Lauryn Hill: She's Got That Thing

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9780312972103: Lauryn Hill: She's Got That Thing

Recounts the life and career of the singer who grew up in South Orange, N.J., Joined Haitian Americans Prakazrel Michel and Wyclef Jean in the Fugees, combining hip-hop with rhythm and blues, Haitian music, and other styles, and later became a solo artist.

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Lauryn Hill
one South Orange, New Jersey, seems like one of many small suburban towns that have sprung up within commuting distance of New York City. Manhattan stands across the water, some forty minutes away by car. Closer to home, the urban sprawl--which has become the urban decay--of Newark has spread almost to the doorstep. In South Orange, the houses, wood or brick, look comfortable, homey, and the very image of the American suburban idyll, where every family owns its own place, and the children are raised in peace and security. The lawns are cared for, the grass cut, and flower beds planted. The white picket fences gleam. In summer the long days seem endless to the kids who play in the neighborhoods. But the people who originally settled the suburbs have moved further out. These days it's only exurbia, as far away from the citiesas possible in new developments, that offers a traditional, Norman Rockwell-lifestyle. It's been a couple of decades since urban life invaded the suburbs. Where wasteground once stood, there are now tower blocks of public housing, cheek by jowl with the proud houses. The old lines became blurred, and then faded altogether. Lauryn Hill grew up, and still lives, on one of these suburban South Orange streets. The brick house echoed with the sounds of her and her older brother, who was six years old when she came into the world on May 26, 1975. It was a safe place, the door open in summer for the neighborhood kids to come and go, the grass watered to a rich green. But if you stood in the attic and looked out of the window, you could see one of the public housing blocks, no more than a few hundred yards away. Urban reality was right on the doorstep. "I remember looking out this window," Lauryn recalled, "and there was a certain time of day when the sun used to shine on those buildings, and they used to look like gold. Beautiful. And I'd bug, 'cause I knew they were full of wild people, kids stickin' up each other. But when something is at its worst, there's always something beautiful there too." There were two worlds for young Lauryn, the one her family inhabited, where things wereclean and bright and cheerful and life was lived with zest and energy, and the one she would walk to, where the tenements seemed to be neglected, and hope had been scrubbed out of the color scheme. It was the difference between the haves and the have-nots, and Lauryn Hill grew up as one of the haves. Her parents encouraged her. They educated her. "When I was a very little girl I wanted to be a superstar/lawyer/doctor. I had an agenda," she remembered. The possibilities were open to her. There would be school, and then college. She could achieve whatever she wanted to achieve. The future was limitless. But the projects also beckoned to her, with their edge of real life. She'd ride her little pink bicycle over there and hang with the kids in the playground. And even there she became known. Not for her background, but because she happened to be the baddest gymnast around. "I got my reputation 'cause I could flip. I was a huge tomboy, and I used to do backflips over there in the projects." But she could always leave and go home to the brick house a few streets away, where life was very different. Both she and Malaney, her older brother who'd go on to become a lawyer, had their own rooms. There was a garden where they could play, not just acres of concrete.The family might not have been rich, but there was enough money. Valerie and Mal Hill didn't just have jobs, they both had careers. She was a high school English teacher, and he worked in the fledgling computer business during the day, and exercised his skills as a singer in the evenings. They were both outgoing people, always ready for fun. "My father is the type of father who at a wedding would try to breakdance and embarrass us," Lauryn said happily. They had a good time. They danced, they joked, they sang, and they kept something of an open house for their children's friends. They were, she said, "very, very cool." Lauryn had her room, but it was the attic where she spent much of her free time. It was the place where the worlds came together. She could gaze out of the window at the projects, so close and so far. Around her was the clutter of her parents' history, stored away there rather than thrown out, where the past met the present. And it was in the attic, when she was six years old, that she discovered Valerie Hill's large collection of 45 r.p.m. singles. The objects, black and shiny, with a large hole in the center, each carefully packed in its paper sleeve, took on a special resonance for her, even before she ever played them. Music had always been around the house, ever since she was born. Her father would rehearse his nightclub act, singing soul music from the fifties and sixties, the sounds of Atlantic, Motown, Stax, and all the other, smaller soul labels. Her mother would join in. There were new records playing on the stereo, more music on the radio, and Soul Train on the television. But when Lauryn first played one of the 45s on a record player in the attic, it was as if a whole new world had opened up before her. "There was something sacred about those old records," she said wistfully. "They meant so much to me, and they kind of had a lot to do with the soundtrack of my life." On the other side of the Hudson River, the hip-hop sound was just beginning to take shape. Up in the Bronx, deejays were spinning and scratching, the dancers were learning how to break, and MCs were getting on the microphone and rapping. It was all coming together into a completely new sound, one that would change the world. The Sugarhill Gang released "Rapper's Delight" and it turned into a massive national success. Kurtis Blow was starting out. And the new music, known as rap, was blowing away disco in New York. A musical revolution was going on not far from home, but in suburban New Jersey, the young Lauryn Hill was slowly discovering thepast. The sweet soul music that had moved her parents was moving her, too. The voices of Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Aretha--every record offered a delight. And then there were the male-female duets: "I have a couple of all-time favorites," she said, "Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell." It all had a huge effect on her. Suddenly, instead of children's songs or the latest hits she heard on the radio, Lauryn was singing real soul music--and doing it very beautifully. Music seemed to touch her, to bring something out in her that nothing else could. She was a bright girl--both the Hill kids were smart--but for her, music seemed to possess magic. Her mother's record collection seemed to unlock something in her, bring the music out of her. "Oh, my fabled record collection," said Valerie Hill. "At the time, I didn't know it would have such an impact on Lauryn. But I always felt she would somehow, some way be involved in music." It was soul that touched her, but that wasn't her only musical love. Show tunes, standards, jazz, it was all in the mix. Maybe it was inevitable that the girl who loved showing off her gymnastic skills in the project playground, impressing the other kids, would put that showmanship together with music in some form.But it didn't happen immediately, by any means. Music was her thing, but it stayed around the house. That was where she felt free to sing, to explore all the different musics, to get a strong grounding in black musical history. Lauryn came from a strong, proud culture, albeit one that had been ground down and oppressed for far too many centuries. But it had a history, a place to call its own in the world, and to Valerie and Mal Hill, it was important that their children were aware of where they came from and what their roots were so they could be proud of who they were. That, of course, was only one part of Lauryn's education. Since Valerie Hill was a teacher by profession, she made sure that every facet of her daughter's schooling was thorough. She followed up on the homework, and made sure Lauryn was keeping up with her lessons and understood what she was learning. She also took her to the theater, to see plays, musicals, all manner of things. And it was there that the idea of becoming a performer first hit Lauryn. "When she was a girl, I took her to see Annie," Valerie Hill recalled. "Afterward, Lauryn asked if there could ever be a black Annie." It seemed to ignite a spark in the girl. Maybe she wouldn't be the black Annie--and certainly there hadn't been one up to thatpoint--but maybe she could utilize her natural talents and do something on the stage. There was certainly encouragement in the family. Both Lauryn and Malaney were raised to be all they could be, to explore the different sides of themselves and bring them out. There might not have been the money to get every lavish luxury advertised on television, but that was the only thing that was lacking. "I wasn't raised rich," Lauryn would say. "But I never really wanted the things that we didn't have. I think my parents instilled in us that we didn't need lavish things. As long as we had love and protection, we were always taken care of." And there was no shortage of that in the brick house in South Orange. The harsh real world may have been just down the street, but inside everything was safe and warm. That Lauryn could sing, and sing well, was well-known to her family, and in time it became known to her friends, too. And also to her brother and his friends. They were four years older, almost a generation for kids, so Lauryn didn't hang with them. But when they came to the house they could hear her, off on her own, singing. One of Malaney's friends, Marcy, took particular note of Lauryn's talent. It would prove to be a turning point before too long. Malaney and Marcy were both students atColumbia High School, one of the most prestigious in New Jersey. It had a strong academic reputation. One of the kids who also attended Columbia High went by the name of Prakazrel Michel, known to everyone as just Pras. His family had moved from Haiti to escape the bloodshed and misery caused by the Duvalier family, Papa Doc and his son, Little Doc, who ran the country like a private fiefdom, getting rich off the poverty of the population. For the Michels, and for the others who could get out, America seemed like a country of possibilities. Maybe the streets weren't paved with gold and maybe it wasn't packed full of opportunities if you were young and black, but it was better than the things they'd known in Haiti. They settled in the projects of Brooklyn, where many Haitians had gravitated, before moving out to South Orange. Pras grew up in New Jersey, where his father was a church deacon. He was very aware of his Haitian roots, but they were overlayed with America. Like so many teenage boys, he'd fallen in love with hip-hop. Not just with the beats, but with the words, and the way they could be used, the things that could be expressed. Whether writing a rap or freestyling, he had the power to make it real. He could rhyme, he was fast; he was everything an MC needed to be. In 1988, before hip-hop had become the sound of all America, it was the sound of the inner city. It was real, it was gritty, it was people talking about the life they lived. It was often angry and political. So it was no surprise that virtually every kid who could sling some words together wanted to be a rapper. Getting a deal, though, was a different matter altogether. Even if you could talk the talk, you still needed someone good behind the wheels of steel, laying down some new, funky beats before you could really walk the walk. And most of all, you needed a good demo. Pras was fifteen. He had his stuff together, but he didn't have a good demo yet. But he had thoughts about something new. "I had this brilliant idea," he said, "that two girls and one nigga would be the bomb shit. Initially, it was me and this girl Marcy. We were supposed to get this other girl, but I didn't like her attitude." Marcy, however, remembered Malaney's sister, the little girl who could sing so well, and she said to Pras, "I know this other girl, but she's real young." At the time, Lauryn was twelve, not quite thirteen. "I was like, 'What?'" Pras recalled. But Marcy insisted on Lauryn's behalf. "This girl can sing," she said. "She's baaaad." So she came down to the studio ("He was after fresh meat," she'djoke years later), and sang perfectly. It was exactly what Pras needed. Or what he thought he needed. The record companies didn't seem to agree. But Lauryn had been up for it, and, intrigued with the possibilities, she remained up for whatever might come. They decided to call the new outfit "Time." That was typical of her at the time. She was certain that there was nothing she couldn't do if she put her mind to it. For the most part, that was a good, and very positive attitude, but one time it did get her into some serious trouble. "A bunch of us went swimming and she swore up and down she could swim," said her friend, Miriam Farrakahn. "I mean, she was trying to tell us how to swim. We were like, 'Okay, let's see how you dive.' We threw her in and she almost drowned. Literally, almost drowned. I wanted to slap her!" Maybe it was better to experience everything, even if it was dangerous, than to be scared of everything in life. And maybe it was better to believe you really could do anything you wanted than to back away from it all. Certainly, her experience in the water didn't put out Lauryn's fire for life and its possibilities. Being in the studio with Pras, and having her singing praised, had given her confidence in her voice, and really fired her desire to perform.Not just as a singer--she wasn't about to put all her eggs in Pras's basket--but in every way possible. She'd been in plays at school and knew she was good there. It was enough to make her wonder how her talents would stack up in the real world. And there was only one way to find out. With her mother's permission, Lauryn began traveling to New York to attend auditions. No one ever said it'd be easy, and it wasn't. But one trait Lauryn had been blessed with was persistence. If she failed at one audition, then the next one would go better. And indeed it did. There was a small part in an Off-Broadway production. Being up on the stage, doing it professionally, was a major moment in her life. But she had no idea just how major it would be. In the audience was an agent, a man whose clients appeared on television and in the movies. He saw Lauryn act and knew she had potential. After the performance, he sought her out. All too often agents talk big, but talk is all that happens. And at the age of thirteen, Lauryn wasn't old enough to think of signing any contracts. With her parents in tow, she went to his office and sat down. He was realistic. He couldn't make any promises, but if she became his client, for his commission, he'd do what he could to get her work. If she wanted to pursueit, that was fine with both Mal and Valerie, but on one condition--that her school work would never suffer. That came before everything else, and there would be no negotiation on the matter. Lauryn agreed; she knew it was a given, anyway. So it was all set. The agent proved to be as good as his word. He worked on Lauryn's behalf, setting up.auditions and meetings. More than that, he wasn't just sending her after everything, but to jobs that had real possibilities for her. And pretty soon, in 1991, it all clicked. "She went on a few auditions and ...

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