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Inside 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill'

Lawsuits, Grammys, and a tiny attic studio in New Jersey: an oral history of the hip-hop classic on its tenth anniversary

August 26, 2008 2:25 PM ET

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released 10 years ago this week and went on to sell more than 8 million copies, win five Grammys and earn a four-star review in Rolling Stone. Mary J. Blige hailed it as "one of the most incredible albums ever made" and the record influenced a generation of soul and hip-hop artists.

"Music is about to change," Hill told Rolling Stone's Touré for his 1999 cover story. "I think now people feel a little more comfortable playing with the parameters. Writing more intensely."

Miseducation's liner notes mostly credit Hill with producing, writing and arranging the entire album. It was, in fact, a huge group effort, as underlined by a lawsuit settled out of court in 2001 for a reported $5 million. To celebrate the album, Rolling Stone spoke with many of those responsible for making it: a then-little known pianist named John Legend, D'Angelo, engineer Commissioner Gordon, backup singers, New-Ark producers, Hill's longtime companion Rohan Marley, and her Fugee bandmate Pras Michel.

The Beginning:

Jayson Jackson (former manager, Lauryn Hill): The Fugees were on the road in the summer of '96 and Lauryn called me like, "I can't believe these muthafuckers. I've been talking about making my solo record for the longest and they're doing everybody's solo record but mine! I'm leaving the group, I've had it." I was like, call [then-Sony Chairman] Donnie Ienner. And she was like, "I don't wanna fuck with them, I just wanna get a whole new crew."

Vada Nobles (producer/programmer): My friend Kilo called and said, "Yo, bring some music, Lauryn Hill wants us to come to her house!" In her living room, Lauryn had on a brown robe, she was pregnant. She was saying she's moving on from the Fugees and considering doing a solo record. She was looking to put together her own creative support team. She came up with the name New-Ark. Her mother said that Lauryn prayed for a situation like this.

Commissioner Gordon Williams (engineer/project supervisor): In the beginning, the New-Ark guys were the core who put the basic tracks together. Vada was a programmer who made drum beats, Kilo [Rasheem Pugh] would write hooks and lyrics, Tejumold Newton played piano and Johari Newton played guitar.

Rohan Marley (Bob Marley's son/father of Hill's five children): She took these guys New-Ark from out of the ghetto in Newark and created a team and taught them what she knew. Nobody else wanted to work with her because there was little feud going on and Wyclef was telling people, "You work with Lauryn, you don't work with me."

Che Vicious (formerly Che Guevera; producer): I worked with 'Clef and Lauryn knew I wasn't happy with some of the business with 'Clef, so she asked me to come co-produce. She wanted me and [producer/keyboardist] James Poyser at her utter disposal. We gave her a price for that. That's when she brought Vada and New-Ark in. I call it the A team and B team. We never really worked together. By the time the album was done I actually had to re-do their stuff and make it stronger.

Jackson: Music was always a collaborative effort with her. With 'Clef and Jerry Wonder [Fugees producer Jerry Duplessis], they just kicked ideas and that's how music got made. So when she started on her own, she was lonely. I remember her talking about the New-Ark guys like, they're cool dudes and they're young. The genius of that record, it began with her and it ended with her. She wanted it to sound muddy, like an old record scratching and her engineer Gordon was able to capture it.

Lauryn Hill: [I wanted to] write songs that lyrically move me and have the integrity of reggae and the knock of hip-hop and the instrumentation of classic soul. [My engineer and I worked on] a sound that's raw. I like the rawness of you being able to hear the scratch in the vocals. I don't ever want that taken away. I don't like to use compressors and take away my textures, because I was raised on music that was recorded before technology advanced to the place where it could be smooth. I wanna hear that thickness of sound. You can't get that from a computer, because a computer's too perfect. But that human element, that's what makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I love that.

Commissioner Gordon: My wife, Suzette, signed Lauryn as a songwriter and said, "Lauryn wants to talk to you about doing a solo record." Lauryn said, "I want you to be my co-pilot." The recording took about a year and a half. Sony never wanted her to make a solo record; they wanted her to make another Fugees record.

Marley: Lauryn and her mom took [early versions of] her album to Sony Records and they said, "This is coffee table music. What is this shit? Coffee table music." She took her shit and walked outta there.

Commissioner Gordon: No one believed. She said, "I wanna make my own record, have the baby and use these unknown guys." They're like, you're Lauryn Hill, why aren't you with Track Masters? It took a lot of courage to go down that road and we all felt like soldiers in her army. Lauryn will push you to the tenth level to get something the way that she's hearing it. The divinity of the scenario was always overwhelming to me because I could feel it all the time.

Nobles: There was a female group called Ex Factor signed to Arista and we did a song called "Ex Factor" for them. And then we started working on a song called "Loved Real Hard Once" — the title got switched [to "When It Hurts So Bad"]. Those were the first two records that we worked on. We were making songs for other people and the songs started becoming too personal and we were like, wait a minute, this is your story. We were having a conversation about her relationship in the little studio in her attic in South Orange, and that's how "I Used to Love Him" came about. It was about 'Clef.

Pras Michel (founding member, the Fugees): Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill…Some of our frustrations have been let out to the press and some would argue that you don't wash dirty laundry in public. But we're all grown now and understand the impact we had on each other's lives. The album emotionally grabs you because it was her true feelings of things that happened during that period of her life.

Hill: The album is not about me bein' upset about a love lost. It's not even really about bein' upset about bein' stabbed in the back.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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