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
by Laura Checkoway
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.
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.
Jackson: She called me and sang a verse of "Zion" and I was literally in tears. I went through that with her as a friend, Wendy Williams blowing her spot about her pregnancy on the radio. No one knew! It was definitely a Where's Waldo? moment 'cause no one knew who Lauryn was dating.
Marley: She ended up having a child from myself and ones telling her she need to abort the child. Those songs, it's all her experience.
Che Vicious: I'd gotten into a bunch of Spanish records. I lived in a brownstone in Brooklyn and there was this little studio apartment on the top floor that didn't have air conditioning. I could only go in there for 20 minutes at a time to make tracks because it was too hot. And one of those 20 minutes is when I made "Zion." I came in with the track and Lauryn teared up and said, "I have this idea to do a song about my baby and I didn't know what the music should sound like until I heard that track."
Nobles: Out of all the records, "Zion" was her baby because it was about her child. Can't nobody interfere with that right there. That drum roll inspired Kanye's "Jesus Walks," I know it did!
Commissioner Gordon: I remember the first time she sang "To Zion" to me I almost started crying on the spot. Che put together a drum loop and she came over right next to me at the board and started singing "Zion" in my ear. These circumstances she's singing about I know first hand. I'm at the label hearing everybody say, "How's this girl gonna get pregnant now?!" Then Carlos [Santana] played his guitar in Miami at Circle House Studios. It was a swap. She wanted Carlos to play "Zion" and she did a song for Supernatural.
"Doo Wop (That Thing)"
Nobles: There was a box set that said "doo wop" sitting on the floor — the title for her single "Doo Wop (That Thing)" came off that box. We were making a song warning women about slick men, but there's some bad girls out here, so we gotta tell both sides. I thought the music was cheesy, it wasn't hard enough, so I put a really heavy drum in there just to give it some edge, something hip-hop.
Lenesha Randolph (backup singer): In November 1997, I get a phone call asking if I was available to come to Chung King Studios. Lauryn came in eating spaghetti pomodoro and garlic bread and explained where she's trying to go with this album and how she wants it to be a reflection of all of us. I was an 18-year-old girl that just wanted to sing. For "Doo Wop" she said, "I wanna play with '50s and '60s harmonies, like barbershop guys on the corner and then we all just jumped in harmonizing a cappella "whooo whoo whoo whoo." She directed us and from there history was made.
Commissioner Gordon: When I mixed "Doo Wop" at Sony Studios, it was 128 tracks — two 48-track machines plus two 24 two-inch machines all running at the same time. When James Poyser came in for "Superstar," we rented a harpsichord that was so old it fell out of tune really quickly so we had to have the tuner actually there. By the time James finished playing it once it was out of tune.
The Move to Jamaica
Marley: One time at Chung King Studios she was like, "I can't do this, there's too many people popping in." I said, "Let's go to Jamaica, you don't worry about anything." She needed to get away. She needed to get to the rock.
Nobles: We stayed way up in the hills and Rohan would take us to the studio. He would fly in that BMW around curves, he was messing with us. I remember being scared for my life. "Forgive Them Father" and "Lost Ones" were made at the Bob Marley Museum on 56 Hope Road. That's why on "Lost Ones" she says, "I was hopeless, now I'm on Hope Road."
Commissioner Gordon: That first day in the studio was a lot of pressure because we were late since all the equipment was held up in customs for two days. The lead engineer Errol Brown used to be Bob Marley's engineer and the family — Stephen, Damian, Julian, Ziggy — were in and out. Vada set up his drum machine and got the beat rocking. He'd always do his little dance while he's making his beats.
Nobles: Lauryn was in the studio room redoing vocals. Stephen and Damian Marley would play football at the museum and hang out. I had a MPC 3000 and an SP 1200 connected together, showing them the sounds and I said, "Wait a minute, this is hot, let me record that!"
Commissioner Gordon: Right as Lauryn walks in, she starts freestyling. A lot of Bob's grandchildren were there, all these little kids jumping around. As she kept doing that rhyme pattern, Situation! Complication! Tion! Tion!, she would point to the kids and they all chimed in "Tion! Tion!" She put down the verses on a handheld mike 'cause she always had a different vibe when she would hold a mike.
Marley: The musicians, my brothers, the whole studio was filled with people, this place was moving. And she's just walking around and dropped a verse on that, she gave everybody chills. Those lyrics, they cut through you.
"Nothing Even Matters"
Nobles: Lauryn was in the kitchen at the house up the hill in Jersey where she'd moved with her parents when we first played "Nothing Even Matters" for her. I was so excited but Lauryn didn't get it musically. Sony started putting a lot of pressure on her to hurry and wrap the record up. She started scrambling, going back through the ideas and then the lyrics came together.
Che Vicious: I was messing around with these finger snap sounds for the D'Angelo song ["Nothing Even Matters"] and she started coming with the song out of her head. We built the record around this weird snap pattern. That's how it was with her — the creative process wasn't this strict environment.
Randolph: "Nothing Even Matters" I hold dear to my heart because I got to meet Mr. D'Angelo, himself.
D'Angelo: Collaborating with Lauryn was very cool. She was warm and sweet. Originally, we were going to swap tunes for each other's projects because I was working on Voodoo at the same time and my keyboardist James Poyser was also working with her. I went to her house in New Jersey, she played a lot of songs for me and gave me a rough copy to listen to. When Lauryn and I went into in the studio together, I laid down my vocals in the course of an hour.
"Everything Is Everything"
Nobles: A friend of mine had a little studio in East Orange [New Jersey] where "Everything Is Everything" came about. Lauryn didn't need to use fancy studios — she was down. The title concept came from Donny Hathaway. Then John Legend came by and played. He was trying to get his career off the ground.
John Legend: I was in the spring of my junior year at University of Pennsylvania. A friend invited me to give her a ride to Lauryn's house in Jersey. Lauryn was working "Everything Is Everything." I sang and played a couple songs for her. She asked me to play piano on the track. She guided me a little bit but it was pretty simple because I was playing along with a string part that was already there. I became known around campus as the dude who played on "Everything Is Everything." It was my little claim to fame at Penn for my whole senior year.
Commissioner Gordon: "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" was never meant to be a commercial single. It was originally recorded for [the soundtrack for the movie] Conspiracy Theory and ended up on the radio, became popular, and that's how it ended became a bonus track. She called me and said she was behind and had to get it done. She didn't know how the arrangement of the song went, so we went and got a copy from Coconuts or Sam Goody. I had a little one-room 16-track studio in my apartment in Jersey. Lauryn was eight months pregnant, laying on her back on the floor, half asleep, holding a handheld mike. She did all of those vocals off the top of her head pretty much in one take, with the beat box and all of that. That blew me away.
Candice Anderson (backup singer): I came in during the last two songs. I had just auditioned at her house and they were like, come to Chung King. I had no clue what was going on but she told us what to sing. "Tell Him" took a while because she's very particular about how she wants it to sound. We'll keep going until it gets to exactly what she hears in her head and she won't stop until she gets exactly what she wants.
Jackson: For the album title, she wanted something like The Education of Sonny Carson and we were like, why don't you make it more self-deprecating, like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill? People heard it as her opus and what she was, but in hindsight I think it was more about what she aspired to be. And what else is art but the best side of who you are and who you wanna be?
Ras Baraka (poet, politician and teacher who served as Miseducation's narrator): I was running for councilman in Newark and was also an eighth grade teacher. I was just about to take two of my students home and Lauryn called and asked if I could come up to her house in South Orange. There were chairs set up in the living room and a bunch of kids were there. She told me she wanted to discuss the concept of love. There was a blackboard and I wrote the letters "LOVE" and we just went into the whole discussion.
Release and Reception
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released on August 25th, 1998 and sold 422,600 copies its first week in stores — a SoundScan record for best-selling debut week for a female artist. In January 1999, Hill received 10 Grammy nominations. The following month she took home five trophies including the awards for Album of the Year, Best New Artist and Best R&B Song. She read from Psalm 40 during one of her acceptance speeches.
Jackson: Lauryn became an international superstar. She couldn't go to the grocery store without makeup and I think that had an adverse effect on her. We had a huge year at the Grammys and then Carlos Santana had the big year next year and she presented for Carlos. It wasn't so much the amount of records we sold but how we sold them — we didn't put out six singles, seven videos, do every TV talk show and just milk it. We marketed and presented her as a classy, genuine person and that resonated and that's why we're still talking about it 'til this day.
Poyser: The lyrics of that record really struck a chord with everybody, it really touched a lot of souls. The best songs are testimonies of life that everybody can relate to. Everybody can't relate to balling and drinking Cristal and running around with a million chicks and driving a Bentley. Everybody can relate to heartache and love.
D'Angelo: Churches were substituting God in the lyrics [for "Nothing Even Matters"]. Whenever they make a gospel version from a secular song, that's significant.
Commissioner Gordon: Knowing Lauryn was definitely a blessing and whatever time we spent together was all very significant and that is evident in the thing that we created. She was just gifted.
Jackson: After all that beauty, she hurt a lot of people that loved her because she got hurt.
Che Vicious: She gave me co-production [on "To Zion"], but I did the track on my own. There was label pressure to do the Prince thing — written and produced by. I still love you like a sister, but you didn't do it on your own.
Commissioner Gordon: Sometimes when you have a really big blessing, you have a really big weight that comes along with that and some people can get weak along the way. The highs were super, super high and the lows were super, super low. She was like, "I'm releasing myself of the burdens of this worldly business and I'm going into my sabbatical."
Nobles: Everything changed. It went from we to I. Everything started out genuine but somewhere down the line, something switched. Once it became clear that I wouldn't be credited or compensated according to what's fair, I had to voice how I felt. I had a wife and family. She barely credited me. She gave Che my credits. As God as my witness, that was in spite. I tried my best to resolve it without lawyers but it became impossible. The suit dragged on for about three years. They tried to discredit us that we were musicians trying to take advantage of her.
Jackson: Our mistake was Lauryn never wanted to do paperwork or formalize the relationship with them. She was like, "I don't want them to feel like they work for me" and that came back to bite us. She looked at Vada as a drum programmer, like I want you to make a beat — take that out, do this. Kilo claimed to be an MC but early on it became clear that he wasn't no MC. She was trying to decide between a line about Polos or Girbauds. I was like, Polo is more classic. So I could've claimed I wrote a fucking verse for her! Ain't nobody write no Lauryn Hill song, them shits was way too personal. They sued Lauryn, Sony, Ruffhouse Records, me, Suzette — everybody. The case was dragging on and it just got really ugly.
Marley: A team of them ganged up against her. Of course she sits there like, Ro, give me a word that rhymes with rat. I say cat just to trigger something, Nobody writes anything for her. Because she's a woman of the Almighty, she doesn't wanna fight. It's like someone telling a lie on me and I'm standing there defending a lie.
Che Vicious: I'm glad I was a part of it, the only thing that taints it for me is I wish it was properly credited. Maybe in retrospect I should have sued her. But it doesn't taint the body of work because at the end of the day people loved the record. I felt like we could have made more than just one. I'm sad about that.
Nobles: Eventually Lauryn decided she didn't wanna go on with it no more. The lawyers were mad that she wanted to quit. Kilo and I went to her house and made peace right after the depositions. I haven't seen or heard from her since.
James Poyser (songwriter/producer): The business end of it got extremely, extremely messy. You chalk it up to experience. When you throw your heart out there, you gotta be prepared for it to not land somewhere soft.
The Aftermath: Hill's Retreat
Jackson: It started to get strange, Bible study went from one day a week to three days a week to five days a week to I want you to come. I went to a couple of them but I was like, I completely understand if it's your calling, but it's not mine and I can't force it. As that picked up we drifted further and further apart.
Nobles: The type of pressure, selling 18 million records worldwide, winning all these Grammys and people love you and then you wanna be outside the box, change up your hairstyle, express yourself, and people say, "No, that's not you." She ain't the type of woman that you gonna box in. She's Ms. Hill, that's who she is. And there's nothing wrong with that. She wants to be called Ms. Hill, fine. Maybe she feels that society has disrespected her, maybe she feels like you're not entitled to call me Lauryn, you don't know me and don't pretend like you know me.
Pras: It's not that Lauryn is crazy — if it's not the orthodox way then people tend to say you're crazy. People said Einstein was crazy. Lauryn had whatever she was dealing with personally, and sometimes people don't know how to give you a break because she had such an impact.
Marley: They've been hating for too long, hatin' on her for no reason. You got a guy like Wyclef talking about her on the radio. What the fuck, brethren?! Relax! That's foolishness! Big man, what you doing? Let's move on. We got children too, ya know?
Hill: I think, in our own sweet time, we're gonna get into a room and talk to each other about all of our issues and make some music. But that can't happen too prematurely or I think it would damage things. We all sincerely loved each other. And we still do. But in any relationship there's ups and downs. People grow up, they grow apart. I have a huge amount of love for them, but I needed to learn some things about myself. I've found my sound, the sound which is distinctly me. I needed to become the woman that I'm becoming, and it was necessary for me to make this record. But I think, at the same time, this record may have revealed some insecurities in other people. And I think it made it a little difficult. I don't think that everybody was necessarily that happy that I decided to do a solo project. I think that they thought the worst as opposed to the best.
But I know that (a) time reveals truth. And (b) time heals wounds. So I'm not in any rush to rip any Band-Aids off. Actually, maybe I am. Maybe I do wanna rip the Band-Aid. I think this album definitely ripped the Band-Aid off, because it helped the wound to breathe as opposed to fester. But I'd rather let the healing process take its own natural time than rush into a situation. I definitely do [miss the Fugees]. We were a crazy bunch. We used to do some wild things. Not bad wild things — we had a lot of fun. But the funny thing about liberation is that once you get it, anything other feels awkward.
Commissioner Gordon: 'Clef got a bad rap because being the ex-boyfriend, that must be who caused all the problems. But when he spoke about her saying she's disturbed, it was more from a place of helping her than trying to hurt her because it was a long time after.
Jackson: One of the last things she said to me in a real conversation was, "How do I keep it so hot and good, Jayson?" And I was like, "I don't know if you can. The only thing you can do is as you grow, just make records." And if she wants to take the rest of her days and raise her family or write poetry or whatever she chooses, God bless her. And thank you for doing it when you did.
Commissioner Gordon: Lauryn was everybody's favorite singer and you can hear it in so many singers now. She gave the world something. And if that's all there is, maybe it was enough.
Legend: Lauryn had that blend of toughness and soulfulness, melody and swagger. She did it better than anybody still has done it. People are still trying to capture that moment. Jazmine Sullivan's song that's out now ["Need U Bad"] sounds eerily similar to Lauryn.
Nobles: [J Records A&R rep] Peter Edge called asking me to work on Jazmine Sullivan's record. She's a talented girl but I made a choice that I wasn't gonna do it. I don't wanna spend my life trying to reincarnate Lauryn through somebody else. Lauryn ain't dead, Lauryn is very much alive. That woman's alive.
Randolph: I sang with her until 2006. One of my last conversations with Ms. Hill was about her feeling like there's no room for her music and people biting and stealing the formula and making it into something dishonest. And my words for her were, "You changed my life in a day. Whoever you feel out there is mimicking you, the Lauryn I know would show these ho's how it's done."
Hill: I just can't do anything if I'm not inspired. I always sorta wait for the inspiration to come, and if the spirit doesn't drive me to do it, then I won't do it. 'Cause I definitely know that what I'm doin' is sorta bigger than me. It's somethin' that I've been assigned.
Cast of Characters
Candice Anderson: Backup singer, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album and tour
Ras Baraka: New Jersey poet, politician and teacher who served as Miseducation's narrator; Baraka speaks to a group of children about love during interludes throughout the album
Che Vicous (formerly Che Guevera): Producer who worked on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
D'Angelo: Featured on Miseducation duet "Nothing Even Matters"
Lauryn Hill: Singer/rapper/songwriter/producer
Jayson Jackson: Music industry exec who met Hill when she was a high school student and served as her manager until February 2001
John Legend: Played piano on "Everything Is Everything"
Rohan Marley: The son of Bob Marley and father of Hill's five children
Pras Michel: Hill's Fugees bandmate
Vada Nobles: Producer and programmer who sued Hill for not being properly credited on Miseducation
James Poyser: Songwriter, producer and keyboardist credited as a musician on Miseducation
Lenesha Randolph: Backup singer, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album and tour
Commissioner Gordon Williams: Engineer and project supervisor, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
All new interviews were conducted for this story with the exception of Lauryn Hill, whose quotes are from her 1999 Rolling Stone cover story by Touré.