Dec 13

FUGEES – “Killing Me Softly”

Popular72 comments • 5,053 views

#741, 8th June 1996

KMSOne of the intriguing properties of the brain is its ability not just to detect patterns, but to complete them, even where none exist. Think of the famous optical illusion of the false triangle – all you actually see are three circles with slices taken out of them, arranged facing one another like a meeting of pac-men with angles in between. But they are arranged to suggest a triangle, and they more than suggest it – the brain fills out the triangle sides, “seeing” a shape that isn’t there.

And so it is that after knowing the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” for 17 years I could sit down and think to myself, “I’ll just check who does which verse on it”. “Killing Me Softly” is a hip-hop record, by a hip-hop group, with a hip-hop beat and hip-hop adlibs, so my memory hallucinates rapping where none exists. In the Fugees context this makes perfect sense – arresting stylistic shift, showcase for Lauryn Hill’s vocals, LP centrepiece – and obviously it made excellent commercial sense too, as a crossover move to introduce the group to a wider audience. (Though even in the UK, distracted by its Britpop brouahaha, we’re almost at the point now where hip-hop is the presumed grammar of pop – providing the musical and stylistic cues hitmakers of any stripe, backroom or front-of-house, instinctively reach for.)

“Killing Me Softly” is a stark record – you have to go back a long way, maybe to the early rock’n’rollers, to find a number one that gets this much atmosphere out of just beat and voice. The kind of atmosphere that’s created weighs the song down for me, though. In the non-specialist (meaning indie-specialist) music press of the time, the go-to phrase when talking approvingly about hip-hop was “head-nodding” – a description which landed for me halfway between being lost in the rapture of the groove and dozing off in a long afternoon meeting. “Killing Me Softly” suffers from a particularly head-nodding beat – it sits at the crossover point where cool becomes snoozy.

Luckily, it also has Lauryn Hill’s performance. By structuring a soul song like a rap, the Fugees make “Killing Me Softly” more vivid – the illusion the ad-libs and beat create is that Hill isn’t singing a song, she’s being passed the mic at the start of each verse, working through how she feels about the experience in real time, even as she tries to capture it in song. On the “read each one out loud” verse, three layers of time – the feelings the singer exposed, his performance exposing them, and Hill trying to find her own words for it – telescope into one moment that catches the uncomfortable intimacy of music and what it can do for us. It’s powerful enough I almost forget this is a cover of a song that’s probably about Don bloody MacLean.



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  1. 51
    Kat but logged out innit on 2 Jan 2014 #

    I got SO SICK of seeing the beginning of the video where they’re in the cinema eating popcorn with their mouths open. NO NO NO.

    Can’t fault Lauren’s vocal but the beat (which I found merely dull at the time) now reminds me of a truly dreadful bunnied #1 from 2001. Luckily nearly every Fugees-related single that came after this was much better!

  2. 52
    punctum on 2 Jan 2014 #

    #49: If Manics fans aren’t doing that then it’s not unreasonable to posit that the Manics failed.

  3. 53
    Patrick Mexico on 2 Jan 2014 #

    Who sees the interiors
    Like Carol Smillie once did
    Your beautiful triangle
    Of why it’s fun to stay at the Y.M.D.F?

  4. 54
    Mark M on 2 Jan 2014 #

    Re 49/51: As so often, it’s surely not so either/or. Clearly not everyone, or even most people, who bought a Manics album now know who De Kooning or, say, Nye Bevan, were. I agree with Flahr to the extent that I think many, maybe most, people (and I’m one of them) have comparatively little idea of what most of the lyrics of most songs are*, and certainly don’t approach them as texts. But some do, and I’m guessing there are now quite a lot of people who now know a bit about a noted Abstract Expressionist and the great hero of the Labour left who wouldn’t have done without the Manics. And that’s something. (In the same way there are Smiths fans like Noel Gallagher, notorious bibliophobe, and others who found their way to Elizabeth Smart or at least caught A Taste Of Honey when it was on TV sometime).

    *I was doing karaoke with a bunch of friends who are all pretty big music fans, and every other song we were going, ‘Oh, so that’s what the words to that bit are… I get it now.’

  5. 55
    lonepilgrim on 2 Jan 2014 #

    the contemporary British artist Jeremy Deller produced a piece of work in 1997 called ‘The Uses of literacy”, described thus:

    a collaboration between the artist Jeremy Deller and fans of the Welsh rock group, Manic Street Preachers. Soliciting for contributions via advertisements in the music press, Jeremy Deller has collected drawings, paintings, poetry and prose from the young fans.
    Manic Street Preachers have always emphasised the importance of art and literature to the band − using quotations on their record sleeves, merchandising and as part of their live shows – as an escape from the mundane. Referencing Richard Hoggart’s seminal study The Uses of Literacy, Jeremy Deller reveals the complex relationship between the audience and performer and the art and literature that unites a socially and geographically displaced group of individuals.

    I can’t say whether the piece includes fans referencing de Kooning or not. However, going back to the late1970s I can remember seeking out information on films, writers and artists referenced by writers in the NME. I used local libraries, older kids, teachers, bookshops, etc.

  6. 56
    glue_factory on 2 Jan 2014 #

    Re:47, I’ve also seen the Manics a few times and my favourite new-fans/old-fans moment came when I arrived mid-support act on the Design For Life tour. They were quiet/loud-sounding and mostly instrumental with Saltires draped over their monitors and didn’t sound much like the Manics. Not my kind of thing but I was intrigued enough to ask the guy nearest me who it was. In my mind he had a rugby shirt on, but that’s too good to be true.

    “Yeah I think they said what they were called. It was …. Fucking Shit!”

    It was Mogwai and I don’t think that would have happened circa Generation Terrorists.

  7. 57
    Mark G on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #48, there was a documentary on recently that talked about how the speed limit in the US was set to 50 during the oil crisis, and how much Ralph Nader’s campaign raised awareness and support. At which point I went “oh, so That’s what the Buzzcocks were on about”

  8. 58
    flahr on 3 Jan 2014 #

    lonepilgrim @ #54: I don’t wish to harp on about this, and I appreciate from #51 and your post that there is a case for saying that MSP were different from other bands in terms of their desire (and success?) for their songs to be spurs to further awareness and research…

    …BUT I would also suggest that there is an element of self-selection here: the very fact you’re here on Popular reading and writing about music and records and the meanings they have implies that you have an interest in reading and writing about music and records and the meanings they have. Of course the anecdotes offered by this site’s users will skew in favour of doing further research, because Popular is (in a broad sense) a site about doing further research.

    I concede that I was arguing against a specific point with a very general one that it now seems doesn’t apply in that situation, though.

  9. 59
    Chelovek na lune on 3 Jan 2014 #

    What will we have left to say about the bunnied Welsh band when their moment (finally) arrives? ;)

    I do think that one thing that set them apart, certainly from most of their indie-cum-metal-cum-rock contemporaries was the…copious…way in which they referenced their sources/intellectual-political influences- either directly in lyrics, or, more directly still in the packaging of their records – a Valerie Solanis quote on the sleeve of ‘Stay Beautiful’ has started with me for the intervening 22+ years (and ‘Generation Terrorists’ was very much the cassette to have in one’s blazer pocket in the Sixth Form then, if you claimed intellectual or cultural pretensions, or simply to demonstrate, growing up in the borderlands, that you very much looked to London, and not to Essex; that your Saturday evening of preference was spent in Camden or Brixton, and not Romford or Grays)…

    In short, the BWB, at least when Richie was with them, always had this didactic quality to them, quite deliberately and directly so (even when the actual lyrics of their songs were sometimes assembled jigsaw puzzles of words, rather than coherent sentences): so it might be reasonable to think that a certain proportion of their fans might be inclined to seek out and explore those sources cited by the band, in a way that would not be the case with acts that were more oblique about their influences, or simply less ‘engagé’. Possibly the other act of that period who I think took an approximately similar approach (taking account of the rather different social and cultural context in which they operated) would have been Public Enemy. Obviously a new, more mainstream fanbase for our Cambrian lapins arrived in 1996, and some of the music (and often the intended message thereof) was less challenging thereafter..

  10. 60
    Mark G on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #58, the word ‘Floodgates’ comes to mind..

  11. 61
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #58 If I can shoot bunnies, then I can shoot Fascists.

    The Manics are the only band where I bought a record on the strength of seeing the lyrics – they took an ad out for The Holy Bible which was simply a close-printed copy of the lyric sheet (unless I’m dreaming all this). I might have bought it anyway – well reviewed and I’d loved a couple of their singles – but that sealed the deal.

    Bands as cultural vectors – the Smiths were my world age 15/16 but I never once bothered to watch any of the films or investigate any of the actors Morrissey showcased on the sleeves. All a band can do is hold doors open – some go through, some don’t.

  12. 62
    James BC on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Re #34 and various posts saying the Fugees were PG rated: I really don’t think so. Yes, they were mostly non-violent and a lot more benign than a lot of rap at the time, but The Score is full of drug references and one track near the end (Mista Mista) is pretty stark language-wise. There was nothing toned-down or compromised about them that I can see.

  13. 63
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Jan 2014 #

    If we’re talking about worlds transformed by fans engaging with all of the references in bands’ bumph, I’d take Chumbawamba over the Manics any day.

  14. 64
    Rory on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Although I couldn’t help but admire Hill’s vocals on this version of the song, the other members’ touches never worked for me, so I always imagined that I preferred Roberta Flack’s version, half-remembered from years before. I’ve finally done what I should have last week, though, and re-listened to Flack’s as well. I’d forgotten how steeped in that tinkly, glittery early-’70s MOR soundscape it was, once you got past the a capella intro. And something about Flack’s delivery falters along the way; it feels just a bit too cosy, where Hill’s retains that sense of desperate yearning, that “stop it, you’re killing me” feeling. What I really want is an a capella reading of the song from Hill throughout (and an equivalent Flack version for good measure), but I still think I’ll change last week’s 6 to a 7. I’m going to have to pick up The Score and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill now…

  15. 65
    Rory on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Re #12 “they sound as though they want to recast this song rather than cynically cover it”: according to Wikipedia (citing Chris Nickson’s 1999 biography of Hill), they wanted to do precisely that, but the songwriters refused them permission to rework it.

    The Lori Lieberman version is on YouTube as well, as a fan-made video. Trigger warning for Tom: beware the Eye of Sour Don around the 3:00 mark.

  16. 66
    DanH on 14 Jan 2014 #

    #17: I totally agree on the Billboard Top 10s being really unrepresentative in the mid ’90s. I heard this quite a bit that year, and the Top 10s look weird without it. I can think of other songs that would be on those charts if the rules weren’t different:

    “One Headlight”
    “Mr. Jones”
    most of the radio songs from Jagged Little Pill (I do see “You Oughta Know” was #6 in 1996, but it was a radio hit the year before, and appears to be the flipside to “You Learn,” which was the umpteenth lead single from JLP)
    “Fly” (Sugar Ray)
    and MOST NOTABLY, a bunnied track that we’ll see early in 1997…

  17. 67
    punctum on 14 Jan 2014 #

    This piece is poorly written but does give the background to why the Hot 100 has been the way it has been since 1991: http://consequenceofsound.net/2011/10/nod-your-head-an-ode-to-nielsen-soundscan/

  18. 68
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Since we’ve been talking about Top Of The Pops, I believe this is the record at #1 when the show moved in the schedule from Thursdays to Fridays. As any old school Doctor Who fan will know, this was the BBC’s favoured euthanasia method – a shift to 7.30 on Fridays meant a fatal clash with Coronation Street.

    TOTP was past its ratings prime for a long time before this (and survived for a DECADE after, so the comparison with Who isn’t quite fair) – this move was a very big blow, though, to any conceit of centrality TOTP still held.

  19. 69
    Tom on 29 Jan 2014 #

    “I remember a piece published by the NME circa 1973 which commented “there’s nowhere you can escape the current Top 20 except perhaps a nunnery” – in a tone which suggested the writer wished it were otherwise. You certainly wouldn’t say that today, it’s a lot more of a niche market except with the biggest hits.

    Mapman #55 – I forget which thread this cropped up in recently, but I was amazed to read about YouTube views of tribute or spoof videos counting towards a Hot 100 position, which meant that a daft spoof of the Wrecking Ball video was enough for Miley Cyrus to deny Lorde a 10-week run at number one. Time for a rethink there, I reckon.”

    It was here, Erithian!

    One point, though: how many of the people who were the age you are now in 1973 would have known much about the then Top 20? But you’re citing Lorde and Miley. So if pop’s got shallower in its appeal it’s also got a lot broader.

  20. 70
    Erithian on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Hmm! Well for one thing I’m not sure how typical an FT reader/contributor is of the general audience; for another I did make an exception for the biggest hits. Those two were among the biggest records of 2013 (I first saw Lorde on Jools, and Miley’s antics are pretty inescapable), and I reckon I’m fairly out of touch on middling-sized hits these days!

    By an oddity of timing I was exactly the same age when I became a dad as my dad was when I was born. So it doesn’t quite match (in 1973 my dad was four years younger than I am today), but when I was the age my twins are now – October 1976 – Dad would have been much more exposed to the Top 20 than I am now, if only from my watching TOTP. He’d have known, let’s see: 50s/60s survivors Elvis, Acker Bilk, Manfred Mann and Twiggy; Rod Stewart, Demis, Kiki possibly, the Wurzels, the Real Thing and definitely Abba. And I’d usually play Mum and Dad the latest records I’d bought, so that’s Gheorghe Zamfir and Pussycat. The twins show very little interest in music and nor do most of their friends, so I don’t get exposure to the current Top 20 that way. Your average 50something would know, let’s see: Tinie Tempah? Kanye? Ellie Goulding? Beyonce, Eminem and Rihanna, obv; might know the Pharrell if they’d seen Despicable Me 2 with the kids. I don’t think the awareness is as wide by any means.

  21. 71
    Rory on 30 Jan 2014 #

    My almost-7-year-old son has exposed 46-year-old me to Lawson, whose two biggest hits, “Taking Over Me” and “Juliet”, are both pretty good. No Popular bunnies there yet.

    Pharrell surely also known via his collaboration with Daft Bunnies? That was pretty inescapable. His now-bunnied solo hit also gained extra web exposure through the 24-hour video stunt – I saw that before DM2.

  22. 72
    hectorthebat on 7 Mar 2016 #

    Critic watch:

    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Blender (USA) – The Greatest Songs Ever, One Song Added Every Other Month
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 337
    Dave Marsh (USA) – Postscript (102 Songs) to The Heart of Rock & Soul (1998)
    Ego Trip (USA) – Hip Hop’s 40 Greatest Singles by Year 1980-98 (1999) 3
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1990s (2001) 101
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 90s (2011) 41
    XXL (USA) – 40 Years of Hip-Hop: Top 5 Singles by Year (2014)
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Spin (USA) – Singles of the Year 1
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 18
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 4
    Mixmag (UK) – Singles of the Year 4
    NME (UK) – Singles of the Year 30
    Vox (UK) – Singles of the Year 20
    Spex (Germany) – Singles of the Year 26

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