Over the past 15-20 years, one of the fastest growing sections in academic discourse is that which hones in on hip-hop as an art form and global cultural force. While various intellectuals have been at the forefront of this movement, few can offer the unique perspective provided by a someone who’s been in the trenches themselves. Enter Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder, who emerged 10 years ago with Little Brother and has since racked up credits for everyone from to Destiny’s Child to Erykah Badu to JAY Z. In addition to producer, DJ, A&R and label executive, the North Carolina native also wears another hat: professor. Beginning teaching at North Carolina Central University in 2007, his talents have taken him to Duke and Harvard University, as well, schooling the next generation on the the origin and social importance of hip-hop, its samples and more.
Life+Times caught up with 9th to get his take on hip-hop’s importance in the academy, his experience teaching and more.
Life+Times: Talk about the importance of hip-hop courses in the academy, especially the way you’ve talked about hip-hop before as being misrepresented and misconstrued in the mainstream.
9th Wonder: Well I think that now, we’re at that at that age. Hip-hop is at that age where – they thought that hip-hop wasn’t gonna be around that long, even in the early years and the early ’80s, they thought it was just a fad – it’s used in commercials, it’s used to advertise, it’s used in so many ways, it’s so much a facet of our society now, whether you understand the art form, whether you like it, whatever, if you hear somebody say young people’s music, the next thing they’re gonna say is hip-hop. But they fail to realize that this year is like the 40th year of hip-hop’s existence, so, we’re at that point where it needs to be studied. This is a multi-million dollar business around the globe, you know, so it’s at that point where we have to [teach about it] because now, the generation gap is so wide, and now teachers believe that this is a way that we can communicate with our kids. They put on CNN recently that Nas was the greatest lyricist of all time – not the greatest artist, just the greatest lyricist – and for CNN, a main media network, to say that speaks volumes because now people even in the media ranks are trying to see hip-hop from a more educational and artistic standpoint. See, he wasn’t the greatest selling artist of all-time, but if we’re talking about lyricists – and hip-hop is built so much on lyrics – they picked Nas. So it’s really at that point now because they’re seeing it, like, “Yo, this is an art form that we have to really recognize and we can’t ignore it anymore.” And once they start to do it, you know that it’s really gonna turn into something, now it’s really gonna turn into a study.
L+T: How is hip-hop in the academy important for representing Black culture?
9th Wonder: It’s very important. I think for a very long time, even outside of hip-hop, Black culture has a hard time with itself writing things down. We can create it, but it’s hard for us to make a chronicle of it. That just comes from dealing with slavery. All of the things that we passed down since slavery in Black culture, especially in the United States, has always been word-of-mouth. Even the way we pass music to each has been word-of-mouth. It’s word-of-mouth when your mom would play music for you on Saturday mornings, like, [somebody asks] “where’d you hear that song?” “Well I heard it from my mom on Saturday mornings.” Saturday mornings was a right of passage when you got to hear all the old soul, you know what I’m saying. So, we now need to be able to write these things down because hip-hop cannot continue on – with Black culture and hip-hop connected – in the new millennia without the institution being involved. It has to be an institution attached to it. We can’t just sit around in the barbershop debating about who’s the best, what’s the best album or the important of Midnight Marauders. We need an institution, and that’s something that I think that Black culture struggles with. We struggle with trying to write things down and trying to make an archive of what and who we are. I think doing that with hip-hop in academia really helps that part out. A lot of young kids don’t believe, or it’s hard for them to really understand, that hip-hop is a derivative of not only Black culture, but Latino culture, as well. They don’t understand that that’s where it comes from. That melting pot in the Bronx in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, they used music to communicate with each other. Young Black kids, young Latino kids, the immigration act that was passed, that was major. Like, “How can I communicate with these people?” Now you’ve got music that sounds like the Incredible Bongo Band. So, we have to start archiving this stuff to teach our next generation of Black kids that are leaders of tomorrow, and say, “Hey, we need to writing this stuff down.” It’s really gonna come full circle when the Smithsonian Institute opens the African-American Museum, that’s really gonna be one of the pinnacle points. As creative as we are, we have a hard time putting it on paper, and that’s important.
L+T: It seems like as much as some folks have always known that hip-hop is a true art form, when it finally gets to the academy it validates it for these other people who haven’t always looked at it that way, kind of the same way it happened with jazz.
9th Wonder: Exactly. Right, right.
L+T: What is about you that has made these different institutions reach out to you and ask you to be the one that’s the ambassador?
9th: I don’t necessarily think of myself as an ambassador. I think I’m a soldier in the fight. I hate to call it a fight, but I call it that because we have to make sure the right people are able to teach this thing. The problem is – universities have to understand – the right people to teach this worldwide phenomena don’t have degrees. We have degrees in another way. Like, if you can name all the Wu-Tang albums in order, including the year, you have a degree in hip-hop, you see what I mean [laughs]. And not just Wu-Tang, but any group. Hip-hoppers know who knows their stuff, whether you’re from New York or whether you’re from Houston, we know who knows their stuff. That’s the thing as far as I’m concerned. For me, I always wanted to teach. I went to college to be a history teacher. Some people like to tell people things to show them [they] know a lot. No, I don’t like for people to not be in the know. That’s different. It’s a difference in trying to tell somebody, “Haha, I know more than you.” No. I want you to know because I want you to be as fascinated as me. It’s like being at the party by yourself. Especially people my age, you really want them [younger people] to be a part of it. There’s nothing sitting in a room with a bunch of 18-year-olds and playing them original samples. You can’t beat that experience, because they have no idea, from a general stance. We’ve got some 18-year-olds that dig for beats and dig for stuff on YouTube, but from a general sense, a lot of young kids don’t know. They have no clue. And when you play that for them, not only does it create fascination in a new way and open them up to a new king of music that they’ve never heard before, it also creates a weird, kind of new relationship with their parents. That’s the point you realize that your parents are cooler than you, when you find out the music that they grew up on, like, “Dang, can I imagine going to high school when Curtis Mayfield was out?” That’s the wonder that I get from teaching. That’s the feeling I get and that’s what I wanna bring to the classroom. It’s not no, “My generation is better than yours,” it’s more so, “Let me let you know what happened, ’cause once you know what happened, now you know how to face the future.” I got that hunger for that early on, before I even got into hip-hop. It just so happened that I love history and I love hip-hop, too, so what better way to show that love than to get in these universities and really talk to these kids, because they want somebody to talk to.
L+T: Hip-hop very much lends itself to being used as a history teacher in a lot of ways, especially because of the samples. When you have soul, jazz, funk, you can go back to those musics, and looking at those musics, you can look at what was going on at the time and making that kind of music happen.
9th Wonder: Right, that’s the thing. This is the problem that we have sometimes at historically Black colleges [in particular], when we’re talking about the education of hip-hop. They think we’re gonna come in there talking about what was on BET last night, and we’re not. What we’re doing is we’re trying to find a way – 60-year-old administrator at a Black university – that this 18-year-old can understand why you’re so adamant about not using the N-word. We’re trying to get that 18-year-old to understand why you’re so adamant about voting. If you go around walking around in your suit trying to preach to this 18-year-old, they’re not gonna listen to you, they’re just not. They’re at school but they’re not gonna care. So, how can I make a kid from 2013 care about Malcolm X? Not by just telling them about him, “you need to know and this is why you need to know,” that’s not gonna work. Same thing for Martin Luther King or the Watts Riots. But check this out, let’s take the Watts Riots, for example: “Y’all like Kendrick Lamar?” “Yeah, we like Kendrick, he’s the man.” “Ok, you see who he’s on the cover of XXL with?” “Yeah, that’s Dr. Dre. Who’s he part of?” “N.W.A.” “Oh, Ok.” “N.W.A. is from Compton.” “Oh, Ok, cool.” “Well let’s talk about Compton for a second, let’s talk about the movies they made for Compton like Boyz N The Hood and Menace 2 Society.” “Oh, Ok.” “Well now let’s talk about Watts.” “What happened in Watts in 1965?” You see what I mean? Let’s talk about the word “Black Hippie,” let’s talk about Black, let’s talk about Fear Of A Black Planet, let’s talk about Public Enemy, let’s talk about the Black Panthers. It’s a way we have to do it. Some of these universities think we’re in there teaching kids how to rap. No. Let’s use hip-hop to get them here. They may leave here to be doctors, but let’s use hip-hop to get them here at least, and teach them something that [helps] them open their mind to be creative and get them to think outside the box. Let’s not teach robots. That’s what it is. To this generation, that’s the best way, and it hasn’t failed me yet at any university.
L+T: Have students surprised with either their lack, or their excess, of knowledge? What’s the most provocative or intriguing class discussion you’ve been a part of?
9th Wonder: Some students have surprised me with the knowledge that they do have. But the thing about it is, I have to go in thinking from a chronological standpoint. I have to now go in thinking that a a new freshman in my classroom that’s 18-years-old, their mom and dad can be 37 or 38. So if they’re 38, your mom and dad are my age. If they’re my age and stayed on that musical path, then I can look at my students and say, “Nas,” and they can say, “Yeah, my mom and dad played when they used to take me to daycare.” That’s how young kids are now. Cats really don’t get that. That’s why Big KRIT sounds the way he sounds, that’s why Kendrick sounds the way he sounds, because their parents played that music that we call the “golden era.” All the golden era records are now considered the new classics, therefore, these kids will know about A Tribe Called Quest. They’re like, “My parents played Tribe Called Quest.” Tribe Called Quest to us was Earth, Wind & Fire to our parents, so that the number game you have to play in your head when you’re talking to a kid. So there’s a wealth of knowledge, but if a kid does not know, I’m not all up in arms like most people my age get. “You don’t know about Pete & CL Smooth?” Of course they don’t, they’re just born in 1993, so how can you expect them to know. If they do know, I’m elated, but I understand if they don’t, I’m not condemning them for not knowing. The most intriguing conversation that I had was why can actors and actresses play different roles and rappers can’t. That kind of lets you know how this generation sees rap, the one’s that talk about being in the street or whatever, they really believe that’s what it’s supposed to be about. “If Arnold Schwarzenegger can be a governor then go shoot up a small town in a movie, then why can’t this rapper talk about things he might or might not be involved with?” To hear students talk about that back and forth was kind of weird. It’s like, “Well they can do that but rappers can’t.” “Why rappers can’t?” “Because it’s not real.” “So why do rappers have to be real? What’s this authenticity that comes with being in rap? Or that comes with being Black?” That was the most intriguing conversation that I’ve had, and this was at Duke. It was nuts.
L+T: Has teaching changed your approach to the way you create music?
9th Wonder: For me making music, I stand on it like a rock. I believe my sound is my sound, and there’s a generation of people that want to hear my sound, and there’s a new generation of kids that want to hear my sound. So it hasn’t changed my sound from that standpoint, but it has changed the way that I look at young people. I have a better understanding of why they view the things they do. A lot of that is built on social media. How social media affects kids, the way they talk to each other, the way they get music. All of that is so different from the way we talk to each other, the way we got music from each other, the way we saw the world. It’s just different, and one you know those differences, then you understand how to teach a 18-year-old. That’s what I’ve gotten from teaching over the last six years.
L+T: Just give a brief synopsis on the different courses you’ve taught over the years.
9th Wonder: I started at North Carolina Central first, a historically Black University. I taught a class called “Hip-Hop and Context: 1968-1997.” It was just a brief overall history of hip-hop that I think a lot of kids are missing, and I taught that for three years. At Duke, I taught a class with Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, who wrote the book called That’s The Joint! We taught a class together called “Sampling Soul” for three years. We’re gonna change the class for the next year, but that was a little bit more in depth. It was talking about the Black Diaspora of music over the past 60, 70, 80 years and how it affects media, society and the way we see things. It wasn’t about figuring out how to chop up records. And then this class I’m teaching at Harvard starting January 30th is entitled “These Are The Breaks,” so now we’re studying all of that: the history, how it affects social media, through the exploration of vinyl. I don’t think people understand, especially amongst Black folks, how much sampling these ’70s records affected both of the generations – how much they think it divided them, but how much it really joined them and both generations don’t even know it. The ’70s cats don’t know – and some of them are slowly finding out – that they live through us. They breathe through us, we are the bridge for them, to make a young person like Black Ivory. That’s what we’re talking about at Harvard.
L+T: You mentioned Dr. Mark Anthony Neal. Talk about your work with him, and others are academics and professors that you’ve come across with their knowledge or their approach to studying hip-hop.
9th Wonder: There’s a few professors in this that really understand the way of how to go about it. One is Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, the way he really, really has a knack for implementing history and implementing Black social movements all the way down to how a record was made. We can talk about Ray Charles, but we can also talk about how Ray Charles became Ray Charles from a sampling standpoint. He can do that and he’s at Duke. At Lehigh [University], a brother by the name of Dr. James Peterson, he’s another one. He can also do the same thing that Mark Anthony Neal has done, but he’s a little younger, and he gets it. One of the things in hip-hop is you just have to get it. From a female gender standpoint, Dr. Treva Lindsey, she’s at the University of Missouri, and she’s a professor in Gender Studies, speaking from standpoint in hip-hop, how it can be seen as misogynistic, how it affects gender studies. Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, who is at Columbia University is another one. He understands it, he gets it. But in order for each of these people to be able to do that, they are fans of the culture. That’s the most important thing. It wasn’t a bunch of professors that want to get in this, but don’t know anything about this. A lot professors want to get into it because they read a couple books overnight or they went to a conference, and decide they want to start teaching hip-hop using just de facto rappers that are in the mainstream without knowing the in depth of it all. So that’s where it is from an academic standpoint when it comes to professors that have PHD behind their name. Those are four of the frontrunners in the game.
L+T: Over the past few years hip-hop studies is one of the fastest growing section of discourse. Where do you see hip-hop in the academy moving to in the next few years?
9th Wonder: I think that right now we have just basic levels of study of hip-hop music, but after awhile, there’s gonna have to be a degree for it. First you have a basic hip-hop class. Now, if you wanna go to gender studies, DJ’ing, the MC and wordplay, producing, all of those are levels of expertise that you have to have. You have a Hip-Hop 101 course, then it’s gonna go off into 200-level, 300-level, 400-level classes. I see that happening within the next five, ten years, and I’m hoping I’m there.
L+T: And you’ll still be teaching?
9th Wonder: Yeah, oh yeah [laughs]. I plan to retire from music [at some point] and teach.