9th Wonder on how hip-hop is like applesauce for the pills, a gateway to knowledge and history
A revered hip-hop producer who got his start with Phonte and Big Pooh in the North Carolina-based group Little Brother, 9th Wonder has worked with an array of top-shelf artists, from Jay-Z and Destiny's Child to Mary J. Blige and Ludacris, among many others. Known as one of the best samplers in hip-hop, who's especially fond of drawing pieces from old soul records, he credits J Dilla, Pete Rock, DJ Premier and the RZA with influencing his style. Recently, 9th Wonder has ventured into the world of teaching, instructing classes at North Carolina Central University and Duke University. We caught up with 9th yesterday and talked about the importance of hip-hop in teaching, the merits of sampling, and building bridges to past generations.
Westword: You talk a lot about extending the life of hip-hop. Why is it so important that hip-hop lives on?
9th Wonder: I guess it's the same importance as any other musical art form that lives on, you know what I mean? I mean, it's 200, 300, almost 400 years...that we've been talking about classical music, you know? Like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach have been going a very long time, and there's still classes that you can take on a collegiate level that speak to that. The best classical music wasn't even made in the United States; it was made in Germany, in Austria, in Russia, in places in like that.
So, you know, that's how I feel about hip-hop. And the thing about hip-hop is that it controls so much of the youth culture, and it also controls a lot of the way a lot of older people think now, because hip-hop is now -- going on next year, it'll be forty years old. So something that controls youth culture and the things that you see on TV and everything needs to be studied, and that's why I feel the shelf life needs to be extended.
You've said the most important thing, if you want to be a part of hip-hop culture, is that you learn the history of the culture. But obviously, you can succeed commercially without knowing the history. So what do you think gets lost if you don't know the history?
Everybody has a different definition of what success is.... In this country, becoming commercially successful does not always mean artistic, you understand what I mean? In the days of YouTube, you can become an overnight success with a crazy song, you know? You can become an overnight success with a song you and your friend make in a room.
And that's cool. If that's your source of income, nobody's knocking your source of income, but if you want to be considered a part of this culture -- because at the end of the day, even those artists we speak of that become commercially successful, in a way that a lot of hip-hoppers feel is not hip-hop, at the end of the day, they still want to come around hip-hoppers. They want to be accepted, you know? They want to still be accepted.
I hear a lot of MCs say, "Well, I'm not an MC. I don't call myself an MC. I'm not a rapper. Blah, blah." That's fine, but at the end of the day, you want to come around a room full of hip-hoppers. You grew up listening to some of the greats. You want to be around that. And no amount of money in the world is going to help you do that. The only thing that'll help you do that is the education. That's how I feel about it.
Are you still teaching?
Why was it so important to you to teach?
Hip-hop is one of those things that you have to -- in order to successfully teach it, in order for it to carry on -- it has to be taught by the ones who live it, the ones who know it. Hip-hop is not one of those things you learn about in a book. Yet. Because the book hasn't been written. You know, there have been books written around it, but there's not a thick textbook that's been written about hip-hop.
You know, [like the books] that we have about jazz, that we have about classical and we have about these other mediums and art forms, that we have about, you know, Cubism when it comes to art. We have these textbooks. We don't have it for hip-hop. And that's why I wanted to be one of the frontrunners at doing so -- myself, Bun B, ?uestlove. We wanted to be some of the frontrunners in doing so before it falls into somebody's hands who really doesn't understand it, you know?
Music forms like classical music are taught in class, and they have sort of a canon of accepted classics or whatnot, but other music forms like disco will probably never be taught in class...
Disco was only around three years....[Hip-hop] is an art form that's been around for forty years. This is an art form that McDonald's sometimes uses to advertise to millions of people. This is an art form that has gone before congress. This is an art form that controls income in New York City. This is an art form that makes me and a person that doesn't even speak my language communicate. And it's been happening like that since '75. It's not about somebody picking up a microphone and making a rap song. This is something that has joined people past religion, past race, past color, past creed. This is an art form that helped, in some part, win the presidency. Disco did not do that.
So you do not ascribe to the belief that hip-hop is dead or dying?
No, because hip-hop is bigger than the radio or TV, and I don't believe that mass media should determine whether an art form is dying or not. We're talking about the art form of it. We're not talking about, "Does it sell records?" We're not talking about that. And I mean that's been shattered because Kendrick Lamar sold 246,000 records in one week. So we're not talking about that.
We're talking about: Can I not go to Germany, any part of Germany, and play a Wu-Tang record, and everybody reacts like it just came out yesterday? Can I not do that same thing from Bonn, Germany, to Johannesburg, South Africa, to Sao Paulo, Brazil? Can I not play Wu-Tang's "C.R.E.A.M." anymore and about 5,000 people go nuts. When that stops happening, that's when hip-hop is dead.
But wouldn't you say that rap today is more diverse than it's ever been? And you can still find people who sound like Wu-Tang. Like I know you're a big fan of Joey Bada$$, who's a really young guy, and I know you're at least a little bit of a fan of Lil B, and I'm sure there are other guys that you like that will be selling records. So is there anything that's coming out recently that you think deserves to be respected in that same way that 36 Chambers does?
Yeah, that's why I said Kendrick Lamar. Even before he made Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, you know, Section.80 was one of those things. Joey Bada$$ is another one. Big K.R.I.T. is another one. And that's something that's "more southern" than Kendrick Lamar's West Coast, and Joey Bada$$ is from New York, and you can hear the difference in between them. That was the same thing as Wu-Tang Clan, OutKast and Dre and Snoop.
It's the same thing, which leads further to my point of the phenomenon of how hip-hop can transcend to the generations, as well. We're at the twenty year loop, where Illmatic is almost twenty years old. [36 Chambers] is almost twenty years old. And, all things considered, you can go left only so far before you come around in a full circle, and that's what's happening. That's why Joey Bada$$ sounds the way he sounds: It's because his parents listened to Gang Starr. That's why, and that's how it happens.
As far as practice is concerned, where do music and education intersect? Do you find that there are skills that you use while you're teaching that you learned from being a musician first, or vice-versa?
Before I was a musician, I was a student first.... The only thing that music has a component in education is the art of repetition and the art of learning something by song and rhythm. When we say our phone number, we don't say our phone number 30-3-29-3-351. We don't say our phone number like that. We say it in a cadence: The first three, the second three, the last four....That's music. That's rhythm.
We didn't learn our ABCs without a tune. We learned them to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." That's music, and that part of it stays, no matter if we're talking about hip-hop, no matter if we're talking about jazz, country. That part of learning something by repetition and by rhythm always works in education. It always works, since 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
You've said in a XXL interview that you hope one day to leave music for education permanently. Is that still your goal?
Could you ever see yourself teaching anything other than hip-hop?
I mean, I do it now. When I teach my class, I don't say, you know, "In 1993, Wu-Tang came out with an album called 36 Chambers, and it was produced by the RZA, and these other members, and moving on." My class is connected to history. You understand what I mean? In order for us to talk about what happened in 1973, we must talk about what happened in 1968. And before we can do that, we must talk about what happened in 1925. I teach history. I just use hip-hop as a way to make young people listen.
If you want to talk about Kendrick Lamar, let's talk about Kendrick Lamar. Let's talk about XXL. Let's talk about who's on the cover of XXL with him. Let's talk about Dr. Dre. Let's talk about L.A. Let's talk about Compton. Let's talk about the Watts. Let's talk about the Watts riots of 1965. That's how you do it. It's called pills and applesauce, man, and you can't teach hip-hop without teaching history. Period. But I think, because of media and TV, they put hip-hop in this box of just, "this is all it is," without knowing and understanding what it can be and what it can be used for.
I teach American history. Whether it be black, whether it be white, I teach it from a cultural standpoint, and you can even see it today the way America's becoming set up and the way society is, more cultures are being infused in our society, and you have to teach it from that standpoint. And what better way to do it than teach it through something that controls this generation's culture? That's hip-hop.
And besides just informing students about where the music that they listen to came from, what do you think that the history of hip-hop, specifically, has to teach to people who weren't necessarily alive during the time when it started?
Again, it's not about teaching just the history of hip-hop. I use hip-hop to teach history. Period. Hip-hop is just a gateway. You understand what I mean? It's like: I want you to take this pill, okay, and I want you to take this pill of history -- people don't like history, right? History is one of the subjects that people really dislike. They hate dates. They think it's boring. They think whatever.
But if I can take this rapper and get you to understand what happened in Munich in 1972, then I'm going to do that. You understand? I was a history major in college... and, for me, I love history, but I understand why people don't. It's a very boring subject to people. It's very just morose, very mundane, just so boring to people. They hate watching the history channel, hate watching Jeopardy, just hate it.
But, you know, I think a big part of this generation and just the disconnect with the generation before is that they just don't know history, period, nor do they care. So what better way to get them to get it than to use something they play on their iPod every day? So it's not about knowing this producer and that producer. That's the easy stuff. We can get to that. That's the gateway drug. I want you to take the real drug. I want you to know where you came from, past hip-hop. I want you to know where you came from. Period.
You recently released a beat tape called Tutankhamen. Would you encourage young rappers to use your beats on their own mixtapes?
I mean, I think, before we even released a mixtape, they got beats all over YouTube. So they do it anyway, which, in a lot of ways, people think that cheapens my brand because a lot of people can say, "Produced by 9th Wonder," which goes back to, again, they say that because they don't understand the history of what it means to be produced by somebody. And that's going to happen. Do I encourage it? No. Will they take it and do it anyway? Probably so.
Every time that happens, if somebody takes a beat of mine, and somebody starts to get a buzz going on the blogs, after a while, somebody's going to call me. Somebody's going to say, "Yo, who is this kid?" "What kid?" "This kid that says he got a beat from you." "What kid?" "This kid." "Oh, he didn't get a beat from me." "Well it says, 'Produced by 9th Wonder.'" "Man, he got it off the net." "Oh, aight." *click*
And that's how it goes. But if somebody says, "Yo, who is this girl?" "What girl?" "This girl that says she got a joint from you." "What's her name?" "Her name's Rapsody." "Oh, okay. Yeah, she's my artist." Now the story changes. So it's going to happen. I'm not worried about it.
One of your first big breaks was remixing Nas's God's Son as God's Stepson, which started a trend of other producers doing that same sort of remixing the whole album. How did you come up with the idea to do that?
That was just something I wanted to do because I wanted to hear Nas rap on something else. It wasn't a situation where I tried to do it and I wanted to create a buzz from it. It wasn't even my idea to leak it or put it out. I just wanted to play it in my car. That's where it kind of came from. That's what the whole buzz came from. It just ballooned into something else that I didn't think was going to happen, you know?
It just happened....I don't even consider that as a big break for me. The big break that I consider a break for me was I produced for Jay-Z, that was the biggest, and then after that, I produced for Destiny's Child. Those were the biggest breaks that I had, I think. I don't even consider that a break. I consider that a once in a lifetime phenomenon, and it just happened and I didn't expect that.
Can you talk about the importance of sampling within the context of hip-hop culture and I guess also within the context of modern history?
Even going back to how sampling even started, it started where the New York City public school system took out art funding in school, you know, whether it be paints, whether it be instruments...and that sparked the young generation of New York City to come up with their own way of making music. And, you know, from that, at first, it just became this is the only way we can do music.
Then sampling became a bridge of how we connect this generation to the last, and at the same time, it became a lifeline for those artists from the past. You know, at first it used to be, "Don't touch my music, this and that." Well, if a lot of rappers aren't selling now, then definitely R&B artists from the '80s and '70s are not selling, either, unless you're an icon like Madonna. But most soul groups from the '70s are not selling a lot of records. They're just not.
So now they understand that us sampling them is a way they can continue to live.... They want to be known, and they want to be accepted by music lovers, whether that music lover is 45 or fifteen. I've had a ton of people come up to me and say, "Thanks to you for chopping up my record, my iTunes sales went up a little this week." Because I'll sample a record, and a kid will go listen to my beat. On YouTube, the sample will be right beside it. They'll click on it, and it will say Joe Simon, and the kid will start listening to Joe Simon's music.
Next thing you know, they're trying to download everything they can off Joe Simon. [They're talking to their friends,] "Who is Joe Simon"... "Well, how do you know about them?" "My favorite producer chopped them up. I want to know more about him."... So that extends the shelf life of that artist through us. So we have now successfully created a bridge, not only for knowledge, but for revenue for those artists.
Speaking of using whatever means you have and connecting to musicians of the past, with or without their permission, do you think YouTube borrowing could be at all comparable to that, or do you think it's totally different?
No, I don't think it's necessarily comparable to that. I can see what people can see is comparable...but the thing about it is they're using my beat off of my name, you know what I mean? And my name is what's getting them notoriety. Me chopping up a Dave Grusin record is not going to get me notoriety because I chopped up Dave Grusin.
It's what you did with it.
Right, it's what I did with it. And does it help bring Dave Grusin back to life? Not to say that Dave Grusin is by no means not to life because to a lot of people he still is, even to me, but to the masses and to the youth, will that turn a young generation on to who Dave Grusin is?
I think the biggest phenomenon in that is how -- I read an article on Phil Collins, and Phil Collins said that "I just never knew that I would be out and all of these young, black hip-hop cats would come up to me and tell me how much they loved my music. I just could not understand it. I never knew how much of an impact my music had on this culture, the culture of hip-hop."
Bob James -- same thing -- you know, to us, any hip-hopper, Bob James is a god. He's up there with James Brown to us. But to the generation after us, he's some old white dude, you understand? And for us, we bring that to light. I can't make a kid sit down and listen to that Bob James tune, "Take Me to the Mardi Gras."... But if I use it, and let them hear it. "God damn, where'd you get that sound from?" "This dude." "Oh, give me some more of him." Again, it's pills and applesauce.
People know you as a soul guy, but you've said that being soulful transcends just the genre of soul. So what does it mean to be soulful, and how do you know if you have it?
It's just a feeling that is indescribable. Soul is one of those intangible objects like love. When you're in love with something -- whatever it is, man, woman, person, object -- it's a feeling that you cannot describe. Hallmark does a great job of trying to describe love, but love is one of those things in the world that you cannot put your finger on. You just know it. And soul music is another one. To have soul or feeling in your music is something that is not quantitative at all. You can't put a number on it. You can't put an explanation to it. It's just a feeling.
I think, for me, that family tree of hip-hop, the feel-good -- they always said Little Brother made feel-good music -- I think the family tree of hip-hop of feel-good music started with A Tribe Called Quest. That's where it started. And it started really with one person, and that's Q-Tip. Q-Tip was the person that started the family tree of feel-good music in hip-hop. And from Q-Tip came OutKast, came the Roots, Slum Village, Mos Def, Kweli, Common... Erykah Badu, Little Brother -- everybody -- Drake, Kanye.
This warm feeling of music came from Q-Tip, and that's something that you just can't describe. You just know it when you hear it, and you know it when you feel it. And people will bestow that upon you, too, man, "This 9th is so soulful." I never got into any interview when I first started and said, "Man, I'm just so soulful." They might have put that on me, and then it was natural for me to go that way, you know what I mean? But it's just a feeling that you just really can't describe.
Do you think there are people who have it and people who don't?
Yes, I think there's people who have it and people who don't....I don't have the natural ability to do what [Jean-Michele] Basquiat did, right? I wasn't born with that. There are some things you can learn, but even take it to sports: A kid can go to camp after camp, and his parents can pay for camp after camp after camp... He goes here. He goes there. He's this, and he's that. He's been to every camp, and he's been to every clinic. And this one kid has not been to any camps, and he's way better than this other kid. That's just natural ability that you can't teach. Coaches say it all the time, "There's just some things you can't teach."
What sort of projects are on the horizon for you?
You know, my focus is my label, Jamla. You know, I have artists that's doing very well right now for themselves, and I just continue to do that, just continue to try to get them to a point where they can be self-sustainable. I don't feel like I want to control anybody's career. I believe in being self-made, and once they get to the point that they become self-sustainable, then that's going to just be my time to say, "That's it."
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