Jan 14

FUGEES – “Ready Or Not”

Popular56 comments • 6,905 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. 31
    pink champale on 8 Jan 2014 #

    #30 This gives me the opportunity to ask a question I have asked the telly every time I’ve watched X factor in the last couple of years. What the hell does “vocals on point” mean and why has everyone suddenly started saying it? Does ‘on point’ just mean in tune/good, or is there some deeper technical meaning?

  2. 32
    lonepilgrim on 8 Jan 2014 #

    #31 Good question! I don’t watch X Factor so I haven’t picked the phrase up there – I suspect it comes from watching too many US TV shows and/or reading so many US Tumblr posters.
    What I meant to say by using the phrase was that I love the ways that the rhythms of the vocal lines add a sense of syncopation and surprise to the recording – providing both music and meaning

  3. 33
    Steve Mannion on 8 Jan 2014 #

    ‘On Point’ also the title of House Of Pain’s second biggest hit no less.

  4. 34
    Doctor Casino on 8 Jan 2014 #

    8 maybe a [i]bit[/i] high for me but I really like this song. Moody and suggestive, and I think all three raps are great. Pras’s is maybe the least distinctive, but that last couplet – “I refugee from Guantanamo Bay / Dance around the border like I’m [i]Cassius[/i] Clay” is killer. The Guantanamo thing is clearly intended as a gesture of solidarity with Haitian refugees as suggested upthread, as well as with his bandmate: Wyclef Jean grew up in Haiti of course.

    Since we discussed Hill thoroughly last time, maybe it’s fair to give the other two Fugees their due. Pras’s career stalled out rather strangely – “Ghetto Supastar” was enormous, and one of my favorite hip-hop hits of that era – but no one seemed to transfer their affection for the song onto its notionally lead performer. It would seem that the hook, ODB’s rap, and Wyclef’s production were all more memorable than Pras’s rap…. though again he delivered some great ones – “Strike with the forces of King Solomon / lettin’ bygones be bygones, and so on and so on.” He seemed to have a knack strident delivery of good-sounding words and some memorable images – maybe he just didn’t have enough to say, or a clear lyrical persona. The followup “Blue Angels” apparently did very well in the UK but I have no memory of it whatsoever, and he didn’t put out another album until 2005 (!), which went nowhere.

    Wyclef, the seeming mastermind behind it all (although as I noted last time out, Hill turned out to be more than just a pretty voice), also hasn’t fared so well. [i]The Carnival[/i] is great (but could be six songs and several skits shorter), and was well-reviewed. The followup albums, oddly, charted higher even as their singles sank like stones and nobody cared. Perhaps his sense of humor was out of step with the times, or maybe he (like Hill) poured all his best material into one album. I remain irrationally fond of his ill-starred, jumpy comedy (?) duet with pro wrestler The Rock, “It Doesn’t Matter.”

  5. 35
    Carl Morris on 8 Jan 2014 #

    It’s worth noting that during this period RZA of Wu Tang was also highly adept at turning joyful soul samples like Delfonics into unsettling hip-hop. It was in the air. It’s just that Wu Tang didn’t quite have the sweet hooks to enjoy such a hit at the time.

  6. 36
    Steve Mannion on 9 Jan 2014 #

    Well this should’ve been #1 just for the video alone http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZGi2lyQJQs (Ghostface ‘Daytona 500’)

  7. 37
    Speedwell54 on 9 Jan 2014 #

    The Fugees were a bit like Jive Bunny really. Remixing, re-recording, sampling, copying, editing. Both had four top 5 hits including at least two No 1 singles. Both had a album peaking at No2. Both had top 10 careers that were over within 13 months. Ok they are NOTHING like Jive Bunny. Their charts careers were very similar though.

    I liked KMS initially but it was around for quite a while and the ‘one time’, ‘two times’ got to me eventually. Ready or Not had none of that. Musically it sounded important and serious. An event. 8

    On listening to it again I had forgotten about Lauryn breaking into a Vic Reeves impression with the ‘do you do voodoo?’ line.

  8. 38
    Billy Hicks on 9 Jan 2014 #

    A dance remake of this, by ‘The Course’ went top 5 in April 1997, pretty astonishingly quick given that this had only barely left the chart a few months earlier. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUQeMvdvCPo They (actually an alias for dutch DJ Vincent Hendriks) followed it up with another cover of a bunnied early ’97 chart-topper, which got to #8.

    As a sucker for 90s dance music anyway it’s surprisingly not as terrible as you’d perhaps initially assume, and does a fairly alright job of housing things up. Original all the way though as ever.

  9. 39
    AMZ1981 on 9 Jan 2014 #

    #28 my bad. I had actually checked on Wikipedia to be certain; however the discography’s there don’t show featured credits. I was hoping it would be a here today gone tomorrow chart topper with about seven different featured artists but it was a big smash as well. I’m annoyed with myself.

  10. 40
    Ed on 9 Jan 2014 #

    Amazon”s algorithm has decided for some reason – I suspect a 90s hip-hop binge in a sale a couple of years ago – that The Score is the album I would like more than any other in the history of recorded music. Every time I log in, it’s there at the top of my “Amazon recommends” list.

    I have resisted until now, but having been reminded of these two cracking number ones – and Fu-gee-la, my own favourite, which also has cracking wintry woodwind / synth on it – I am wondering if I should give it a go. What’s the verdict? Has the AI got it right?

  11. 41
    James BC on 9 Jan 2014 #

    Pras’s role in the Fugees was a point of interest to me, and is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. On The Score he almost always comes in and does verse 3, after Wyclef and Lauryn have already made the track a success. His verse on Ready Or Not is very representative: brief and authoritative, it rounds off the track nicely and provides an extra angle, but the hard work has already been done.

    He’s listed on the sleeve of The Score as Executive Producer, whereas Wyclef and Lauryn are only co-executive producers. That suggested to me and others that his main role in the group was as a kind of background mastermind or production genius. After the split it was Wyclef (and his partner Jerry Wonder, who was also involved with The Score) who turned out to be the master producers, but that was what a lot of people thought at the time – Wyclef was seen more as the fun guy whereas Pras was assumed to be doing the serious work.

    I do think that Pras was important to the group. There are actually quite a lot of rappers who add something to a group track but can’t quite carry a solo track or album on their own. It’s a bit of a shame that there are so few rap groups around these days, since it means those artists either have to look for endless feature credits or never get anywhere at all.

  12. 42
    Tom on 9 Jan 2014 #

    Yeah, the decline of the rap group is an interesting topic and one I don’t know a whole lot about (my historical grasp of hip-hop isn’t great in general) – at the chart level, the occasional boyband aside, we seem to be in an era of solo acts now anyhow.

  13. 43
    James BC on 9 Jan 2014 #

    I think the decline of rap groups is because rap, particularly at grass roots level, has shifted away from live performance and towards recording. In the 80s if you wanted to make a name for yourself you needed to put on a live show, so you had to have a couple of rappers and also probably a DJ. These days you make tracks or a mix tape and put them online, so you just need yourself and a producer to collaborate with (who might also be you). DJs like Jam Master Jay and Mase from De La Soul are nowhere unless they also produce.

    I wonder whether you could make a link between this new, fluid world of ad hoc collaborations between different vocalists and producers (often with credits for the producer(s) as well as singers and rappers) and the jazz world 40 or 50 years ago. People like Miles Davis would assemble a different band for each new record, and the sleeve would say prominently exactly who was on it so that fans could follow individual musicians that they liked.

  14. 44
    Steve Mannion on 9 Jan 2014 #

    There’s been a group decline generally (with “too many people to pay” the common excuse) so I don’t see it as anything specific to hip hop. There are still collectives (e.g. A$AP Mob, Odd Future) whose members all appear on each others solo records (and perform regularly at festivals worldwide). A more conventional group model succeeding again would be welcome though.

    The ‘nostalgic’ market is probably bigger tho. OutKast are back to headline Coachella and I’m sure another FuGees reunion (they had one years back for Dave Chapelle’s Block Party film) would do good business. But a new album from Hill this year seems likelier than it has for a long time.

  15. 45
    rabbitfun on 9 Jan 2014 #

    Wyclef Jean was much bigger post-Fugees than his own records – which were quite successful, but not excessively so, and certainly not as big as Lauryn Hill’s first one – might suggest. For a couple of years, he was everywhere as a writer and/or producer, and as such had a hand in worldwide smashes (but non-bunnies) like Destiny’s Child’s breakthrough hit “No No No Part 2” (1998), Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love” (1999) and Santana’s “Maria Maria” (2000). The 2006 Bunny mentioned above (the biggest of them all) actually came quite a while after his peak period.

    And all the while, a certain dotted william was taking notes. Surely this magnificent but ramshackle and short-lived Fugees thing could be made into a streamlined and shiny machine built to last?

  16. 46
    glue_factory on 9 Jan 2014 #

    …and don’t forget his crowning, post-Fugees achievement; that photo of his on his birthday on a motorbike in his pants

    (if you missed it)

  17. 47
    taDOW on 10 Jan 2014 #

    it took a chapelle intervention at his peak to get a one shot fugees reunion so i wouldn’t hold my breath on that front. i’d give this a 9, i’ll take it over the enya and the delfonics sources (and i like both of those). president obama’s favorite song.

  18. 48
    taDOW on 10 Jan 2014 #

    have to admit the ‘wuh?’ over gitmo ref here reminding me of kids on twitter wondering how biggie knew the wtc was gonna get bombed

  19. 49
    Query on 11 Jan 2014 #

    #22: I think Hill on “How Many Mics” is up there for my all-time favourite hip hop verses: “MC’s make me vomit; I get controversial / Freak your style with no rehearsal / Au contraire mon frere, Don’t you even go there / Me without a mic is like a beat without a snare.”

    #41: Although there certainly remains a market niche these days for the feature-specialist rapper. Ludacris was the archetype in the 2000s, and 2 Chainz aptly fills that role today (at $100,000 a feature, apparently).

  20. 50
    Patrick Mexico on 12 Jan 2014 #

    Bizarrely, my recollection of a kid is that it made me want to make a piping hot cup of coffee during an unfathomably violent thunderstorm. I guess I mixed up the brilliant “doomy” intro with the one to, ahem, Africa by Toto – which I THINK must have been on SOME kind of coffee advert at least once in history – though I think there was a rap collective in the noughties who sampled that with a refrain of “I think the rain is coming back” to similarly slick and confident effect to this?

    This is quite a belter – the “defecate on your microphone” bit really wasn’t necessary, but better a hip-hop group who sound like they’re slapping their palms in anticipation with baseball bats, rather than stuttering their way through the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, so extremely boringly, I fully agree with Tom’s 8.

    The “least controversial” chart shows there’s been a very close consensus on the last three number ones! Methinks the next might smash it to pieces. You’ll say that we’ve got nothing in common..

  21. 51
    glue_factory on 13 Jan 2014 #

    Compared to Tupac’s Hit Em Up which was also out this year and where he threatens to murder anyone East of San Diego, pretty much, I’d take a bit of defecation, as it were. But that record takes us, inexorably, towards a later number one, so that’s a discussion for another day

  22. 52
    Alex on 13 Jan 2014 #

    I have just discovered that YouTube censors out the line about Nina Simone and defecating on your microphone! What will these vandals defile next?

  23. 53
    Patrick Mexico on 14 Jan 2014 #

    The bridge from On a Night Like This!


  24. 54
    Patrick Mexico on 9 Nov 2014 #

    Re 50: That should read “My recollection of it as a kid,” and I know answering my own question secures me 2014’s Biggest Douche in the Universe award, but the track is “Murder Reigns” by….. another bunny! I didn’t expect that.

  25. 55
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    Can’t really get in to the Fugees to be honest. 4/10 here.

  26. 56
    Mr Tinkertrain on 11 Feb 2022 #

    Same as with Killing Me Softly, I hated this at the time and quite like it now. Very atmospheric. 7.

    A slight shame that two of their four big hits here were covers – feels like a band with their influence ought to have had more hits with original material, even if they do put their own spin on them.

    Other chart highlights – I hadn’t realised Lovefool by The Cardigans got its original release in 1996; I’d assumed its more successful run in 1997 was the original run. It made it quietly to no 21 this week.

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