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Give him cred, he hit the streets

April 16, 2006|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

JUDGING by how often you hear the words "keep it real" in rap, the phrase functions as hip-hop's de facto first commandment: Thou shalt maintain thy street cred. This month, Pras Michel, MC of the Grammy-winning, multiplatinum-selling Fugees, took the concept of street realness to its logical conclusion.

Outfitted with a hidden "button cam" and microphone, he posed as a homeless person and lived on Los Angeles' skid row for 10 days to film a feature-length documentary, "First Night."

"This was a life-changing experience for me," says Michel from his home in Beverly Hills. "I wanted to experience homelessness -- I thought it was the humane thing to do -- but I wanted people to experience it with me. So we went deep cover."

Talk about living up to the title of his 1998 solo album (and signature single featuring Mya), "Ghetto Supastar." Along the way, the rapper says, he panhandled in downtown's financial district to earn enough to eat, slept in the rain in a cardboard box after his tent was stolen and observed drug addicts buying crack cocaine in front of a police station.

He only gave his identity away at the end of filming when it came time to get the release forms signed. "At no point did I identify myself," he says. "People would be like, 'You look like this dude from this group the Fugees.' I was like, 'I wish I was.' "

Michel was ejected from a downtown hotel after he wandered in for a meal. "They kicked me out. It hurt my feelings," he recalls. "People ignore you. Or if they do look at you, it's like you're the scum of the earth."

Michel is also a producer on "First Night" and hopes to premiere the documentary at the Toronto Film Festival in September. He took on the project during a break from the Fugees' long-awaited, often delayed follow-up to the group's 1996 album, "The Score," which moved 17 million copies. Although the single "Take It Easy" was released in August, Michel insists the song was prematurely "leaked" by Sony Records after he and band mates Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill played it for label executives as a show of good faith.

While the Fugees have six new tracks in the can and hope to release an album before the end of the year, Michel expressed frustration with Hill. "Once in a while she'll come by and then she'll dip out," he says. "She's in a different head space. It makes it difficult for us." Hill declined to comment.

Michel says that his recent exposure to homelessness gave him a different perspective on the rap/R&B diva and her predicament.

"Being down on skid row, I see the difference between someone down there and someone like Lauryn Hill," he says. "The difference, I realized, is all about support systems. If something really bad happens to you, you can go back to your mom or dad. What I realized is, a lot of people don't have those things. That's why they wind up on skid row.... Her behavior, I saw a lot of that in skid row. The irrational way of thinking. Thinking the world's against you."


Anyone want mashed Korn?

THE mash-up thing seems to have worked out pretty well for Jay-Z and Linkin Park. Their album, "MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups Presents Jay-Z/Linkin Park: Collision Course," which cross-pollinates rap with rock, hit No. 1 on the album chart in 2004. The rapper

and rockers even made a mash-up cameo at this year's Grammys.

Ergo, last week, nu-metalheads Korn and Southern "snap" hip-hop specialists Dem Franchize Boyz, Virgin Records label mates, met up in a Southland recording studio to musically conjoin their respective hits "Coming Undone" and "Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It" for a mash-up single.


Two halls of fame, alike in dignity

WITH Seattle's Experience Music Project and Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame already enshrining and institutionalizing the history of popular recordings, do music aficionados really need another altar to worship pop history? Backers of the multimillion dollar Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, which will open in Nashville in June, seem to think so.

The new landmark will honor the players -- session musicians, sidemen and early influencers in addition to the usual suspects -- from every pop genre.

In a recent press release, Neil Young tried to stoke interest in the Musicians Hall while dissing the competition.

"You can see the hood ornament on the car if you go to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame," the announcement quotes him as saying, "but if you want to look at the engine and see what's making it go, then you go to the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum."

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