Music

20 Years Since Ms. Lauryn Hill's Debut, How Much Has Changed?

By Karen Bliss

On July 5 in Virginia Beach, Ms. Lauryn Hill will launch an extensive 20th anniversary tour for her landmark solo album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. Twenty years ago, the singer, pregnant with her second child (she's now a mom to six and a grandmother), sat down in her hometown of New Jersey with Toronto-based music journalist Karen Bliss for this candid interview that covered motherhood, hangers-on, faith, love, maturity, creativity and success. The album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, was nominated for a whopping 10 Grammy Awards and won five. Over the years, it has sold close to 20 million copies. Here is the reprint from 1998, exclusively on PAPER:

Some girls are only about that thing. Not Lauryn Hill. The Grammy Award-winning hip hop artist is about many things: singing, composing, acting, producing, directing, parenting, loyalty, love, strength, faith. The 24-year-old New Jersey native joined the Fugees with Wyclef Jean and Pras at 13, and along with an acting career which included roles on soap opera As The World Turns and 1993 movie Sister Act 2, has had to grow up fast. Sales of the Fugees second Ruffhouse/Sony album, The Score, topped sales of 17 million units worldwide.

Her current solo debut, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill — for which she wrote, performed, arranged, produced, and selected the studios and musicians — amassed the largest first-week U.S. Soundscan sales of any female artist at 422,000-plus copies. It has now surpassed a million. But Hill won't let these latest accomplishments go to her head, for her biggest to date, is as the mother of young son Zion and his sibling, due before the next million flies off the shelves.

Reading your press, reading your lyrics, you appear to have a strong sense of yourself and intuitiveness about other people.

It comes through maturity and inspiration. I don't take credit for my lyrics because I think they're inspired by God. Some lyrics come out in five-minutes time too and those are the ones I definitely think are inspired. I've also matured to that place. I've written in the past about things I thought I knew, but it wasn't until I really experienced those things that I really understood exactly what.

Working through success enabled you to realize who your true friends are?

Maturity, for any young woman, on any level, is what it is. To do it in the public eye, and in a successful band, is that much more heavy because you're young and naive, you're female, and there's a lot out there.

Were you naive?

I was naive. I think I was smart. I don't think I was stupid, but I don't necessarily think naiveté is stupidity. I think it's not being exposed to a specific type of person, not even being able to relate. There are people who hit so below the belt and you wouldn't even expect it because you know the rules, so you're going 'Whoa!'

In "To Zion," about your son, you comment on the people who had the audacity to tell you to choose your career over having a child. It's none of their business.

No it's not. I was always one of those people who would make decisions to make everybody happy. Having my son marked the first of my decisions for myself, for my own emotional, spiritual well-being. There were people who put up a fight, 'You're stupid.' 'Such a bad decision,' and that also helped to clarify who genuinely cared for me, and who was concerned about my well-being and my sanity, and who was not, who was around me for pay day.

Did it make you feel uncomfortable knowing that you're responsible for someone else's livelihood?

I'll tell you something. People will make you feel uncomfortable, but I have to be true to Lauryn Hill. The only thing I've ever tried to do is expose people I care about and people who I thought I trusted to opportunity, not taking anything away from them, but I also had to be secure and happy for myself. Anybody who would fight that couldn't possibly be anyone that was good for me.

You talk about destiny in the title track and also in "Everything Is Everything," what is meant to be will be.

Karma is real. Everything happens for a reason. I definitely believe that if you go around stepping on toes, those who show no compassion will be shown no compassion. I know that to be true as a matter a fact. Consequence is no coincidence.

Is that why you started your non-profit foundation, The Refugee Project, to give something back?

The Refugee Project is just some energy I had. After a while, things were going so beautifully, it was like I'm supposed to do something with this. This wasn't all for me. It's just sharing the blessing. To me, it's not something just entertainers are responsible for doing. I think everybody should lend a hand when they can. It's really just about providing access and opportunity and information to kids who don't have it.

Your lyrics, even the love songs, are not only very personal, but you actually include verbatim conversation.

A lot of people act surprised. They can't believe I did that, but I grew up on music that wrote in this tradition. I grew up on [Marvin Gaye's] 'Distant Lover,' 'What's Going On,' [Steve Wonder's] 'Isn't She Lovely?' and [Aretha Franklin's] 'Ain't No Way,' so I'm not looking at being honest as something foreign. To me, that's what music was. Music was digging deep into your soul. It's all I know. It's all I relate to, so I think it would have been more difficult for me to do something more contrived and less emotional.

There's always a resolution in your lyrics.

I'm about resolution, reasoning it out.

In "Superstar," you write, "Everything you drop is so tired/ Music is supposed to inspire." From where did those feelings arise?

Oh, probably, just frustration with hearing that everything is about money and money is everything 'cause money is definitely not everything, and money without responsibility is actually dangerous.

Did you find, as in the opening line on the album (in "Lost Ones") that "It's funny how money change a situation?"

It's very true.

Did it change you?

It didn't change me, so much as it changed how people perceived me. I think they automatically thought, 'She's gonna change. Let's start treating her differently.' I've always been very happy living comfortably. I didn't go out there and buy a bunch of huge things for myself. My clothing isn't really different. My jewelry is the same. Actually, the first thing I did was buy my grandmother a house and make sure that she was okay and make sure my family was alright first.

Do you mind talking about motherhood?

Motherhood, first of all, it's been a large part of helping me to gain clarity and the steps that led up to me becoming a mother. When you have a child, all B.S. has to cease because it's no longer just you. Things I would have accepted because it was just me and I would have endured, I have no time for. It's about surrounding my son with positive people and giving him a consistent positive environment, where God is present and people who love and respect God are present and in the music business that's not always easy. You have to be careful and discern between characters who are around just to be around.

Have you always known that you'd be a good mom?

No! When I had a child is when I realized. Every parent is winging it (laughs). My mother, when she used to say to me, 'I told you so,' I thought that meant that she knew every single thing in the world, and it's not until now that I realize that she was just doing her best.

Are you doing things your mother did?

I'm starting to dance like my mother! My God, I saw myself in the video ["Doo Wop"], and Geez, it's MY MOM!!! (Laughs). One time, I heard this comedienne and she said that one thing she would never do is when your friend puts their kid on the phone and says, 'Say, 'Hi!' Say, 'Hi!', Say, 'Hi!' And you say that about a hundred times. And I'm telling you, you do all of that.

Is he on your answering machine?

Not yet. But I tried to put him on the album. I put the mic near him and I starting talking to him, 'Zion, okay, Zion.' Any other time, he's like, 'Wooo! Wooo!,' and in this particular time he spit for about an hour.

You squeezed in the writing, recording and, actually being the producer of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, while you were pregnant.

When some people are pregnant, their hair and nails grow; my creativity and my work ethic just expanded. I was nuts before but I just became extra nuts, like I felt like I've got a multitude to do, x, y and z. I took a little bit of downtime but it wasn't very long, maybe a couple of weeks, and then I got back into the studio. But I made a commitment very early to music and family and when you love something so much, it's almost like a relationship. If it's someone you really want to speak to, you make time.

In your role as producer, did you bring in the musicians?

I brought in musicians, drum programmers and worked very closely with them. I can't just work with anyone because there are certain genuine article and a certain sound and sometimes it's a challenge to articulate exactly what you want. There are some people who take directions better than others and those relationships are really special ones.

What did you articulate to them?

I'll give you an example. A lot of songs I write on guitar first, but then there's a certain type of arpeggio I want it to be played in, so we had to go through a couple of different styles before we could find that which what was right for that song. Or I play the bass line on piano or I'll hum one and then we have to find that sound. Is it fretless? Is it upright? Is it electric? Can you mute the strings? I'm kind of weird with my slang. My slang is 'Give me more of that pretty tone-y style,' and they know what I'm talking about.

There's dozens of live instruments on the album.

The first day I went to the studio, I filled it with every instrument I ever loved to hear from celeste to organ to strings to horn to timpani drums to all types of percussion, harpsichords.

You ensured the mix didn't bury them.

Mixes are everything. I remember listening to Jimi Hendrix talk about how he wasn't around for the mixing of his first album. Even though the piece of work was a masterpiece and everyone loved it, he felt there was so much that was lost because of the way it was mixed. The mix was extremely important, making sure you heard every element. I put organ in because I wanted you to hear organ. I wanted you to hear Rhodes. I was very specific about how I want the sound.

Have you always been like that?

Mmm, hmm, very anal.

With first Fugees record (1993's Blunted On)?

Not so much the first one. I was like 16.

So you've been learning?

Definitely learning. That's why by the time The Score came around, I was, 'Hey, you gotta put that up. No, that's too low.' I was really specific.

So The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is exactly what you had in mind?

It's as close to my heart as possible.

You've been quoted as saying your abilities as a producer have been largely dismissed or ignored.

That's just the world of being a female. No matter how many times my name might have stood by Wyclef on The Score, it wasn't taken as a serious thing. But it's not anything I'm mad at. People have a tendency to think it's more of a vanity thing, and that there's really somebody doing the hard work, while the girl just shows up to sing. And that's not true. I think women are credited for their musicality, they're credited for their beauty, but others don't want to give them any credit for their creative and intellectual contributions, usually. Whatever, though. That's where the world is right now.

Tell me about your independent label.

It's in the process of being set up right now and I'm actually signing my first artist.

Can you reveal who it is?

No. Not until those papers are signed.

What's your A&R mandate?

I know that I want to sign artists who have a very soulful and less orthodox approach to music.

Urban?

No. Who knows? I think there's two types of music — good music and bad music and I like the good stuff, no matter what that is.

Photo via Getty

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