9th Wonder's influence stands tall in today's hip-hop scene
A comment that many a critic has made about the Milwaukee hip-hop scene is that it hasn't established its own identity and has preferred to rely heavily on outside influences to define the style of music it makes, alluding to a sort of bandwagon mentality by the artists in the city.
Due to the vast influence of the south on Milwaukee's urban culture, thanks to roots many in the urban community have in the south via extended family, the Brew City often seems like an extension of Atlanta or Houston.
Another side of the scene is filled with sounds built around the classic soul or vintage jazz samples. AV Club music editor Steven Hyden deems this sound "classicist" because of its refusal to update alongside the rest of hip-hop.
Due to the popularity and vast influence of the golden age of hip-hop, soul and jazz sample-based hip-hop will never go out of style in certain circles, and it will even find itself in the popular crowd every now and again, especially when artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West put out tracks like "Otis." "Otis," love it or hate it, is a song built upon a simple sample from an Otis Redding song, chopped to create a new composition.
One of the most influential underground artists and producers of recent past is North Carolina's Pat "9th Wonder" Douthit.
9th Wonder began his career as a member of the highly influential 2000s group Little Brother, which also contained Big Rapper Pooh and Grammy-nominated The Foreign Exchange's Phonte.
9th Wonder has gone on to produce albums for artists like Buckshot, Murs, Jean Grae and most recently David Banner. He has also produced music for top-tier artists like Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu and Destiny's Child, to name a few.
Knowing in the beginning his ability to manipulate the computer music production program Fruity Loops, now known as FL Studio, 9th Wonder has grown into a full-fledged producer who can work his way around any aspect of the music in the recording control room, in addition to more standard hip-hop production equipment.
After leaving Little Brother and dedicating more time to his other projects, 9th got busy establishing his own music group, It's A Wonderful World Music Group, and a label called Jamla that would be distributed through that music group. The most notable artist on his label to date is Skyzoo, a rapper that released a highly anticipated and very pleasing album through Jamla and Duck Down Records in 2010. The label is also home to one of the most buzzed-about underground artists in today's game, Rapsody. 9th also signed his old friends The Away Team after they and his former collective decided to go in different directions.
9th Wonder, because of his level of influence over rap music, has been taken as an idol by many producers in Milwaukee, who mold their sounds similarly to how he would before extending it to include their own interpretation of sampling, chopping and arranging.
With all of the different hats that he wears, it's impressive to see the amount of work and time he puts into his career and legacy, but where does he get all of his time?
"I don't have a lot of vices, pretty much. Like, I don't drink, I don't smoke. And on top of all that, I'm in North Carolina," he says. "You know, me being in New York, me being in all these places, it's kind of hard to get a lot of stuff done. You know what I'm saying? The lifestyle is very busy. And the lifestyle is like hustle and bustle. But in North Carolina it's not like that. It's like, you can kind of create and control your own pace. So, that's how I can wear many hats because I can utilize all times of the day."
As a part of Little Brother, he saw several times of trial and tribulation with their record label. His experiences with that label and with others he's done business with has led him to try to create more unity with his Jamla label.
"My thing is I really wanted to create a family atmosphere, pretty much," he says. "I wanted to prove, not necessarily prove, but let people know that you don't have to move to these different places to do what you doing from here, where you're from. And just show the people on my label how to get in it and basically control your own destiny. I don't know if a lot of other labels try to get their artists to learn how to understand and control their own destiny."
But, it's not just a family-like atmosphere that 9th desires to have at Jamla. He wants to make sure all of his artists stand for more than just the "lifestyle" a hip-hop artist often enjoys, or acts as if they enjoy.
"I can only teach an artist what I know, you know, and what I've learned over the years. And one thing I've learned in the confines of Little Brother and outside of Little Brother is that you have to be more than just the music. You have to stand for something. Whether it be something positive or negative, and I mean negative and positive can be all relative these days. You just have to stand for something. You just can't be a rapper or a beat maker and that's just it. Like, you have to have something past everything else, so that's the thing about it."
As mentioned before, 9th has a growing relationship with New York-based Duck Down Records, seeing as two of his artists – Skyzoo and The Away Team – as well as himself, are also backed by the underground label. 9th explains the attraction to Duck Down as being something born out of comfort.
"I just think they understand the mode of doing independent business. Like, I don't have a lot of time for a bunch of back-and-forth label mess. I just don't. You don't get anything done that way. I think that people are programming the industry to be like that because they had to "go through it." I don't have time for that, man. So working with Dru Ha is like, 'Do a record, come on let's do it.' It's not a bunch of back and forth. You know, it's money to make. It's about getting stuff done."
The often buzzed-about female emcee Rapsody, whose stock is consistently rising, is one of the most exciting artists on his label currently, and her level of skill and passion are similar to that of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah.
"The thing about it is, there's not only the fact that she's in the bloodline of an MC Lyte, this that and the third. I think it's been a while since we've had a female that's in tune with the hip-hop culture like that. She has a love for the culture. She could stop rapping tomorrow and get a regular job and still would do something through the culture. That's the thing about it, if she couldn't rhyme, she'd still would be like, 'Yo, I want to help kids learn how to rhyme.' Anything connected with the beautiful side of hip-hop, she's with it.
I think that's what's been missing in the game. We've had a plethora of female rappers. We've had records out there, artist after artist that were emcees that happened to be female. But I think the thing about Rapsody, what we haven't seen since – not to compare her to a Lauryn Hill at all – but what we haven't seen since Lauryn Hill is to show you the good side and how hip-hop can be beautiful and how she can you know look at the brighter side and just forget all the negativity that you see. Lauryn Hill kind made us forget about the guns and the drugs and the this and the that. You know, the same old story everybody likes to think about hip-hop. But the thing about Rap is, she's kind of making me forget that thing too. All I see is a young woman who grew up in hip-hop that loves it so much that she wants to share it with the world her way. I think that's what draws people to her even sometimes more so than her rhymes. And she can rhyme, but it has to be something else, it has to be something else that pulls you in, and I think that's it."
Even with all of the success that he's seen in his career, and the awe his artists often have of him, 9th often finds himself in the same situation of being in awe of those that deeply inspired him. He even finds himself picked on by those artists because of his level of fandom, which is an admirable thing to admit.
"Pete [Rock], Preme [DJ Premier], Buckshot, The Beatminerz, you know, they kind of pick on me, 'cause I'm so gung-ho about hip-hop and I love hip-hop so much, and not only how it influenced my life but because of the sound of the music – and not necessarily the "lifestyle" – the sound of the music kind of influenced my life," he says. "The ones who made that sound, I'm trippin' every time I see one of them, every time they talk to me like I'm carrying a torch or something like that.
You know, these are people that I've never dreamed of being around. I mean even in listening to rap all these years that I have, I didn't start to understand that I could be around these people until I turned about 28, 29 years old. That's kind of late, because I was a college kid. So it's a situation where if I'm around a Q-Tip or I talk to Ali Shaheed, or I talk to Pete Rock or Preme, it's a consistent thank you all the time. And I don't think they get it enough. We don't have a Heisman Trophy. We don't have an Augusta National Club where everybody, no matter how long you live, you still going to get a green jacket. We don't have that and I think there needs to be one, a true and concise one that's decided on by the peers and not the public. I think we need that. But I make sure that happens. I make sure every time I see somebody that influenced me, I make sure they know. Even if we don't work together, even if we never work together at all, I make sure that Mic Geronimo knows that he made me in some way and I don't think artists do that enough."
Just as he was inspired by different artists, so he has inspired a legion of music producers, which is something he still struggles with to this day.
"It's kind of hard to believe, you know? I don't think we get into the game knowing that we are going to pass our sound onto someone else. We just love music so much we got into the game to do music. When I go around and I see kids on Fruity Loops and I can talk to kids about Fruity Loops, and talk to kids about the newer computer-based programs or talk to kids about coming out and being a producer, it's crazy that it goes down like that. It's hard for me to fathom that I have an influence on these people. It's a hard thing to wrap my head around."
One of his other career paths currently is as a professor. 9th is very passionate about educating the youth in regards to hip-hop and he feels that it's his deeper calling, and his future.
"For me, you know, my whole thing is even to be able to completely transform myself into academia and kind of lead the charge of people who really want to understand and talk about the culture the way it's supposed to be talked about in academia," he says. "That's number one. And number two, kind of like leaning towards opening up a performing arts center for the kids, like opening an arts center for the alternative arts."
This school would be built around a curriculum that includes the alternative arts in with the teaching of standard subjects like biology, because using music as a bridge to keep the youth interested in education could produce the next generation of doctors.
"We have to understand the way to educate our kids is changing. Their attention span is very short. So, if it's going to take music and rhythm to make a kid understand biology, then that's fine. There's schools that have performing arts, but then that's music performing arts and ballet, and your drama and stuff. OK, now we need a school of performing arts – and I'm pretty sure that there's already one that exists, but a smaller scale – that'll be like, OK, I'm a parent, my kid stays in the room all day and makes beats on his computer. He makes his computer do things that I thought nobody could ever do, and I don't know how to channel his energy. Well, it's like he's a mutant almost, like an X-Man, so we need that type of school to harbor that creativity. And at the same time to show them other sides of academia. So that kid may not be a beat maker. That kid may end up being a doctor, being the fact that he's so creative and thinks outside of the box, that can lead to something else in medicine. That's what people are missing."
Next month, on Sept. 27, 9th Wonder will release his latest effort, "The Wonder Years." His newest album with Buckshot will release in October.
For any person that desires quality hip-hop music that has an old and familiar feeling to it, 9th Wonder is the type of artist and producer to follow because he is a fan of the music first, and those who maintain the love for their art and culture will always be the kind of person who will put forth quality product through hard work.
It's great to see a concern for alternative music education in Milwaukee is growing. I know DDS Media Works is opening in the Grand Avenue Mall this September, and with a focus on training users on music production programs like Reasons, Pro Tools, etc....that should help further music production education for both youth and adults, and allow them to build up their home studios, or move further into professional realms like 9th wonder. Long live the music!
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