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.