Sunday, November 22, 2009

9th Wonder: The Interview

with Kam Williams

Headline: Behold the 9th Wonder of the World!

Born Patrick Denard Douthit in Winston-Salem, NC on January 15, 1975, 9th Wonder is a Grammy Award-winning producer, DJ, college lecturer and social activist. Since his introduction to hip-hop in 1982, 9th has been immersed in the music and the culture of the art form, while gaining experience in music theory throughout middle and high school.
9th attended North Carolina Central University, where he decided to pursue a career in music. In 1998, he, along with Phonte Colerman and Thomas Jones (Rapper Big Pooh), formed the hip-hop trio, Little Brother which released the critically acclaimed album, "The Listening." 9th then got his big break when he was tapped to produce a track on Jay-Z's "Black Album."
Next, he produced 3 songs for the Destiny's Child, before winning a Grammy with Mary J. Blige for her album "The BreakThrough"(Good Woman Down), Erykah Badu's "Honey" on the album New Amerykah, and most recently, Ludacris' "Do The Right Thang", a song featuring Common and Spike Lee.
9th was recently appointed the National Ambassador for Hip-Hop Relations and Culture by NAACP President Ben Jealous to lead a board of Ph.D’s, and hip-hop artists. Here he discusses his life, career and musical philosophy.

Kam Williams: Where does the name from 9th Wonder come from?
9th Wonder: I was a history major in school, so obviously I’m familiar with the 7 wonders of the ancient world. But, my name really comes from a song written by a group from the early Nineties named “Digable Planets.” They were a trio from Howard University and they had a song called “9th Wonder.” I liked the name of the song. The thing about being a hip-hop producer is that you have to find a name that can be shortened, or changed around, and still have a ring to it. I just wrote down a bunch of names and when I wrote down 9th Wonder, I went, “Wow, that works!” It looked good on paper and it sounded good.
KW: Gladys Knight said in her interview with me that hip-hop has been bad as far as the quality of the music and the stories that they tell. Why did her statement rub you the wrong way?
9th: Because I’m a member of the Hip-Hop Generation. Hip-hop is how I feed my children. Hip-hop is something that helped me understand the music of the generations before me. And those are the things that aren’t talked about when the words hip-hop come out of someone’s mouth. There are so many negative stereotypes that are attached to this music, but hip-hop has saved a lot of lives, and has started to decrease gang violence in neighborhoods in NYC. It really banks on the spirit of innovation, when it comes from a jazz improvisation perspective. But similar to jazz, as hip-hop became commercialized, it became something else. And in many aspects I agree with her as far as the hip-hop, if you want to call it that, which is now on the radio and the images we see on TV—it definitely over-dramatized and sensationalized the pure essence of the music. And, I just don’t think that the pure essence of any art form is on TV.
KW: But it seems to me that the most celebrated stars, at least starting somewhere in the 90’s, became people who advocated violence, and the abuse of women. And I wonder whether, in the wake of that, the music now means something different to the kids who grew up watching those stars on BET and MTV.
9th: Well, a lot of things happen by design, as far as the images that are put out there. And I don’t have control over what is played out there on the radio. It’s just like the whole thing about burying the word “nigger.” I think there are many TV shows that call us nigger all day without even using the word. I mean a lot of the usage of words that degrade women and promote the pimp image came from Seventies black exploitation films—that certainly wasn’t started by us. Except, I think the difference between then and now is that mass media is much bigger. And I think a lot of the criticism has to do with the older generation’s not really trying to understand what they see in younger generations.
KW: In terms of your own work—from solo LPs to remixes of older albums to collaborations—which is your favorite thing to do?
9th: My favorite two things to do are DJ-ing and producing. I mean, I’ve been everywhere in the world from across the continental US to Toronto to Paris. And at the same time, I just love producing. I’m a fan of everyone from Holland, Dozier and Holland to Quincy Jones to Jimmy Jam to Teddy Riley. And now I’m starting a new frontier that I’m also starting to really love—teaching at higher levels.
KW: Yeah, I heard you just got an appointment at Duke University?
9th: Right. I got an appointment from Dr. Marc Anthony Neal. We’re teaching a class together called, “Sampling Soul.” It’s a class that will discuss black music from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s and the effects it had on the African-American community with regards to social revolution. We noticed that in the 20th Century a lot of music was fused with social movements—that a number of songs and albums backed societal change, especially starting in the late Sixties. So that’s what we will be talking about.
KW: I’ve also heard currently that you’ve been hired to teaching at a college that has very few students in it?
9th: Yeah, by William McKee who works for a philanthropic organization. Barber-Scotia College was originally the first all black girls school in the nation. It’s located in Concord, North Carolina. At its height, it probably had a thousand students. But because of mishandling of funds, it’s now in a bad way, losing accreditation and accumulating a lot of debt.
KW: Well how many students are there now?
9th: 12. And 10 are freshman.
KW: How does it stay open?
9th: I don’t know, as of yet. But at least the school has its own buildings. They are under review for accreditation right now. A lot of the smaller HBCU’s are going through the same thing. I think that the business models and the reasons why kids are going to school are changing. Of course, we’re still going to need lawyers, and doctors, but at the same time there is more of a push for kids to be in business for themselves. And not to think like an employee, but like an employer.
KW: What percentage of your success would you attribute to you business savvy and what percentage to your music savvy?
9th: For me, I think they go hand in hand. Much of my success actually lends itself to my schooling and academic savvy because I know how to manage my time and I know how to be my own boss. School taught me how to do that. Yes, my musical knowledge has helped and I treat everyone with respect, but a lot of that all lends itself to the fact that I’m self-disciplined. That comes from the classes I’ve taken and the schools I’ve gone to.
KW: Is there also an identifiable thread that runs through your music? You’ve worked with a lot people whose styles are very different from each other, from Jay-Z to Erykah Badu. Is there a 9th Wonder trademark sound that people can recognize?
9th: Soul! [Laughs] I have worked with a gambit of different people. And most of those artists are cut from different cloths, with regards to the sounds of the music, but I think that something that joins us all together, no matter the artists I work with, is soul. Soul is really more of a feeling than anything else.
KW: And who would you say are your major influences?
9th: Probably my biggest influence is Curtis Mayfield because his music is just so soulful—I hate to be vague. [Laughs] “The Makings of You” is one of my favorite songs ever. And every time I do a solo record I try my best to fuse it together like “Superfly” was made. All of his albums were great all the way through, but that one was just over the top. It was, basically, the soundtrack for life in 1975. I mean I have quite a few influences, especially in hip-hop, but over all, he’s my main one.
KW: So when you sing, do you sing in falsetto like he did?
9th: [Laughs] I don’t sing. I’ve coached and trained people in harmony but I don’t sing at all.
KW: What do you think was the big break in your career?
9th: The Jay-Z record “The Threat” off Jay’s The Black Album. I had done a lot of underground things before that. I had been part of a critically acclaimed group called “Little Brother.” And though we had been covered by a lot of press, from a mainstream standpoint, the record I did for Jay-Z was my biggest break, especially since it was also covered in the movie Fade to Black.
KW: Well, I’ve heard rumors about a Little Brother reunion…what’s happening in terms of that?
9th: I don’t think that’s going to happen. I would love to do it, but Phonte is doing well with his live hip-hop group called Foreign Exchange. Big Pooh is doing his own solo thing, too. I just think our careers are now all going in three different directions. Mine is leaning more and more these days towards education.
KW: And Chris “Play” Martin, of Kid-n-Play is also an artist in residence where you are now, at North Carolina Central?
9th: Right.
KW: Have you thought of doing a collaboration with him?
9th: Not from a musical standpoint. Play is now leaning more towards video production. Right now, he’s knee-deep in his own TV show and it’s becoming very successful.
KW: Mentioning him just makes me think again about their movies, which were great, and I thought that their music was great too. What happened to music like that?
9th: In 1988, we had Public Enemy’s album called It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. In that album I learned about people I had never even heard of in my history classes in school. And between that album and music from artists like A Tribe Called Quest and KRS-One, enrollment in black colleges went up between 1988 and 1993. We were becoming educated. The youth was being enlightened. Just like back when slaves sang spirituals to each other to teach themselves where to run. That was a way we communicated. Black people have always been able to communicate through word of mouth. And what better way to pass messages than through this brand new music that’s educating our youths? But I think that once someone got hip to that, that’s when all the other stuff started to be pushed to the forefront. I think if you really go back to the records being made from ’88 to ’90, there was a lot of Afro-centricity in it, from Queen Latifah to the hip-hop collective Native Tongues. Queen Latifah had a song called “Ladies First.” There were so many songs with positive messages. All of the songs that were, so-to-speak, detrimental to our ears weren’t played on the radio. NWA was not played on the radio at that time. And even though they were called the world’s most dangerous rap group, even they had a political message attached to their music. But negativity was pushed to the forefront, and I don’t think that was by happenstance. We were becoming educated and enlightened at that time. On TV, we had The Cosby Show and A Different World—there were very powerful black shows on television. Even in film, we had Spike Lee directing Do the Right Thing and also putting out soundtracks that had Public Enemy on one end, and jazz musician Stanley Clarke on the other. Hip-hop was a bridge—not just to black history, but also to positive ideas like KRS-One’s safe-sex messages. These rappers were subliminally teaching us. Where do think the term “dropping science” came from? It wasn’t cool to be dumb.
KW: So then how did it evolve from that, to East Coast—West Coast and then to gangsters killing one another?
9th: Commercialism. We didn’t start gang violence. It isn’t just a hip-hop thing. Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the movie Gangs of New York. That took place in the 1800’s. I mean, the media likes to tell us that there are more black men in jail than not. It’s not true. The thing about it is, these are images corporations want to push to the forefront. Gangs and violence in America didn’t start with us. The media is putting messages out there, saying that hip-hop teaches you to kill, but why aren’t they talking about Ozzy Ozbourne coming out on stage and biting off a bat’s head? I will say that I don’t approve of all of the stories that we tell in our music, but at the same time I can’t tell someone who grew up with a drug-addicted mom, or in the poorest part of the country, not to tell his story.
KW: That’s true—there are a lot of negative statistics that people throw around, and assume to be true.
9th: Right, I mean I bet there are meetings at BET and MTV where people pitch great ideas for shows. But this is America—the media thinks we love sex and violence.
KW: Yeah, but there are black film and music producers, defending the content of stations such as BET, saying that we have to dumb it down for black people. Meanwhile, AZN has reality shows that focus on high school students applying to Ivy League schools.
9th: Yeah, and I hate to get so political, but Willie Lynch-ism is a very real, ugly truth. And lots of people say they don’t want to hear about the ugly side of life, but we’re letting people come into our societies and rip us apart through these images.
KW: So, what do you let your kids listen to?
9th: What I grew up on. Just recently, I taught my 9 year-old that black people invented soul music. One of the first songs I played for her was Stevie Wonder and, pretty much all kids like his songs. And now my kids are Michael Jackson nuts, since he passed on and I took them to see “This is It”.
KW: Yeah, wasn’t that film great? I couldn’t believe what a perfectionist he was.
9th: Yeah, Michael Jackson was incredible. I don’t think the world will see another one.
KW: Is there any question that no one ever asked you that you wished someone would?
9th: No.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
9th: Of course. Number one, I’m a black man in America and history has told me that a lot of intelligent black people are silenced and strategically put in places where we can’t effect the rest of our people. That makes me scared sometimes.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
9th: I’m very happy. The main reason why I’m happy is because I know what I want to do with my life. A lot of people don’t. A lot of people run aimlessly through their lives, not knowing what they want to do, not being happy with their jobs, wondering about what their purpose is. I think I’m coming to grips with what my purpose is in this world…I’m very blessed too.
KW: Teri Emerson asks, when was the last time you’ve had a good laugh?
9th: I laugh everyday—with my kids and my closest friends. I can be one of the most serious people in the world, but on the flip side be one of the silliest. I think laughing is good for the soul. When it’s time to work, it’s time to work—but at the same time I like to have a good time. I think laughter eases a lot of life’s pains. Like my momma always tells me—you’ve got to laugh to keep ‘em cryin’.
KW: Bookworm Troy Johnson asks, what was the last book you read?
9th: The last book I read was called “The Wu-Tang Manual”. It’s a book about the group “The Wu-Tang Clan” and it was written by the RZA.
KW: Music maven Heather Covington asks, what music are you listening to right now?
9th: Right now, a lot of 70’s soul music. I have 15,000 vinyl records.
KW: Wow (laughs).
9th: On my iPod right now, I have a play list that’s got Gwen McCrae, Edwin Starr, George Duke, Barry White, etc.
KW: What would you say is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
9th: To balance industry and family. That, I think, is an obstacle for all of us in the music industry. We in the industry are very passionate about our work. A lot of people don’t understand that. We love what we do, but it is still work. All of us are our own bosses. And trying to explain that fact to someone who works for somebody else is a big obstacle. It’s like someone’s telling you that you have to go to work to get paid, but I have to tell myself.
KW: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
9th: My mom, Patricia Douthit.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
9th: I want to be remembered as someone who tried to help his people. I don’t care about the Grammy or the platinum plaques. I hope to be remembered as someone who helped carry the torch for the people who came before me.
KW: How can your fans help you?
9th: My fans can help me, first, just by documenting and chronicling hip-hop music in general. Right now it’s becoming more and more of a push for the music to be in academia. Second, just stop all the tremendous illegal downloading. When you download it’s not so much of taking money out of peoples pocket, but if you like a person’s music and you want that person to continue to make music for you to like, that person has to eat. Musicians are going to make music because they love it, but at the same time if you want that person to not have to get another job so they can focus on the music you love so much, you have to support that person.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
9th: A tired young man [laughs]—tired and weary—but with a lot of fight and a lot of heart.
KW: What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
9th: Know who God is. The meek shall always inherit the earth. I’ve got a lot of things I never asked for. Also, be humble in your steps and respect your elders always, even if you don’t always agree with what they have to say. You should also know your history. In order to be good at something, you need to be an expert and know everything about it. Nobody should be able to tell you more about what you want to be.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
9th: Spaghetti. It’s my favorite dish to eat too [[aughs]. I eat it seven days a week.
KW: Flex Alexander asks, how do you get through the tough times?
9th: Music has really always been my sanctuary. I also pray and look towards my kids—they keep me sane.
KW: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
9th: My children.
KW: Who was your best friend as a child?
9th: It’s funny you should ask me that today. I have a lot of people who I call my friends and who I call my brothers, but my first friend who I made in kindergarten is a guy by the name of Chad Eric Greene. Chad died this past Wednesday.
KW: Man, I’m so sorry.
9th: Chad was a fireman. He didn’t die in the line of duty, but he had a wife, two kids and a baby on the way. The craziest thing about my friendship with him was that, I think, my generation was the first real generation in which black and white kids could be best friends, especially in the South, with out being looked at as crazy. Chad was white and he was my best childhood friend when I first got to school and we graduated together from High School.
KW: Uduak Oduok asks, how do you think African culture will be affecting America, musically, or in any other way?
9th: Well, African culture has always affected us musically—rock, rap, even country music. They all have one thing in common—a drummer. Obviously classical music has percussion, but especially in genres like Go-Go music, African culture remains prevalent today.
KW: Thanks again, 9th, and best of luck with both your teaching and your music.
9th: Thank you.

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