The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill Turns 25
It’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the release of the iconic album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Hill’s critically acclaimed debut and only solo record to date was released on August 25, 1998, and has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, making it the bestselling album by a female rapper, the bestselling neo-soul album of all time, and one of the bestselling albums in history. In 2021, it was certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for estimated sales of 10 million copies in the United States, making Hill the first female rapper to accomplish this feat. Rolling Stone ranked the album no. 10 on its "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list.
Miseducation had a transformative effect on faculty member Danielle “Queen D.” Scott, a Berklee student at the time of its release. Scott was the first woman MC in the college’s Jazz Hip-Hop Orchestra and the first woman MC to teach at the institution. She says the album “became tangible evidence of a future for me as a female MC who also had other talents (I produce beats, play keys, and sing). The album also encouraged me to remain uncompromising in my desire to write/rap/sing about social justice issues as well as personal stories. Through Ms. Hill’s work I saw I could present my full humanity as an artist and be accepted.”
The album also had a profound impact on Arun Pandian, assistant program director at Berklee NYC. He played lead guitar on the 1999 Miseducation of Lauryn Hill world tour, and is featured on “Tell Him,” the last song left to record on the album when he joined. The gig completely altered the trajectory of his life. “It was a dream come true,” says Pandian, who went on to share stages with Carlos Santana, Mary J. Blige, and Nas, and to perform on the Grammy Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, and Saturday Night Live.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill celebrates its 25th anniversary on August 25. Why was the album considered so groundbreaking?
Danielle Scott: One, this was a solo female hip-hop album, and this Black woman presented herself as a multifaceted complex human, which is something that still has to be fought for by women in general, and Black women in particular, in the music industry and other aspects of daily life.
Two, the album demonstrated hip-hop culture beyond rap. Ms. Hill goes from a straight-up diss record with “Lost Ones” to showing the connection between hip-hop and soul music with “Doo Wop (That Thing)” to further demonstrating the musicality of hip-hop with the display of her own musicality: harmonies, rhythmic complexity of rap ad-libs, and lead-singing vocals.
And three, the subject matter of this hip-hop album was love. While love had previously been the premise of one song on a full album (perhaps most notably LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” or Queen Latifah’s “How Do I Love Thee”), love with all of its complexities (unrequited love, toxic relationships, platonic love, betrayal), applications (love of people, love of hip-hop), and tenderness had never been the overall theme of an entire album in this way. I think the subject of love as expressed through hip-hop culture made hip-hop accessible to a broader audience.
Do you recall where you were when you first heard the song “Doo Wop (That Thing)” on the radio? Do you have a favorite song from the album? Are there any lyrics that blew you away?
Arun Pandian: I heard most of the songs for the first time on an audition cassette tape, which was handed to me when I showed up for the audition at two in the morning at Kool and the Gang's rehearsal space in New Jersey. Lauryn's family and the entire band were there, and the music director led me to another room and watched as I learned the parts. It was the most nerve-racking experience of my life. I spent the rest of the week auditioning with the band and fell in love with the music, realizing it was something special that I had never heard before. My favorite song on the record is “Tell Him,” for more sentimental reasons, because it was my first experience working closely with Lauryn, and we spent about 48 hours in the studio together working on it. I really got an understanding of her creative process as an artist and really got to put my fingerprint on the song. It went through many iterations over those two days before it ended up where it is.
Scott: My absolute favorite cut from Miseducation is “Lost Ones.” The minimalist beat with the cutthroat lyrics served hot over it made me sit up. Each line was so tough that it required an answer—“It’s funny how money changes situa-tions.” The answer: “-tions!!” “Lost Ones” made me understand the power of rap delivery and the power of call-and-response for both artist and audience. We’re not just rapping into the ether . . . talk back to us! “Lost Ones” led me to “Doo Wop (That Thing).” I thought it was so powerful that we all sing along gladly to a song that, when you actually sit with the lyrics, it’s deeply spiritual. She’s dealing with self-esteem, integrity, self-respect . . . it’s a sermon that’s also a bop, even to this day.
At the time of the recording, did you have a feeling that you were working on something special? Did anyone realize how much of an impact the album would have not only in the music industry but in pop culture?
Pandian: You never fully realize the potential of something until it's out in the world, but it did feel special. Lauryn seemed to have a creative connection with herself that I had never experienced working with any other artist up to that point. The entire world tour had been booked as a theater run, and when the album dropped and she had the highest first-week sales of any female artist, and then Lauryn was nominated for 10 Grammys, we were all taken by surprise. Because of this unexpected success, they had to book a run of arenas around the world that followed our theater run, so essentially we ended up doing two world tours to support the record.
Was working on the album a life-changing experience, and did it help your career?
Pandian: Yes, the gig changed the direction of my life, and if it wasn't for that I wouldn't even be in the music industry. Being an artist or musician was not a path that was supported by my parents or the Indian community at large. There were no role models for me to look up to at the time, so it was a really big deal for all the kids in my community to see me successfully pursuing it. Having been part of such a successful project has definitely helped me in my career in terms of opening doors and getting people's attention, but I have still had to grind for the past 25 years in order to continue working in the industry. I learned the hard way that even though I was part of such a big album or tour, it didn't mean the phone was going to keep ringing when it was all done.
It's interesting that the album's 25th anniversary coincides with hip-hop's 50th anniversary. How has the album helped to move hip-hop forward? Why do you think the genre has been able to evolve and attract a global audience?
Scott: Like jazz, hip-hop has songs that are standards—pieces of music that any aspiring practitioner, whether a professional or enthusiast, needs to learn to anchor them in the genre because it requires the practitioner to honor the shoulders of the musicians on which they are standing as they seek to create new innovations in the style. Miseducation, which in this case is an entire album, is one of hip-hop’s standards. Standards are global because they tell the world, begin “here” to learn about this music. Miseducation is part of the “here” where folks begin to learn about hip-hop, and many MCs, especially female MCs (both not exclusively so), are standing on the shoulders of Ms. Hill.
This was not a hip-hop album trying to cross over; this was an artist trying to express her truth in that moment as authentically as possible. Authenticity will always resonate.
Are you amazed that people can still sing every single song on that album 25 years later and that the album still sounds like it was recorded yesterday? Is there a "secret sauce" as to why it's musically and lyrically so timeless?
Pandian: I am amazed that my current students even know the record at all! It is shocking to see how much that one album still means to people 25 years later.
Scott: When I realize how long it’s been since its release, I’m always blown away that it still is so dope in every way—sonically, lyrically, beat production–wise. . . . I’m sure we’ll continue to talk about this album’s impact. I think the secret is authenticity. This was not a hip-hop album trying to cross over; this was an artist trying to express her truth in that moment as authentically as possible. Authenticity will always resonate. Whether the characters and stories are fictional or real, when the heart is behind the sound, people will feel that and respond.
Arun, can you describe your role as an assistant program director and the work you do with students? Who are you working with and/or what are you working on these days, and what’s next for you?
Pandian: The songwriting and production master’s program at Berklee NYC has been an extremely hands-on project. Merrily James, the program director, and I have curated the program from top to bottom, and, because it's only a year long, it allows us to make significant changes to the curriculum from class to class. By the end of the intensive year, we all become one big family, and it’s hard to say bye when it's all done. The role is a combination of administration, admissions, curriculum development, and faculty management, as well as teaching.
I work with a variety of artists and in various genres, but the one artist that I have spent the most time with over the past few years is Gabriel Garzón Montano. I recorded and mixed his last record, Aguita, at my studio. We are currently working on his next album as well as an EP project of salsa music that was recorded with members of the Fania All-Stars. Gabe's projects really highlight the way I like to work, by combining analog recording methods with modern digital techniques. I get to incorporate my hip-hop background as well as the classical recording skills I learned when I studied to be a tonmeister. I am currently building a larger studio facility in Ridgewood, Queens, which should be completed in about a year and a half.
Queen D., in addition to being an MC, you're a vocalist, songwriter, producer, arranger, and assistant professor in the Ensemble Department. Why was it important for you to become an educator? What are you planning for Ensembles this fall, and will there be a celebration of hip-hop's 50th anniversary?
Scott: Growing up, I always liked to learn, and I still like to learn. I look at my role as an educator as a way to pass that feeling along. I enjoy learning about something that causes me to examine what I think I know, which helps me to know myself, my identity, and my beliefs better. That’s also something I want to pass on, especially as a college professor where our students are really defining themselves independently. I want to encourage them to not just blindly accept information but to seek understanding so they can better understand themselves.