Harvard Univ. Hip Hop Archive hosts 9th Wonder
As he introduced a man he said he’d been blessed to call both colleague and friend for the last few years, noted African American studies scholar Dr. Mark Anthony Neal recalled his first time meeting hip hop producer 9th Wonder.
“We’re just sitting there, waiting for our [radio interview] to get started, and we start talking about our kids and parenting. And 9th Wonder starts talking about going to school conferences and open houses and [other] parents looking him up and down like, ‘So what do you do for a living?’ [And he tells them], ‘I’m a hip hop producer.’ And they’re confused, right? And he said to me, ‘Somehow, [people think that] because you’re a hip hop producer, you’re not supposed to be involved with raising your kids,” said Dr. Neal. “At that moment, I knew this was a special cat.”
Indeed, Patrick Douthit, known by most as 9th Wonder, is much more than just a hip hop producer. He’s a husband, a father, CEO of his own record label, member of the Universal Zulu Nation, an NAACP ambassador and a college professor.
And yet, for 9th Wonder, hip hop is where it all started; it’s the axis around which his innovative, multifaceted career has rotated for years.
Since registering on rap music radars in the early 2000s, the musician has worked with some of hip hop and soul music’s biggest stars, including Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Destiny’s Child, De La Soul and Mary J. Blige. He now guides the careers of more than a dozen artists and producers signed to his Jamla/IWWMG record label.
For the Grammy Award-winner, the last decade has been full of earnest effort to strike the ultimate balance between beats, rhymes and life.
It made sense then that Harvard University’s Hip Hop Archive would choose the beatmaker to kick off their new “Cutting Edge” series, which Archive Director Dr. Marcyliena Morgan described as an opportunity for hip hop students and fans to learn from artists. She said, “… work makes us feel and makes us think about who we are, where we’re going and where we want to be.”
Dozens of people packed the Archive’s headquarters last month to hear 9th Wonder discuss how he’s created a unique and respected musical style and career through hip hop. The audience also got a first look at “The Wonder Year,” a film by Kenneth Price that documents in crisp, colorful footage a year in the life of the producer.
Scenes of 9th spinning old soul records and pounding the keys of his beat machines during studio sessions are mixed with clips with of the producer thoughtfully reflecting on his personal and professional evolution; humbly accepting the praises of hip hop heavyweights like DJ Premier and Drake; spending time with his two daughters, and teaching 20- something Duke students how to sample a record.
As the documentary unveils how 9th discovered and honed his talent, it pays particular attention the role education played in helping him determine his path and values as a young man.
He talks about the impact a college prep program for local African American youth had on his appreciation for learning, and how 80s television programs like “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” suddenly made it cool to be young, gifted and black again, an idea that helped to redefine how his generation — the hip hop generation — engaged with education.
Though he enrolled at North Carolina Central to study music, in the film, he notes that he always wanted to be a history teacher. Almost 20 years later, things have come full circle. After a three-year stint as an artist in residence at North Carolina Central, where he taught hip hop history, he’s now co-teaching a course with Dr. Neal titled “Sampling Soul,” where students explore the history and art of soul music and music sampling.
Even before becoming a Duke professor, teaching the next generation the ins and outs of the industry was always one of 9th’s career goals.
“That’s been my fight, to get in the classroom to really tell people exactly what hip hop is, and especially from the artists’ standpoint,” he said. “There’s really not a Ph.D. in hip hop music; you have to live it and grow up with it to really know how to teach [it].”
When the film ended, the beatmaker continued to drop jewels about the importance of creating opportunities for people to learn about — and through — hip hop. He was especially concerned about helping today’s youth cultivate a basic knowledge of hip hop, something he said they often lack because the music is such a prevalant part of their lives.
“When it comes to hip hop, we expect the younger generation to know things that they really don’t understand,” he pointed out. “Although they listen to hip hop, it’s everywhere for them — it’s like water for them. You have to teach [today’s youth about] the first generation of hip hop all over again.”
“A lot of these kids getting in the game, their only frame of reference is Black Entertainment Television. There’s nothing on television except these images that are portrayed, so a lot of these kids go into the game with lofty expectations,” he continued. “We have enough music from our generation that can offset [those] images — we just need to expose them to it.”
He also reminded the audience that even young children can use hip hop as a learning tool. “We forget that everything taught to us in elementary school was taught in a cadence,” 9th said. “I think what we can use from hip hop [to teach children] is saying things in [a] rhythm.”
And though some might be reluctant to introduce elements of hip hop into a child’s curriculum, 9th pointed out that in this case, the ends (hip hop) justify the means (learning). “Trust me, if you teach a kid how to do something, the parent’s going to be happy no matter how you taught them. And if hip hop is it, it’s it.”
Still, he wouldn’t think of passing on hip hop’s history without paying dues to the elders that paved the way. And yet, he respectfully expressed his disappointment in the older generation’s refusal to support or acknowledge hip hop as a universal musical and cultural force.
“We got a lot of older people out there that frown upon what we do, and it’s been the problem. The civil rights folks didn’t pass the torch to the hip hop generation, and I don’t want to repeat that process,” he insisted.
“I’m trying to tell them that you’re living on through us. If we sample a record, we’re giving new life to the person that we sampled. We’re the bridge, man.”