Since first coming onto the scene as member of the group Little Brother in 2003, 9th Wonder has been living the dream. He has produced for three Grammy award winning albums, worked with everyone from Ras Kass to De La Soul, and started the “Hip-hop In Context 1973-1997” course at North Carolina Central University, where he is also currently finishing his degree. No longer part of Little Brother, 9th is still one of the hardest working men in show business. In addition to teaching his class, he is gearing up to drop two full length releases – Dream Merchant Volume 2 and The Wonder Years.
Although he already has a lifetime worth of accomplishments, this only looks to be the beginning for 9th Wonder. With a quiet, humble demeanor and a nonstop 9 to 5 work ethic, 9th is sure to solidify his place on the list of hip hop’s elite producers. Find out what makes the man behind so many of your favorite jams tick in this exclusive interview with The Smoking Section’s DJ Sorce-1.
9th Wonder: You gotta excuse me man if it’s loud in the background. I’m down where the students eat at right now.
TSS: That’s funny because one of the first things I wanted to talk to you about is the college course that you’re teaching at North Carolina Central University. Did you have to get certified in order to teach the class?
9th Wonder: No. I never finished my degree at Central. They let me come back and teach the class because of the extensive knowledge I have from being in the industry. I’m finishing my degree as we speak. But yeah, they let me come back and teach this class, which is kind of crazy.
TSS: I’ve always felt that there needs to be more classes like the one you teach because rap and hip hop culture are both so huge in American culture right now. I think it’s great that they have someone like you who actually lives the life teaching young people about hip hop history.
9th Wonder: It can definitely enlighten the next generation of hip hop, or the next generation that actually wants to learn about hip hop. A lot of schools won’t do classes like mine for some strange reason. They don’t think it’s a serious subject right now. But it will be. In the next five to ten years I think more schools will be offering those kinds of courses.
TSS: Do you think more people in the industry will take your lead and also get into teaching?
9th Wonder: I think so. We’re all learning in one way or another that industry money is not very long unless you’re at the top of the totem pole, so you better start finding something else to do. In hip hop, you don’t get any benefits. That means there’s no life insurance plan, no nothing. I’m getting industry money and state supported money at the same time with a dental plan now that I’m teaching. A lot of rappers pay out of pocket for dental plans and medical insurance. I have that where I am, and it’s kind of amazing for me to have. It’s definitely a blessing man.
It’s very important for cats to think about what they want to do when they get older. Cats need to start paying attention to 401K’s and thinking to the future. If they don’t, they’ll end up in a bad situation. For me, living the southern way of life, and understanding how southerners think, it’s a situation that I’m paying attention to. I’m trying to find a viable source of income so I can do what I love, which is hip hop, be able to feed future generations, and have something for my family at the same time.
TSS: Is it harder to make a living now off of just music?
9th Wonder: I think it is. I think we live in a situation where hip hop is kind of imploding. It may be self-destructing in a way where it will build itself back up.
TSS: Do you think artists need to start looking at other ways of making money?
9th Wonder: Right now it’s really hard to make money off this art form unless you at the top or you find other ways to make money off music. Some beat makers DJ. Some don’t, but a lot do. There are situations where you can make money off the music outside of making albums, but a lot of artists aren’t taking advantage of them.
TSS: Play of Kid N’ Play fame helps teach your course at North Carolina Central University. What made you decide to reach out to him?
9th Wonder: Play lives in the Durham area. Durham has a lot of retired rappers. Well, I won’t say retired, but definitely on hiatus. Play is one of those artists who happens to live in the area. I’ve always been a big fan of his. I’ve wanted to work with him in some shape or form after watching House Party for so many years. It’s kind of crazy for me to even be working with him right now, but everything happens for a reason. He’s here, and I’m truly taking advantage of the situation.
TSS: Are you gonna try to get him on one of the upcoming albums?
9th Wonder: Nah, cuz Play’s not really a rapper like that. Kid N’ Play were entertainers. I wouldn’t mind, but I want to shoot a movie with him. Yeah man. I wanna shoot a movie or be in a movie with him. I don’t think that’s too far fetched.
TSS: Is film something that you’re interested in moving into?
9th Wonder: I want to get into scoring films. Rza made a definite jump when he did Kill Bill. I think that opened a lot of people’s eyes. I think scoring movies is a definite money maker.
TSS: In addition to scoring movies, do you want to move into making strictly instrumental albums along the lines of DJ Shadow, or do you want to continue working with MC’s for the time being?
9th Wonder: I think I could get into a doing more instrumental albums. I’ve been approached to do an instrumental record. I kind of already did one with the album I put on my MySpace page. Did you get that? It’s called 9thâ€˜s Leaky Beat Vault (2003-2005). It’s mixed by a dude that I did the True School parties with, my man DJ Cuzzin’ B. You can download it if you want to.
TSS: Hell yeah. I’m going to your MySpace page right now. So this was a strictly instrumental project?
9th Wonder: Yeah, strictly instrumental. But yeah, it’s something I want to get into more down the road.
TSS: You’ve done a few albums where you handled the beats from front to back like the Murs and Little Brother albums. Can you talk about the difference between doing that and only producing one or two tracks of an album. Are there any advantages that you’ve found when you handle the entire production?
9th Wonder: There are certain advantages. A lot of times people want to hear concise, cohesive project.
TSS: Do you think it helps the album flow more when you handle all the production?
9th Wonder: I think so. Sometimes you have fifteen different dudes doing beats for the album and they’re all trying to get the single. Sometimes that works, but sometimes it becomes a big mess. I learned from Dre, Pete Rock, Premier, and cats like that. Learning from them has made me the way I am. I can’t be nobody but me. I let everybody else do them, and I do me.
TSS: If you could remix any rap album from front to backâ€¦
9th Wonder: Hip Hop Is Dead.
TSS: Why that album?
9th Wonder: Why not? (Laughs) I would definitely do Hip Hop Is Dead. But I would not touch the Kanye joint. There are two joints I wouldn’t touch. I would not touch the Kanye joint and I would not touch “Black Republican.” The rest of â€˜em I’ll touch.
TSS: I’m curious because you’re a huge fan of old school and “golden era” rap. Are there any projects from back then that you would want to remix?
9th Wonder: Nope.
TSS: So you want to keep them the way they are?
9th Wonder: Yessir.
TSS: If you could do an official remix of any classic rap single, which one would you pick?
9th Wonder: I wouldn’t remix any of those either. I like them the way they are. That’s the way they were meant to be and a lot of people are happy with them, so why should I change that?
TSS: If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.
9th Wonder: Exactly.
TSS: Can you tell me a little bit about the differences between the new albums, Dream Merchant Volume 2 and The Wonder Years.
9th Wonder: Dream Merchant Volume 2 is a boom-bap record with a whole bunch of cursing on it. There’s a lot of profanity on it, it’s kind of crazy. The Wonder Years is more for my peers. I’m 32 years old. A lot of 32 year olds have kids and I’m a parent. I made that record for them. It’s a hip hop record they can listen to around their kids without having to worry about turning the volume down. It’s all soul music, but it’s a different style as far as the lyrics are concerned.
TSS: When are they supposed to drop?
9th Wonder: Dream Merchant Volume 2 on October 9th and The Wonder Years is supposed to come out some time in November.
TSS: I heard that Camp Lo is on The Dream Merchant albumâ€¦
9th Wonder: They’re on both albums.
TSS: Oh, really? Do you have plans for any more collaborations down the road?
9th Wonder: I think so. Me and Sonny Cheeba have talked about doing and EP. We’ll have to see what happens with that, but hopefully something will work out soon.
TSS: Have you ever thought about stretching the “Brooklyn In My Mind” song into full length album with Memphis, Mos, and Jean Grae.
9th Wonder: Nahâ€¦but that’s a good idea. I think they could do a hot record together.
TSS: I think you guys need to make a full length. That song was ridiculous.
9th Wonder: That’s a good idea. I’ll pass that along.
TSS: Just remember to shout me out in the album credits if that ever happens.
9th Wonder: I will. (Laughs) No problem.
TSS: In terms of career landmarks, there are two obvious ones, The Listening and “Threat”. Do you have any other ones that you consider big for you?
9th Wonder: Teaching this class brotherâ€¦teaching this class and Mary J. shouting my name. Those are two of my biggest landmarks ever.
TSS: Are they bigger to you than The Listening and “Threat”?
9th Wonder: No, I’d say they’re all on the same plane.
TSS: I read an interview online where you talked about Southern rap. You said that you were glad it’s popular because it’s good to see black people making money legally, but you couldn’t get into the subject matter. Are there any big name southern rappers that you want to work with?
9th Wonder: I’d say T.I, Lil’ Wayne, Luda, and Outkast of course. I wouldn’t mind doing a record with Jeezy. No matter if you agree with what he talks about, Jeezy can rap. And his voice is incredible. I wouldn’t mind doing a record with him. It’s all about putting out a good dose of music no matter what you’re talking about.
TSS: Absolutely. You’ve said you pretty much make beats 9 to 5. Is your schedule still like that, working seven or eight hours in the studio?
9th Wonder: Yeah, for the most part if I’m not teaching. If I’m not teaching I’m over here at the school because there’s a studio over here. We work all day, and that’s it. We work, and then I go home.
TSS: Do you ever get burned out?
9th Wonder: No.
TSS: You never think, “I don’t want to go to the studio today”?
9th Wonder: Nope, I get to take Wednesday’s off.
TSS: (Laughs) Wow, that’s an impressive work ethic right there. Well I think that about wraps it up man. Thanks you for your time. Good luck with everything.
9th Wonder: Take it easy homeboy.
Video – Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg sit down with 9th Wonder, DJ Premier and Pete Rock
Listen To Selected Tracks From Dream Merchant 2
“The Last Time” Featuring Royce 5’9, Naledge & Vandalyzm
“Ya Hear Me” Featuring Jozee Mo (Bonus Track)
“Sunday” Featuring Keisha Shontelle and Chaundon