How Nina Simone Became Hip Hop’s “Secret Weapon”: From Lauryn Hill to Jay Z and Kanye West

In 1996, the Fugees burst on the scene with “Ready or Not,” and most lis­ten­ers were not ready: for the omi­nous, eclec­tic, Caribbean-inflect­ed pro­duc­tion, the smooth, sexy men­ace of Lau­ryn Hill’s hook (“you can’t hide / Gonna find you and take it slow­ly”), or the inter­play of ref­er­ences in the break­out star’s rhymes. “Rap orgies with Por­gy and Bess / Cap­ture your boun­ty like Eliot Ness,” Hill raps, and then a few lines lat­er, “So while you’re imi­tat­ing Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone / And defe­cat­ing on your micro­phone.”

The tongue-in-cheek line intro­duced a gen­er­a­tion of fans to the icon­ic singer and vir­tu­oso pianist, who could and did play every­thing from blues, jazz, soul, cabaret, clas­si­cal, and Broad­way tunes like those from the Gersh­win clas­sic (hear Simone’s “I Loves You Por­gy,” here).

Hill has paid homage to Simone ever since. In 2015, she pro­mot­ed the trib­ute album, Nina Revist­ed—the sound­track to doc­u­men­tary What Hap­pened to Nina Simone?—at the Apol­lo. Report­ing on the event in The Verge, Kwame Opam like­ly spoke for thou­sands in admit­ting he’d “first heard Nina’s name in that clas­sic line on ‘Ready or Not.’”

Last year saw the release of The Mise­d­u­ca­tion of Eunice Way­mon, a title com­bin­ing Hill’s acclaimed solo album with Simone’s birth name. The record, pro­duced by Ameri­go Gaz­a­way, is a “mashup of songs by Fugees emcee and hip hop leg­end Lau­ryn Hill, and the jazz and soul icon Nina Simone.” What might have come off like a mar­ket­ing stunt trad­ing on both names instead “ele­vates them to new heights,” writes Zack Gin­grich-Gay­lord at KMUW, “putting them in con­ver­sa­tion with each oth­er and mak­ing it sound like the col­lab­o­ra­tion was always meant to be.”

Maybe one rea­son these imag­i­nary stu­dio ses­sions work so well has to do not only with Hill’s ven­er­a­tion of Simone, and the har­mo­nious meet­ing of their two voic­es and sen­si­bil­i­ties, but also with Simone’s promi­nence in so much recent hip hop. Among the dozens of soul artists whose grooves have giv­en loops and hooks to many a rap clas­sic, she now holds a spe­cial place, as the Poly­phon­ic video at the top shows in an explo­ration of four Simone songs that have left an indeli­ble mark on hip hop’s cur­rent sound.

The first of those songs, “Feel­ing Good,” appears on both the Hill/Simone mashup album and in a pow­er­ful cov­er by Hill on Nina Revis­it­ed. Simone’s soar­ing ver­sion of the song—originally from the British musi­cal The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd—“turned it into a musi­cal stan­dard” for the next sev­er­al decades. In the 2000s, it popped up in tracks from Wax Tai­lor, Lil Wayne, and Jay Z and Kanye West, “two artists who have made careers out of sam­pling the high priest­ess” of soul and whose names come up fre­quent­ly in this dis­cus­sion.

The sec­ond song iden­ti­fied as one of “hip hop’s secret weapons,” Simone’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the gospel “Sin­ner­man,” may be her “great­est accom­plish­ment” and appears in tracks by Tim­ba­land and Fly­ing Lotus and in the Tal­ib Kweli track “Get By,” pro­duced by a young Kanye West.

Simone’s appeal to hip hop artists goes beyond her incred­i­bly pow­er­ful voice and piano. She was a fierce civ­il rights activist who used her music as a form of protest. Her ver­sion of “Strange Fruit,” a song first turned into a civ­il rights anthem by Bil­lie Hol­i­day from a poem by Abel Meeropol, has inspired tracks by Cas­sidy, Com­mon, and, most famous­ly, West again on his 2013 “Blood on the Leaves.” West uses the song as a back­drop for a nar­ra­tive of his per­son­al prob­lems and rela­tion­ship woes, which doesn’t real­ly hon­or its his­to­ry, the Poly­phon­ic argu­ment in favor of his use notwith­stand­ing.

That’s not the case with reimag­in­ings of the last Simone song in this explain­er, her orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion “Four Women,” which imag­ines four dif­fer­ent women express­ing the pain racism has caused them. In 2000, Tal­ib Kweli and pro­duc­er Hi-Tek came togeth­er as Reflec­tion Eter­nal and record­ed their own ver­sion, men­tion­ing Simone’s South­ern inspi­ra­tions in the intro before telling con­tem­po­rary tales of four women in New York. “More than just a sam­ple,” the track “rein­ter­prets the mes­sage” of “Four Women” and applies Simone’s 1966 insights to the present, some­thing Jay Z also does on 2017’s “The Sto­ry of O.J.”

It is worth not­ing that all of the tracks the Poly­phon­ic video men­tions as exam­ples of Simone’s influ­ence on hip hop were released after Lau­ryn Hill and the Fugees brought Simone to the atten­tion of young rap­pers, DJs, pro­duc­ers, and fans just com­ing of age in the mid-nineties. Since then, Simone’s music has since left its mark all over the genre, and it’s easy to see why so many would be drawn to her intense, author­i­ta­tive musi­cian­ship and polit­i­cal urgency.

Simone may not have had the chance her­self to enter into con­ver­sa­tions with Lau­ryn Hill, Tal­ib Kweli, Com­mon, Kanye, or Jay Z, but through hip hop’s end­less­ly cre­ative abil­i­ty to make the musi­cal heroes of its past live again in song, it is as if she is still speak­ing, singing, and play­ing to the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of black artists—and through them, to the future of hip hop.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Watch a New Nina Simone Ani­ma­tion Based on an Inter­view Nev­er Aired in the U.S. Before

The His­to­ry of Hip Hop Music Visu­al­ized on a Turntable Cir­cuit Dia­gram: Fea­tures 700 Artists, from DJ Kool Herc to Kanye West

Watch Nina Simone Sing the Black Pride Anthem, “To Be Young, Gift­ed and Black,” on Sesame Street (1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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