Some albums don’t just define an era. While brilliantly illuminating a particular moment, an occasional recording casts a 1,000-watt glare so penetrating that its music continues to provide insight years into the future.
Few albums have cast more light in recent decades than The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the 1998 hip-hop/neo-soul album which has sold more than 20 million copies.
For Ethiopian-born Berkeley singer-songwriter Meklit, a child of 1980s Brooklyn, Hill’s epochal Miseducation continues to serve as a touchstone. Recently, she lobbied UnderCover Presents -- an organization that gathers local talent to cover classic albums in their entirety -- for a stint as guest musical director. The resulting project premieres Feb. 16–18 as part of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Clas/Sick Hip-Hop Festival.
Like all UnderCover tributes, the concert at YBCA (details here) features the album's songs presented in sequence, with a disparate roster of Bay Area artists interpreting one piece each. (The tracks are also recorded and released on an album, UnderCover Presents a Tribute to 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill').
“I grew up with the boomboxes and b-boys spinning on cardboard,” says Meklit. “I was a freshman at Yale when Miseducation came out, and you heard it everywhere. The album was an inspiration, particularly for women not submitting to those forces of misogyny that we all deal with. [Hill] used what she went through as a woman in the music industry, and a lot of those things haven’t gone away.”
In assembling a soul-laden roster of artists, Meklit drew particularly on the East Bay’s deep pool of talent. Vivacious jazz/soul vocalist Kimiko Joy and the RubADubs tackle “To Zion,” tough-toned tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy reinvent "Superstar,” and drummer Josh Jones' Latin Ensemble puts an Afro-Cuban spin on “I Used to Love Him.”
In a felicitous pairing, former Lauryn Hill music director Kev Choice -- who spent 2007 on the road with Hill -- opted for “Final Hour.”
“I wanted to challenge myself with that hardcore flow,” he says. “People associate Hill as a vocalist, but to me, as a rapper, she’s one of the top five ever. I wanted to evoke what she did lyrically -- change it but do it justice. She’s talking about a lot of things spiritually; that you can get the money and the power, but keep your eyes on the final hour. She’s a very spiritual person.”
In a particularly savvy programmatic move, Meklit tapped veteran jazz and blues vocalist Faye Carol to cover “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” the 1967 hit by Frankie Valli that ended up as a Miseducation bonus track after Hill recorded the song for the film Conspiracy Theory. Carol has mentored generations of artists, including vocalist Lesley Grant, who belts out Hill’s "Everything Is Everything" with the funk band Katdelic.
An accomplished jazz singer who came of age on the East Bay blues and R&B scene in the late 1960s (“I’m going to be the official OG of the program,” Carol quips), she’s kept current with upcoming artists, and wasn’t surprised when Miseducation became a sensation.
“I already considered her one of the young up-and-coming people,” says Carol. “She could sing really well and rap really well. It made her really outstanding.”
Unfortunately, the timing of the Miseducation concerts collide with the Cal Performances presentation of the Nile Project at Zellerbach Hall on Saturday, Feb. 18. Meklit co-founded the Nile Project five years ago with Egyptian-born San Francisco ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis, and the trans-national collective has evolved into a far-reaching collaboration bringing together artists, activists, academics and ecologists in Nile nations that are home to more than 400 million people.
While Meklit isn’t involved in the current tour, her experience traveling through East Africa with the Nile Project deeply informed her approach to the UnderCover assignment.
“Hip-hop has this ability to adapt to whatever poetic tradition it touches,” she says. “In Egypt in 2011 we were meeting young hip-hop artists who had studied classical Arabic poetry, and they were making beats and bringing classical Arabic poetry into hip-hop. It has this open-armed aesthetic, and I felt like those principals connected with UnderCover’s mission.”
That’s music to the ears of Lyz Luke, who’s directed UnderCover since 2010, when she first devised the concept (along with sound engineer Yosh Haraguchi and violist Charith Premawardhana) of assembling a diverse array of Bay Area musicians to play iconic albums. Miseducation is the 13th album covered by UnderCover; each production is curated by a different guest musical director.
For Luke, the initial notion of getting disparate musicians together in the same place has evolved into “a force bigger than we ever imagined, a lot more than a concert,” she says.
“It’s a source for what’s happening in the Bay Area music community. When you walk backstage, so many artists don’t know each other. They’re from such different genres, they've listened to and respected each other, but never got a chance to be on the same bill.”
'UnderCover Presents The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' runs Feb. 16–18 at 9:30pm the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum. Tickets ($35-$45) and more details here.