The story of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is a tangled one. The album, which celebrated its 15th anniversary yesterday (August 25), was born of controversy and stacked full of emotional honesty on top of 14 tracks of R&B, funk, reggae and hip-hop. The writing and recording process encompassed 18 months, two pregnancies and a journey to Jamaica, while the aftermath wound up icing friendships and tarnishing reputations. And from somewhere in the middle of it all came an album that won five Grammys, set a record for most sales in a single week by a female solo artist (423,000) and is regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of its time, with Nas telling XXL last month that it cleared the way for rap music to be what it is today.
At this point in its existence, Miseducation can be looked at as an outstanding album rather than the centerpiece of a chaotic, five-year drama played out through media outlets and lawyers just as much as recording studios and car speakers. Bookended by the deterioration of The Fugees on one side and a lawsuit on the other, the album itself is one of those cultural markers that helps define that era of hip-hop in the late 1990s. But among those who helped create the album, the hurricane that was Miseducation wasn’t as much of a blessing as it was to everyone else.
The story of the lawsuit has been told but is worth a brief re-telling here: Following the release of the album, the four musicians who formed Hill’s New Ark studio band—Rasheem “Kilo” Pugh, Vada Nobles and twin brothers Johari and Tejumold Newton—sued Hill and her label Columbia when they were not credited as writers and producers, eventually settling out of court for a reported $5 million. “That album was the biggest thing on the planet, and everyone looked at us as the guys suing her,” Pugh says. “It left us as The Lawsuit Guys.”
Things had started well after their first meeting; Pugh brought the crew to Hill’s house in Orange, NJ, where the former Fugee laid out her plan to branch out from her old group. She hit it off with her new band quickly. “She’s really like a sister; if there was a female version of me, it would be her,” says Jo Newton. “I knew the family, her mother and father, brother, her man, her kid. We were extensions of her family.” Hill brought the team into a studio she had in her attic, where they began cutting songs for Aretha Franklin and Andrea Martin, before starting work on Miseducation either in the attic studio or at various locations in Manhattan, recording on two-inch reels and using as few loops and samples as possible.
“Lauryn was definitely the guide—it was her vision,” Jo says. “Our job was to take whatever was in [her] head and put it down for her.” This led to a building-block process of writing, where a spark would morph into an idea, become a groove and then emerge as a song. “Everybody had jobs,” Pugh remembers. “Vada’s job was to find that groove that made us hum. Then T [Tejumold] and Jo’s job was the instrumentation to enhance that groove. And when the groove was so catchy that it made us hum—either Lauryn or me—then it was time to create those words that she wanted to sing. It was literally constant work; even when you didn’t think you were working, you were working. The vibe was incredible.”
Because none of this working process was defined on paper—hence the lawsuit—it’s not always clear whose memory of the sessions is more correct; both the Newton twins and Pugh separately claimed to have been the authors behind the title track, for instance, though all at least agree Hill was not. Pugh and Jo Newton separately spoke of sparring sessions—a one-line battle-rap-type exercise where each person would try to one-up the other while keeping the rhyme scheme intact—which led to or augmented a number of Lauryn’s verses. The influences are consistent across the board—Donny Hathaway, old school doo wop records, KRS-One breaks, Cooley High and old Bill Cosby movies. It’s worth pointing out that in 2008, both her former manager Jayson Jackson (“them [songs] was way too personal”) and her boyfriend Rohan Marley (“A team of them ganged up on her”) told Rolling Stone that Lauryn always wrote her own lyrics, but they also described a collaborative environment that tallies up with the New Ark stories.