The Wonder Year: Inspiring Soul with 9th Wonder

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.

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.

The Wonder Year Trailer from Pricefilms on Vimeo.