The Legal Tangle of 'Miseducation'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The critics who have made Lauryn Hill's solo debut the most acclaimed release of 1998 have consistently praised the album for its vision and honesty in presenting one woman's view on life and love.

But now, on the eve of the Grammy season in which it is a sure contender, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" is being portrayed in a lawsuit filed by a group of musicians as something far different--a group project and a lesson in the unfairness of the music business.

The musicians, known collectively as New Ark, are suing Hill and her label in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., claiming they deserve a share of songwriting or production credit on 13 of the album's 14 songs--and, of course, a sizable chunk of the profits generated by the album, which has sold 2.4 million copies to date.

The 23-year-old Hill, who gained fame as a member of the Grammy-winning Fugees trio, said in a statement that the suit is "without any merit whatsoever." A spokesman for the singer added this week that Hill feels "deeply betrayed" by the New Ark group, who toiled on the Ruffhouse/Columbia Records release for months at a studio in Hill's South Orange, N.J., home.

The album credits say the album is "produced, written and arranged" by Hill, and she is also listed as executive producer on all the tracks. The New Ark members--Vada Nobles, Rasheem "Kilo" Pugh and twin brothers Johari and Tejumold Newton--are acknowledged several times for "additional production," "additional musical contribution" and "additional lyrical contribution" on some songs.

They claim, however, to be the primary songwriters on two tracks, "Nothing Really Matters" and "Everything Is Everything," and major contributors on six others. Full or partial production credit is also due to the team on five tracks, the suit claims. The musicians also claim to have made sizable, uncredited production contributions to "A Rose Is Still a Rose," a song Hill produced for Aretha Franklin's last album.

The dispute has been discussed by attorneys on both sides for months, but an impasse led to the federal lawsuit filing earlier this month.

Lawsuits are hardly a rarity in the realm of song credits--as one music publishing veteran remarked this week, "Where there's a hit, there's a writ"--but the suit against Hill is especially intriguing because she was viewed primarily as a vocalist before "Miseducation" won raves for her songwriting and production craft.

Sources close to Hill dismiss the lawsuit as an attempt to cash in by some overreaching studio musicians. But Peter C. Harvey, the attorney for the New Ark group, says it is Hill who is exaggerating her artistic heft. He says the hip-hop diva put her name on New Ark's work to establish herself as more than "just the singer" in the Fugees.

"She is not a musician, she is not a producer," Harvey said. "[New Ark] will make another album and everyone will see that they were the ones responsible for this album. I dare say if you put Lauryn Hill in a studio alone, she couldn't do it again. Album No. 2 for her is not going to sound like this."

That view is contradicted by numerous sources who say Hill is blossoming into a major creative force in pop music.

"Lauryn is a very gifted arranger, producer and writer, as well as a vocalist; she's the whole package," said Gordon "The Commissioner" Williams, the engineer at the sound board during most of the "Miseducation" sessions. Williams declined to discuss the lawsuit or New Ark's claims, but he described the album as a powerfully personal effort by Hill. "It's definitely her vision."

In their suit, the New Ark members say it was Pugh's four-year friendship with Hill that led the singer to invite the musicians to join her as she began planning her pivotal first solo effort in June 1997. The suit claims the singer and her would-be collaborators hit it off in their first meeting, making grand plans and sitting in a circle as Hill led them in prayer. Pugh and the others were giddy afterward. They had some credits to their career, but the chance to work with Hill was their "big break."

The suit also claims Hill made verbal assurances to New Ark that they would be credited and paid for major contributions to the album, but they never pinned down their role in writing--which Harvey concedes was an error.

The suit says the relationship between Hill and the New Ark musicians cooled as the album neared completion and the singer began backing off her earlier promises of credit.

Harvey says Hill's handlers tried to placate Pugh and the others in November 1997 by arranging a publishing deal with Sony/ATV, the same publisher that handled the "Miseducation" songs for Hill. The deal paid the New Ark musicians a $100,000 advance for rights to their future work. Harvey said the size of the deal supports the group's claim that they are far more than mere studio musicians, and, indeed, industry insiders said a contract of that size is unusual for unproven songwriters.

A spokesman for Sony/ATV declined to comment on the New Ark deal or the amount of money involved.

Hill's public relations consultant, Dan Klores, said that New Ark's work "was appropriately credited for their contribution on the album. This is an attempt to take advantage of her success and it will be dealt with through the courts."

Klores added that Hill is a monumental talent and her work speaks for itself. "She's created a brilliant album," he said.

"Miseducation" debuted in August at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, sold a million copies in less than a month and has been collecting top year-end honors from corners as diverse as Spin and Time magazines. The album, heralded by many as pushing new frontiers in R&B;, seems a lock for a number of Grammy nominations, which will be announced Jan. 5. But will the lawsuit taint its image for the awards voters when they receive their ballots in mid-January?

"If it were a public contest I think there would be some influence, but our voters are in the industry and they know this is par for the course," Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, said this week. "When something is successful, two or three people will step forward to claim they had something to do with it. Standard operating procedure is to not pay any attention to it until something is proven."

Klores said the suit "shouldn't and won't have any effect" on the album as a Grammy hopeful.

The industry has a long history of battles over song credits, and when those songs have won Grammy Awards, NARAS "very quietly" goes back to credit the proper parties and erase the names of the undeserving, Greene said.

Settling songwriting disputes can be a daunting prospect, says Les Bider, chairman and CEO of Warner/Chappell, a giant in the music publishing business. When two, three or more people collaborate, the writers must perform the unwieldy task of calculating their percentage of contribution--and millions of dollars can be at stake if the song becomes a hit.

"You get lots of 5%s and 10%s when you get six or seven writers on a song, and it sounds crazy but you have to figure out the most meaningful contributions," Bider said. "The more people there are, the more confusing it is."

Glen Ballard, a five-time Grammy-winning songwriter and producer, has made a career out of perfecting the art and personal politics of collaboration, working with Alanis Morissette, Aerosmith, Michael Jackson and others. But even for him the process is still somewhat mysterious.

"It's like a group of people with their hands on a Ouija board: Who's moving the thing? We all are, I guess," Ballard said. "At the end of the day, music is a collaborative medium. . . . When it comes to pinning down who did what, a lot of that gets lost in the process. At the time, the best idea wins."

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