The title and chorus are based on the 1968 song "Ready or Not Here I Come (Can't Hide From Love)" by The Delfonics. Lauryn Hill was steeped in soul music, which made it a great fit for her.
Wyclef Jean told the UK magazine Muzik in 1997: If you take a song like 'Ready Or Not,' then you see where we are. With the lyrics there's a lot being said for those who really know, but it's like a street message. When we do shows in Brooklyn, everybody comes, from the drug dealers to the good guys.
The underlying groove is a sample of the 1987 Enya song "Song of Boadicea." The Fugees did this without her permission, and Enya came after them hard, earning substantial royalties from the song ("this kind of blatant infringement won't be tolerated," her manager declared). The Irish singer is very particular about what samples she authorizes, and wholesome songstress did not want to be associated with a song where Hill says she'll be "defecating on your microphone."
Enya did allow the godly Mario Winans to use the song on his 2004 track "I Don't Wanna Know."
The video was directed by the German filmmaker Marcus Nispel, who also did videos for No Doubt ("Spiderwebs
") and Mariah Carey ("Make It Happen"). The clip opens with the sound of helicopters and a panel that says, "Chapter Two. In the year of the rat, the Fugees' quest for justice and battle against intolerance continues." We then see the group in commando mode, chased by the military choppers. Spending their budget on a military arsenal was the idea of group member Pras Michel.
The song went to #1 in the UK, but in America it wasn't released as a single in order to spur sales of the album. This tactic worked, as The Score sold over 6 million albums in that country.
The group, which went their separate ways before making another album, was already falling apart when they were working on this song, with palpable tension between Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean. According to Pras Michel, Hill was in emotional distress when she recorded the hook; months later, she tried to do it again, but they decided her original couldn't be beat, as her pain came through in her vocal.
In 2019, this was used in a commercial for Peloton exercise bikes where a rider blissfully sings along to this song during his workout.