"I wanted a hip-hop album that has the roots, the integrity and the sound of an old record"
For three weeks in fall 1997, Lauryn Hill moved into the original Tuff Gong studio, the house that Bob Marley built in Kingston, Jamaica. It was a long way from her home in South Orange, New Jersey, but Hill could think of no better place to get her solo debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, off the ground.
"The album was still in my head at that point," says Hill, the mother of two children with Rohan Marley, one of Bob's sons. "When I started recording the album in New York and New Jersey, lots of people were talking to me about going different routes. I could feel people in my face, and I was picking up on bad vibes. I wanted a place where there was good vibes, where I was among family. And it was Tuff Gong."
In fact, if there was a turning point in the making of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a moment when the "theoretical solo album" Hill had been mulling over for about a year became a reality, this was it.
"It was our first morning in Jamaica, and I saw all these kids gathered around Lauryn, screaming and dancing," recalls Gordon Williams, a.k.a. Commissioner Gordon, Hill's recording engineer and right-hand man throughout the sessions. "Lauryn was in the living room next to the studio with about fifteen Marley grandchildren around her – the children of Ziggy and Stephen and Julian – and she starts singing this rap verse, and all the kids are repeating the last word of each line, chiming in very spontaneously because they were so into the song."
The song, "Lost Ones," had begun a few minutes earlier as a syncopated line that Hill improvised over a drum-machine rhythm: "It's funny how money change a sit-u-a-tion." These would become her first words on the album. The song also contains the lyric "I was hopeless, now I'm on Hope Road," and Hill figuratively and literally was: Tuff Gong's address is 56 Hope Road.
The track would include guitar work from Bob Marley's sidekick Earl Chinna-Smith, a sample from "Toots" Hibbert's "Bam Bam" and a reggae-dance-hall bass line.
The Tuff Gong sessions served as a blueprint for Miseducation's savvy mix of live instrumentation and electronic innovation, early-Seventies songcraft and late-Nineties beats, liquid rapping and sanctified singing. Its fourteen tracks (abetted by two "hidden" cuts) flow like autobiography, a young woman's journey from innocence to disillusionment and, finally, to the inner peace afforded by self-knowledge. Heartless lovers and soulless artists are obstacles encountered along the way; the presence of God in everyday life and the joy of home and children are signposts. Waiting at the end of Hill's road was a commercial jackpot. Miseducation sold more than 400,000 copies in its first week and debuted at Number One on the Billboard pop chart.
Not bad for an album that Hill didn't plan on making until she was neck deep into writing it. Miseducation began taking shape when Hill finished touring with the Fugees in late 1996, though she didn't know it then. She was already a star, thanks to the group's multimillion-selling album, The Score, but she wasn't content. "When you're in the middle of the storm, it's kind of hard to see," Hill says, referring to the soured relationships spoiling her private life. "You're just driving to get out."
Hill collaborated with Aretha Franklin and CeCe Winans, and went on a writing binge, telling herself she was creating songs for other artists. She initially wrote a song called "Ex-Factor," which would become a Miseducation centerpiece, for a rock group she was working with. "I even wrote it in a higher key for another singer, and it had this wailing guitar solo at the end," Hill says. But with lyrics about a poisonous relationship – "I keep letting you back in/How can I explain myself?" – Hill realized that she was creating a "personal manifesto" that only she could sing.
With the album slowly coming into focus, the rumor mill began to churn about who would produce it: Hill's Fugees band mate Wyclef Jean or the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. But Hill says she never seriously considered anyone but herself for the job. "The album was becoming so personal," she says, "I knew I had to do it myself."
She stocked her studio in New York with "every instrument I had ever heard on a record" – not just drums, guitars and keyboards, but percussion instruments, horns, even a harpsichord. Hill's musical education had begun in her parents' New Jersey home, where she was raised on classic soul, funk and R&B, and she insisted on making "a hip-hop album that has the roots, the integrity and the sound of an old record. I wanted the kids on the street to hear the hip-hop element and yet be exposed to the musicality, to realize that the two don't have to be mutually exclusive."
Sessions started with Hill improvising ideas with the musicians. "It's not easy for a woman to be in charge, because there's not that initial respect, and plus, there's a certain intuitive language I speak that unless you know me, you probably won't understand right away," she says. "But the older musicians, especially, often knew exactly what I was talking about and gave me the voicing or chord I was looking for. Then I'd hear something offbeat – like in 'Ex-Factor,' I suddenly had this inspiration to hear the kind of timpani drums you'd hear in an orchestra, fused with the hip-hop drums."
Even Williams didn't initially comprehend how Hill hoped to pull it off. "It was like a big puzzle coming together, and it was all in Lauryn's head," he says.
In New York, Hill put the finishing touches on tracks such as "To Zion," about her first child, born in August 1997. It blends a martial-beat drum pattern with a flamenco-style guitar track by Carlos Santana; then the singer tops it off with a spine-chilling, octave-leaping trill that evokes the late soul great Minnie Riperton.
"I wanted it to be a song that had two meanings, where 'Zion' is representative of not just my son but of this holy place," Hill says. "I wanted it to be a revolutionary song about a spiritual movement, and also about my spiritual change, going from one place to another because of my son."
"To Zion" is one of several tracks inspired by religious scripture or hymns. Hill, who grew up in the Baptist church, says, "People think gospel music is a big choir and people clapping and singing really loud. But gospel music is music inspired by the Gospels. In a huge respect, a lot of this music turned out to be that. During this album, I turned to the Bible and wrote songs that I drew comfort from, because I lost my grandmother, my cousin, a seven-year-old friend – a lot of people close to me."
The songs provided not only comfort, she says, but revelation. "The meaning of the title, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has grown since I wrote the album," she says. "It ended up saying a lot about what people didn't know about me. A lot of people around me did not know who I really was."
One might suspect that the album was Hill's way of getting the selfish lovers and shortsighted record-industry people she mentions in songs such as "Forgive Them Father" and "Superstar" to recognize themselves, but the singer demurs.
"You want to know something?" she says. "The songs are more for me than they are for them. In order to live healthy you don't cast your pearls onto swine – that's still a lesson I learn every day."