During Women's History Month, ERS-Plus is turning up the volume on female MCs across 50 years of Hip Hop. Up this week is Grammys history-making artist Ms. Lauryn Hill. Want more Hip-Hop and R&B? Check out ERS-Plus on HD2 Radio, and online.
By Cate Cianci, Staff Writer
HILL’S EARLY RISE
Ms. Lauryn Hill was born May 26th in East Orange, New Jersey. She was raised by her mother and father, Valarie and Mal Hill. In an interview with the American Academy of achievement, she explained that there was always a record turning in her house. Hill was a self-described over-achiever throughout her childhood. She participated in track, cheerleading, gospel choir and violin lessons, all on top of being an extremely good student.
Lauryn first hit a major stage at the age of 13, performing at the notoriously famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. The Apollo Theater is not only famous for beginning the careers of many a star, but dashing the hopes of would-be stars as well. Although a little shaky, Hill displayed courage and determination, which would continue to stay with her to this day.
Lauryn would take acting lessons early during her childhood, which would pay huge dividends. As a mid-teen, Hill would act in a rap-themed off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’ Twelfth Night, in 1991. From this play, Lauryn — at only 16 years old — would land a role on the popular daytime soap opera, As The World Turns, displaying her singing and acting. And later, at age 18, she did the same in the 1993 movie Sister Act 2, starring alongside Whoopie Goldberg.
HILL’S TIME IN THE FUGEES
At the same time Lauryn was in front of the camera in high school, her musical life was also developing. In her freshman year of high school, Hill joined a rap group with her friend Prakazrel Micheal (AKA: Pras) and his cousin Wyclef Jean. In 1994 they named the group the Fugees— a reference to Pras and Jean’s Haitian heritage. Hill served as the lead vocalist of the group and was praised for her whip-smart lyrics, unique flow and soulful vocals. The group was famous for blending hip-hop, neo-soul and reggae all into one unique sound. Through her work with The Fugees, Hill became the first Black woman to win a Grammy for Best Rap Album with
Notable selections during her time with The Fugees include the reggae influenced hit Fu-Gee-La released in 1995 and their Hip Hop interpretation of the soul classic ‘Killing Me Softly’, which was based on Roberta Flack’s 1973 soul hit release in 1996.
THE LAUNCH OF HER SOLO CAREER
In 1997, the group would split to work on solo projects. Ms. Lauryn Hill threw herself right into the production of her solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She started production on the album shortly after giving birth to her first child, an experience that helped her overcome serious writer’s block. Much of the album dealt with the frustration Hill felt after a messy relationship with her ex-bandmate Wyclef Jean. Jean offered to help produce the album but Hill turned him down.
Through this album, Hill was able to flex her muscles not just as an expert vocalist or lyricist, but as an incomparable production talent. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill truly cemented Hill as a music legend, and it landed her a spot in the Library of Congress’s Recording Registry. Hill also became the record holder for the most Grammy nominations for a woman in one night with 10 nominations for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She ultimately won five Grammys in a single night; the most of any other artist that year.
The years prior and post her solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn would work with two music legends. Hill wrote, arranged and produced a song for the Queen Of Soul, Aretha Franklin. The track, “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” came out in 1997. After her solo album’s success, she would record and release a song with her children’s grandfather, reggae legend Bob Marley. It was a re-recording of Marley’s 1977 song “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” done through a recording technique used post his death in 1999.
A PERIOD OF RELATIVELY QUIET
After the initial success of her solo album, Hill became increasingly disillusioned with the music industry. After a messy lawsuit for songwriting credits, Hill dropped off the map. She was attending bible study and undergoing an identity crisis. She spent this time focusing on herself and her family while occasionally being featured on other artists’ projects.
In 2002, Hill dropped MTV Unplugged No. 2, a recording of a 2002 live MTV session. The session featured only Hill, an acoustic guitar, and a small intimate audience. The album received criticism at the time for being “too simple” but later would be praised for allowing Hill’s excellent lyricism to shine.
Today Ms. Lauryn Hill prefers to keep her family life extremely private. She announced in early 2023 she will perform at the 2023 Roots Picnic. This performance is celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
WHO MS. LAURYN HILL INFLUENCED
Hill has been credited with bringing melodic hip-hop to the forefront of popular music. Artists like Adele, Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé, Ella Mai, Cardi B, Kendrick Lamar, and SZA all have credited Hill as a main source of inspiration for their art. SZA, who attended the same high school as Hill, said The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a huge inspiration for her. She stated it inspired her to write about her own experiences as a young Black woman, just as Hill had done.
Hill has been sampled on countless hit songs. Her hit “Ex-Factor” was sampled in Drake’s “Nice for What” which became a staple of any Gen-Z get-together. The song was also sampled in Cardi B’s “Be Careful,” a modern heartbreak anthem.
WHO INFLUENCED MS. LAURYN HILL
Hill’s influences included Reggae legend Bob Marley, who Hill ended up collaborating with through advanced recording technology later in her career. Hill has five children with one of Marley’s sons, Rohan, and remains close to the legend to this day. Hill was greatly influenced by Marley’s mission of peace through music. She became part of Marley’s mission to inspire social change through music.
Marley was featured on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. This collaboration completely changed Hill’s direction with her music. She became a beacon of hope and truth for young people. She continued Marley’s mission, teaching youth the importance of love and harmony.
AWARDS AND HONORS
- Grammys, Best Rap Album, for The Score (1997)
- Grammys, Best New Artist (1999)
- Grammys, Best R&B Album; Album of the Year, for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1999)
- Grammys, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance; Best Rhythm and Blues Song, for “Doo Wap (That Thing)” (1999)
- NAACP Image Awards, President’s Award, for The Refugee Camp Youth Project (1999)
- Academy of Achievement, Golden Plate Award (2000)
- First Female Rapper to Achieve RIAA Diamond Status (2021)
“DOO WOP (THAT THING)” (1998)
Lauryn Hill managed to bring together 1950s and 1960s African American doo wop harmony traditions and wrap them within the flare, flash, beat and attitude of late 1990s R&B and Hip Hop sensibilities. In her lyrics she gives love advice intertwined with history to everyone who’ll listen on the need to stay true, honest and vigilant about one’s self. She also encourages the listener to remain cautious to what might seem like a good relationship catch may in fact not be the person of your dreams. “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the first single release off of the hugely critically acclaimed album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, would set the standard for future Hip Hop and R&B influenced artists such as Adele, Beyonce, Amy Winehouse and Ella Mai.
This song sums up why Hill left the public eye after dropping The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Hill’s distaste for fame and wealth was made explicit in the lyrics of this track. She discusses how many rappers at this time were “selling out”. Hill hated the idea of creating art for commercial gain. Her art at this time was full of messages. She opens the song with the sentiment “Hip-Hop started out in the heart, now everybody’s tryna chart.” This is a reference to how Hip-Hop started out as a pure form of self-expression for the Black community and became a way for people to get rich.
“TO ZION (FEATURING CARLOS SANTANA) (1999)”
Motherhood has always been Hill’s priority and her love for her children is undeniable. This track details Hill’s experiences as a young mother. She speaks on how people advised her to terminate the pregnancy as she was a young woman with a promising career. Hill ruminates on how the decision to go through with the pregnancy gave her life new meaning. Hill’s devotion to her first son, Zion, is so beautifully reflected in this track. Her pure, unwavering, fierce love for her child is palpable. She muses “the joy of my world is in Zion.”
“MYSTERY OF INIQUITY (2002)”
This track off of MTV Unplugged 2.0 exemplified Ms. Lauryn Hill’s social impact. Her witty and poignant bars in this track outline the abuses of marginalized communities by the legal system. She airs her complaints calling the legal system inherently “blasphemous” as they ask witnesses to swear on the bible. Hill spent much of her career fighting for the Black community, and this track is just one example. It perfectly showcases her talent as a writer and activist.