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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