The Wonder Year: Inspiring Soul with 9th Wonder

The RiverRun International Film Festival showcases a moving portrait of a man in his element, standing at the transformative intersection between hip-hop, education, and craft.

It's all about inspiration. Inspire these kids to learn.

-- 9th Wonder

"I just want people to be educated on what's really going on and what hip-hop really is," says Patrick Douthit, publicly known as 9th Wonder. It's a breezy, sunny afternoon on 11 April 2011 in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 9th Wonder -- Grammy winning producer, deejay, founding member of rap group Little Brother -- met with me to discuss The Wonder Year, his entry into the world of film.

The Wonder Year is a documentary directed by Kenneth Price, an MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It explores a year in the life of 9th Wonder, from his professional accomplishments as a producer working with luminaries like Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, to his personal life as a native North Carolinian and his teaching at the Duke University. Filmed from December 2009 through January 2011, the 78 minute documentary gives fans and hip-hop newcomers alike a window into 9th Wonder's slice of hip-hop, featuring footage of him making music in the studio on his MPC-2500 sampler, showing us around familiar hangouts in Winston-Salem, rocking on tour, and collaborating with industry peers and colleagues. A cool tidbit is the film's inclusion of 9th Wonder's reunion and reconciliation with Little Brother member Phonte Coleman.

The documentary was unveiled in the Special Screenings section of the 13th Annual RiverRun International Film Festival, hosted at Winston-Salem's own University of North Carolina School of the Arts. At the screening, RiverRun's executive director Andrew Rodgers highlighted the film's geographic significance. On the one hand, RiverRun is an international extravaganza, broad in perspective and diverse in scope. On the other, The Wonder Year is, for the Winston-Salem area, a local interest piece that chronicles a young man's rise to prominence. It relays 9th Wonder's humble origins, growing up in the home his father impressively built with his own hands and going on to become the acclaimed producer the hip-hop world has come to know and praise. What bridges the two extremes, between international scope and local interest, is context. The Wonder Year is a moving portrait of a man in his element, standing at the transformative intersection between hip-hop, education, and craft.

The form of the film is as arresting as its content. Price's eye is sharp when it comes to the smart arrangements and evocative shots portrayed in the film. More than that, though, is that The Wonder Year acts as a visual companion to hip-hop's feverish output of mixtapes. The film's title is of course derived from the professional name of its subject, 9th Wonder, but it also recalls the Fred Savage-helmed television show The Wonder Years, a coming-of-age tale set in '60s suburbia. Price's documentary is, at its core, the story of 9th Wonder's development and love of music.

At the screening, the title of Price's 9th Wonder documentary was stylized almost as a parody of the television show's lettering and coloring. Where the TV show employed the home video and camcorder visual effect, mostly during the theme song (which was Joe Cocker's rendition of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends"), Price's documentary uses close-ups and tightly cropped interview segments of its star, alongside colorful commentary from guests and friends. The TV show contained a disembodied voiceover from the grownup version of its main character, akin to the format of How I Met Your Mother. In The Wonder Year, 9th Wonder is the narrator, although the key difference is that he is usually seen and heard.

Hip-hop mixtapes routinely play on the titles and themes of movies and television programs. In 2007, Wale's The Mixtape About Nothing was rooted in clips and quirks from Seinfeld, the TV show "about nothing", plus a cameo from Seinfeld co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("And don't you think my kids are gonna think I'm so cool, I'm on this mixtape, muthaf*ckaaaaas!"). Similarly, Canadian artist k-os cued audio from The Anchorman movie for his 2010 mixtape. The duo Camp Lo rhymes over Pete Rock instrumentals on 2011's 80 Blocks from Tiffany's, a play on the film Breakfast at Tiffany's, complete with a woman on the cover art whose pose and fashion are derived from Audrey Hepburn's classic style. 80 Blocks from Tiffany's is also the title of a documentary about gang life in the South Bronx.

So too has 9th Wonder collaborated on projects with allusions to television and movies, such as Wale's Back to the Feature, a take on the iconic Back to the Future movie, and female rapper Rhapsody's Return of the B-Girl, which employs imagery recalling the Star Wars franchise, specifically Return of the Jedi. The Wonder Year absorbs the hip-hop technique of mixing parody with tribute, importing a familiar concept and then exporting a wholly retrofitted and revitalized experience.

As I stated, 9th Wonder's interview segments feature close-ups, tightly cropped, with the man of the hour positioned at a three-quarter view, not always looking directly at the off-camera interviewer. Incidentally, this is also the way he spoke to me, looking me in the eyes as he emphasized his points, but nevertheless titled at an angle to me, and sometimes with his head down as he contemplated my questions, pensive, like Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker".

With his quiet intensity, 9th Wonder deep voice makes him an engaging speaker, but one whose work with his hands is more widely known. In The Wonder Year, the producer steps to the fore, as speaker, shouldering the vocal duties and being the person out front. He, and the others making appearances, are like the emcees on an album or mixtape while Price, the director, acts as the deejay and producer. Where 9th Wonder crafts the beats and manipulates the samples for his music, Price handles the edits; arranges the scenes; and works the interplay between words and visuals, between sound and silence.

Quentin Huff (L) and 9th Wonder (R) -- photo by Jasmine A. Huff

Price keeps the focus on his subject, opting not to show himself or speak at all, not even as an interviewer. His only narration comes at the beginning, in the form of words telling the viewer that 9th Wonder had agreed to be filmed. Carrying the mixtape analogy further, Price even arranged the film by months, for the full year concept, and he gave each month a theme. For instance, February was titled "Winston-Salem", September was "Internet", and December was "Legacy".

Logically, there are 12 sections in all, showing the months of a calendar year, but acting like tracks on a mixtape or an album, each theme for the month being the song title. Actually, there ought to be a 12-song instrumental soundtrack of 9th Wonder compositions to accompany the film, maybe a mixtape or a FreEP. I didn't mention it when I was talking to him because I didn't think of it until later. But such a release would make an interesting tie-in, especially if the documentary is shown at middle schools, high schools, and colleges to spread a message of inspiration.

With so much handiwork by Price, I was curious as to whether 9th Wonder found the making of the documentary an inconvenience. I thought it must have been intrusive to deal with a camera invading his space.

"Not at all!" was his emphatic response. "I mean, the studio's packed anyway, when I do beats. I'm comfortable in my own space, you know what I'm saying? You can't mimic or take my 'ear'. With Kenneth, you know, it wasn't intrusive at all, man. This is the lifestyle I chose to be in, and I know part of it is going to have to be a part of me being exposed to the public. Not so much as other people. I mean, we can sit out here and a few people may say something but everybody else is going along with their day. So, it wasn't intrusive at all."

You might think, as I did, that a man who runs a label (Jamla Records) with a roster of artists might be wary of a project directed by someone else, like this one. But that would assume 9th Wonder had little creative input in the documentary. How much input did he have?

"A lot, man!" he said. "The backdrop for the entire movie is my music. It's either a piece that I did or a piece that I sampled. I let Kenneth go and he did his thing. I told him exactly what I wanted it to look like as far as my interview. [Otherwise], I told him to do his thing. He let me see the film when it was about seventy five percent done. We went through it. The first cut I saw, I thought it was incredible."

Hip-hop is a culture intent on telling its own stories. As a community, hip-hoppers tend to be wary of "outsiders". During the Question & Answer segment following the screening, Price told the audience he was a huge 9th Wonder fan. The movie, then, is a function of his respect for 9th Wonder's ability, with an intense focus on the joys of participating in one's chosen profession. 9th Wonder was comfortable with his choice to leave his story in Price's hands. "He's in school for film, I'm not," said 9th. "I trust him to do his job. He let me [make changes], and that was it. Period." When we talked about the clever way Price put the movie together, we agreed he was a "dope filmmaker".

While he trusted Price's directorial decisions, he was also quick to protect his family from the spotlight. He said, "If you see, my mom's not in it, my dad's in it in a flash, my brother's not in it, my wife's not in it, my kids are in it in a flash, so that's the part I was like, 'No.' I said, 'He can do [the documentary], my kids cannot be in it. They can be to the back of their heads.' You know I was driving with my daughters, you see 'em for a minute." Protection was the watchword for 9th Wonder, as well as what I perceived as his fear of adding to the seemingly choreographed drama we see on television. "We got enough of that on reality shows," he remarked.

The Wonder Year shows us his talent via thoroughly engrossing segments of 9th Wonder's beat-making sessions but, more than that, the documentary engulfs us in his humanity. It's about the heart of a man who pours himself into his music, how history and community provide the foundation for his passion, and how he is in turn impacted by the art he creates. In the larger cultural sense, the film operates as a soothing balm to the hardened and destructive stereotypes so often associated with hip-hop and presented as the norm.

Creatively speaking, it embodies the principle of finding balance and harmony, striving for the golden mean, whether the balance is between ambition and contentment, work and leisure, or career and family. As such, the movie exemplifies 9th Wonder's own approach to making music, wherein he endeavors to secure an artistic middle ground. He strives to make beats catchy enough for the "average" person to enjoy but too sophisticated for easy replication; the kind of soul music we can all dance to while other producers admire his technical prowess.

You often find this balance in the projects 9th Wonder produces. For example, take The Talented Tenth, a mixtape from Actual Proof, a duo consisting of rappers Sundown and Enigma, on the 9th Wonder roster. That the mixtape was released on 15 January 2011, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, was no coincidence. Dr. King's birthday is also 9th Wonder's. Moreover, the mixtape contained two sides. The first, dubbed "The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Experience", featured songs befitting of the concept, such as "Letta' to Coretta" and "The March". The other side, "The Malcolm X Experience", featured songs like "Detroit Red" and "Desegregation".

Although 9th Wonder didn't produce the entire mixtape (his work was accompanied by production from Khrysis, Amp, Kash, Eric G, and Sinopsis), the mixtape's sense of finding a common ground between viewpoints, such as Dr. King's and Malcolm X's, is consistent with 9th Wonder's ethos. It's also worth noting that the mixtape's title can be traced back to W.E.B. Dubois's essay "The Talented Tenth" and, further, that Dubois is often ideologically pitted against Booker T. Washington in the same way that Dr. King and Malcolm X have been.

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