A Conversation with Legendary Producer 9th Wonder [Interview]

Brooks Finby

I recently sat down with my professor, Patrick Douthit, to talk about all things hip-hop. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you’ll know him by his other moniker: 9th Wonder. A veteran producer famous for his soul sample flips, he has worked with numerous legendary artists throughout his two-decade-plus career. A brief list of tracks produced by 9th Wonder would include Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, Nipsey Hussle, Anderson .Paak, Erykak Badu, and many more. He got his start down the road at North Carolina Central University, forming the hip-hop group Little Brother with emcees Phonte and Big Pooh. Keep reading for our in-depth conversation on his gospel roots, his iconic musical collaborations, and his perspective on the changing nature of music consumption…

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity

First off, I want to thank you for taking the time to sit down and speak with me. It really is a privilege. I want to start our conversation by going back to your roots. How did growing up in Winston-Salem, and North Carolina in general, shape your sound? What did you grow up listening to?

I grew up in a house of gospel music. My parents were in a gospel choir that traveled around. I was born in 1975 and my older brother was twelve years my senior, so I got a lot of Cameo, S.O.S. Band, Con Funk Shun, Change, Midnight Star, Parliament-Funkadelic, groups like that. I was surrounded by soul music in my household all the time. And then MTV was birthed in 1980, which showed me The Police, Duran Duran, Genesis, and The Talking Heads. I was getting all different types of music from very different places. Nowadays, music is no longer separated by environment. Streaming has everything in the cloud.

Can you describe your creative process? In an NPR Music video on YouTube, I saw that you’d hone your producing skills by making 30 beats before Thursday.

I read an article on Pete Rock, a predecessor of mine, and I saw that he made twenty-five beats a week. So I said to myself, I need to make thirty beats before Thursday. Like Monday till Thursday. I’m a big sports person, so if someone is shooting five hundred jumpers a day, I’m going to shoot a thousand. But when I sit down, I just go for it. There’s no real thought to it. It’s all based on feeling. 

How do you know when the beat is done to not overcomplicate it?

I think it’s something you learn over time. Sometimes, people overproduce things or forget the fact that you need an artist on top of what you’ve made. If the beat feels like it’s missing something, yeah—the performer is missing! So I’ve learned to stop and wait for the performer to get on it before I add anything else.

I read that you made the beat for Jay-Z’s “Threat” off The Black Album on an IBM ThinkPad laptop, is that true? 

Yes. It was built for me by a friend. 

So what was it like being in the studio with Jay-Z?

Man, it was trial by fire. I had to show and prove. Luckily, I was prepared by already having made so many beats before I even got to that point. I live by the saying, “Chance favors the well-prepared.” I made beats until it was muscle memory so I’d be prepared for the moment, whatever that might be. So when Jay asked me to make a beat out of this sample, I zapped myself into being back home in front of my computer and made a beat like I always do. 

How did the release of “Threat” change your career?

It was my first mainstream major label look. I caught Jay-Z at album number eight. The Black Album was supposed to be his retirement album. For me to be there at that particular moment was a big deal. And if you go back and listen to the album, I’m the only new producer who Jay shouted out. Shoutout to The Buchanans and Aqua who did “What More Can I Say” and “My First Song” as well. Jay-Z is one of the only rappers that can make a producer famous. Most producers make artists famous. So “Threat” changed everything for me. But I knew that wasn’t the finish line. That was 21 years ago and I’m still going. 

How did your collaboration with Kanye West on “I See Now” come to be? How would you describe him back when he was just starting to reach mainstream success?

Ye is the same person. You know the saying goes, “Whatever you are when you get a lot of money, you become more of it.” There you go. I don't look at Kanye on TV and think, “Well, he's acting strange.” I'm thinking that's been him. As far as his brashness, that's the same person. I met him in Durham at the downtown Marriott, which is not too far from here, in the summer of 2003. That was at a time when people knew him as a producer, but not yet as an artist. It was before The College Dropout had been released.

What are your thoughts on how Hip-Hop has changed over the course of your two-decade-plus career? 

The sharing aspect of music has changed. So much of music was based around community back then. You made friends by handing somebody a CD. You made friends by going to a record store and spending hours just looking through records. You’d go home with that friend and listen to that CD for the first time together. That experience doesn't happen very often anymore. Now, you just send a song link to somebody and text about it. The idea of human contact when it comes to music is not there anymore except at concerts. 

When music is released today, the album better be stellar because otherwise, you have about two weeks before it’s forgotten. The whole world hears it at once. But before streaming, it would take time for the music to travel around from state to state, city to city, and person to person. The shelf life of an album used to be so much longer because of the lack of technology. 

I’m Gen X. I’m part of the first generation of hip-hop. We’re the originators. We know how the consumption of music used to be and how it affected our community. Now, if you are a twenty-year-old, unless you spend a lot of time listening to music with your parents, you have no idea what it was like to live in music. It’s a feeling of a time that I can’t explain to someone who didn’t live in that moment. I liked that time period better. I miss sharing music in a public space, rather than consuming it alone on the phone. 

I think it’s interesting how vinyl has been making a comeback recently. I think young people want that experience of physically holding and owning a record. Having music on your phone feels so impersonal. 

With everything being digitized, people miss collecting. That’s how it used to be back when I was growing up in the 80s. You’d try to collect all the G.I. Joe figures or Transformers. What are we collecting anymore? That’s why I think vinyl is coming back.

Since 2017, hip-hop has been the most popular genre on the charts. How do you feel about the commodification of Black culture as rap has become more and more popular and commercially successful?

We talked a little bit about this in our class, the idea of assimilation. That word can be for the betterment of something or it can be for the death of something. I kinda liked when certain types of music weren’t for everybody. Again, longer shelf life. It didn’t play out as fast. It’s appreciated more, right? Once something becomes mainstream, it becomes trendy and trends die. They come and go. 

Hip-hop and R&B have entered into spaces now that they were never in before. It’s not even a race, color, or creed thing. Some people just don’t get it. They don’t understand it. That’s not their culture. And that’s fine. So that’s why I think hip-hop has become so watered down because we’ve mainstreamed ourselves so much that we ended up going backward, like a circle. Sure, it’s the number one streaming genre, but according to Billboard charts, we hardly had a number one record. So it’s like, are we listening to albums, or are we listening to just one singular moment that’s lasting for three minutes, and then that’s it? Do we even care about the artist?

Some young artists though have made a name for themselves. They’ve made an impact. NBA YoungBoy is an artist that young people feel about the way my generation felt about Jay-Z. Like, don’t come here talking smack, you know? The only thing is the generations are segmented more quickly now. These three years of kids might be about YoungBoy, but the next three years of kids might not be because of how fast technology moves. They might not have anything in common. If I asked a 12th grader right now if they had anything in common musically with a 9th grader, they’d say no. When I was in high school, the music we shared stretched from four years ahead of me to four years behind me. The range was wider. Pretty much everybody born from 1970 to 1994 are Jay-Z fans. That’s 24 years! Not many artists today have that kind of range. That’s the reality we live in with how music works now.

Yeah, the pace at which everything moves is so incredibly fast. It's so hard to maintain. I think that's why social media metrics on TikTok and Instagram have become so important to music labels. Because if you can't perform on social media, then how will you stay relevant?

Right, right. 

What are your thoughts on lyricism versus the vibe or energy of a song? Like J. Cole versus Playboi Carti, for example. 

I've lived during a period of Hip-Hop where we had both: it was a vibe and also said something at the same time. A lot of songs by The Notorious B.I.G. are party songs, but they also tell a story too. That was the beauty of hip-hop from 1986 to 2000. I think it sucks how now it’s either one or the other. If it’s a vibe, you don’t need to say anything at all, or if you say something meaningful, it doesn’t need to be a vibe.

Can you tell me the story of how you collaborated with Kendrick Lamar on “DUCKWORTH” off DAMN? What was his creative process like?

We weren’t in the studio together. He picked 26 beats from me and then took the three he vibed with the most to make a song out of. He sent me the studio session and told me, “I don’t want anyone touching this session but you.” I was just enamored at the fact that he picked three very different beats number-wise, like the files were not close together at all, and told the most masterful story using them.

How did it feel that he picked your beats to tell that story? I mean, it’s one of the most incredible stories he’s ever told on any of his tracks. 

Yeah, I knew it was important. “DUCKWORTH” is consistently put in the top ten of best Kendrick Lamar song lists. To be re-introduced by Kendrick to a whole new generation of kids was huge.

Out of all the talented artists you have collaborated with, who had the most natural talent and ear for music in your opinion? 

It’s hard to narrow down. Jay, of course. Mac Miller. He was such a musical kid, man. Kendrick. Drake. Nipsey. Big K.R.I.T. But you know who's number one? Anderson .Paak. He's probably the first hip-hop artist I've ever worked with that can just play everything. He can sing. He can rap. He can play the drums. Andy’s ultra-talented. He’s made a lane for himself. 

Last few questions. What advice can you give to young unsigned artists who are just starting their music careers? How can they best protect themselves from exploitation?

Get an LLC. Get the equipment and record everything from home. Listen to music as much as possible. Not this year's music, not last year's, but everything that's deemed to be classic in our musical world. You can say your favorite album is a classic, that's cool, but we know what the classics are. Go study the standards, whether that be in rock-and-roll, hip-hop, or jazz. Study the standards. I would recommend spending more time studying the craft before you decide you want to make money from it. Just do what makes you happy, I guess.

Which artists do you enjoy sampling the most?

Curtis Mayfield. I have a lot of beats sampling Curtis Mayfield. 

Who or what right now inspires you the most creatively?

I think the thirst of being able to continue to do what I do and somebody still likes it. Being in the game for over 20 years now and somebody still enjoys what I make. I think that's what keeps me going from an inspirational standpoint.

Any fun anecdotes to end on our conversation on?

I was in Toronto in 2008, and I was playing beats for Ludacris. He was filming this movie called Max Payne at the time. So I played Ludacris this one beat and he wanted it. But I had to tell him, “No, you can’t have this beat. Sorry.” 

So he asks, “Man, who’s got this beat?” 

I told him this kid named Drake. 

He says, “Who’s that?” 

I said, “You don’t know who he is now, but you will.” 

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