Lauryn Hill’s ‘Miseducation’ Collaborators Remember The Album 15 Years Later
Ed Note: This story originally ran on August 25, 2013, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. XXL is re-running the story today on the anniversary of Ms. Hill's five awards at the 1999 Grammys, including Album Of The Year and Best New Artist.
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.
The Newton Twins, Tejumold [left] and Johari[/caption]After a few months recording in the Northeast, the operation moved down to Jamaica, where Rohan and his family showed the band his father Bob's old stomping grounds. "It felt like being around the Kennedys of Jamaica," T says. "They had the cars you couldn't get, they took us all around the island in a bus they had."
"When the Rolling Stones went to the Riviera to record, they soaked it up, and when we went to Jamaica we did the same thing," Jo remembers. "It bled into the music." The band was there for a little over two weeks, according to Pugh, and it was there that they worked on "Lost Ones," "Doo Wop (That Thing)," "When It Hurts So Bad" and "Forgive Them Father." They came back to the States and kept working in New York and New Jersey, heading into the studio every day. "Basically, our life was on hold," Jo says. "We had family that didn't see us. If I would've dated a girl it would have been someone at the front desk of the studio, just 'cause I'd see her every day. You live your life around that."
At some point after getting back from Jamaica, the dynamic shifted, and Nobles—to hear the Newtons tell it, at least—convinced the twins to sign a publishing deal with him. [Ed. Note: Vada Nobles did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.] Whatever the level of coercion involved, the twins signed with Nobles in the midst of the project, and as the album neared completion, Nobles was informed that Hill would be taking all the writing and production credits. Nobles and Pugh objected and walked out of the project six months before it dropped, while the Newtons stayed on to finish the album, only to get caught up in the suit after the release due to their deal with Nobles. "We got dragged into a lawsuit that we didn't even wanna go into," Jo says.
In the following few months, while the album was breaking records and winning awards, the members of the band who helped Ms. Hill craft it were stuck out in the industry's version of Siberia. Pugh was passed over for an opportunity to work with Missy Elliott when she found out he was involved in the lawsuit. The Newton brothers watched Hill walk across the Grammy stage five times while at home in their apartment in Los Angeles. The guys were accused of trying to exploit Hill's newfound superstardom. A three-year legal mess kept tensions high and morale low. "You have to get your mind right, because you don't know, maybe you did something great," says Jo. "We could've made three or four more albums [together], but the lawsuit [messed] everything up."
Eventually the stigma came off, and the members of New Ark began working in the industry again. Nobles and Pugh remained a team for a number of years, working with Faith Evans and Heather Headley, before going their separate ways; Nobles scored a huge coup by writing and producing Rihanna's "Pon De Replay," while Pugh was on Ghostface's "Good" as his alter ego Mr. Maygreen and recently dropped a new album. The Newton brothers stayed in L.A. after Miseducation's release, working with Nelly and Queen Latifah and scoring films—now, back on the East Coast, they've signed a production deal with singer Nikki Cara with an eye toward building a roster of artists. Fifteen years later, much of the bitterness has ebbed away.
"We created something that is still missing today," says Pugh. "They need another album just like that right now. Don't preach to them, don't act like you're better than them, talk to them."
"I saw an authorized biography of Lauryn [at a bookstore one day]," Jo says. "I picked it up, and I saw my name in it, along with T, Vada and Kilo. And I was like, 'Okay, that's all right.' People wrote about us. It took us a lot of places—it took us around the world. I met so many people. It allowed me to play with Aretha Franklin. That particular album was what was in Lauryn's head, and we just took it and amplified it. It was just a great period for music." —Dan Rys (@danrys)