A fair-weathered Saturday morning could’ve been spent exercising (suuuure), watching football or catching up on Zs lost during the work week. All those options made way for a switch in pace, as I made my way to IMSTA FESTA a week and change back. There I met TSS Crew ally Jesse H., and he invited me to the relatively crowded VIP room where he prepped for his interview with 9th Wonder: noted Hip-Hop producer, Grammy winner and college professor.
Hagen racked 9th’s brain for his upcoming flick titled DUST: The Art of Sampling. The knowledgeable producer answered every question with ease, as his decade-plus in music lead to insightful responses. Onlookers filled the room yet kept relatively quiet despite the occasional door cracks bleeding in ruckus from outside.
Then, as Jesse wrapped up, he looked my way and asked, “does anyone else have any questions?”
The moment seemed like one of those sneaky Kidd to Kenyon alley oops back in the Nets’ heyday. So I naturally dunked the hell out of the ball with my own set of questions for 9th on the prospects of growing old with rap music. The topic stayed fresh in my mind after our discussion on rapping over 40 and 9th already professed himself as a purveyor of adult-contemporary rap. Logic figured he’d be a prime candidate for discussion on the genre’s growth capability with the older set.
TSS: I remember working on an interview for another outlet four years ago and you talked about establishing adult contemporary rap music. How is that current branch of rap music shaping up now?
9th Wonder: As we get older and older, somebody has to slide into the Tom Joyner space, someone has to slide into the Steve Harvey space. So when I’m 50 years old, who am I going to see in concert? Frankie Beverly and Maze might be gone by the time I’m 50 years old, so who am I going to see? I’m going to see Tribe, I’m going to see De La [Soul]. I’m going to see the same things the Tom Joyner generation is going to see. They look at Con Funk Shon. They look at Lakeside, They look at Earth, Wind & Fire. They look at all their favorite groups because they have a lane and a vessel to create that.
TSS: To go along those lines, you can kind of sense that hip-hop seems to struggle to grow up with the audience. You’ll have artists like Busta Rhymes on Young Money, which is odd considering he’s been rapping for over 20 years. He’s a distinguished rapper but he’s trying to make music for a new generation. So, with that, why do you think rap music has such a hard time growing older?
9th Wonder: I don’t think that’s only a rap music problem because, if you know anything about Cameo, Cameo was a very different group before they made “Word Up.” That song was to us. That song was directly to kids saying “word up,” and it was much different from Cameosis. If you’re talking to a diehard Cameo fan, they hate “Word Up.” They hate “Candy.” They hate a lot of records that we love, so it’s the same thing.
If you talk to a diehard Busta Rhymes fan, nine times out of ten they don’t like the stuff he’s doing with Young Money. They like “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” and they like The Coming and they like When Disaster Strikes. So I don’t think it’s a hip-hop problem. I just think it depends on the person who’s in it. Some people just want to be relevant, and in order to stay relevant in the market place now you kind of have to do that. If you ask the average person, they only know ten rappers. It’s only ten of them but I don’t think hip-hop has a struggle with growing up at all.
TSS: You don’t think so? Well what about in relation to other genres where their fan bases hold their past greats in higher regard? For instance, the Rolling Stones and The Beatles are well-regarded in rock music, whereas people don’t seem to hold the same reverence for trailblazers like Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and Kool G Rap.
9th Wonder: Again, I think that’s a bigger problem than hip-hop. I just think that’s a problem with black people. We don’t even want to know our own history–past Hip-Hop, you know what I mean? I don’t think it’s just a situation where we don’t want to know who Roxanne Shante is. We don’t give a damn about who Stokely Carmichael is either. It’s a situation where, in black culture, we always want to be what’s hip and what’s hot and what’s new, no matter if we’re talking about Hip-Hop or civil rights. This is something within black folks that we have programmed ourselves to make sure the new generation and the old generation are separate. And I think that’s by design but that’s another conversation (laughs.)
TSS: What do you think of adult contemporary rap albums like Nas’ Life Is Good, which strike a chord in the marketplace? Can an album like it bring more exposure to the subgenre or is it an anomaly?
9th Wonder: I don’t think it’s an anomaly. I think that if you’re talking about record labels, you’re talking about CD sales. All record labels [have not] transferred over to the importance of digital sales. We’re talking about physical product in the store, and then we’re talking about a generation of people that still buys CDs–usually somebody that’s 30 or older. Not saying kids who are 18-22 don’t buy CDs. What I’m saying is the majority of cats over 30 like a tangible CD, and mainly do not live in metropolises like New York or L.A. They don’t know how to open a zip file, right? They want to be able to go in, buy their CD and leave.
And when you’re dealing with that, it takes a lot of money to capture the mind of a 35-year-old person. It’ll take a lot of money to capture the mind of a 20 year old but to get the attention of a 35-year-old hip-hop person who’s not married with kids? The artist has to be on prime-time television: Nas, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z. If you let somebody tell it, those are the four big [ones] like, “man we ain’t got nobody left but Nas.” Well De La’s out there but the problem is you don’t see De La on 106 or the radio, right?
TSS: To go along those lines, would you say the young radio stations like Hot 97 and Power 105 should devote more time to playing older songs?
9th Wonder: I’m from North Carolina so our station is 102 Jams. When Das EFX was on the radio they didn’t play an S.O.S Band record. They didn’t play a Midnight Star or Atlantic Starr record. They didn’t play anything from Full Force. So I don’t expect a new radio station who plays Drake and Rick Ross to play A Tribe Called Quest. There just needs to be another radio station to play that. Just like Tom Joyner figured out and said, “Hey man, it’s a lot of me out here, I’m 50. I know I ain’t the only person who likes Con Funk Shon.” Let’s figure it out. Let’s get a radio station. Let’s start a cruise. And it’s like, they have a whole world to themselves. Once our generation figures it out, we’ll be straight. On the cruise, we’re cruising. Just imagine if we had a cruise with De La and Brand Nubian and Mary J. Blige. That cruise would be packed!
TSS: When you talked to Jesse, you mentioned how the younger set rebels against the older generation when the youth gets introduced to songs before their time. How can the older generation more effectively get through to the new generation to pass on their music?
9th Wonder: I think a lot of that is, everyone is not as fortunate. But I think a lot of that cycle can be broken if you bring [family] back into it. I have children and my youngest is eight. Her favorite artist, no lie, is Anita Baker. Favorite, because daddy brainwashed her, right? I made sure, when I was in the car, I was playing records. Same thing with my 11-year-old. Her favorite artist is Mary J. Blige and I kind of test her. I ask her, “do you know who Waka Flocka is?” [She says] ‘They talk about him in school, but no.’ [Then I say] ‘Do you know who Kendrick Lamar is?’ [She responds] ‘Is that that guy you played the other day?” You see what I mean?
But it all goes back to whether it be your dad, whether it be your mom, you just can’t be a parent or an older brother in the car and letting the kid come in the car and dictate what you listen to. It just can’t be that. “I don’t like this. Turn it off!” No you gon’ listen. Candy Girl on, you gon’ hear that shit today! (Everyone laughs) If I got to take you to school everyday it’s “N.E. Heartbreak,” every day. [After] a week of that? Totally changed that kid’s life. You’re going to resist when the old cats do it, but there’s some ways you got to. Kids can be themselves, but at the same time it’s like, “you’re listening to that? That’s cool, alright come check this out.”
But when it’s your domain and your car? The car is probably, for a lot of us, where a lot of us heard our first sounds: in the car with mama, with dad, with my brother [like], “man, I got in the car with these dudes, and they were playing this jam.” That’s what it is. So I think we need to get back to that but let’s institute the family [to it].
TSS: One last question, with the generation gaps, do you think the older generations, my own included, give a pass to younger kids since it’s really not their responsibility to find music? We do have people who find music on their own, but one thing I’ve noticed from kids these days is that their thirst is even rarer than my own age group’s. They’re just taking whatever’s given to them and they’re fine with it.
9th Wonder: That has happened in every generation. A wise man once told me, “There’s a lot of black that marched with King. There’s a lot of black people that didn’t.” So that means when Tribe was hot, there were people that were there for the moment. “Check the Rhime, y’all!” You talk to those same people, man, and they [say], “that was the jam.” N***a, that’s still my jam. What are you talking about? “That was the jam?” What is that? So I think that’s where that kind of comes from.
You’re always going to have a sect of people, this is what people have not grasped onto, this music and art form, anybody can listen to it, but it’s not for everybody. It’s just not. Anybody can pick up a rap record and say, “oh I got Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes in my iPod.” But there’s only a few of us here that understand it in the pantheon of music listeners. So yes, anybody can listen to Hip-Hop, but Hip-Hop is not for anybody.
And once we understand that, then you know, it’s always going to be some people that’s not going to [dig it.] You’re always going to have a generation of the enlightened and you’re always going to have a generation of people that’s not enlightened. And the same people that dug up and found Bob James and Dave Grusin [are] the same people that found Slum Village, or the children of [those people,] trust me. I guarantee you, if there’s a kid listening to Slum Village, nine times out of ten that mom and dad was listening to Songs In a Key Of LIfe. I promise you that. Because that’s the chain of [what] we’re talking about. And then we’re going to have the chain of people that’s listening to pop stuff. It just happens like that.
Photos: Sam Shirreff and Thomas Stigler for SAE Institute