July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

ERYKAH BADU BEGAN HER MUSICAL education early—very early. “From the womb, I heard soul music,” says the 26-year-old Dallas native. “My mother listened to Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, James Brown.” Considering the prenatal prelude, it’s no wonder that she adds, “I was born an artist.”

No argument there. After dropping theater studies at Grambling State University in Grambling, La., she fine-tuned her music for a few years around Dallas, then was discovered in 1995 and given the chance to cut an album. The result, Baduizm, is a mix of hip hop and jazz that went platinum two months after its February debut at No. 2 and has earned her comparisons to the legendary Billie Holiday.

Badu was raised as Erica Wright, the oldest of three children, by her mother, Kolleen. an actress, and William, who left the family when she was young. While in high school, she and her mother hit a dissonant note when Erica found African-American consciousness and declared she was dumping her first name. “It is a slave name,” Badu, who wears traditional head wraps during performances, recalls telling her mom. “And my mother said, ‘No, I named you Erica, and I’m not a slave driver.”

Badu, now a Brooklynite, compromised by spelling it Erykah (she says her new last name, adopted later, means “to manifest truth and light” in Arabic). She has also struck a balance between fame’s luxuries and her own simpler wants on tour. “I don’t need much,” she says. “Just hot water, lemon and honey, and some place to sit down.”

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