9th Wonder on how hip-hop is like applesauce for the pills, a gateway to knowledge and history
You recently released a beat tape called Tutankhamen. Would you encourage young rappers to use your beats on their own mixtapes?
I mean, I think, before we even released a mixtape, they got beats all over YouTube. So they do it anyway, which, in a lot of ways, people think that cheapens my brand because a lot of people can say, "Produced by 9th Wonder," which goes back to, again, they say that because they don't understand the history of what it means to be produced by somebody. And that's going to happen. Do I encourage it? No. Will they take it and do it anyway? Probably so.
Every time that happens, if somebody takes a beat of mine, and somebody starts to get a buzz going on the blogs, after a while, somebody's going to call me. Somebody's going to say, "Yo, who is this kid?" "What kid?" "This kid that says he got a beat from you." "What kid?" "This kid." "Oh, he didn't get a beat from me." "Well it says, 'Produced by 9th Wonder.'" "Man, he got it off the net." "Oh, aight." *click*
And that's how it goes. But if somebody says, "Yo, who is this girl?" "What girl?" "This girl that says she got a joint from you." "What's her name?" "Her name's Rapsody." "Oh, okay. Yeah, she's my artist." Now the story changes. So it's going to happen. I'm not worried about it.
One of your first big breaks was remixing Nas's God's Son as God's Stepson, which started a trend of other producers doing that same sort of remixing the whole album. How did you come up with the idea to do that?
That was just something I wanted to do because I wanted to hear Nas rap on something else. It wasn't a situation where I tried to do it and I wanted to create a buzz from it. It wasn't even my idea to leak it or put it out. I just wanted to play it in my car. That's where it kind of came from. That's what the whole buzz came from. It just ballooned into something else that I didn't think was going to happen, you know?
It just happened....I don't even consider that as a big break for me. The big break that I consider a break for me was I produced for Jay-Z, that was the biggest, and then after that, I produced for Destiny's Child. Those were the biggest breaks that I had, I think. I don't even consider that a break. I consider that a once in a lifetime phenomenon, and it just happened and I didn't expect that.
Can you talk about the importance of sampling within the context of hip-hop culture and I guess also within the context of modern history?
Even going back to how sampling even started, it started where the New York City public school system took out art funding in school, you know, whether it be paints, whether it be instruments...and that sparked the young generation of New York City to come up with their own way of making music. And, you know, from that, at first, it just became this is the only way we can do music.
Then sampling became a bridge of how we connect this generation to the last, and at the same time, it became a lifeline for those artists from the past. You know, at first it used to be, "Don't touch my music, this and that." Well, if a lot of rappers aren't selling now, then definitely R&B artists from the '80s and '70s are not selling, either, unless you're an icon like Madonna. But most soul groups from the '70s are not selling a lot of records. They're just not.
So now they understand that us sampling them is a way they can continue to live.... They want to be known, and they want to be accepted by music lovers, whether that music lover is 45 or fifteen. I've had a ton of people come up to me and say, "Thanks to you for chopping up my record, my iTunes sales went up a little this week." Because I'll sample a record, and a kid will go listen to my beat. On YouTube, the sample will be right beside it. They'll click on it, and it will say Joe Simon, and the kid will start listening to Joe Simon's music.
Next thing you know, they're trying to download everything they can off Joe Simon. [They're talking to their friends,] "Who is Joe Simon"... "Well, how do you know about them?" "My favorite producer chopped them up. I want to know more about him."... So that extends the shelf life of that artist through us. So we have now successfully created a bridge, not only for knowledge, but for revenue for those artists.
Speaking of using whatever means you have and connecting to musicians of the past, with or without their permission, do you think YouTube borrowing could be at all comparable to that, or do you think it's totally different?
No, I don't think it's necessarily comparable to that. I can see what people can see is comparable...but the thing about it is they're using my beat off of my name, you know what I mean? And my name is what's getting them notoriety. Me chopping up a Dave Grusin record is not going to get me notoriety because I chopped up Dave Grusin.
It's what you did with it.
Right, it's what I did with it. And does it help bring Dave Grusin back to life? Not to say that Dave Grusin is by no means not to life because to a lot of people he still is, even to me, but to the masses and to the youth, will that turn a young generation on to who Dave Grusin is?
I think the biggest phenomenon in that is how -- I read an article on Phil Collins, and Phil Collins said that "I just never knew that I would be out and all of these young, black hip-hop cats would come up to me and tell me how much they loved my music. I just could not understand it. I never knew how much of an impact my music had on this culture, the culture of hip-hop."
Bob James -- same thing -- you know, to us, any hip-hopper, Bob James is a god. He's up there with James Brown to us. But to the generation after us, he's some old white dude, you understand? And for us, we bring that to light. I can't make a kid sit down and listen to that Bob James tune, "Take Me to the Mardi Gras."... But if I use it, and let them hear it. "God damn, where'd you get that sound from?" "This dude." "Oh, give me some more of him." Again, it's pills and applesauce.
People know you as a soul guy, but you've said that being soulful transcends just the genre of soul. So what does it mean to be soulful, and how do you know if you have it?
It's just a feeling that is indescribable. Soul is one of those intangible objects like love. When you're in love with something -- whatever it is, man, woman, person, object -- it's a feeling that you cannot describe. Hallmark does a great job of trying to describe love, but love is one of those things in the world that you cannot put your finger on. You just know it. And soul music is another one. To have soul or feeling in your music is something that is not quantitative at all. You can't put a number on it. You can't put an explanation to it. It's just a feeling.
I think, for me, that family tree of hip-hop, the feel-good -- they always said Little Brother made feel-good music -- I think the family tree of hip-hop of feel-good music started with A Tribe Called Quest. That's where it started. And it started really with one person, and that's Q-Tip. Q-Tip was the person that started the family tree of feel-good music in hip-hop. And from Q-Tip came OutKast, came the Roots, Slum Village, Mos Def, Kweli, Common... Erykah Badu, Little Brother -- everybody -- Drake, Kanye.
This warm feeling of music came from Q-Tip, and that's something that you just can't describe. You just know it when you hear it, and you know it when you feel it. And people will bestow that upon you, too, man, "This 9th is so soulful." I never got into any interview when I first started and said, "Man, I'm just so soulful." They might have put that on me, and then it was natural for me to go that way, you know what I mean? But it's just a feeling that you just really can't describe.
Do you think there are people who have it and people who don't?
Yes, I think there's people who have it and people who don't....I don't have the natural ability to do what [Jean-Michele] Basquiat did, right? I wasn't born with that. There are some things you can learn, but even take it to sports: A kid can go to camp after camp, and his parents can pay for camp after camp after camp... He goes here. He goes there. He's this, and he's that. He's been to every camp, and he's been to every clinic. And this one kid has not been to any camps, and he's way better than this other kid. That's just natural ability that you can't teach. Coaches say it all the time, "There's just some things you can't teach."
What sort of projects are on the horizon for you?
You know, my focus is my label, Jamla. You know, I have artists that's doing very well right now for themselves, and I just continue to do that, just continue to try to get them to a point where they can be self-sustainable. I don't feel like I want to control anybody's career. I believe in being self-made, and once they get to the point that they become self-sustainable, then that's going to just be my time to say, "That's it."