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Backstage with the Fugees: Pras on his hip-hop legacy as he awaits sentencing in conspiracy case

Prakazrel “Pras” Michel, from left, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean, of the Fugees, perform during "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" 25th anniversary tour on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP) Prakazrel “Pras” Michel, from left, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean, of the Fugees, perform during "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" 25th anniversary tour on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
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LOS ANGELES -

It's Sunday night, backstage ahead of the second Los Angeles show of Lauryn Hill and the Fugees' anniversary tour. It will be a few hours yet before Hill opens the concert with a solo set of "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," 25 years after its release. The seats in the arena are slowing starting to fill.

Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, a founding member of the Fugees, is sitting in his dressing room at the Kia Forum, watching the Buffalo Bills play the Cincinnati Bengals. Tonight is a celebration -- of his landmark group, of all of the generations who have loved their music -- and of his freedom, however much remains.

In April, the rapper accused in multimillion-dollar political conspiracies spanning two presidencies was convicted of 10 counts, including conspiracy and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, after a trial in Washington, D.C., federal court that saw testimony from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio.

"Some of the lyrics, this art, is imitating my life right now," he reflects on Fugees' legacy and this tour, taking place 27 years after the release of the Grammy-award winning "The Score," his rap trio's second, final, and culture-shaping album. "Especially when I talk about feds and this and that."

The "Ms. Lauryn Hill & Fugees: Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 25th Anniversary Tour" has dates scheduled through mid-December. Michel, who faces up to 20 years in prison on the top counts, doesn't have a sentencing date yet. But, he says, he was never concerned about being able to do the tour.

"I trust the process," Michel explains. He has a new attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, and is optimistic.

Last month, Michel argued in a motion for a new trial that, among other errors, his previous defense attorney used an "experimental" generative AI program to help write closing statements. In the closings, the attorney appeared to confuse key elements of the case and misattributed lyrics -- "Every single day, every time I pray, I will be missing you" -- to the Fugees instead of Diddy, according to the motion for a new trial.

"Obviously there's been a little bit of progress, so we'll see what happens," Michel says.

Despite that run-in with artificial intelligence, though, he hasn't soured on the concept: The world needs to recognize the technology is in "its infancy stage," Michel says, and there's a long way to go. "It's the future."

Outside his dressing room, the narrow hallways of the famed Inglewood venue are full of excited spectators made up of friends, family, fans -- including an ecstatic Tiffany Haddish. Wyclef Jean's room quickly becomes the centre of the party, with Drake's "Started from the Bottom" playing over a loudspeaker as he shows off his performing fit.

Far too often, reunions feel like cheap plays at nostalgia -- not so much a celebration of the great work that came a couple decades prior, but an attempt at capitalizing on collective memory. There is no such sentiment here. When Jean, the third member of the Fugees, thinks about the way these performances affect him, it's a homecoming -- and the result of many years of hard work.

"If you ever created a band like in high school the first year of college, that's what it feels like. So, like the Beatles, for example. It's almost like you rehearse all your life through high school so you never have to rehearse again," he says. "And tonight is monumental, because the arena we're playing here, this is (where) the early Lakers (played). And so that's how I always explain the Fugees. You know, I said, it's like Showtime Lakers."

The Fugees' message is prescient, too -- Michel points out a song like "Mask," and its resonance with members of a younger generation who have gone through the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's almost like we prophesized a lot of things," he says.

So how does a group know when they've got some magic? That a reunion tour is truly special? Jean compares it to a mountain -- people don't see the "combustions" that formed it over years -- only "the end result, which is beautiful," he says.

"And that's sort of like how music is made," Jean says. "So, when you make music that's vulnerable, whether it is Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Fugees, Nas' `Illmatic,' 50 Cent's `Get Rich or Die Tryin',' it's going to always last forever."

Close to 10 p.m., Hill emerges. She is awarded a plaque for "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" receiving diamond RIAA status; quotes from bell hooks appear on the screen behind her. In the first of many surprises, Nas appears on stage to perform "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)."

Hill is joined by Jean and Michel, and it is as if no time had passed. Then Cypress Hill's B-Real comes out, as does Lil Wayne for "Ready or Not" and "A Milli."

Afterward, fans pour out into the night. Nearby, rapper Travis Scott's show is wrapping up at SoFi Stadium. The two audiences weave into one in the street; here are the past, present, and future of hip-hop, intertwined.

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