Born c. 1975, in NJ; daughter of Mal (a computer analyst) and Valerie (a teacher) Hill; children: Zion David, Selah. Education: Attended Columbia University. Addresses: Record company--c/o Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211; Phone: (212) 833-7080 Fax: (212) 833-5401.
For Lauryn Hill, gaining a certain level of independence and control as a singer, songwriter, and producer in the predominantly male-centered rap and R&B industry was a formidable struggle. On the first record she ever made, 1993's Blunted on Reality, Hill was nothing more than the ultra-hip lead singer and writer of her own raps. By the time The Score was released in 1996, Hill was a minor celebrity and object of adoration in the media, a talent so obvious--and with looks so photogenic--that the clamor for her to go solo was incessant. But after gracefully letting her fellow Fugees take that route first, Hill unleashed The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill to a platinum sales debut as well as overwhelming critical acclamation and adulation.
In less than six months, Miseducation had sold three million copies. Spin named Hill "Artist of the Year, and inside its pages writer Craig Seymour commented upon Miseducation's wide range of fans. "In a fractured musical landscape, it simultaneously united the SoundScan masses--from hip-hop heads to frat rats to Lilith Fair maidens," Seymour wrote, and called it "the most `feel-good' record of the year, and not just because you can feel good about yourself for liking it. When a black artist brings together people like this, it seems like societal gaps are a little bit narrower."
Hill was born in the mid 1970s and grew up in South Orange, New Jersey, a neighborhood of modest houses on quiet streets that nevertheless was situated not far from a much rougher area with the high-rise buildings of public housing. Her parents were professionals. Her father, Mal, once sang professionally in nightclubs and at weddings, but became a computer analyst, while her mother, Valerie, taught school in nearby Newark. As a child, Hill spent long hours listening to a trove of her mother's old 45s, hundreds of boxes of singles she found stashed in the basement from the likes of Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, and Aretha Franklin from the legendary black music labels Motown, Stax, and Philly International. "One o'clock in the morning, you'd go in her room and you'd see her fast asleep with the earphones on," Valerie Hill told Tour in a 1999 interview for Rolling Stone. "This sixties soul that I'd collected just seeped into her veins."
Hill made her performing debut on Showtime at the Apollo at the age of 13. Her parents rented a van and brought along a group of her friends for the trek to Harlem to hear her sing the Smoky Robinson tune "Who's Lovin' You." But Hill was so afraid of the microphone that she kept her distance from it, and the result was jeers from the merciless audience. Her uncle yelled at her to move closer, "and she grabbed the mike and sang that song with a vengeance, like, `How dare you boo me,'" Valerie Hill told Rolling Stone. Determined despite her rough start, Hill persevered, pursuing music as well as acting as a teen. She won a role in As the World Turns while still in high school, and in 1993, appeared in the Whoopi Goldberg movie Sister Act II: Back in the Habit.
Hill had also become acquainted with a friend of her brother's, Prakazrel "Pras" Michel. A Haitian immigrant, Michel formed a rap group and asked Hill to join. The trio became the Fugees-Tranzlator Crew. They danced and rapped in other languages and cut their demo tapes in a basement studio that belonged to Michel's cousin. One day, another cousin of Michel's, Wyclef Jean, came by the studio to hear them. Jean was amazed by Hill's voice and decided to work with them. Later the other female member went off to college, and the trio eventually dropped the "Tranzlator" part and became just the Fugees. Hill herself put off college--though she was accepted by a number of prestigious schools--to take part-time courses at Columbia University.
The Fugees soon attracted attention on the local circuit--in part due to a combination of Hill's stunning looks and her raps--and were signed to the Pennsylvania rap label Ruffhouse. With the Fugees, she recorded Blunted on Reality, released in 1993. But the group--still in their teens--felt steamrollered by the whole event, and had been allowed little input into the production process. Their music was given pumped-up, gangsta-style beats by their creative team working on behalf of the label, who wanted to make a standard rap album. The record failed to make a dent in the charts. "Hailed in Europe as a glimpse of the future, Blunted was summarily trashed in the American hip-hop press for missing the mark altogether," noted Rolling Stone's Alec Foege.
However, a New York producer remixed two of Blunted's tracks, the songs became underground club favorites, and suddenly the Fugees--with Hill as their frontperson--were a sensation. For their second album Hill, Jean, and Michel successfully argued with management to gain more creative control, and produced it themselves. The Score was released in 1996, a massive success of an album, widely hailed as one of the best of the year and even as a turning point for contemporary African American music. The record was launched with Hill's lauded vocals on a cover of the 1973 Roberta Flack hit, "Killing Me Softy with His Song," a single that spent five weeks at number one. In the end, The Score sold 18 million copies and made the Fugees the best-selling rap act in history. "Rather than reform hip hop, they're re-forming it, with a gumbotic, frenetic amalgam of rock-steady samples, Castilian guitar, and verbal dexterity all over the map," wrote Natasha Stovall in the Village Voice. Hill, the critic noted, does "double duty as both rapper and diva. Her book smart-street smart persona and righteous, self-confident presence make her The Score's centrifugal force."
Even early on in her days as a new rap celebrity, Hill was continuously plagued by rumors that she was either about to leave the Fugees and go solo, or speculation about why she had not yet done so. In interviews she stressed the long-time creative relationship she enjoyed with Jean and Michel, and how well they functioned as a team. But then Hill became pregnant in late 1996, and did her first solo song for the soundtrack of a 1997 film with Larenz Tate and Nia Long called Love Jones. Meanwhile, Jean recorded and released his own solo album, and Michel was known to be planning one as well. Many assumed Hill's career was stalled indefinitely. Others counseled her against having a child at this crucial point in her life.
Record-Setting Solo Debut
The pregnancy turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for it fueled a huge burst of creativity in Hill. She wrote over two dozen songs, and then recorded them at her home in South Orange and in Kingston, Jamaica, from where the father of her child, Rohan Marley, hailed. Again, she had to fight for the right to produce her own record, though she had shared a Grammy award for The Score. Long before The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill debuted, Wyclef Jean had told a reporter that he would be the producer of Hill's solo album, which made Hill roll her eyes later as she remembered hearing of this boast. "You would think that after selling 15 million records that I would be able to produce and write my own joint, but it was a battle," Hill explained to Michael A. Gonzales in a 1998 interview in The Source.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill debuted in August of 1998 to sales of over 400,000 copies its first week out, setting a record for a black female artist. Miseducation's title mirrored the name of a civil-rights treatise, The Miseducation of the Negro, by Carter G. Woodson, but Hill told Time Out--New York's Raquel Cepeda, "it's really about the things that you learn outside of school, outside of what society deems appropriate and mandatory." The record won effusive praise for its honesty, emotional resonance, and panoply of musical styles that interlocked well. Mary J. Blige guested with Hill to sing a duet on "I Used to Love Him," while guitarist Carlos Santana played on "Joy of My World Is in Zion," Hill's tribute to her son.
"Easily flowing from singing to rapping, evoking the past while forging a future of her own, Hill has made an album of often-astonishing power, strength, and feeling," declared Entertainment Weekly's David Browne. He termed the record "infused with African American musical history," and noted that "every cut, even the apolitical ones, presents a new and unexpected twist, both musically and emotionally." Browne wrote of the dominant "boy's club" vibe of most R&B and hip-hop music, even acclaimed works by women--''the music is as exquisitely manicured as high-cost nails but deeply impersonal," Contrasting such works with Miseducation, Browne found Hill's work "infused with the highs and lows of a young woman faced with success and expectations. A cloud hangs over the album, but the effect is human, not programmed."
The Ultimate Revenge
Some of that cloud may have been the result of questions about the future of the Fugees and, in comparison, the less-than-stellar reception to both Jean's and Michel's solo efforts. Label executives stressed that the band was simply enjoying a hiatus and would eventually reconvene in the studio. Some speculated that public-relations finesse was covering up a more serious breach, that Jean's "To All the Girls" was a dig at Hill, and that Miseducation's "Lost Ones" was her response ("my emancipation don't fit your equation," she sings), as was perhaps "Ex-Factor," or even "I Used to Love Him." But Hill downplayed such issues. "The album is not about me bein' upset about a love lost," Hill told Tour. "It's not even really about bein' upset about bein' stabbed in the back."
Before the end of the year, Miseducation would sell two million copies. In 1999 she received eight Grammy nominations, winning five and beating Carole King's 1971 record of four Grammys. Spin named Hill "Artist of the Year" and Time magazine put her on the cover as the new face of black music. "Hill isn't out to create bourgeois hip-hop lite," opined its music critic, Christopher John Farley. "She constantly strives to connect her message to the street." Tour declared that the tracks on Miseducation evince that Hill has "Joni Mitchell's intense singer-songwriter integrity, Bob Marley's revolutionary spirit and young Chaka Khan's all-natural, 'Everywoman' sensuality." That expressiveness and emotional sincerity came naturally to Hill. "I really don't know any better," as she explained the songwriting process to Melissa Ewey of Ebony. "To write something that's too pretentious, that wouldn't feel natural to me. I think the only anxiety that I felt was ... you know that once you release something, it's a reflection of you, and people will beat it up. I knew I'd better do what I had to do to put my best foot forward."
While pregnant with Zion, Hill had worked with Aretha Franklin, writing the track "A Rose Is a Rose" for her 1998 album, and picking up another two Grammy nominations for the production work. Hill now has a second child, daughter Selah, with Rohan Marley and admitted to Tour that "raising children is a twenty-four-hour job, and making music is a twenty-four-hour job, so I have to be really careful how I do things." Nevertheless, becoming one of the most celebrated female talents of the decade did have its drawbacks. After the Grammy nominations were announced in 1999, Hill, her record company and her management team were sued by a quartet of songwriters who claimed they had written and produced some of the songs on Miseducation in collaboration with Hill. "If I stopped enjoying this business, I could quit," Hill told Rolling Stone's Kevin Powell. "I never want the industry to drive me; I want to drive it. I want to be a part of a new class of artists who don't have to fall apart to be dope. I'd rather not chronicle my demise." The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2001.
In July of 2001 Hill joined forces with crooners Luther Vandross and Marc Anthony in presenting a benefit concert in San Jose, California, to benefit the victims of earthquakes in El Salvador and India earlier that same year.
by Carol Brennan
Lauryn Hill's Career
Hill joined the Fugees as a teenager in the early 1990s; she also appeared on As the World Turns and in the feature films King of the Hill and Sister Act II: Back in the Habit;made recording debut with Fugees on Blunted on Reality, Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1993; 1996's follow-up, The Score, Ruffhouse/Columbia, sold 17 million copies; released solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1998.
Lauryn Hill's Awards
As a member of the Fugees and coproducer of their second album The Score, Hill shared two 1997 Grammy Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for Best R&B song by a duo or group, for "Killing Me Softly with His Song," and for best rap album; triple platinum certification, November 1998, for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Recording Industry Association of America; five Grammy Awards, 1999, for best female R&B vocal performance, best R&B song, best new artist, best R&B album, and album of the year; two American Music Awards, 2000, for favorite R&B/soul album and favorite female R&B/soul artist.
- Selected discography
- With the Fugees
- Blunted on Reality , Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1993.
- The Score , Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1996.
- The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill , Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1998.
September 18, 2004: After eight years, Hill reunited with the Fugees for Dave Chapelle's exclusive block party in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, September 22, 2004.
- Billboard , May 11, 1996, p. 37; December 12, 1998, p. 6.
- Ebony , November 1998, pp. 194-202.
- Entertainment Weekly , June 26, 1998; September 4, 1998; October 2, 1998.
- Essence , June 1998, pp. 73-76, 156-158.
- Harper's Bazaar , April 1998, pp. 204-209.
- New York Daily News , August 30, 1998.
- People , August 31, 1998; December 28, 1998, pp. 56-57.
- Rolling Stone , September 5, 1998, p. 40; September 17, 1998, p. 35; February 18, 1999.
- The Source , September 1998, p. 223.
- Spin, January 1999, p. 65.
- Stereo Review , November 1998, pp. 109-110.
- Time , September 7, 1998, pp. 70-72.
- Time Out--New York , June 4, 1998.
- Us , September 1998.
- Village Voice , March 5, 1996, p. 53; April 9, 1996, p. 53; September 1, 1998, p. 57.