Two Thursdays ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by producer 9th Wonder here at the University of Michigan. While I knew him as the producer behind rap group Little Brother and a co-teacher of the “Sampling Soul” course with Mark Anthony Neal at Duke, the filled auditorium I arrived to attested to his fame as a producer who’d also worked with many of the biggest names in hiphop and R&B.
Two elements of 9th’s talk struck me immediately. Tunes were already playing when we arrived, with what turned out to be 9th Wonder’s Serato projected from his laptop to the screen behind the podium. So the first thing I noticed was how this talk not only incorporated music into its very fabric but also modeled producing as a function of technology and passion both. The other striking element here, evident from the moment 9th began his talk with a discourse on his own sports fan-dom–complete with the confessions that he had to take a spin around the Big House and that he bought a “Buck the Fuckeyes” t-shirt–was his calculated and charismatic approach toward college students. The man knew his audience.
These two pedagogical techniques–modeling and pathos, we might call them–continued through a wonderful talk in which 9th Wonder used the story of his own exposure to music as the narrative backbone for the history of hiphop itself. He compared Motown to Young Money with the qualification that Motown wasn’t “so top heavy,” with Wayne, Nicki and Drake “up here” and everyone else, let’s be honest, down below. He solicitated responses and laughs from the audience, and his remarks were tailored to our contemporary experience of pop culture, with the occasional admonition. In speaking about “Yo! MTV Raps,” the first hiphop-based show on TV, he explained, “If you missed it, that was it.” With the internet, you just go Google the thing. But he seemed nostalgic for those analog days: that scarcity of product “made hiphop live forever, it made music have a longer shelf life. It made us talk to each other. It made us make friends.”
His talk was peppered with music: “This was the first rap song I ever heard.”
Discovering sampling was like “a wormhole.”
The Native Tongues era was “the most progressive moment in hiphop ever,” and Q-tip’s great innovation was to say, “I’m not gonna sample James Brown, I’m gonna sample jazz.”
“This is what I ran into,” 9th explained. “This is what hiphop is.” On the screen behind him, we could see him search through his music collection, pulling out songs with labels like “Workshop Samples” and “Michigan lecture.” He told the story of a kid in the Bronx called Clive Davis throwing a party in 1973 and inventing hiphop by honing in on “the best part of the record, which is also known as the break.” On the screen above us, 9th clicked “Loop,” updating Kool Herc’s technique for the digital age. “And he would chase the break. That’s a loop. Cats would come out and dance–he called it break dancing.”
There was a note of tragedy, sometimes, in the lecture. Sometimes facetious, like when 9th played “Fallin in Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds and confessed, “That’s probably the one that just hursts the most,” or Debarge’s “Stay with Me”- “They just took the whole shit, man.”
But other times he seemed upset by the implicit purpose of his task, to rehabilitate hiphop’s image from our side of the screen. “Hiphop is bigger than just your radio and TV screen,” 9th said. “There was a time when we had our poets,” like Rakim, but those days have lapsed. “As Black folk,” he lamented, “we tend to give things away.”
In the Q&A session I asked what he teaches when he has a whole semester and as he ran through a syllabus that included “two weeks on just Wu-Tang Clan,” a new framing appeared: “1968-1997, from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the assassination of B.I.G.” That struck me as the greatest tragedy of all–not the corporatization or the musical generations forgotten to time but the easy framing of a movement by the deaths of two great poets, orators, lyricists.
When 9th played a song his head bobbed and the heads of the audience members moved along with him. A student sitting beside me got a flashback glimpse of eager young me with my hand raised, dying to be called on. At the end of his talk, 9th Wonder bolted to attend the rapper buddy back in NC. “He doesn’t know I’m coming,” he called, as he ran up the stairs. “Don’t tweet that.”