Things are not looking good. The 12th floor of the forbiddingly fashionable Metropolitan Hotel is awash with hangers-on and pan-European Sony personnel. The star at the centre of it all, woman-of-the-moment Lauryn Hill, is first 30 minutes late, then an hour and, when she does arrive, is surrounded by people ordering her food, tasting her food, combing her hair and generally getting in the way of any meaningful contact.
I know this only by hearsay, as the star has been rushed unseen into another of the suite's rooms. Interviews are being recorded on digicam and attended by a battery of supervisors – a journalist's worst nightmare. It's doubtful whether the pre-match order to avoid all personal questions serves anyone but the record company's ends – leaving, were one to obey it, only "the product" as focus – but meeting Lauryn Hill could prove to be the ultimate, maddeningly fruitless diva encounter.
An hour later I stroll back out into the corridor with a glide in my stride. Behind the inevitable entourage, the biggest sales in the history of rap and the umpteen Grammy awards there lurks a woman of real substance, dismissive of the trappings, passionate and knowledgeable about her craft, unexpectedly humble, funny and refreshingly unguarded. Someone you could realistically expect to be pampered, defensive and fiercely self-important turns out to be someone you'd give your right arm to be able to hang out with.
Reading on mobile? Click to view
Lauryn Hill's success has been almost as fast as it has been dramatic. Five years ago her band the Fugees released an excellent album, Blunted on Reality, that didn't really catch the world's ear. Their next album, The Score, sold over 17m copies, making it the biggest-selling rap album of all time, and her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was last year's most high-profile album, collecting rave reviews and awards like bugs on a windshield.
Now everyone wants a piece of Lauryn. When she isn't being a mother, activist or charity worker, she is touring with a 15-piece band, sponsored by Levi's (who have designed her stage clothes) and Emporio Armani scents and recording new songs in a mobile studio on the road. A film career is well under way too (she's reported to be in discussions with Joel Schumacher over a role in a Supremes biopic). She has no one but herself to blame for an agenda that makes Maggie Thatcher – in her prime – look like an idle layabout.
"Awards are like whipped cream, man," she says of her most recent Grammy success (ten nominations, 5 awards). "It's incredible, but it doesn't change the essence of who I am. I'm still not convinced that I'm a success. I'm still like one day something might happen, and I'll have to get another career. I kinda fell into this business, because I loved it, did it, but always stayed in school, always had other jobs, made sure that the bills were paid and the grades were good, just in case it didn't work out."
Her modesty is as refreshing as it is surprising, and belies the enormous kudos she is given for forging an inimitable musical fusion of sounds rooted in the music of her childhood.
"This album wasn't supposed to happen, according to some, and I felt very blessed to able to make something like that and release it. To me, the fact that people have received it the way that they have, that's just the cherry on top. It's like I had a wonderful meal, a wonderful dessert already, and the way people responded to it is just extra, it's sauce, cherries and chocolate chips and sprinkles and all that stuff. It's just beautiful."
The title of the album Lauryn is so rightly proud of was inspired by Carter G Woodson's book The Miseducation of The Negro, that her parents always had in the home, and a film called The Education Of Sonny Carson, in which a young kid growing up in Brooklyn learns from his violent mistakes and revolutionises his life. In Lauryn's mouth, the term "miseducation" means those lessons learned outside of academia.
"The title of the album was meant to discuss those life lessons," she says, "those things that you don't get in any text book, things that we go through that force us to mature. Hopefully we learn. Some people get stuck. They say that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and these are some really powerful lessons that changed the course and direction of my life."
In the music Lauryn writes and produces, she fuses a fat organic sound out of elements of classic reggae and soul, with the big-bottomed beat of rap and the roughness of blues and gospel. But many have been wowed by the lyrics, unfurling stories so personal that, although they started out as songs for other people, they simply had to become a solo album. No solo project was planned, but Lauryn began to feel she was giving away pieces or chapters of a book about herself, and decided to keep them.
"I think the piece as a whole communicates my personality, it is the culmination of my experiences, the sum total of what I had gone through at a certain point in my life. It might have been a little scary at first," she remembers, "because whether I sink or swim, it was all on me. But it was liberating because it was very personal, it allowed me to talk about things that were very Lauryn, that didn't have anything to do with anyone else. I could speak about the birth of my son, and the disappointment in the relationship, because it didn't cramp anybody else's style. To me it's like driving in a storm, it's hard to see where you're going. You're just praying to get out of it. But once you get out of it, you can look back and say; 'Oh man, thank god!' Give thanks, 'cos that's what I came out of. That's what that album feels like to me."
Some of the lyrics on Miseducation are said to refer to a romance gone sour between Hill and bandmate Wyclef, but neither will confirm that this relationship ever existed. Hill likes to keep her private life very private, and it was a while after the birth of her son Zion David before anyone knew that his father was Rohan Marley, son of reggae legend Bob Marley and a former football player with the University of Miami. When Miseducation was released in August, Hill was seven-months pregnant with her second child by Marley, a daughter named Selah Louise, who was born in November. Now that this is public knowledge, the pair plans to find a window in their busy schedules to get married before the year is up.
The decision to have her first child was one of the major change's in 24-year-old Hill's life. Many in the music industry advised her to have an abortion, but Hill resisted the pressure. It was a choice she never regretted, and a quandary she details in the song To Zion.
"That song," she says, "is about the revelation that my son was to me. I had always made decisions for other people, making everybody else happy, and once I had him that was really the first decision that was unpopular for me. It was one that was based on my happiness and not what other people wanted for me or for themselves. And it was the best decision that I could have ever made, because I'm the happiest and healthiest that I have ever been. It also revealed to me which relationships were right, which ones were sincere, and which ones were based on exploiting and hurting me. It was a godsend all the way round – 360 degrees of that whole situation were nothing but a blessing. And I'm so happy that I made the choice that I did."
A press release around the time of the first Fugees album, suggesting that the three band members were from Haiti, may have been a little liberal with the truth. The group name was short for Refugees, and there were Caribbean elements to their sound, but Wyclef Jean was the only one born in Haiti. Pras was born in Jersey, but his parents were from Haiti, while Lauryn was born in New Jersey of American parents. The guys call her "Haitian by association".
The daughter of an English teacher mother and computer consultant father, Hill grew up on the edge of suburbia, right on the border of Newark. Stability at home gave her a platform for scholastic achievement, and she was president of her class each year at South Orange middle school. She wrote poetry, shone at basketball, founded the school's gospel choir and made a name for herself in television and films, playing characters that were her polar opposite, learning her lines during cheerleading practice. At 13, she already had the front to win over the notoriously brutal audience at the Harlem Apollo's amateur night.
Her childhood was fairly idyllic, if not entirely sheltered, and much of the charity work she now undertakes stems from a desire to see others get the chances she had. A homecoming queen and cheerleader who ran track and starred in the film Sister Act 2 during her senior year, her frantic schedule and devastating self-confidence never overruled her compassion or blinded her to the needs of others. She started a "breakfast club" for the kids who came to school without any breakfast, and would stop on her way to school every day and pick up two or three dozen bagels and some orange juice.
"I know that I was blessed to grow up the way that I grew up. We didn't have everything, but we had a whole lotta love and a whole lotta family, and I was exposed to different things. I knew that there was opportunity and different careers and different directions that I could live my life. Some people grow up with very few options, or at least knowing about very few options. So, to me, it's always about letting people know what their options and possibilities are."
After graduation, Hill didn't go Hollywood, as many predicted. Instead, she went to Columbia University, where she studied classical music as part of her humanities course, while cutting the first Fugees album and majoring in history.
There was always music in the family home, and when she was seven years old, looking for discs small enough to play on her kiddie record player, she found a 500-strong collection of 7" singles in the basement, music from the 50s to the mid-70s. While other kids were listening to New Edition, she was listening to Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye, listening to messages in music, and harps and string sections, not just what was on the radio right then and there. When she came to cook up a sound of her own, by trial and error, she sandwiched a variety of influences between the drums and bass of hip hop/reggae and the lyricism of the classic soul tradition, seasoning the whole with a cracklingly live production. There isn't yet a name for her sound.
Reading on mobile? Click to view
"It's pretty, but it's raw," Lauryn offers, "and that's the way I like it. I think a large part of my personality spills over into my music. No matter how pretty it gets, it's never too pretty. There's always gotta be something in there that's rough. I think that's me. No matter how high a note I sing, it's always gonna be scratchy, just by virtue of my voice. I never record vocals with compression, because I want it to sound old, to sound rough, and I want you to hear everything that I intended you to hear. I don't want anything cleaned up off the track. I love the human element of real instruments, as opposed to keyboards and modules. I love Hammond B3 organs and Wurlitzers, even when they're out of tune sometimes. To me that presents what's human about those instruments. Hip hop is the backbone, but I just love expanding those parameters."
Purist fans may be horrified to hear that young Lauryn was an avid consumer of "Eighties Euromusic", exposed to the likes of Malcolm McLaren, Duran Duran and Men At Work by Carlos de Jesus on his Saturday morning video show Hot Tracks. "I think that we all grow up listening and appreciating different things about different groups and different sounds," she says. "You know, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode and all those different bands. I was real happy with the way I grew up with different stuff, 'cos it made my appreciation of sound very broad."
This hardly explains how Carlos Santana came to play guitar on To Zion. "Oh my goodness!" she laughs. "That totally came from my parents' record collection. I remember finding Abraxas in the basement, and looking at the cover going; 'Wow! This is real. What's this?'. It had all this stuff going on, all this beautiful artwork on the cover. And then I remember putting on the record and wanting to cry. I put on this one song, Samba Pa Ti, and it just gave me chills. I used to write my first songs to other people's music, and this particular album had this beautiful, soulful guitar, and it was instrumental, so I was in heaven. From that time – Oye Como Va, Black Magic Woman – all those songs just really touched me, and gave me an appreciation for guitar and for the Latin African rhythms. I was just in my own world, very, very happy, at a very young age."
Lauryn's first musical steps involved singing at "talent shows, gatherings, all types of things", often accompanied by a pianist, but she didn't start rapping until she got involved with The Fugees. "I used to write poems," she recalls, "and I was real sensitive about my poems. I remember Clef and Pras hearing my poems and going, 'Yo, you should write some rhymes!'. So I tried writing some rhymes, reluctantly, and at first they were very hard on my MCing. They were like, 'That's wack. Write that over!' So, once again, I was challenged by the boys, and I sought to be better and really started taking rap seriously, more seriously even than singing at that time, because I felt I could say more, and what I could say would be taken more seriously as an MC."
That she wasn't intimidated by the boys has much to do with her upbringing. "I was a very crazy kid, off the hook. I was very dramatic, everything was a big drama, just a huge undertaking. I was a tomboy, kinda rough. I loved to do what the boys did. And I'm very happy that I grew up that way, 'cos I never had respect for social lines of what women should do and what men should do. I thought it was like 'let me do it all', and that has helped to shape my philosophy of life now. I'm not one of those people who has a fear just because women are only supposed to do some things. I don't let that limit me."
When the Fugees first album came out, the critical light its songs shone on the black community signalled the arrival of a new exponent of the refreshing rap genre forged by groups like Arrested Development and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, who were turning rap clichés on their heads with songs of tolerance and introspection. You wouldn't call them anything as horrible as PC, but their rejection of misogyny, homophobia, racism and gangsta posturing spoke volumes to the liberal middle classes, black and white, turned off by the stance of so many other acts. They were rebellious, but in an articulate, upmarket way that insured healthy sales across every demographic going. In the case of the Fugees, it didn't hurt that Lauryn Hill was perceived as the group's leader, a beautiful woman bossing the two guys around.
"I think there were probably two co-bosses," she insists, looking puzzled by this analysis. "Me and Clef were co-captains, and then you have Pras and Jerry Te Bass. Duplessis, who is the bass player in Refugee Camp was also influential in the Fugee sound. The boss, as in 'Hey, you do this!'? Nah!"
It is twenty years now since the Sugarhill Gang released Rappers' Delight, and in the last decade of that history there has always seemed to be a segment of the scene that is pretty hostile to women. Rap can't be the easiest genre in which to start out as a woman.
"It wasn't hard to me," Lauryn shrugs, "because I grew up as a tomboy, and none of that stuff ever really phased me. I knew who I was, and I knew that I wasn't any of the women that they ever talked about. Also, I find it hard to just criticise hip hop music, because music is a microcosm of the world. Better we discuss the issues in the community and the greater world that affect the kids who make the music, 'cos they're just the voice of people. Also I'm not confused because I understand that a lot of people who make rap music are very young when they start. They're 16, 17, and they don't really know any better, they're just figuring out the world for themselves. I'm not very judgmental, because I try to be part of the solution rather than the problem, so I provide the type of message in my music that I do, to communicate the other side of the story."
Beyond hip hop, in the wider music business, Lauryn has got ahead incredibly quickly, not only performing, but writing and producing for herself and others – Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, Santana. The Score had made her star, but it's still amazing that, with almost no track record, she was able to produce her own major label debut. It can't have been easy selling that idea to the corporation, when a star producer would provide a so much safer pair of hands.
"No," she agrees, "and it's still not easy. Believe it or not, people still think there's some man behind the scenes, pulling the strings and manipulating what you say. And they're always looking for that person so, rather than give you the respect for having the knowledge to know what you want and do it, they're always looking for whoever that guy is who controls you. It's silly, but... whatever. It is what it is, and I don't really allow those things to stop me. I just continue, and let the music speak for itself."
Control is a subliminal theme running through the work of a woman who has grabbed the reigns of power in every discipline going, musical and otherwise. Most artists are happy to have no more to do with their videos than turning up on shoot days. Lauryn has insisted on directing some, including Aretha Franklin's A Rose Is Not A Rose.
"I don't know if I'm a control freak," she sighs, "or if I just find it really hard to delegate authority, but I really like to be involved, because the music means so much to me. Why give it away to somebody else who might not understand all the nuances of it? You might as well work together, and make sure that you guys are all on the same page? We've had some shaky experiences, but we learn from them and try to do better next time. I really enjoyed Fugee-La, the first single off The Score, because it was just a raw, inexpensive video that we did in Jamaica, Port Antonio. It was very early, when the energy was just right, and we worked hard, running through the bush in Jamaica for hours until we were exhausted and beat down. But I was real happy with the outcome. I also enjoyed Doo Wop. That was a fun video to do. I was six months pregnant, and trying to hide it in a zebra print dress, but it was a lot of fun."
All these creative interventions must presumably serve an overall artistic vision that she is trying to communicate. But summing that up is a beast of a request to fulfil.
"All I can hope to do," she says, "is to continue to not be afraid and to follow where the inspiration leads me. I've always been that kid in high school who had on the funny-looking sneakers, and they used to go; 'Those are some funny-looking sneakers, Lauryn!', and I'd say; 'They're not funny-looking, these are hot!', and they'd say 'Alright, they're hot, but only you can wear them.' and six months later they have on the same funny-looking sneakers. So I've always done things a little crazy a little earlier. I'm not embarrassed or afraid to be the person that I am, neither personally nor musically - whatever that means."
Reading on mobile? Click to view
Lauryn Hill's success symbolises, among other things, the improvement in race relations within the music industry in recent years. I don't mean to suggest that the record business has never got behind black music before, or that things are perfect today, but the changes in the past 15 years have been dramatic. You could always find a lot of great albums by black artists in the cupboards at record companies, but they weren't usually the releases that got any support. It would not be overly cynical to suggest that the Grammies are more about the record industry's priorities than anything else, and in 1998 there wasn't a single album more obviously and enthusiatically supported by a label than The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill.
"Well, don't sleep," Lauryn cautions, insisting that her good fortune is not representative of across-the-board treatment in the business. "I think with this particular album I was very blessed to get involved with a lot of people who felt what I was trying to do. It wasn't like I was the pop favourite, but people saw my work ethic, saw that I worked really hard and that I appreciated all the hard work that anyone put out there for me. So that matters, when it comes to whether people go home at five, or stay on at work making sure your album gets out there to the people. And I really appreciate that I've been able to work with some people who really care about the project."
With success like hers comes pressure, not least of all to use your good fortune to benefit others. Lauryn runs a non-profit organisation called the Refugee Project that organizes charity concerts, registers voters and sends kids to camp. For the past three years they have had Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas parties for homeless children. "It's all about sharing what you have," she says, "making the hip hop community be a little more responsible, just to think community-oriented. In the beginning it was literally three friends of mine, my mother, my father and my brother. That was the organisation. But now I have people who work there, an Executive Director, a Board of Trustees, a Board of Directors, so now it's about making this honest, innocent energy turn into an institution, so that after I'm no longer on the radio, it still exists."
Is there an obligation to be a mouthpiece for the hopes and dreams of your community?
"I don't think I feel a responsibility, that's just who I am. It's not a role that I try on. Just by virtue of who I am, I make music that communicates issues that aren't always on top of the agenda, for people who aren't always spoken for. To me it's not political, because there's nothing partisan about what I do. I'm not a democrat or a republican, I'm just a musician who speaks for people who, no matter what they vote, still don't have that much of a voice."
With the varied and hectic work schedule she has let herself in for, it seems amazing that Lauryn has time at all for the major demands of motherhood, but that's exactly what she cites as her most burning ambition. "Everybody asks me 'What's your next move?', and right now my focus is just being a good mother. If I could do that properly, I'd be really, really happy. If I could be half the parent that my parents were to me, then I'd be very happy. Like any woman on the planet who decides to have children, that's an extremely important role. You have these empty vessels that you have to fill with all the information, and all the knowledge and all the proper tools for them to end up being happy, healthy, compassionate, caring people. That's really crucial to me. So I love music, and I always put my 100% into making music, but now I have to put 200% into being a mother."
The portrayal of motherhood in various Lauryn Hill songs is always of a blissful, idyllic state, one that doesn't sound entirely realistic. Surely there must be times when she, like other chronically sleep-deprived new parents, feels like taking her son back to the shop and exchanging him for a model that works? "No way!" she laughs. "I'm not going to say that they're always angels, and that motherhood doesn't require a lot of effort, but the rewards so outweigh any of that. My kids travel with me on the road, and we have a load of family and an extended support structure, so they have a great time, and I am pretty much always happy."
Touring for women is never quite the same as for men, and Lauryn insists that, rather than sex drugs and rock'n'roll, it is the presence of her children on the road that ward off misery and boredom. Once she became so ill on tour, with a three-digit fever, that her mother was called to her hospital bedside. Another time, at the height of the Fugees' popularity, they were in France, and a kid jumped on stage and "attacked" Lauryn. "He like kissed me right on the mouth," she remembers, "and it was crazy, because the whole band jumped on him and clobbered him. And even after all that he was very happy. I was a little confused by that."
That's the French for you. But there must be some juicy sexual escapades to be fondly recalled? Apparently not. "It's very lonely on the road for women," she insists. "At least for the type of woman that I am. The male groupie phenomenon is something totally different. Guys can do that. I wouldn't be interested in that anyway, and I have a family, so that's not my thing. But when I was single and on the road it was kinda weird, because there were only two types of guys that I would meet, and they were the kinds that were so intimidated that they would never speak to me. Either they thought I had a boyfriend, or they were totally crazy, they were lunatics, they were nuts, like 'I can control the world if...!'. It was just crazy, crazy people, so for me it was really do the show and, after the venue, go to the hotel."
For many, the end of the Fugees was very weird. One minute they'd made the best-selling album in the history of rap, The Score, and won Grammies. Then, suddenly, the band didn't exist anymore, without there even being an explanatory announcement. And it wasn't as if they just wanted to sit at home spending their riches. Apart from Lauryn's smash album, about every third rap record released in 98 seemed to boast the involvement of one of the three Fugees. The unexpected answer is, of course, that they never split.
"I think it would be a lot louder if we did choose to split," chortles Lauryn. "We're on hiatus. It's a long holiday. There has never been any discussion of break-ups so, unless they've decided to go off and do something without telling me.... I'm unaware of it. It's so funny, because the last time we were in the studio, I was two children less and sort of a different person. So I think the next time we do sit down and create it's going to be interesting."
It certainly will be interesting, as the now much-anticipated return of the Fugees (studio work unlikely to happen this year) will see the guys getting back in the studio with a woman whose incredible interim success has made her a global superstar. Not all male egos cope with that kind of imbalance graciously. "I hope not!" Lauryn says, looking deadly serious at my suggestion of tension to come. "I hope that we all come with the same respect that we've always had, and make good music. That's the only way I see it working, if we come with the same energy that we've always had in the studio, because anything else.... it wouldn't be worth it."
Apart from her own new single, 'Everything Is Everything', Lauryn has recorded a song with inspirational soul legend Curtis Mayfield on the Mod Squad soundtrack – "I'm just rhyming a vocal over a Curtis song" – and a duet with Bob Marley.
"Yeah, everybody raises an eye when I say that," she laughs. "I just recorded a duet of Turn Your Lights Down Low, which is a song Bob Marley recorded in 78 or 79. Steve Marley took Bob's original vocals and put them together with mine, and I love the song. That's coming out soon."
One of the more unfortunate offshoots of success is envy, and the fashionability and commercial activity surrounding Lauryn Hill have already provoked accusations of naked capitalism not levelled at far more deserving targets, artists who started out with far less intrinsic integrity. But even her devotees would wish to see her human weaknesses. "I snore," she volunteers gamely when asked, in a shamelessly fishing manner, if there are any embarrassing personal details she'd like to share. And struggling young mothers sickened by Hill's apparent hyper-competence may be pleased to know that she isn't good at everything.
"I'm a bad skier," she confesses with a grin. "Whooooo! Horrible. Horrible. I am not meant to be on anybody's slopes. It looks fun to me, and I like the gear and I like the outfits, but I'm just horrible at it. I tried it once, with a foolish friend of mine who told me not to go to ski school, and it was the worst! We were in this real cheesy resort in upstate New York, and I had on all this amazing gear, and just spent the whole day on my face in the snow. I went off course into a snow drift and got stuck, with my skis in the air, and the only way out was to pull myself out holding onto this dinky little Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I was very cold and very unhappy. One day I think I'll try it again, but I'll go with someone who has some sense."
© Simon Witter, 1999
- What is so great about justin bieber
- Which is the best car for rent
- Why do you think Pokemon GO failed
- How do I trust and accept God
- What are some good gifts for men
- How do you start a good presentation
- What are the alternatives to barcodes
- How could we access other dimensions
- What elements is a nation comprised of
- How much is my 3DS worth
- Is telecommunication a part of technology
- Is Ann Coulter credible
- Do scammers blackmail
- How do l improve sex power
- Why are people happy all the time
- Who has the authority in a theocracy
- Whats your worst airline experience in Asia