The Fugees’ ‘Killing Me Softly’ was impossible to avoid throughout 1996, and it epitomised everything irresistible about the dynamic trio. Although it wasn’t their own song, one thing that The Fugees can’t be criticised for is lacking in originality.
Roberta Flack wasn’t the originator of the heart-breaking track either. However, her version in 1972 brought the track into public consciousness after Lori Lieberman failed to chart with the single a year prior. Flack won countless accolades for her sparkling performance on ‘Killing Me Softly’, including ‘Record Of The Year’ and ‘Best Pop Performance’ at the Grammys.
Taking on a track of this stature is one that can easily fall flat, but The Fugees revived it and made ‘Killing Me Softly’ soundtrack a whole new generation by gifting it with a shimmering hip hop facelift. They modernised it by cleverly intertwining a sample of A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Bonita Applebum’ and brought the two worlds of soul and hip hop together on their version of the beloved track.
Wyclef Jean opened up about the track in 2018; speaking to Off The Record, he said: “I originally wanted ‘Killing Me Softly to be a dubplate. The Fugees had a full scheme with the cover. You don’t just cover something because you’re covering it; you cover it, so if the person hears it, they say, ‘Yo, he really put a spin on my joint’.
“It just had to be simple because Lauryn is such a powerful vocalist,” Jean continued. “I felt like that record would be carried vocally. When we sent it to Roberto Flack’s people, Lauryn was purely singing sound boy killing vibes, and they was like y’all can’t do that to the record because they didn’t know what soundsystem was.”
He then comically recounted how they originally wanted it to be ‘Murdering Me Softly’ rather than ‘Killing Me Softly’, but Wyclef was informed that the word was off-limits in no uncertain terms. Despite his best efforts to convince the team that murder wasn’t being used in a literal sense, Wyclef’s words fell on deaf ears.
“The record just ate everything up,” Wyclef reflected. “The labels had the idea of what the singles were gonna be, and it just didn’t matter because people decided this is the record. For me, the word hip hop always meant eclectic,” he said from the heart. “With hip-hop, you can grab anything and make it fit; that was ‘Killing Me Softly’.”
‘Killing Me Softly’ became the highest-selling track of 1996 in over 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, where it remains the highest-selling hip hop track of all time. The track’s success got so out of hands that The Fugees took it out of record stores while it was still in the top 20 to make people shift their attention towards follow-up single, ‘Ready or Not’.
The track appeared on the group’s second and final album, The Score, which ascended the band into superstardom. It astonishingly didn’t leave the top ten of the Billboard charts in the States for six whole months as millions continued to buy the album and fall in love with their distinct sound.
The Fugees made hip hop that still had authenticity at its core, like ‘Killing Me Softly’, but it had a broader appeal outside of their traditional fanbase, which allowed it to spread like wildfire. It remains a masterclass in how to do a cover, and the ingenuity that The Fugees showed on ‘Killing Me Softly’ will never tire.