Jan 14

FUGEES – “Ready Or Not”

Popular55 comments • 6,492 views

#745, 21st September 1996

ready or not Carried to Number One in “Killing Me Softly”’s slipstream, “Ready Or Not” feels a darker, stranger proposition. As before, Lauryn Hill holds the song together by laying an old soul tune over a spartan beat, but there the resemblance ends. “Killing” was intimate; “Ready Or Not” is forbidding – the tone set by the cold smears of woodwind the beat is built around: an Enya sample transformed into a ghost owl call, carried on a night wind across desolate open ground. The Delfonics’ song this track borrows is blissful – one of the greatest expressions of joy and life force in all 70s soul. Here it’s at least half threat, Hill investing the song’s break – “You can’t run away…” – with a dancing, taunting confidence.

In structure, this isn’t so odd – a traditional hip-hop group cut, the band’s three MCs taking turns between the hook. Wyclef jumps in first, taking the nocturnal fug of the beat and running with it for a hallucinatory verse, the context of every line slipping away as the next one starts. “My girl pinch my hips to see if I still exist: I think not.” By contrast, Lauryn Hill is focused and aggressive, her verse more of a battle rap, a jabbing barrage of “-ess” rhymes finished with a closing metaphor to piss off any new fans happy simply to accept her as the sweet-voiced soul singer. “I be Nina Simone, defecating on your microphone”. And Pras? Pras’ few bars are an anticlimax, though the Guantanamo Bay mention gives listeners now an anachronistic jolt.

It doesn’t tell a coherent story, it doesn’t exactly resolve, it’s the druggiest number one since “Jack Your Body” (though this is saying very little) and its difference from anything else this year – even its predecessor – is bewitching. The track slips away under cover of its Delfonics chorus, and it feels like something enigmatic and special has passed by – something not native to the sunny, brash uplands of the Britpop-era charts, and all the better for it.



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  1. 1
    Tom on 8 Jan 2014 #

    As close as we get to a trip-hop No.1? (In mood, rather than scene affiliation)

  2. 2
    anto on 8 Jan 2014 #

    The intro on this really sticks in the mind. It’s one of those snatches of music that often comes to me from out of nowhere. One of the better productions on a number 1 in the mid-nineties.

  3. 3
    wichitalineman on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Having not heard this in almost two decades, two things strike me at once.

    1. The Fugees have dated very well indeed, and their production is far more minimal than I remember.

    2. Hearing the line “refugee from Guantanamo Bay” is eerie in the extreme. I didn’t think I’d heard of the place until 2001, but I must have done without really noticing.

    Memory playing tricks… I thought this post-dated Tarantino’s use of Delfonics songs, but Jackie Brown was still a year away.

    “Cold smears of woodwind” is spot on. Have woodwinds ever sounded any colder?

  4. 4
    Andrew Farrell on 8 Jan 2014 #

    A Pub Fact about this is that it had the most expensive video ever because they hired an actual submarine for it.

  5. 5
    swanstep on 8 Jan 2014 #

    @wichita, 3. Guantanamo and the special, all-too-convenient legal black hole it affords the US were key plot points in A Few Good Men (1992) – the ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ one (Jack Nicholson plays the commander at Guantanamo). And Delfonics songs were around a lot in the early ’90s: the New Kids on the Block did a cover, and Queen’s Logic (1991) had them on its soundtrack.

    The Enya sample from ‘Boadicea’ is astute – the song really stood out on her album The Celts (it’s much more electronic-feeling/Kraftwerky than anything else she ever did). I had a friend who choreographed some modern dance to it in 1995. Woodwinds? I don’t think so! The Enya is pure keyboards and hummy multi-tracked vocals.

  6. 6
    Dan Quigley on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Another Delfonics spot, from around this time: Notorious B.I.G. rewriting their otherworldly ‘Hey Love’ as ‘You’ve Been Robbed’ – a rare, if not totally welcome chance for the great man to show off his singing voice.

    I clearly didn’t have ears to hear this in ’96 – I have no recollection of it, but it seems to me that even the weaker verses here are among the more fluent raps we have heard in the narrow confines of this tale so far. The Nina Simone/Microphone couplet is tremendous.

    Coldest woodwinds? Those trilling flutes at the top line of Sinatra and Riddle’s version of ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ sound positively Antarctic to me, even if they are supposed to evoke a California morning.

  7. 7
    swanstep on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Anyhow, I knew the Enya (an 8) and Delfonics (a 9) sources very well in this case (whereas I normally didn’t know Massive Attack’s sources) so I find it hard to give the Fugees that much credit. Beating that one four chord pattern into the ground is pretty lazy writing, certainly compared to the sources. Hill’s voice is really something, of course, but it’s not enough to be worth more than a 6 for me (principally just for the slight oddity and refreshment this represents at the top of the charts).

  8. 8
    Tom on 8 Jan 2014 #

    I thought they might be synthi-ocarinas but decided to keep the woodwind attribution, oh well.

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    Kat but logged out innit on 8 Jan 2014 #

    This was SO much better than Killing Me Softly! What a relief. Not least because it fitted in with my moody post-triphop I HATE EVERYTHING phase (more Portishead than Massive Attack I think? Though perhaps more late night BBC2 drama than film noir). Also there was Proper Rapping which my insufferable and illogial proto-rockism ‘allowed’, possibly thx to the above-mentioned microphone-shitting. Submarines >>>> cinema popcorn.

  10. 10
    Tom on 8 Jan 2014 #

    I had completely forgotten the submarine – but it explains why my first draft had sonar metaphors etc in it before I thought “hold on, that’s not really what the record sounds like” – the power of unconscious priming!

  11. 11
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Fugees get moody, on Popular. http://t.co/VzqtrH5vM6

  12. 12
    James BC on 8 Jan 2014 #

    A milestone: the first hip hop number 1 without even a hint of the novelty single about it.

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    hectorthebat on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Sample watch: As well as the Delfonics (Ready or Not) and Enya (Boadicea) samples, there are also samples from Bob Marley (Buffalo Soldier) and Kurtis Blow (If I Ruled the World).

  14. 14
    Cumbrian on 8 Jan 2014 #

    I treated this, at the time all the way up until September last year, as a totally original Fugees song – I had no idea that the chorus was a Delfonics song until I heard the original on, of all places, GTAV whilst driving around listening to the Pam Grier DJ’d Classic Soul station. The shame of my ignorance. Of course, it is a totally original Fugees song – just because the chorus is a cover doesn’t negate that it’s got a totally different feel, as Tom points out in his opening paragraph, and loads of bits and pieces that have nothing to do with The Delfonics at all. The veil of ignorance having been lifted from me, it’s not really changed my opinion of this, which I reckon is really, really good.

    In general, I am am wary of praising stuff just because it’s darker. It feels like a bit of lazy shorthand that people apply to works to mean weighty and not frivolous and therefore somehow more worthy and serious. I don’t think this is an either/or proposition – more frothy and frivolous stuff can be just as good as weighty stuff and similarly weighty stuff can be po-faced and boring. Nevertheless, this does seem to be darker and have more weight. I could be wrong but it feels a bit more serious than some of the other songs we have been considering over the last few Popular years and, for me, that is pretty welcome, as it still has memorable moments (the Nina Simone rhyme, the shout out of “Buffalo Solider, Dreadlock Rasta” in the middle of it) and a strong chorus. It also seems much more of a group thing than Killing Me Softly, which felt like a Lauryn showcase in some senses – not that that was bad but this seems to give more of an opportunity for the other members of the group to do stuff, whilst still having Lauryn Hill as the figurehead (given she’s responsible for the three bits I’ve called out).

    All in all. I really like it. 9 for me.

  15. 15
    Steve Mannion on 8 Jan 2014 #

    As I mentioned on the KMS thread I preferred the Salaam’s Ready For The Show mix of ‘Ready Or Not’ which got more traction on Kiss at the time for being considerably more boppin’. Even for a remix though it’s a severely transformed track with almost entirely different lyrics in which Lauryn’s chorus morphs into that of Barrington Levy’s ‘Here I Come’.

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    Alex on 8 Jan 2014 #

    This was an absolute cracker. (PS – Guantanamo was mostly known in the 1990s for its use as a transit camp for refugees from Haiti and elsewhere trying to reach the US. Hence both the band and the reference.)

  17. 17
    Tom on 8 Jan 2014 #

    #14 I think serious is best when it’s inseparable from sensuous. He says glibly, but there’s a lot of textural surface pleasure here which I don’t always get out of “darker” material – Massive Attack, at least in the 90s, are another good example of that.

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    Cumbrian on 8 Jan 2014 #

    #14: I think I would broadly agree with this. Just going “darker” is not enough, it has to be combined with something else. We’ll get onto other rappers* eventually that go dark (at least lyrically) and I found a lot of that annoying, as I didn’t feel like it was offering what you’ve described musically. Agreed on Massive Attack – though as a formula, it doesn’t always work for them, I think. 100th Window is probably as dark as their first 3 albums but I don’t think as good. Sounds a bit chilly. I like my dark warm, I guess.

    *I’m thinking mostly about a bleached blonde – and possibly his album tracks more than his singles.

  19. 19
    Chelovek na lune on 8 Jan 2014 #

    A real work of craft: a layered composition – one might say “aural installation”, that even succeeds in being stronger than the sum of its (already highly competent and skilfully orchestrated) parts. The underlay of understated menace strengthens it further. A 9.

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    thefatgit on 8 Jan 2014 #

    “Ready Or Not” is tougher than “Killing Me Softly”. It’s all raised fists and “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” attitude. I’d still say “Fu-Gee-La” is my personal favourite of theirs. Darker would be the default description of RON for sure. And yes, I agree with Cumbrian that “dark” doesn’t always mean weighty/worthy, and we’ll be sure to come across outwardly frivolous records that hide things more serious within them. We’ve encountered a few already. Let’s just say we’ll be discussing some doomier stuff in the not too distant future.

    I have often been attracted to the foggy melancholia of trip-hop. Massive Attack, Portishead and DJ Shadow rubbed shoulders comfortably with everything else I was listening to in the mid 90’s, not least some upcoming bunnyable purveyors of electronica.

    I’ve never knowingly heard The Delfonics’ RON. I’ll have to check that out.

  21. 21
    Rory on 8 Jan 2014 #

    A new song to me (I never owned The Score), and I’m instantly hooked. I hadn’t heard the Delfonics or Enya sources, either, so have checked those out too, and liked them both. They’re transformed here into something equally compelling; this is haunting and assured. 8.

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    pink champale on 8 Jan 2014 #

    This is obviously great but my Fugees pick, even above Fu-Gee-La is Manifest, particularly Lauren’s rap. The bit where she goees into hysterical overdrive channeling the RZA’s fast-rap style “Iwasblessedbutcouldn’tfeelitlikewhenIwascaressedclutchingmybreastoverwhelmedbygod’stestIwasgod’sbestcomtemplatingdeathwithagillette….” is absolutely heartstopping.

    Interested in anyone’s take on Blunted by Reality. I’ve not listened to it in years and don’t think i ever really got a handle on it, but it had a whole ramshackle thing going on that I think pretty much stands unique as something tried, abondoned and never picked up by anyone else.

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    swanstep on 8 Jan 2014 #

    ‘Ready or Not”s video is quite impressive – helicopters, jetskis, submarines! It’s like the Michael Bay version of Tricky’s ‘Overcome’ vid.

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    MikeMCSG on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Didn’t really like Killing Me Softly as anything from the early weeks of 1973 is pretty sacrosanct to me but I quite like this for that overarching doomy feel.

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    punctum on 8 Jan 2014 #

    In some quarters The Score is still erroneously viewed as a cheerful party of a rap album but its own quarters are as bleak and unforgiving as anything by the Roots or Company Flow; tracks like “Zealots,” “The Beast” and “Cowboys” float uncertainly past like stiff breezes of seawind-driven bullets, and “Ready Or Not” is scarcely less dark. Essentially a bootleg of the old Thom Bell/Delfonics number sung and rapped over the ominous low Fairlight refrain of Enya’s “Boadicea,” the track twists these emotions and gestures around to represent a twin-pronged militant uprising against both the Establishment and the gangsters, in their separate but linked ways intent on burning down the ghetto. The choice of “Boadicea,” from the soundtrack to the BBC TV documentary series The Celts, is especially prudent in terms of the uprising of a frustrated underdog; in the first verse Wyclef speaks of himself posthumously as a gangster running towards his preordained doom (“My girls pinched my hips to see if I still exist”) while cocking a knowing wink towards the Senate (“I want to play with pelicans from here to Baghdad”). Then Lauryn declares that she will conquer with stilettos of raging beauty (“So while you’re imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone/And defecating on your microphone”), and finally Pras ties the whole reFugees theme up, citing Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” as a warning shot of revolt (“On the twelfth hour, fly by in my bomber”) and – several years ahead of schedule – gives a derisive namecheck to Guantanamo Bay (“Dance round the border like I’m Cassius Clay”). Radical on all fronts, “Ready Or Not” became the latest in a surprisingly long line of Trojan horse chart-toppers in a year which has clearly been sorely underrated for far too long.

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    mapman132 on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Certainly a much harder edged and atmospheric song than their previous song. Strangely not a hit in America as it received little radio play (peaked at #69 on the airplay only chart) despite being the followup to a huge airplay hit from a #1 album. Perhaps the lack of single releases confused radio programmers who immediately moved onto “No Woman, No Cry” which I DO remember getting played, although even that only peaked at #38 airplay (again, no single release).

    So then my only exposure to “Ready or Not” was via its video which did get some MTV play. The video and music go together perfectly. As I stated before, I’m not a hip hop fan but I’ll still give this a 6/10.

  27. 27
    AMZ1981 on 8 Jan 2014 #

    Interestingly, given that there were some extremely successful solo singles and at least one vastly acclaimed and huge selling album to come this appears to mark the last number one appearance by the Fugees or their component parts.

  28. 28
    mapman132 on 8 Jan 2014 #

    #27 Not entirely true (see 2 July 2006).

  29. 29
    ciaran on 8 Jan 2014 #

    #27/28 – There’s also a bunny with a fugees sample in 2004 to get through aswell.

    Which really isnt a patch on ready or not. A much more rounded and enjoyable effort then killing me softly was. The sense of danger really suits the group here and the ‘Independece day’ style-video really suits the mood of the song.

    Was a huge favourite in my school back then and more than justified the hype surrounding them.Spoiled a bit for me when there was a dance mix of this released not long after.Still marvellous to liten to now again.(The fugees version obviously)

    Of all the Fugees hits from that 12 month period its aged better than the others. 8.

  30. 30
    lonepilgrim on 8 Jan 2014 #

    I absolutely love this – minimal instrumentation, on point vocals animated by simmering, righteous anger tempered by a sense of sorrow and loss – and yet still pop.
    The Guantanamo reference and the experience of migrants still seem very relevant today – I find it encouraging that the UK public was willing to put this at the top

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