9th Wonder Discusses History of Hip-hop

It was an unpredictable road that brought Patrick Douthit––better known as 9th Wonder––from Winston-Salem, North Carolina to lecturing in the Barker Center. That journey took 9th from underground hip-hop darling—via his work with the critically acclaimed group Little Brother—to big-name producer. He has recently worked with Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige. Since 2012, he has held a position as a fellow at The Hiphop Archive at Harvard University, part of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute in African and African American studies department.9th’s talk––entitled “These Are The Breaks,” which comes from the song “The Breaks” by 1980s and 1990s rapper Kurtis Blow––examined the history of hip-hop through the lens of his own relationship to music.

9th began by discussing the history of hip-hop culture and also used the music to examine his own life and the songs that inspired him as an artist. Finally, he discussed his own research project, in which he hopes to uncover all the samples used in what he considers the top ten best produced hip-hop albums of all time. To do this, 9th looks at hip-hop like an artist, but also like an archaeologist, examining albums to uncover the samples hidden in plain sight.According to 9th’s lecture, the moment that changed his life forever was when he discovered that the beats behind the hip-hop he loved were based on samples of songs from the 1970s.

“It is important when you learn that your generation’s music sucks,” he said midway through the talk. This moment of realization triggered a lifelong exploration of the origin of these samples and also prompted a re-examination of the music he listened to as a child.  Most of the talk was biographical, and 9th’s explanation of the history of hip-hop was intertwined with stories from his own life. For example, his description of “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back”––a classic album released in 1988 by the group Public Enemy––was contextualized by his own experience of the album as a 13-year-old. “It introduced me to black leaders. This didn’t come out of the mouth of my teacher, it came out of the mouth of Chuck D,” he said, referring to genre-defining group’s MC.

In a question-and-answer session after the talk, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, likened the act of writers borrowing and adapting from each other to the way hip-hop producers sample from other artists when they construct the beats in their songs. He called this practice “hip-hop intertextuality.” Although 9th didn’t use the same terminology, the theme flowed through most of his talk. He focused a large part of his discussion on “crate digging,” the act of D.J.’s and M.C.’s scouring record stores for songs that contain the best “breaks,” or catchiest bits of the songs. “I am digging for the original tracks that led to the samples in the great hip-hop standards,” 9th said.To illustrate this point, 9th Wonder played the samples––often from soul songs of the 1970s and 1980s––behind some of the great albums of the last two decades, such as Jay Z’s “The Blueprint” and Nas’s “Illmatic,” and examined how the producers used these samples to create the albums’ distinctive sounds.

However, despite the view often repeated in the media that hip-hop artists are “stealing” the music of their forefathers, 9th explained that what was happening was more of an intergenerational exchange between artists. In fact, he actually has a strong relationship with many of the musicians whose work he samples. “They love us now for sampling, because if we didn’t, the music would die,” he said.For 9th Wonder, the work he is doing makes him more than just a record producer. He sees himself as a not only an artist, but also a mix between educator, curator, and librarian. By joining a growing number of hip-hop artists who have taken academic positions––a list that includes The Roots’ frontman ?uestlove, now a lecturer at New York University––he has a chance to not only validate the artform he loves in the face of generally negative media perception, but to also pay homage to the music that allowed hip hop-to rise in the first place. “We travel the world collecting pieces of history to introduce them to a new generation,” he said.

—Staff Writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at nguiney@college.harvard.edu.

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