LIVE: 9th Wonder, Red Bull Music Academy SubSession, DC

by Marcus K. Dowling

“I’m a bigger sports fan than I am a music fan.” – 9th Wonder”

9th Wonder must really love sports. Or, his work as a DJ and producer over the last decade is a labor of love that certainly can’t feel like work. The North Carolina native, highly motivated and successful college dropout, and one man classic hip hop preservation society was the guest of the Red Bull Music Academy’s musical discussion series at Eighteenth Street Lounge on Thursday evening in Washington, DC. If you listened closely and paid attention, you could listen to the gospel of hip hop history being opened, retold, explained and new pages authored for the chapters of forthcoming generations.

Being a backpacker hip hop fan and evolving into a soul sample specialist is the precise dream of every young man over the age of 30 in 2011. For 36 year old Patrick Douthit, living his dreams as legendary music producer 9th Wonder means that he has excelled in embodying the dreams of rap music’s most classic generation. “My homies will be shocked when my phone rings, and they see that it’s Warren G, DJ Premier or Pete Rock on the line.” In excelling in his chosen path, 9th Wonder is an idolatrous figure, a king sized man actively portraying the regal dreams of our youth. When contemplating a name for his now legendary combination with fellow North Carolina Central students Phonte and Big Pooh, Little Brother made sense. “We wanted to be seen as the little brothers of the performers we looked up to. We wanted to be the little brothers of a group like A Tribe Called Quest.” Of course, history shows that they certainly have met that expectation, and opened the doors for an entire cadre of like minded souls. 9th Wonder’s current positions as a lecturer at Duke University, member of Afrikaa Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation, hip hop ambassador for the NAACP and head of his own It’s A Wonderful World Music Group are as much a testament to his talent as his skill in being the most sterling student of, and iconic human preservation of the hip hop ideal. Of all of the plethora of issues discussed at the Red Bull Music event at Eighteenth Street Lounge on Thursday evening, hip hop preservation was the point of most intrigue.

“Kids these days don’t even see hip hop as pop music, they see it as their own. They don’t really care about getting on MTV, they care about putting out good music, and getting it in as many hands as possible.” It would appear that in the mind of the hip hop ambassador that hip hop’s current run as the most popular of pop music staples has allowed for hip hop’s underground impulse, the lifeblood that the industry has always depended upon for legitimacy, to be as fertile and important as ever. Curiously enough, the internet, where 9th’s God’s Stepson remix album of 2002 Nas release God’s Son allowed for his rise to fame is at issue again, as from Wiz Khalifa to Odd Future, hip hop has another generation that has taken underground hype to the mainstream pay window. Many hip hop pundits have appeared critical of this development, and the veracity in regards to the hip hop ideal of this newest crop of performers. However, the ever intellectual and studied 9th Wonder provides historical relevance and importance to the movement in critique.

“Hip hop has always had so many styles. It’s not always about being conscious or serious. Hip hop is always about expression, and you have to realize that. “I got a funky funky rhyme with a funky funky style (referencing 1993 Nice n’ Smooth classic “Hip Hop Junkies”). Bum stiggity bum stiggity bum (referencing 1992 Das EFX hit “They Want EFX). Heck, even “The Humpty Dance.” Noting the necessity of emotional impulse as key to hip hop’s development awed the room of hardened hip hop classicists clearly frustrated by hip hop’s recent evolutionary development.

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In that vein was the highlight of the evening, 9th Wonder’s discussion of his latest symphonic concoction, “Based for Your Face,” a production for Berkeley, California’s most controversial son, folk preacher and hip hop’s lowest common denominator, Lil B the Based God. “He hit me up on Twitter, and said he had some big things coming, and wanted to work with me. I honestly had no idea who the dude was,” stated 9th Wonder. “People who were lurking on my Twitter page began to hit me up about Lil B, and told me how big he was, so I decided to pay attention.” “(Lil B) hit me back with his number, and DM’ed me (single) “Wonton Soup.” I told him that I’d send him something, but that I didn’t want any “Wonton Soup” on it.” The single’s development was organic, and when he hit frequent co-conspirators Phonte and Jean Grae about guest spots, they both heard the track, and knew Lil B was on it, and based on the strength of their faith in 9th Wonder “decided to rock with it.” The single shocked the hip hop universe, but upon listening, much like the entire room at Eighteenth Street Lounge, conceded that it was undeniably solid.

Taking the high road that I editorially will make the claim that many other hip hop progenitors should take, 9th Wonder stated, “working with Lil B opened me up to an entirely new generation of kids. I have 16 year old producers from Arizona hitting me up on Twitter now talking about how they heard (“Based for Your Face”) and they researched my entire discography on Youtube, and now want advice about who Pete Rock is!” Instead of frowning upon the lack of knowledge of hip hop’s newest school, Wonder has embraced it without changing anything about his production standard, which he views both as a strength and endemic of a historical standard. “20 years ago, the old Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye heads were looking at us listening to D’Angelo in his leather jacket covering Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin'” in amazement. Now, 20 years later, what was classic for us isn’t classic for them. We have to realize that for these kids, Toni Braxton is a classic soul record. It’s a cycle, but things do change.” Having the strength, will and desire to stand up and assume the mantle that your heroes once held is a heady proposition that many refuse to take. In being one of the first to truly embrace that position in hip hop, it again shows the prescient intellect of 9th Wonder.

The most telling point of the evening was watching 9th Wonder watching us as the Red Bull Music Academy Crew played a retinue of classic 90s hip hop that inspires his work. Dirty soul samples from one of hip hop music’s most fertile creative periods filled the room. Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, Black Moon and Pete Rock and CL Smooth wafted through the speakers, and the esteemed producer regaled us with tales of getting Buckshot reclaim his classic voice, how “it’s not a Mobb Deep record unless Prodigy kills about 50 people,” and the telling the story of the creation of Pete Rock’s most legendary production, “They Reminisce Over You.” 9th Wonder may be perpetually achieving his hip hop dreams, but he’s still firmly a hip hop fanatic just like all of us. In celebrating that universal appreciation of creativity that rap music has allowed, the evening was a truly wondrous event.