9th Wonder

Educating Hip Hop

Air Date: July 29, 2017

DJ, Producer, North Carolina Central and Duke University Professor 9th Wonder talks about the preservation of a Hip Hop archive and legacy.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. A one-man brain trust to the likes of Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige and Destiny’s Child, Grammy-award-winning producer, DJ, lecturer and social activist 9th Wonder born Patrick Denard Douthit, joins me today. 9th is a professor at North Carolina Central University and Duke University, most recently a Hip-Hop Fellow at Harvard University. A musical impresario, the DJ is both old and new school. Committed to the creation and legacy of a hip-hop archive. The Hip-Hop Fellow documentary chronicles 9th Wonder’s journey as a practitioner scholar from the studio to the classroom. Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, 9th founded It’s a Wonderful World Music Group, Jamla Records, an independent label. From R&B to neo-soul, rhythm and blues, fresh and retro, today we explore the wonderful world of music with 9th. And as a one-time student of the Harvard music department, I’m really delighted to have him here.

9TH WONDER: How you doing man?

HEFFNER: Thanks 9th for doing this and I, it’s a long time coming, right.

9TH WONDER: Right, right, right, right. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Yeah.

9TH WONDER: Finally got it done.

HEFFNER: What’s going on with the archive.

9TH WONDER: The archive, um, the archive lives in… um the… Hutchins Center. And inside the Hutchins Center is the W.E.B. DuBois Institute. It’s ran by Henry Lewis Gates. Dr. Henry Lewis Gates. Harvard University. And Dr. Marcy Morgan. Uh Dr. Marcy Morgan runs the uh Hip-Hop Fellows program, inside of the Harvard Fellows program, right? So. Within that we wanted to try to place hip-hop in the canon and that means creating what a standard is, and what classics is. ’cause we haven’t really decided what they are yet. Um. So. We chose, or I chose, 200 albums. Don’t ask me why I tried to do it but as painstaking as it was I chose 200 albums. And we’re admitting every year maybe four, then ten, then twenty. And the first four that we did was Nas’ Illmatic. Uh Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. A Tribe Called Quest Low End Theory and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill. Um to kinda show the range of hip-hop. What it sounded like. It shows a range of age when it comes to the artists. So just trying to place hip hop in a canon and, and create what standards is and, and so we can carry on. So the next generation would know exactly what the… rubric of hip-hop is.

HEFFNER: What was the rubric of the classic, when, when you think of classic hip hop…

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: How did you arrive at that… definition.

9TH WONDER: You know these days a lot of times music is based on you know record sales and you know, now it’s Instagram followers [LAUGHS] right. But you know… I try to base it on… simply… creative license. Creative ideas. Uh, does it stand the test of time. It didn’t have to sell a lot. You know, a, a classic is not a, a platinum seller sometimes. It may have been important to that region. It may have been important to the time. It may have been important to a group of people, a culture of people. So that’s why it ranges from uh Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly all the way down to a Deltron 3030. Like, it’s, it’s, across the board, across the strata of what we kind of look at in the mainstream sense of what hip-hop is. ’cause like I said, we always… define those by, oh it went platinum, oh the first week sales. Uh, hip-hop is much deeper than that. When it, when it stands in, in the pantheon of music I believe.

HEFFNER: To what extent was this a hip-hop hall of fame, to what extent was it something deeper that was getting at economic, political, social challenges… that the community of artists who made this music faced.

9TH WONDER: Right, right.

HEFFNER: And continue to face.

9TH WONDER: That’s, that’s the toughest thing. Because trying to get everyone to understand outside the culture of hip-hop what this thing actually means, or what the culture actually means, or what we actually trying to say. You know, mass media can kinda miscont—get that misconstrued. People can get that misconstrued through mass media so, you know, this way we’ll be able to tell our story the correct way. We’ll be able to tell our story from, you know, these are the major players in it. These are… these are the major poets in it. These are the producers in it. Um. All the way down to the mastering ideas of the album. All the way down to the mixes. All the way down to the artwork. They all mean something in the pantheon of music, so… doing this kind of sets that up so people can finally understand instead of just going through just a vacuum of mass media.

HEFFNER: I should have said in the intro, professor of history.
9TH WONDER: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Because that’s really what you are.

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: You’re a hip-hop historian.

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: Uh so you take Miseducation for instance.

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: But you… being that was… among the four to graduate in your inaugural class.

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: Can you… give our, our viewers a sense of how, how that… you know, how that fit into… an opening definition of what hip-hop is. So… that folks who listen to Lauryn Hill uh or the media’s popular depiction of Lauryn Hill is not misconstrued and…

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: Comes at that genuine definition of here is hip hop.

9TH WONDER: Well the beauty about Lauryn Hill was and still is… is the beauty of a woman. Honesty. Like, brutal honesty, whether you’re ready for it or not. And with Lauryn Hill, she did that on Miseducation. You know it the, for those that don’t know, it comes from the, the book by Carter G. Woodson Mis-Education of a Negro. Um… and just to take that particular instance to bring it forward—not only bringing ideas of sampling forward, now we’re bringing ideas of books forward. Bringing those forward and then turning it into the views from a woman. Because hip-hop is a male-dominated industry, it always has been, but she took that particular sense and made it hers and brought beauty to hip-hop. Hip-hop was never looked at as a beautiful thing, or a warm sense, or a warm feeling. The Miseducation did that. And she told a story not only through the gift of rhyme but the, through the gift of singing. And… it was important and especially in these day and times that we have that particular female voice.

HEFFNER: Was it enduring enough, as you look at these next albums that are entering that idea that this can be a… if not gender neutral, a…

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: A multi-faceted, gendered idea of what hip-hop can be.

9TH WONDER: Not only multi-faceted in gender. Multi-faceted in race, and culture, you know. We have… you know, it’s been this thing for a very long time that some people outside of… the people of color, and we’re speaking about brown and black people, you know, whether you’re African age (sic) descent, Latino descent. You know, some people feel like if you didn’t come from some certain neighborhood that you’re not supposed to be there. You’re not supposed to understand what hip-hop is. Hip-hop is one of those… it’s probably the one music art form, new music art form that combines not only the aspect of culture, but color. You know. You know, I travel around the world a lot and I, and I DJ different places and… you know, no matter if I’m a, I’m black, or this person is of Caucasian descent, whether is this person is French or whatever, from wherever. We all know the words to Wu-Tang Clan. And I think that’s the, the beauty of hip-hop. That we’re just as universal as math, you know, in this particular sense. So that is what we definitely wanted to display in this particular list. To make sure that people that is not of color, people that’s not of a, quote-un, from the struggle or social-economic background—’cause some people believe that you only are supposed to listen to hip-hop if you come from a certain background, that you must be coming from a place of destitute or something like that. That’s not what all of hip-hop is. And we wanted to show that throughout this particular list as well.

HEFFNER: When you see people’s reaction as a DJ, they, they’re already… entranced, right,

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: So… the library’s posture is to invite people into an immersion that can have value irrespective of your faith, your color, whatever. And… I’m wondering how that, how’s that going.

9TH WONDER: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Eh, I mean it, it… can we… without denying hip-hop its authenticity…

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER:…draw in the appeal that crosses those barriers.

9TH WONDER: I think this is, you know. This is the first generation to do so. Well, my, our particular generation was the first, generation X. You know, and this is all happening after uh desegregation. You know, desegregation did a lot, you know, in education. But it also did a lot in music right. And if we talk about desegregation in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, if we take it all the way up to the birth of MTV, music television, once we started to get there, then now the idea of music reaching a different amount of people is now broadened. Right? The one thing MTV did for me was it introduced me to s—the Police and Duran Duran and Bananarama and… you know. I didn’t see my first quote-unquote face of color on MTV until like 1982. 1983, right? So I think when, now when I DJ like my class reunion, or I DJ, I do parties called 95LIVE where we play, you know, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s music. You know, when I play a Guns and Roses record, I’m not only speaking to somebody who you think would should be listening to Guns and Roses. I’m also speaking to every kid that was in 8th when Appetite for Destruction was released, right? If I play a Das EFX record They Want EFX, I’m not speaking to me, or somebody think that I would listen to that. I’m also speaking to every kid that listened to the urban hip-hop station in, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the time. And I see that every time I go home and I DJ for my class, you know, I’m looking at my classmates, and you know, I graduated from Robert B. Glenn High School in Winston-Salem. And my class is half and half. It is half, 49 percent black and 51 percent white. And… what I play we all love. You know, ’cause we’re the first generation that absorbed it all. We’re not just a rock generation, we’re not just a hip-hop generation. We grew up listening to everything because the way mass media was set up we had to.

HEFFNER: I know. That’s really the sad [LAUGHS] situation with mass media today.

9TH WONDER: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Is that you can turn on MTV and not find a music video…

9TH WONDER: These days.

HEFFNER: … across that spectrum.

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: Sting, Jay-Z. Just throw it all in there—and the same thing with Sports Center. What is Sports Center today.

9TH WONDER: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: It’s, it’s this.

9TH WONDER: [UNCLEAR]

HEFFNER: This, this, this is, this has a different design and application, a half hour. I mean I yearn for that day, when sport—you could turn on, and I know, because uh we follow each other on Twitter.

9TH WONDER: Right [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: It’s a, I want the highlights.

9TH WONDER: Right, right. Right.

HEFFNER: I mean but everyone’s getting it on their smart phone and that’s the business justification for why they don’t just play the highlights anymore.

9TH WONDER: Right…

HEFFNER: I’m, I’m riffing a little. But, which is only to say that I want people to visit the Hip-Hop Archive in the way they would the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: Not just get a taste or a snippet. Because I think the t—the, the taste and snippet leads people to misconstrue.

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: Think about Mis-Education. We want people to be fully absorbed in it… what is the timetable for widening the reach of the archive at Harvard?

9TH WONDER: Um it’s gonna be a… we’re gonna try to do this thing like every year, like, just as we would do a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or even a—I’m a sports fan just like you, even like a, a Major League Baseball Hall of Fame or an NBA Hall of Fame or an NFL. We want to admit people every year, and keep it going all the way until the wheels fall off. Because we’re in a situation if you know, some of our greatest poets and greatest minds of hip-hop are still alive. Unfortunately we just lost protégé of Mobb Deep which is, you know, definitely a sad situation. And we’re learning the mortality of hip-hop as well because you know growing up, you think that you can live for, forever. Especially hip-hop is looked at as a young art form. But now our greatest minds in hip-hop are 40, in their 40s, right. Um. But we’re admitting people every year. Not only are we admitting, admitting the album. Say for example wanna admit um… Paid in Full by Eric B. and Rakim. Which we will. We wanna be able to bring Rakim and Eric B. to Harvard, and take the actual pieces of vinyl, ’cause you always need two, right, take the actual pieces of vinyl and have them place it in the archive themselves. And make a ceremony out of it. I think that’s the way we have to do it to institutionalize this thing. Uh to make sure that it stands on and it lives beyond record sales. ’cause we are living in a dying music industry. We have to have something that’s going to keep this thing permanent.

HEFFNER: Right. The permanence of meaning, and consequence…

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: To that end, do you, do you think that hip-hop is not political enough today.

9TH WONDER: Hip-hop has always… took a turn for the way of who was actually in office as President. If you look at um, you know, when we, as hip-hoppers feel like we’re pressed against a wall or backed against a wall… we do our best, right. You know. And the, and hip-hop, people in hip-hop, we, we spend the idea of… people… that are trying to get ahead, or, or feel like they’re oppressed. Like this is not a color thing. And so it seems like every time we feel like we’re oppressed, our music gets better, it seems like. So the Kendrick Lamar album couldn’t have come along at a better time. Chance the Rapper couldn’t come along at a, at a better time. You know, because now… we don’t have it as great as we had with certain people in an office, right. So now we feel like that we need some source of inspiration, because music has always been the voice of revolution. If we talk about Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, all the way up to now, it’s always been the voice of revolution. That’s, the message has always been a part of it. So it seems like we feel like our backs is pressed against the wall that we feel like that we need a music or a soundtrack to push us forward. So we have our Kendricks, we have our Chance the Rappers, we have our Rapsodys. We have our Joey Bad-Asses. We have, you know, several people that has a voice that wants to say something instead of it being just a party.

HEFFNER: Chance really has been maybe the more or most political um, admirably so. Um. Does that counter balance what [LAUGHS] what seems to be Kanye’s…

9TH WONDER: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: …Trump Tower appearance? Uh maybe he was just having a personal melt-down which was reported in the news but he…

9TH WONDER: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Right? But, but his… his um… seeming to pro-prostitute himself to Trump in the way that he did. Or maybe it was just a stare into space. I don’t know if it was…

9TH WONDER: Who knows? [UNCLEAR]

HEFFNER: Who knows what it was.

9TH WONDER: Who knows?

HEFFNER: But, but it seemed to betray some of his beginnings.

9TH WONDER: And exactly what we stand for. Absolutely. Um… with Chance the Rapper, you know, there’s not only a political edge. There’s also a spiritual and religious edge to it.

HEFFNER: Absolutely.

9TH WONDER: Also with this last Kendrick Lamar album it was the same thing. You know… venturing off into a place that a lot of people again think that hip-hop can’t go. It can’t be… you know people actually still look at hip-hop as not the genius art form that it is, that we’re not able to go exactly where we want to go with this thing. Especially with the words and the message. And I think Chance proved that wrong. He proved it wrong on so many levels. He proved it wrong on a situation that, I can be spiritual, I can be religious, I can be political and I…

HEFFNER: I can be governor of Illinois.

9TH WONDER: I could be Governor of Illinois.

HEFFNER: Don’t you think.

9TH WONDER: I can sell out Comiskey Park.

HEFFNER: Right.

9TH WONDER: I can get involved in… you know…

HEFFNER: One of those things hasn’t happened yet, for our viewers.

9TH WONDER: Right, if, yeah, right, he’s not—

HEFFNER: I, I, I can see folks Googling.

9TH WONDER: People at home, he’s not the governor. [LAUGHS] Is he the Governor of Illinois?

HEFFNER: Chance for Governor.

9TH WONDER: Right, um. Hopefully one day they will um. But you know… Him selling out Comiskey Park and him getting involved in the violence in Chicago.

HEFFNER: Right.

9TH WONDER: You know, him getting involved in it, which nobody talks about. Everybody likes to talk about the violence but nobody’s talking about the countless hip-hoppers and rappers that’s getting involved to trying to stop this thing. So…

HEFFNER: So I think what you’re saying…is it, there is an element of politics that is animating hip-hop right now.

9TH WONDER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Um. But is it movement making?

9TH WONDER: I think it is. It’s movement making for Chance because Chance is doing this as an independent artist.

HEFFNER: Right.

9TH WONDER: He’s doing this without backing from a major label as we would like to say. He’s, he won Best New Artist at the Grammy’s. You know it was like, that was a victory for a lot of people that feel like they needed a big machine to make their move. To make a, a voice or to, to have a voice. Ch-Chance is doing that on a level of, with so many tentacles. Like, religious, spiritual, political, right? Kendrick, same thing. Religious, spiritual, political. Um. And speaking of unification, right? Kendrick is the highest selling rap album this year, right? If we look back maybe two or three years ago, political rap doesn’t sell, right. You know, but he’s changing that narrative. Kinda taking it back to the times where Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back sold two million copies to a seventh grader like me right? At that time. So. It’s going back to that time. It’s slowly going back to that time. But it’s going to take a while.

HEFFNER: When you think of Jay-Z do you think that he could have, um, exploited his clout for the, for the, sort of, a political cause, more than he chose to?

9TH WONDER: With hip-hop, if we’re speaking about Jay-Z, just as if we were speaking about Nelly. The thing about Nelly was, and I’ll, and I’ll get back to Jay-Z in a second, the thing about Nelly was, you know, he made a, a few, you know, videos that was not to everybody’s liking. But that became more of a story than all of the, all of the research he did and all of the money he raised for leukemia research.

HEFFNER: Mhm.

9TH WONDER: Right? Same thing with Jay-Z. You know, we don’t look at the idea of what he’s done for the Kalief Browder story. We don’t look at the idea of what he’s done for you know, he just bailed out dads for father’s day, recently, you know. We don’t look at all of the behind the scenes things that he’s done, ’cause sometimes, you know, in this particular music industry, the things that you do behind closed doors, you do that for a reason behind closed doors. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t get done. We didn’t find out that you know, Prince was doing the things he was doing until he passed on.

HEFFNER: Right.

9TH WONDER: And so I think that’ll be the situation with the, with Jay-Z because—or with anybody with that particular standpoint ’cause once you help one, you have to help everyone. So I think he’s meticulous when it comes to who he helps, how he helps, and how much he helps. And he doesn’t… although he’s known for talking about money and records and what I have this, and what that… him, him helping people, I think he keeps that to himself. I’m not, I’m not here to flaunt me helping people. I mean Robin Hood didn’t. Robin Hood just went and did what he did, you know, by stories, by legend. So I think he’s the same way. You know, I, I help people the way I wanna help people. I don’t feel like I have to flaunt it. I don’t feel I have to tell the world. And same thing with Beyoncé. I, she feels like she doesn’t have to tell the world, but you see the effects afterwards.

HEFFNER: Right.

9TH WONDER: You see the effects down the road.

HEFFNER: But has, has it been a lasting effect in terms of the reputation of hip-hop?

9TH WONDER: I think if you look at what we’ve done since 1973, that’s the quote-unquote banner year of when we, you know, started, or the culture started. I think we’ve done a lot… of outstanding things. When it comes to the ideas of education, raising money, you know, the jobs that has been created because Jay-Z is where he is and who he is. Like you have to look at all of the jobs he created. For some people that might have went, went downtown to try to get a job and couldn’t get one. You know, he’s not the only one that’s at that statue that has helped a lot of people that’s under him, right? Or same thing for Beyoncé, giving a job to… her whole band is female. Giving a job to a woman who may have been a great bassist, who couldn’t become a bassist in another band because that particular band didn’t wanna hire a woman as a bassist, right. She hired an entire band of, of, of women. That says a lot. I think we’ve done a lot in those places. But I think it leans on the audience, because no matter what we do, no matter how we do it, no matter if I am at Harvard…

HEFFNER: Mhm.

9TH WONDER: At Penn, at UVa, at Central, at Duke… uh, at, in the Smithsonian. Uh, uh, involved with the Smithsonian. There is some people that is still gonna look at hip-hop the way they do. The same way they still looked at Obama the way he did, no matter what he did, no matter the great things he’s done. There’s some people that’s still just going to look at him because of his skin color. And they’re not going to be able to look past it. So no matter what we do, no matter how much of a global effect that we have—no matter how many, how much money Akon raises in his homeland of Senegal, no matter what we do, people will still look at hip-hop as underserved, under… this low-seeded genre of music, instead of the genius that it is and, and the ground that it covers.

HEFFNER: Well look, you’re making a persuasive argument that it is genius.

9TH WONDER: [LAUGHS] Right.

HEFFNER: And you have so I hope there are still believers out there.

9TH WONDER: Of course.

HEFFNER: Or soon to be believers. But you’re presenting frankly the reality.

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: Which leads us to kind of the final terrain that I had to explore with you.

9TH WONDER: OK.

HEFFNER: Being, being a music junkie. And that is… you know, so are there folks who, who listen to the, we were talking off camera, the big man, smooth styling, vocals right?

9TH WONDER: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: The, the Pendergrass’s and the Vandross’s.

9TH WONDER: Right.

HEFFNER: Um the Whites. Are there folks out there who would listen to those artists, but not hip-hop? I, uh, how, you know, if there, if there’s a bridge to hip-hop from those artists, how do you get there.

9TH WONDER: You know, in, in my um, I had to do a colloquium um in front of Henry Lewis Gates at Harvard doing my time as a hip-hop fellow. My whole idea was to get the attention of Henry Lewis Gates because he’s not a big proponent of hip-hop music at all. But my thing was, how can I get him to understand my world? Or what the use of sampling, the use of sampling old records. How can I get him to understand that? And it’s exactly what it was. You know, I played a record uh called uh Ashley’s Roach Clip uh by the Soul Searchers. That’s a 1974 song, but it was also used by Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full. So the bridge is actually the sounds in the background.

HEFFNER: The sampling, the covers.

9TH WONDER: Absolutely. That, that, you know, you might not, as a 60-year old man or a woman, you might not like uh Jay-Z’s uh Heart of the City. You might can’t you know, deal with that, you know, the words. It might not be your thing.

HEFFNER: Right.

9TH WONDER: But you can deal with the Bobby Bland version of [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] Right.

9TH WONDER: The song. And that’s the, that’s the bridge. You know, sampling is the 100% bridge ’cause then when I sample, I am sampling a group or a group of musicians. I take that, I introduce it to a new audience, which is a, a 18 year old or a 17 year old or a 22 year old. That particular artist I made the beat for, they take that particular beat that I made and play it live. So it’s a circle. It goes from a live band to my beat machine back to a live band. That is a way that it, a bridge can be created, that a ’60 year old can understand what an 18 year old ’cause when I play a record it’s gonna come from two different directions. They’re gonna say, oh that’s… I’m in Love by Nancy Wilson. Somebody my age might say oh no that’s Honey by Erykah Badu, because that’s the bridge, Nancy Wilson is the bridge, or that song was the bridge that joined the generations together.

HEFFNER: My hope 9th is that… uh just as there was that um… connection to, um those, those vocalists I’ve mentioned, you know, that, that has been enduring. That your work… will prove an enduring connection to Lauryn Hill and the other hip-hop greats.

9TH WONDER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thank you 9th.

9TH WONDER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit the open mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programing.