7:51pm London, Brixton - a district of South London, once more known for its two infamous riots (1981, and 1995 respectively), than its vibrant music scene, has come a long way in the last couple of decades. Known in some circles as “London’s Harlem”, Brixton has done wonders rebranding itself, now boasting a cultural and social diversity, with chic trendsetters, mixing it up with the grungers and rude boys alike.
Eight-time Grammy Award winner Lauryn Hill is in town tonight, and she is playing her second night at Brixton’s flagship venue, ‘Brixton Academy’ – now rebranded as ‘o2 Academy, Brixton’.
The venue holds almost five thousand people, yet the crowd outside looks worryingly thin, only an hour away from the time Ms. Hill is scheduled to take stage. I wonder to myself if they got Lauryn’s…I mean Ms. Hill’s memo: “I’m never on time to my show”. The crowd grows bigger and bigger, as people flood into the venue, and certainly within the next half hour or so, the venue is nearing its capacity, another completely sold out gig for Ms Hill.
All around me I see afros, and locks, natural hairstyles, and head wraps. I see nu-era style baseball caps, beanies, flat caps, and one or two bowler hats. I see people who look like they may have been fans of Ms. Hill from her ‘L. Boogie’ ‘Blunted on Reality’ days (some hard-core hip hop heads), to people who look like they may have become fans much later on when she made her unplugged CD (yes, there are people out here carrying acoustic guitars - don’t ask me why).
As I study the crowd a bit more, I notice it is in fact a very diverse audience –all ages, gender, and races represented. The one thing everyone seems to have in common tonight is their eagerness to see Lauryn…I mean Ms. Hill; eagerness, but also a lot of apprehension. Word has got out that Ms. Hill’s show last night (at the same venue), wasn’t one of her best, and many fans and concert attendees were left disillusioned. So there’s almost a strange calm out here overshadowing the excitement, and I hear the murmurs coming from every direction, “I hope she’s good tonight”, “Did you hear about last night?”, “I tried to sell my ticket”, “I heard she got booed”. People seem to be prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best.
I hear a lot of “Long time no see” and “I haven’t seen you in years” as it strikes me that Ms. Hill’s music has a cult following as a lot of people, know a lot of people out here. I myself see a familiar face, Ayishat Akanbi, celebrity stylist, and we have a good chat about Lauryn Hill’s discography, and what we expect from tonight’s show.
8:53pm Inside the venue, it is rammed, and the DJ on stage is playing a contemporary mix of Hip Hop, R’n’b and Reggae joints – the acoustics in the venue are terrible, and the sound is already muddy – too much bass, not enough mids or high ends. People are in high spirits nonetheless, and whatever the vibe was outside, inside the venue all I can see are people free from all inhibitions.
9:00pm Ms. Hill is scheduled to be on stage at 9pm, so you can imagine the excitement from the crowd when the DJ shouts “People are you ready?”
9:04pm The DJ ends his set and exits the stage to loud cheers. People are anticipating Lauryn now. The excitement is palpable.
9:05pm Some of Ms. Hill’s band have arrived on stage, and are picking up their instruments. The crowd goes berserk, and begin chanting “Lauryn! Lauryn! Lauryn! Lauryn!
False alarm. The musicians walk off stage after a few minutes of fiddling with their gear.
9:10pm No one is on stage. I hear someone ask “Is Lauryn coming or not?”
9:11pm A new DJ has taken over, and drops Sizzla’s ‘Just One of those Days’ to the crowd’s delight – the energy levels are rising again. There’s a carnival like atmosphere inside as he throws out reggae/dancehall classic after classic: ‘Damien Marley – Jamrock’, ‘Collie Buddz – Come Around’, ‘Dawn Penn – No, No, No’, ‘Sister Nancy – Bam, Bam’
9:21pm It seems hard to imagine the energy levels could get much higher, and I am beginning to fear the DJ is amping up the audience a bit too much
9:24pm The DJ drops a snippet of ‘The Delfonics – Walk Right Up To The Sun’, followed by ‘Nas - If I Ruled The World, Ft. Lauryn Hill’. The Nas record uses an interpolation from the Delfonics joint, and is the first record of the night we hear with Lauryn’s vocals on it. The energy levels have started to dwindle again, and people are nervously starting to check for the time.
The energy levels pick up again quickly, as the DJ drops a mashup of ‘Chaka Demus & Pliers – Murder She Wrote’, ‘Beenie Man – Who Am I’, ‘Beenie Man – Dude’, and ‘Sean Paul – Like Glue’.
9:33pm The DJ announces, “In a few minutes, we’ll bring the band, and then the lovely Ms. Hill”. The crowd roars in response, but notably less enthusiastic than when the previous DJ had asked “Are you ready?” about half an hour ago.
I notice on the stage’s left wing, slightly out of view to the majority of the audience, a tall middle aged man (probably in his mid-30s – early 40s), dressed in dark colours, wearing what looks like a panama hat. He seems to be scanning the audience intensively, observing what’s going on – my guess is, he’s one of Ms Hill’s people. He eases up a little, and begins to skank to the DJ’s selection.
9:35pm The DJ churns out more reggae/dancehall inspired records: ‘Wayne Wonder – No Letting Go’, followed by Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier. Surely Ms. Hill has to come out after the Marley record? We get the connection (Hill being mother to five of Marley’s grandchildren).
9:40pm The DJ does the unthinkable. He plays a record off the classic Miseducation album, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes off You’. Of course the crowd goes ballistic as soon as it drops, but I can’t help but think that this might be dangerous territory; playing a studio recording off the ground breaking album, moments before the artist is set to perform tracks from that very same LP – sixteen years later.
9:42pm The DJ wheels the tune mid-way, and says “Good night….you ready?” People are tip-toing…is she coming? All eyes are on the stage now, with nobody but the sound people there. Suddenly, Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus’ record blasts through the speakers, and people around me let out a sigh of disappointment…more waiting I guess.
9:45pm No movement on stage, the audience seems bored.
9:47pm People are beginning to become restless, as they chat amongst themselves, texting/posting to their social media accounts etc.
9:50pm The screen on stage lights up. We all feel her presence, but where is she? The sound guys on stage seem bored, but stand up now, and begin to stretch…do they know something we don’t know?
9:52pm A voice announces on the microphone “She is in the building”. The crowd perks up again, and begin to chant. The excitement has once again resumed, and this time her entire band takes to the stage and begins to play, her backing vocalists follow suit.
9:55pm I recognise the music, but I can’t quite put my finger on what they’re playing; that is of course, until Hill’s vocal, singing in a raspy tenor tone, fills the concert goers with a new found zeal. “I’m a rebel, soul rebel” she sings (Bob Marley cover). People are going absolutely OTT right now, shoving each other, trying to find Hill on stage – she isn’t there.
After a few moments, Ms. Hill struts on stage in time to the music – she has a petite frame, and an amazing smile. Her vocals are stellar, and she looks great. She is wearing a navy blue waist jacket, matching navy blue mini skirt, and a black blouse. Oh – and some Michael Jackson inspired, knee-high golden, shin-pad boots.
9:58pm Hill launches into a “Woy yo yo” reggae call and response chant with her backing vocalists and the audience, before easing into a reggae rendition of ‘Killing Me Softly’. The level of musicianship that has gone into these arrangements is incredible, but I notice some disappointment already, as people are asking why she isn’t performing it like she did on the record (18 years ago).
Hill’s backing vocalists sound great, and really compliment her well – you can tell they are well rehearsed, and Hill herself, her vocals are impeccable.
There are kaleidoscopic images behind on the screen as Hill performs, detailing Afrocentric art, textiles, images, and lifestyle. As I listen to Hill and her band perform, I think of what Marilyn Manson once said.
“Art, I think, is a question mark, I don't think it should ever be an answer”
10:03pm Hill: “What’s up Brixton, UK….London?” She’s attempting a London accent. Am I the only one noticing this? Lol
10:04pm Hill: “We’ll like to take this opportunity to talk about…”
I thought she was about to deliver an apology of some sort, but she continues,
“…to talk about, how Everything Is Everything”
Of course Lauryn Hill fans would know that this is the title of one of the singles taken from the classic ‘The Miseducation’ LP, while those who know a little bit more about Hill would also recognize that one of the people she often cites as one of her musical influences, Donny Hathaway, also had an album by the same title (needless to say this inspired Hill’s title). Those who understand Hill’s musical influences would also appreciate and make more sense of some of her newer musical arrangements.
10:05pm Hill performs Everything is Everything. She changes lyrics in some sections: “I wrote these words, for Brixton…” the crowd roars, as if to reciprocate the love.
The performance starts off similar to the studio record, then goes into a Motown type transition – the arrangements are genius, and energetic, different to the studio version, but new, and interesting.
Hill is a great band leader, and signals changes to her band, who perhaps don’t need them at this stage, as they seem so well rehearsed.
With so much energy in her performance, Hill drops one of her gold earrings, and either doesn’t notice, or chose to ignore it.
10:10pm Hill instructs the lighting people “put some lights on my ladies”, and does a little dance step with her backing vocalist. “We’re gonna do a song from Miseducation” she announces, and the crowd cheers.
Hill performs ‘Final Hour’ but not like the studio record at all – a very sped up rendition. I’m sorry, but if you do not know the lyrics to this song already, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be learning them tonight – certainly not at this bpm.
As the only wholly rap record off of the Miseducation, I would have loved her to slow down on this one, as she’s actually a very gifted emcee.
Now I'ma get the mozzarella like a Rockerfeller/
Still be in the church of Lalibela /singing hymns a cappella /
Whether posed in Maribella in Couture /
10:15pm To Zion – the crowd goes nuts as they recognize what it is, but Hill doesn’t perform it like the studio record – not quite the ballad we were expecting, but she still sings it with a mother’s passion, soul, and sincerity. Everyone around me seems to be enjoying it, as her guitarist does his best to emulate Carlos Santana’s guitar style.
As they work their way through the song, I find it hard to imagine Hill, with her petite frame, being a mother of six children.
10:18pm Lost Ones – Hill gives the record new life, with arrangements stretching from Hip Hop, to Reggae, then Soul. Anyone following Hill long enough would recognize this is a style she learnt from her time in the Fugees – record mashups, mashing up genres and beats into one, to keep the performance interesting, and fresh each time.
10:25pm Ex Factor – Hill tells the ladies in the audience this one is for them, and launches into her famous breakup ballad. Again, it has a newer arrangement – still containing the fundamental elements from the original, but different enough to drive anyone who absolutely loves the original record(ing) crazy.
Her keys player spices things up with synth horns, while her bassist holds down the reggae bassline. Her drummer has a nice pocket, and her guitarist is clearly enjoying himself. Her backing vocalists sing oohs and ahhs and look cute as they do their little step.
They do a ten minute version of this song, and the arrangement truly is breath-taking, fusing a little African rhythm, and Motown elements.
10:35pm Hill walks off stage; interlude type music is being played by her keys player and bassist. Someone from stage crew sets up a stool and mic-stand centre stage.
10:39pm Mr Intentional - Hill re-emerges and asks “You guys heard of Unplugged out here?” – the crowd responds with a loud cheer. She is now seated center stage with her guitar, and goes into ‘Mr Intentional’ from the MTV Unplugged album.
I notice her earring is back on. Funny, I didn’t see who picked it up.
10:42pm Adam Lives in Theory – Her backing vocalists accompany her with amazing harmonies
I Get Out – The crowd let out an appreciative cheer as she goes into this one. Hill has an amazing smile, and isn’t afraid to share it today.
Even Hill’s backing vocalists appear to be fans, smiling in awe at Hill as the crowd cheers for her at the end of the song.
10:45pm Turn Your Lights Down Low (Bob Marley cover) Hill gives us a soulful rendition of her cover/duet with Bob Marley, and everyone raps along to her rap verse – word for word
Loving you is like a song I replay/
Every three minutes and thirty seconds of every day/ etc
10:49pm Fugees set – Hill runs through a number of Fugees tracks, including ‘Zealots’, ‘How Many Mics’, ‘Fugeela’ and ‘Ready or Not’. She interprets the records as she pleases, but never ventures off too far from the originals. All the hip hop heads in the audience are doing some serious head bops.
With all that skanking, one of Hill’s big gold earrings flies off again. She spits Clef's and Pras' verses too, so she can perform each song in its entirety.
I notice again, the gent wearing the panama hat, hiding in the left wing of the stage, watching the crowd attentively; he’s stroking his fingers against his chin, as if in deep thought.
I also notice tonight’s performance is being professionally recorded by a film crew, with the audience, band and backing vocalists, all being filmed for cutaways.
11:06 pm Killing Me Softly (reprise) The crowd are excited and seem surprised that she’s doing this version like the record. She starts off in ballad form to show off her vocals, but once the hip hop groove drops, the crowd starts to sing along. All we need now is Wyclef to throw in “one time…”
11:09pm Bob Marley set – As the Rastafarian flag takes its place on the screen behind Hill, she works her way through some classic Bob Marley songs, and does them justice: ‘Jamming’, ‘Is This Love’, and ‘Could You Be Loved’ – I can feel the Bob Marley spirit in our presence. The ‘I-Threes’ (Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt) would definitely give their nod of approval to Hill’s backing vocalists, as they nail their signature ‘ooh harmonies’.
11:17 pm Cher - Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) cover. I would love to hear a studio version of Hill’s take of this Cher classic, as Hill delivers the song in a soulful fashion, reminding us that we all once fell in love with her as a soul singer. Hill definitely connected with this song - it’s an interesting choice.
11:19pm Hill thanks the audience, and then tells us she couldn’t leave without doing this one. She goes into her worldwide hit ‘Doo Wop’. Again, reverting back to the Fugee school of thought, Hill does a mashup of the record as the second verse drops, then flips it back to the original beat/arrangement to end the track.
Hill gestures a hug to the audience, smiles appreciatively, then leaves the stage.
Many people came out tonight, hoping to watch the teenage Lauryn Hill from the Fugees perform, or the young girl, who at 22 years old, recorded The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill back in 1997. Instead, what they got to see was an incredible woman, accomplished band leader, performer, vocalist, artist, and brilliant mind, take us through her extensive back catalogue of hits, as interpreted by her in the year 2014, hinting at what her future recordings might sound like – genre wise. The musicianship was impeccable, the vocals (both Hill and backing singers) were impeccable, and the arrangements were incredible. Yes they were different to the record, but tonight Hill gave us something old, and new, merged together in one.
Aleco Banji is the frontman of British band 'The Clef Truants', currently working on his solo body of work, with genres ranging from Hip Hop, Reggae, and Motown Soul, to Brit-Rock and pop - yet, all sitting comfortably under the 'credible artist' umbrella.