The Elusive Middle Ground
9th Wonder does not subscribe to these divisions. He sees it happening between generations, not just in terms of how musical tastes create age-related rifts but also in the effects of polarizing opinions about hip-hop. When he talks about the generation gap where music is concerned, you can almost feel his profound love for all music that comes from the soul.
“I have so much respect for the ‘70s and the ‘60s,” he said, “because of my love for James Brown. If I’m listening to Edwin Starr and George Duke, not only do I want to listen to them, I’m thinking about how they lived. What was it like to be in the ‘70s? That’s the connection that we can preach. And that’s the thing about the generational divide. I think hip-hop can really change that to make both a kid and an adult understand [one another]. I look at most concerts on TV, a Mötley Crüe concert, you’ll see a granddad or a dad and a son. At a Rolling Stones concert, you’ll see a granddad, a son, and a 14-year-old, all watching Mick Jagger. Why can’t we have that for A Tribe Called Quest, man? Only a few people in our culture we can do that with. And there needs to be more.”
Not only does his ability to find the elusive middle ground inform his beat-making and his historical perspective, it also impacts the way he markets his music. “You got some people that’s stuck in the new and stuck in the old. The people that’s stuck in the old, ‘Man, I don’t do Twitter. Man, I don’t do that. I don’t do Facebook. I don’t be on none of that stuff.’ You don’t wanna sell no records then, friend! Like, in this day and time, you don’t want NO buzz. ‘Cause you’re tryin’ to reach the audience that can buy the records the most, and that’s them 14 through 18s. And if you want to sell anything to them, you gotta get on that Twitter, man. But then you got ones, the new kids, who are like, ‘I don’t wanna meet people’ and ‘I don’t wanna talk to people’ and ‘I wanna meet everybody through the internet.’ Naw, you gotta get out and talk to people, you gotta do in-stores, you gotta do interviews, ya know. That stuff still works.”
Some of that “middle ground” mentality emanates from his upbringing, as a child of the ‘70s. “I was blessed to be born when I was born, 1975,” he explained, “because we had the old school way of life, and we were young enough just when things started to change. We were lucky enough to understand both sides.”
Of course, the gravity of having a documentary about oneself, and screening it in one’s hometown was not lost on 9th Wonder. It was a moving experience, one that could not be compartmentalized in that middle ground. His children were in attendance, along with all manner of fans, friends, colleagues, and extended family.
“You gotta understand. My elementary school nurse is in there. I hadn’t seen her since I left elementary school in fifth grade. So many people from my past [attended the screening], that saw it in the paper, took time out of their Sunday afternoon to come, fans were there. It represented the people that I’m around. I know all types of people. I can sit down and talk to a person from the deepest part of the ‘hood, or I can sit down and talk to a 75-year-old white woman. I’ma find something in common that we can establish a rapport about. And that was indicative of the crowd. But I don’t change. My lingo may change a little bit when I’m talking to this young man or to her, but I’m not gonna change because all of those people, I was raised around that. And that’s what the crowd looked like.”
As a matter of fact, screening The Wonder Year at RiverRun was more like watching a home movie with a buddy, just in a larger living room. We all responded to the familiar sites, restaurants, and schools as they appeared onscreen. Friends would comment affectionately at pictures on the wall in 9th Wonder’s childhood home. The 9th Wonder of the film was a tour guide of sorts, highlighting the importance and beauty in our everyday surroundings, showing those of us who live in the area that there is something special to find where ever we look.
In a way, The Wonder Year is about us too. “I came from this,” he says in the film, motioning toward the home his father built and an area of tall trees his father planted. It’s a solemn moment, one that is so quiet and undisturbed by words, showing how grounded 9th Wonder is by his upbringing even as he chases his dreams. That was one of my favorite moments in the film.
Asked about his favorite moments, 9th was quick to mention the beat-making sessions, but the one that touched him most was much closer to home. He said, “Another one of my favorite parts is the part where I’m talking about my sister, and the crazy thing about it is yesterday was the first time in my life that I got teary-eyed talking about [her]. When I was watching it yesterday on the big screen, I got teary-eyed. That is the first time in my life that I got that way. So I just felt overwhelmed. I never got a chance to mourn for my sister. I was two years old when she passed. For me to see that? That was heavy.” In the film, he explains that he named his studio after his sister.
The local resonance and personal revelations are balanced by 9th Wonder’s professional accomplishments. Here is a man who followed his passion for music and found an international audience and the respect of his peers. In the film, folks like DJ Premier, Young Guru, The Alchemist, J. Cole, and Drake are quick to give 9th Wonder his due, mostly praising his “ear” for beats and marveling at how, early in his career, he made his beats on his laptop with Fruity Loops, a program he downloaded for free online.
Folks in the movie, like Jay-Z’s deejay and engineer Young Guru, are quick to marvel at 9th Wonder’s ability to make music on his laptop, with software to boot. 9th, on the other hand, takes a characteristically grounded approach, “Me making beats on the computer is more old school than people think because it’s just taking what you got and making the most out of it. That’s what Fruity Loops was for me.”
DJ Premier, in particular, is an impressive co-sign for 9th Wonder’s production wizardry, since Premier himself is a perennial favorite in any list of all-time great hip-hop producers. DJ Premier’s style is of course different from 9th’s, though, and the film does a great job of interspersing 9th’s process of studio beat-making among the bits of his personal history, education, and professorial duties at Duke University teaching the hip-hop class “Sampling Soul” with professor, scholar, and author Mark Anthony Neal.
On the subject of hip-hop’s presence at the university level and Neal’s role in that presence, 9th Wonder was adamant, “If we’re going to have anybody to lead this charge of hip-hop being in Academia from now on, it is him. It is him. Because he’s an accomplished writer, he’s got a plan, he knows how to get his point across. He’s a smart dude. I can’t put into words how smart he is.”
9th is equally animated about educating people about hip-hop. This, however, begs the question of how hip-hop, a fluid and organic movement, can be successfully brought into the classroom, not only for enjoyment but for study. 9th Wonder explained his strategy thusly, equating music with current and historical events, “You have to put it chronologically. I teach, like I said, from 1968 [the assassination of Dr. King] to 1997 [the death of the Notorious B.I.G.]. Two hard dates. We can do it that way. In 1973, 1974, DJ Kool Herc used to get a hundred dollars here and there deejaying parties in the Bronx and Harlem. One of the places he deejayed was the Audubon Ballroom. What happened in the Audubon Ballroom? A kid may raise their hand [and say], ‘Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom’….Let’s talk about Malcolm X now.”
He went on, “That’s the connection. How can I trick these kids into making them care about who Shirley Chisholm is? I’ll play a Biz Markie song [“Nobody Beats the Biz”], ‘Reagan is the Prez but I voted for Shirley Chisholm.’ Who is Shirley Chisholm? 1972, she ran for President. This is the trick, man. It is a trick. It’s the same trick that made us learn our ABCs. A lot of people don’t know that the tune to [the] ABCs is ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. It’s the little things you have to do to get people to remember stuff, and get people engaged. So that’s what I do to keep the kids engaged throughout the course.”
At RiverRun, the audience truly came alive during the beat-making sessions, as we nodded our heads and swayed in response to 9th Wonder’s sonic explorations in rhythm and soul. While watching, you soon discover that he has an uncanny knack for finding the precise groove he wants, sometimes without even listening to the whole record he’s sampling.
When I spoke with him, 9th Wonder admitted his surprise at seeing himself in the documentary. He said, “When you’re in it, it’s hard to see, it’s hard for me to see how passionate I am.” For the audience, 9th Wonder’s beat making flow happens in a blur. It’s a whirlwind of motion that finds its fulfillment in the ultimate scene. There, 9th works a beat that begins in chaos, sounding interesting but chaotic until the producer’s masterful ear brings it all together. It’s like magic, with 9th Wonder moving with such speed that the turning point from chaos to harmony happens in an instant. “That’s how I’m looking at it, I’m like, ‘Do I really act like that while I’m making beats? I guess I do.’ I’m going fast, and I guess I don’t know how fast I go.”
In The Wonder Year, he relates that the 9th Wonder moniker was inspired by the 1994 Digable Planets tune “9th Wonder (Blackitolism)”. In the video for that song, Digable Planets emcee Butterfly launches his verse saying, “I’m slicker this year, I’m slicker this year”, as he walks smoothly around a street corner. Butterfly’s move around the corner, according to 9th Wonder, describes the way he carries himself, his “aura”. Digable Planets—with members Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Craig “Doodlebug” Irving, and Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira—was better known for their 1992 single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” than for their “9th Wonder” tune, but the group’s laidback delivery and earthy countenance are reflected in 9th Wonder’s affable and down-to-earth personality, which in turn successfully translates to the screen. For The Wonder Year, the result is a revealing mixture of artistry, humanity, and education.