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This episode we are looking at the life and library of an artist who’s legacy I’ve only recently started to grasp. Someone who really cared about the music she created but struggled with some of the baggage that came with her success. Success which saw her get to the top of all charts both in a group, The Fugees and as a solo artist. When she released her first solo album she became the first woman to pick up five grammy awards in one night. Adele recently poached that title winning 6 in one night, the only person to have won more is Michael Jackson who won 8 Grammy awards in one night. Ayyyy. Lauryn was the first hip-hop artist to win best album at the awards. Her relatively small catalog—one solo album, one live album, and two albums with the Fugees—still casts a huge shadow over hip-hop culture and she will forever be known as one of the greatest musicians of our generation. That musician, is Ms Lauryn Hill.
Over the next 20mins or so, I will be taking you through the decisions Ms Hill made throughout her life, the things she struggled with and also where she got inspiration from. If you can start to get an understanding of the person who created this music that is still so adored and discovered by new audiences twenty years later that will be powerful in your own creative journey.
On the 26th May 1975, a young lady was born to Valerie Hill and Mal Hill. Valerie was a teacher and Mal was a computer consultant, a job Lauryn says she did not understand for a long time. Fair. It was a fairly middle class background and she had a really supportive family base growing up. Something which she said gave her this solid foundation of self-assurance and confidence. That love and comfort made her full from the inside so when she started she felt able to push herself creatively, without the insecurities and challenges that can come from being raised in a more unstable environment.
She was born in East Orange, moved to New York and then moved back to south orange which was where she really grew up. It’s an area which is only about a 40minute drive from Manhattan and a place she says was really diverse. It was a predominantly Black and Jewish area but really just a myriad of different cultures and communities which I think, comes to life in Lauryn. Like many of the greatest musicians her work isn’t typical of one sound from one area, it’s a fusion of many different things which is what makes it so unique.
As a child, she was very academic, the fact her mum was a teacher probably had a role to play but also seemed to have this natural competitiveness.
CLIP: “i had a love… i don’t know if it was necessarily for academics more than it just was for achieving period… whatever it was i was always driven to do a lot in whatever field, whatever area i was focusing on at that particular period”
At school she was pretty much a straight A student, she also took violin lessons, went to dance class, and founded the school’s gospel choir. Fun fact. She actually was in the same class as Zach Braff you know the guy from Scrubs – yeah, wonder what the rest of their class are up to.
In 1988 so aged 13 she had her first real shitty stage moment when performing on a TV show called Showtime at the Apollo in the amateur category. Little Lauryn got booed off stage for sounding slightly flat. You can find the performance somewhere on the net and it is very sad. And she cried afterwards as most people would but obviously that was the kind of thing you have to go through as you’re starting out, noone is born magical you just work and get better. And Lauryn’s mum said in an interview that that was a defining moment for Lauryn because she asked her, ‘well you’re gonna have to go through this’ and Lauryn looked back at her as if the notion of her not continuing was absurd. One of the quotes I often go back to is by a comedian named Patton Oswalt and it’s: “My favourite failure is every time I ever ate it onstage as a comedian. Because I woke up the next day and the world hadn’t ended.” Something to remember if you ever feel embarrassed or like you’ve fucked up.
One thing that distinguished Lauryn, even at this early age was the seriousness in her. Not like she was serious all the time but she definitely wasn’t messing around when she did something. She took whatever she was putting her time into very seriously. She said, “I think the work ethic that was established in my family was very important”
I’m going to side-step briefly to talk about the first performative thing Lauryn was a professional in and continued alongside her musical career, which was Acting. I’m not going to go into it in loads of detail because her music seemed to have a much bigger impact, both on her, and on the world. What it does reflect though, was her interest i guess, in being in front of the camera. She was in a couple of TV series, but her big role was alongside Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2, which was released in 1993 when Lauryn was 17 years old. One of her greatest musical inspirations was Bob Marley and she also worked for a while on a film intended to be about his life in which she would play his wife.
But, back to music, when she was a Freshman which is aged 14-15 for Brit’s listening she was approached about joining a group as someone had heard she could sing a little. That group, over the next few years would evolve – swap another woman for Wyclef Jean and enter. The Fugees. Before the Fugees were the fugees they went by the name Translator Crew because they wanted to rhyme in different languages, which I initially thought LOL. Early creative ideas. And then I thought about how Global music’s become now, with the growth particularly in the past few years of reggaeton and Justin Bieber’s remix of Despacito XXX Tenacions song wittily named ‘i don’t even speak Spanish, lol”, lots of people are doing this now.
So if I was to make an observation of Lauryn, I would say her growth at this stage was a true combination of good fortune and serious focus. She got opportunities and she took them very seriously, from a young age – much like a Beyonce, no song or role was going to be an accident. She was consciously creating the artist she wanted to be.
And she was obsessed with music. She explained in an interview how she used to sleep on the floor in her room until she was about 19, not because she didn’t like her bed, but because her headphones cable wouldn’t stretch to where her bed was. And what was she listening to? The influences she calls out were, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Glberto, Jose Feliciano, Donny Hathaway, Very soulful and very international.
CLIP: “They really were my teachers, my musical teachers… I wasn’t classically trained but by listening I grew an appreciation for certain musical philosophies and concepts”
So let’s talk about The Fugees. The Fugees was a three piece band, formed in school. Their name came from the word ‘refugee’ which at that time was used a lot as a derogatory term for Haitian-Americans. How far we’ve come…
They released their first hip-hop LP, Blunted on Reality, in 1994. It didn’t gain huge mainstream attention but the music industry liked it. It didn’t chart in the US but did reach 122 in UK and 62 in US rnb. Then came their second album, The Score. Released Feb 1996. Lauryn was only 20 at the time.
That album became one of the biggest hits of 1996 and one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. They included cover versions of old favorites, with the group’s reinterpretations of “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley & the Wailers and “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (first recorded by Lori Lieberman in 1971) so it wasn’t purely original material. The album also included a re-interpretation of “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” in their hit single, “Ready or Not”, which featured a prominent sample of Enya’s “Boadicea”. Thats the bit that goes mmmhhmmm. They actually tried to pretend initially that they hadn’t sampled Enya and she was like, thats literally my recording pay me 3million. Which they had to do so clear your samples peeps unless you think the songs too good and they won’t clear. Maybe I’ll do one of these on Enya because she has had a really undercover impact on hip-hop.
The Fugees won two Grammy Awards with The Score (Best Rap Album) and “Killing Me Softly” (Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group). Killing me softly and ready or not both went to number 1 in the UK .
CLIP: “I never thought I would leave the group…”
So everything was going so great urm, until it wasn’t and shortly after that album the group disbanded. They’ve done a few things together since including a tour in 2005, but none of them have gone very well because there is not peace within that group. Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean starting dating while they were in the band together. Wyclef then met his wife, got married and continue sleeping with Lauryn. It definitely appears that she was head over heels in love with him and quite torn apart by that relationship. I can’t really imagine quite how destructive that must have felt to have the intimacy you would have with a close creative partner, lover and then watch them suddenly love this other person but still kinda keep you hanging on. In his book, Wyclef Jean said “I was married and Lauryn and I were having an affair, but she led me to believe that the baby was mine, and I couldn’t forgive that,” an excerpt from the book reads. “She could no longer be my muse. Our love spell was broken.” I guess I’m bias being female but the idea of someone saying to me, “you’re my muse” that level of adoration, and then back to his wife and dropping you.
I’ve done a lot of reading about their relationship and I think there’s no doubt that that did have a massive impact on Lauryn’s slow mental deterioration which I’ll go on to take you through. I guess the flip of that is that when she decided to create her solo album there was a competitiveness at her core, coupled with a huge amount of emotional energy and confusion and heartbreak which she did successfully channel into one of the greatest albums of all time.
She made this decision to create something that would stand the test of time. That would be the greatest expression of her experience as a human, and stand up to the records of the people she seriously looked up to like Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, one of her friends commented on the competitive energy she had “It’s more competing just who’s better, who’s greater.” Hill’s solo music was intended to settle the matter. When Jean finally came around and offered his production assistance on the record, she no longer wanted it. “She said [to Jean], ‘I’m thinking about working with this producer and that producer,’” a friend says. “He said, ‘Oh, no – I’m producing your whole album.’ She chewed on that for a minute and then said, ‘Nah, I got my own vision.’ That’s when who Lauryn really is started to take form.” She absolutely was focused on proving her genius to the world.
That vision became “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”. And outside of the Fugees everything that has everyone putting Lauryn on this throne as an artist came from that album. That kinda opening up of her heart and her art and her pain and her lessons. Twelve million people bought the album and it established her as one of the great MCs a rapper as well as a world-class singer, songwriter and producer. She was fairly instantly critically renowned and very very rich. Songs that album featured included Ex-Factor and Doo Wop. Ex Factor, which was recently used both on Cardi B’s song ‘Be Careful’ and Drake’s song ‘nice for what’. Through that album, she was seen as the first artist to really excel as a singer and a rapper and truly be one of the best at both.
Unfortunately after this album, Lauryn’s music and spotlight diminished as she struggled personally.
Another quote from the Rolling Stones piece, “I think Lauryn grew to despise who Lauryn Hill was,” a friend says. “Not that she despised herself as a human being, but she despised the manufactured international-superstar magazine cover girl who wasn’t able to go out of the house looking a little tattered on a given day. Because Lauryn is such a perfectionist, she always sought to give the fans what they wanted, so a simple run to the grocery store had to have the right heels and jeans. Artists are a lot more calculating than the public sometimes knows. It don’t happen by accident that the jeans fall the right way, the hat is cocked to the side just so. All of that stuff is thought about, and Lauryn put a lot of pressure on herself after all that success. And then one day she said, ‘Fuck it.’”
As she started to pull back you really get this sense that she was just a bit lost emotionally which makes total sense given all she experienced in such a short space of time. She became very religious I think in a move to find some comfort and stability. In 2001, she recorded her MTV Unplugged 2.0 but few bought the album and when she recorded it, she was continuously breaking down and her voice is so raw but too raw it has to be said, she just doesn’t have the control that she had previously. “Wherever I go, low or high, I have to represent the truth”
“I don’t think she’s crazy,” Pras says. “People tend to say that when they don’t understand what someone’s going through. Walk in her shoes, and see what would you do.”
Between then and now I think Lauryn has done a lot of internal work and soul searching. She’s had 5 children and she’s coming forward to her art and performance as this much older and wiser individual. She is a legend and will always be respected for what she created. She also has a beauty and wisdom that, should be listened to, one quote I want to leave you with from Lauryn, before you leave me and go and listen to her music. It’s used in Teyana Taylor’s new song and it should be a comfort and have poignancy for everyone. Thank you for listening, don’t forget to share and rate. Thank you and god bless.
Above all you keep your clarity
you keep your focus
you keep your sense of love
and you keep your sense of purpose
Your value is internal
- Lauryn Hill