was better than me at memorizing my own rap sheet. And her delivery wasn’t something I could teach. She became my muse; she became this creative chariot that pulled me along and inspired me to be the best artist I could be. We lusted for each other. We were making the best songs we ever had — lyrics flowing out of us — and our love was all tied up in the music.
I was a big-brother figure to Lauryn until it turned romantic, and the soundtrack of our relationship is “The Score.” That album came out the way it did because of our passion. You take us both and intertwine us and put it on a piece of vinyl and that’s what you get. The emotion is real, and I believe that is what connected with so many people. We made fans out of people who had never listened to hip-hop. None of them knew what was going on behind the scenes, but they felt that passion in the music. The music came with a kiss. Our physical relationship was an important part of what inspired the music. I’m not saying that we couldn’t have made an album like “The Score” without being together physically, but I think the tension and passion and emotion that you hear in the singing was there because it’s the sound of people experiencing something. If someone is in love or sad or angry—just experiencing something intense—you hear it in the intonation of their voice. You can’t fake that. If you’re really feeling it, the vocals will sound different. Listen to Billie Holiday: even if you know nothing about her life, you can tell without a doubt that her blues are real. She is singing from a broken heart. Lauryn has that quality to her voice naturally. Think of a song like “Me and Mrs. Jones,” by Billy Paul. That track takes you there. Lauryn does the same thing, every time.
Lauryn and I had a “True Romance” kind of thing: it was like we were two outlaws in love. There was a daring kind of vibe to our relationship and we always felt like it was us two against the world, each and every day. There was no going back and no surrender; we were going to defeat the odds against us. It was all tied up with the group, because at the time, she, Pras, and I lived every victory and every defeat as a unit. When people said we were whack and we needed to get back on the banana boat, it affected all of us.
The three of us had made a pledge not to quit years before and we weren’t going anywhere. When the critics wrote that the girl should go solo, Lauryn’s reaction was that they could go to hell because Pras and I were her brothers.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” she’d say. “We make it together or we don’t make it at all.”
That kind of commitment breeds natural attraction, as does natural talent. The more Lauryn evolved as a musician, the more I fell for her. I loved her voice and always thought she was beautiful, but as she became a great rhymer and performer, I couldn’t help myself: I fell in love with her again for her skills. It felt like we shared a mind, because we’d have long conversations, all day every day, and we got to know each other deeply. Lauryn is very intelligent and she taught me a lot about things I wasn’t familiar with creatively. We were two artists speaking the same language, which is a romantic and intimate thing to share.
I remember the day things changed, and it was my fault. I slipped up. We were talking about some music stuff and I couldn’t hold back any longer.
“You know, you kinda attractive,” I said. “You know, you a pretty smart girl.”
“Stop it, my brother,” she said.
“Nah, nah, I’m serious. You a hottie.”
That was the moment. It sparked a different tone in the way we spoke to each other. From there we started getting closer and flirting with each other for the first time. Little by little, that innocent flirtation became obvious attraction, and the little gestures between “brother” and “sister” became flirtation between lovers. It all changed step-by-step, the tension between us growing, until one day, it just happened. I’m the guilty party. I’m the one to blame. I definitely went for it first; I ain’t going to lie. Lauryn tried her best to keep me in that brother place. Maybe she’d thought about what would happen, too. I don’t know. All I know is that I was the one who made the move to the other mode. I knew it was wrong, too, because I was with Claudinette. And I loved Claudinette. There was just no way I could avoid falling in love with the little world of music that Lauryn and I shared.
Physically falling for her was easy: she is beautiful, but there was a lot more to it. Artistically, Lauryn gave me soul music, which is where her true gift lies. She shared that knowledge with me: the Jackson 5 — the deepest part of Michael Jackson’s career — Marvin Gaye, the Delfonics, Barry White, all of the soul music I had missed growing up was our thing. That music was too explicit to be played in my father’s house, because it certainly wasn’t Christian. She opened my eyes — and that was some romantic shit to be bonding over.
I remember telling her, “Every time I sing, I sound too world-music. Teach me how to sing your kind of stuff.”
She’d give me lessons: R&B singing lessons from Lauryn Hill, imagine that; I don’t care who you are.
She taught me circle runs, which is when a singer delivers a line in a melodic circle rather than a straight line. Instead of holding a note, you bend it, the way an R&B singer does. That’s how they get to the pain in their soul, and that’s what Lauryn taught me to do. We fell in love with each other’s minds, and it was a no-holds-barred conversation between us always. We were always together and we talked about everything. Pras still blames me for wrecking the group by getting into a relationship with Lauryn, but the truthmis if he had the option to, he would have done the same thing. Believe me, any man would. Our group chemistry was like this: Pras was the little brother, I was the big brother, and Lauryn was my girl. And it was all good — on the road at least.
“The Score” is a tragic Shakespearean romance because it was destructive and all consuming at the same time. As it was coming to life, I decided to marry Claudinette. I loved her, I knew it was right, but the timing was a reaction. It was the effect of a cause that caused further effects. And further drama came with that, do you dig?
It’s hard to explain, but I was in love with both of them. I was torn between the impossible love affair, the whirlwind artist romance, and the solid, good woman who demanded respect. The solid woman had her passion, too. So my life became crazy, because I was in the middle and each of them was passionate about me in different ways. One side was all bound up with music and discovery and my own self-expression.The other side was all about intellect and wisdom and helping me to mature. I did not know what to do; I just knew I had to do something. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life. It wasn’t clean and simple.
It’s going to be easy for people to read this and say, “Why did he do that to Lauryn? How could he not go with her? He broke up the Fugees!” I wish it were that easy to explain away, but it’s not.
Claudinette was with me when I had nothing, and she stood by me and helped me to be the man that I have become — the man I wouldn’t have been without her. That man is the one who created
“The Score” and “The Carnival,” and I don’t think he would have been here if he had gone with Lauryn. We wouldn’t have been the same; we wouldn’t have evolved apart if we didn’t explode together. It’s easy to listen to the music and hear the romance and love in there and think of what could have been. But the music is the best expression of my relationship with Lauryn. The rest of it wasn’t smooth at all. We were either deeply in love or fighting; there was no middle ground. It was a passionate roller coaster ride, every single day. We had fights on planes. We had the police called to a hotel where we were staying in Germany because our arguing was keeping the neighbors awake. I know fans like to believe in things like that, but they have to remember that they’re basing what they think we could have been on the Lauryn and Clef they saw in the limelight and heard on the record. The real Lauryn is much more complicated than what comes through in her art. Same goes for me.
In the face of that, I went with the woman who was down-to- earth, who had always and still tells me to believe in myself, and who believes in me and what I want to achieve—even after all I’ve done and all I’ve put her through to this day. She knows all the wrong I’ve done and she’s forgiven me and we are still together, because nothing can come between the love we have for each other. Claudinette is the woman who listens to the music I make and who tells me what she thinks of it, honestly. She’s the woman who gave me money to go out to the clubs when I was still a kid so that I could learn what the music industry was about. She’s the one I’d ride my sister’s BMX bicycle across town to see before I could afford a car. There was something enchanting about Claudinette, too, because she was what I consider my first experience with a woman. She was older, she was together, and she had it all figured out. She was untouchable, but I found a way to get to her, and when I did we fell in love.
My father married Claudinette and me in his church and Lauryn was there at the ceremony, the reception, all of it — and that was definitely heavy. Lauryn respected the day so there was no confrontation because I’d told her that I’d made up my mind and that was it. Of course later, when we were on the road again, I fell back into indulging myself with her.
My wedding was traditionally Haitian, which is to say that it was as big a party as the Greeks have, just with a whole different flavor. Entire families come. They eat, they talk, they laugh, they tell stories, and it goes on all day and night. My dad didn’t want any dancing in his church, though, so we all had to wait for him to leave to start partying. We even went so far as to have another secret reception in another room where there was a band and everyone was dancing. My dad, of course, heard about it and showed up there, too, and he suspended the musicians in the band, and all the women he caught celebrating, from coming to church for a month. As I’ve said before, the church band was a big deal in our neighborhood, and by then those musicians were getting paid to play, so getting banned for a month was real punishment. He was a serious dude, my dad.
If Lauryn and I had a rocky relationship full of breakups and make-ups before, my getting married turned up the heat 100 percent. Like I said, when we got back on the road, she and I took up with each other again, and it was crazier than ever, fueled by the fact that I was married. I tried to keep from going there, but I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t want to end my romance with Lauryn. It didn’t feel natural to stop it. It was at the heart of our music; that love between us was the soul of what we were doing. It didn’t seem right to us to be on the road creating and living our musical life without that bond between us. It was impossible for us not to be drawn back into it; we were like pieces of metal, and that thing we had as two artists on a journey together was a magnet that pulled us together beyond our control. But one day it was love, and then the next day she would be chasing me down the street somewhere like Australia, beating me to the ground out of jealousy.
Lauryn would keep it all inside and act like she was cool and we would be together the way we used to be and then, bam, she’d explode without warning. It was a constant cycle. I tried my best to keep my home life out of her face and separate, because that was sure to start a fight, but even if I had done that perfectly, those blowups would have happened. That’s just who she is: she’s a deep, soulful artist and she feels everything intensely. So she might have acted like it was cool, but she was thinking about it, and when she felt that jealousy or had enough with being cool, she’d let me know about it. Didn’t matter where we were or what we were doing; if she felt something strongly, I was going to know. I had a wife at home and a girlfriend on the road. That is not a new story in the music business, but this is one more case that proves that it will never be easy.
We were touring: back to living together, eating together, performing together, sleeping together. Our relationship, our intimacy hadn’t changed within that bubble, but everything outside of it had. It was hard. Every time we were together, Lauryn would ask me, “How come you’re not with me?” I never knew what to say, because part of me was with her, and but more of me was with my wife. There was the part of me that understood her the way she understood me. But it didn’t change the fact that I’d made up my mind to go with the rock, not the feather.
Lauryn and I always seemed to get into the most heated conversations about our relationship while we were traveling, usually on airplanes, and it never ended well. We had huge fights, and a few times when it went down she started swinging at me right there in the seats. People would scatter. We never got arrested, but we came close a few times in Europe. It’s a good thing this all happened before the iPhone. Airport security came on the plane in Germany once to make sure we were okay and weren’t going to hurt each other. That is the way it always was; we were emotion turned up to ten. Lauryn would go from extreme passion to extreme anger with little warning. The two of us were just crazy; that’s all. She is a Gemini, and anyone who has known one intimately can tell you that they can flip like a switch.
She and I started out in a friendship that was beautiful, and over time it developed into a deep romance. And since it didn’t work out — and it tore her up emotionally — a lot of people have blamed me for Lauryn’s emotional instability and artistic inconsistency afterward. It’s sad but true that she’s not been herself as an artist in the years since “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” No one is more upset about that than I am. I mean it; I am her biggest fan and I always will be.
I’ve been told by many angry people who are also her fans that if I hadn’t messed with her she would not have gone so insane. My response to that is: you can talk as much as you want to talk, because talking is easy, because you’re not the one who was in my shoes. You’re not the one who had to be around that beautiful woman 24/7 sharing genius space with her. We shared a creation, one made of our passion, molded into music that went out into the world and became an album that seized the times. It’s the yin and the yang; there is a give and a take. We gave of ourselves, we put ourselves together to make something, and what happened was the price we had to pay. I wouldn’t take that back if it meant taking back what we did with the Fugees. I can’t speak for her, but I hope she feels the same.
Excerpted from “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story” by Wyclef Jean. Copyright 2012 Harper Collins. FAIR USE