wax Poetics

The Beat Professor

9th Wonder teaches hip-hop history to the next generation

published online
Originally published in Issue 26
By David Ma

Illustration by Robert Trujillo.

9th Wonder has diligent days with commitments to keep. Whether he’s lecturing to college students, making beats, or taking phone calls from Jay-Z, his career is certainly at a vibrant juncture. But even more remarkable is that this enormous success has unfolded within a mere five years. 

“I feel blessed, really. All I ever wanted to do is make beats,” he says, having just gotten off a plane from Brazil. “These are the days I’ve been waiting for since we released The Listening in ’03. So, I’m always energized to do what I do.”

What 9th does ranges from community involvement to superproducer dealings. He volunteers his time to P’Tones Records in Durham, North Carolina, mentoring college-bound kids who’ve chosen a career in music. In due course, he’s an artist-in-residence at his alma mater, North Carolina Central University, where he explains the historical significance of hip-hop to youths unfamiliar with its history. Having collaborated with De La Soul, Mos Def, and Mary J. Blige, among others, his itinerary remains intense, which is profoundly positive according to him: “Man, I don’t get tired. I get to do what I love for a living, and that drives me. What else could you ask for, man?”

Where are you right now?

I’m at the airport, on my way home. I just played in Brazil. It was crazy, man. Plus I got a full plate tomorrow.

Doing what?

I gotta go to the university and do some stuff at P’Tones.

Can you explain what P’Tones is and what role you play?

It’s essentially a prerequisite to NCCU. Like, if you want to get into the military, there’s a military academy you got to go to beforehand. P’Tones is a training ground for kids who are interested in hip-hop, or music in general, as an art form or career. We provide mentoring, try to get them scholarships, and just talk to ’em. These are mostly inner-city kids, and we try to give ’em skills that will carry over to when they go to college. 

So what is it that you do at North Carolina Central University?

I’m what you call artist-in-residence. The class is called Hip-Hop in Context 1973–1997, and we talk about hip-hop culture—its figures, its influences, its history, everything. I start with Kool Herc’s parties in the Bronx and work my way up to more recent history.

What do you want the younger generation to get from your lectures?

Just for them to know that the way you walk, the way you talk, your clothes, and everything came from somewhere. Hip-hop stems from the music your parents listened to. The reason why some of you are here right now is because of some of those records. [laughs] I just wanna let them know that knowledge is good to have, and that there are things that came before you.

What about producers that have come before you? What marks have they made on you?

Dilla, RZA, and Premier have especially influenced me in all kinds of ways, from their overall sound, to the records they sampled, to the way they chopped those records. Their music has certain mannerisms within ’em, and I take those influences seriously. Their character is important to me too. For example, we’re producers, right? We sit in the back and don’t say much until someone like yourself wants to talk. That’s how they were too. They know the role of the producer. So, basically, everything from their records to their approach, to their humble ways, I’ve noticed and taken from those cats.

What are the small differences you’ve notice between making a beat for Jay-Z as opposed to Nas?

Jay-Z is a better beat picker than Nas. A lot of MCs just want something decent to rap over and don’t follow the music as closely. But Jay knows his shit better than most, and his ear is incredible. I’ve only remixed Nas’s stuff, but, you know, it seems that throughout their careers, Jay’s been more aware of his songs as a whole. I mean, both have impeccable flows, so I’m not sayin’ one is a better MC. Both are easy to produce for, ’cause they’re so good. But Jay is real easy to produce for, because he seems to be more aware of the beat in front of him.

Do you still get to go record shopping with your increasingly busy schedule?

Yep, I still do a lot. I dig every time I possibly can. Nothing like finding new, hot records!

Your life has changed a lot in the last five years. Are there certain records that you can say have made you the producer you are currently?

Of course! There are records that have changed my outlook on things, and have led me to bigger and better things. [continues without hesitation]


Record Rundown

Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth
The Main Ingredient (Elektra) 1994

Mecca and Soul Brother is classic, but this one is more of a complete album, for me. It’s an album that taught me how to do things. To this day, I still use some of the techniques I learned from Pete Rock on this one. And some of the best songs Pete Rock has ever done is on this album. I first heard it in ’94. I was at North Carolina [Central]. I was walking to class, and some of my friends rolled up on me in their Acura with this playing. This was when cats would roll up on you in their cars with music bumpin’ and be like: “I know you don’t have this shit right here?” [laughs] They were playin’ “Caramel City.” After class, I rode the bus to the mall and bought the record. I was blessed to grow up in a time of hip-hop that I did. It’s an incredible piece of work. 

New Edition
All for Love (MCA) 1985

This record influenced me so much in becoming a man. [laughs] Seriously though, it taught me how to talk to women. I never said the right things to women, but New Edition always would. Plus, the production—I don’t know if cats remember—was pretty hard for an R&B/pop album. Every man around age twenty-eight right now, especially where I grew up where it was all Black folk, has a little New Edition in ’em. Whether it be Bobby, Ricky, Mike, or Johnny, everyone, dude, learned something from these cats. I listened to this a lot as a kid and began getting into music because of it. This is just a great adolescent record that you’ll never hear again. It reminds me to keep my music fun.

Public Enemy
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam) 1988

This is the record that made me want to be smart. I was always a smart kid, but I was too naïve to do the work. This made me want to go read about Black leaders. It made me want to be ready for the teacher when the teacher would call on me. I was ready to prove people wrong after listening to this. This made me stick my chest out, be proud to be Black, and learn about my history. On an even bigger scale, Chuck D taught me that being dumb is not cool.

Guns N’ Roses
Appetite for Destruction (Geffen) 1987

This record taught me it’s okay to like rock music. There’s nothing wrong with this album. I think “Sweet Child O’ Mine” made me go out and broaden my horizon musically. When I first heard it, I was at the age where I could make decisions on what I’d listen to and what I’d go buy. Before that, everyone was sort of programmed by MTV and radio for our music. I mean, I’d sit around and wait for Yo! MTV Raps after putting up with Duran Duran for hours. [laughs] Then they turned around and put “Welcome to the Jungle” in the movie Lean on Me. I was surprised, because this was a movie about a Black inner-city school, and they put such a White rock song in the beginning of it. This album taught me not to be afraid to listen to all kinds of stuff. It also made me buy Use Your Illusion. This opened my eyes when I was thirteen or fourteen. And can you beat the name?

Little Brother
The Listening (ABB) 2003

I’m cheatin’, I know. [laughs] But I’m naming The Listening because that album directly changed my life in so many ways. We were three guys in a dorm room who had no idea what we were gonna do with our lives. We’d stay up till five or six in the morning just to make something. There are only two songs that we recorded [that] didn’t make the album. It wasn’t like we recorded a hundred songs, took some shit from it, and said, “This is our album.” It was a time when business played no role, and it was just us three cats doing music. We were having a good time, and I think it sounds like it. This record has given me, and those other cats from Little Brother, all these wonderful opportunities now. None of us thought that this would make any noise. And even when looking back at all my projects now, this record is my favorite. This was the genesis of my current career.