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9th Wonder trades in studio to sample soul at Duke

There’s a rather distinguished group on hand at the Nasher for Professor Mark Anthony Neal’s African and African-American Studies 132 lecture.

On one side of the lecture hall stage, Neal discusses the legacy of Motown music with special guest Harry Weinger, Vice President of Artist and Repertoire at Universal Music Enterprises. Pierce Freelon, son of legendary jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon and emcee of the North Carolina jazz-hip hop fusion outfit the Beast, occasionally peppers the two with questions from his seat in the audience. And 9th Wonder, the biggest name in the room, slouches in a chair opposite Neal and Weinger in front of a laptop. He provides the playlist for the evening’s event, alternating between classic Motown tracks and the hip-hop songs that have sampled them.

Nee Patrick Douthit of Winston-Salem, N.C., 9th Wonder has been a mainstay of the Triangle hip-hop scene since the early part of the decade, when his original group Little Brother released debut album The Listening in 2003. But since leaving the group in 2007, 9th has diversified his focus. He’s in the midst of producing Death of a Pop Star, a collaborative album with Mississippi rapper David Banner, and will release Fornever, his fourth album with indie hip-hop artist MURS March 30. The album’s first single “The Problem Is…” features unusually aggressive rhymes from MURS atop sparse, minimalist drums and gospel-tinged backing vocals.

Fornever is [MURS and I’s] best record,” 9th says. “A lot of people say our best record was MURS 3:16, some people think it was MURS’ Revenge…but we did it again on this one.”

This is high praise, given the considerable critical acclaim afforded each of their first three collaborations, but 9th is setting his sights even higher. In 2009, he created two independent record labels, Jamla and The Academy, and has recruited a stable of North Carolina emcees for both. He’s also the lead composer for videogame giant EA Sports title NBA Live ’11, due in October.

“The [EA Sports] team is talking about making me an unlockable character,” 9th says with a grin.

His recent exploits have extended to academics as well, having taught classes at North Carolina Central University for the past three years. In addition to teaching a hip-hop history class pro bono at Barber-Scotia College in Concord, N.C. this semester, he is the co-professor, along with Neal, of African and African-American Studies 132 at Duke, entitled Sampling Soul. The project, he says, has been gestating for some time.

“Mark and I have been in and out of each other’s academic and musical lives for the past four years,” he says, citing two shared appearances on North Carolina Public Radio program The State of Things.

Neal traces the idea for the class back to March of 2007, when the two spoke at an event at the Nasher supporting Street Level, an exhibit showcasing urban-inspired, multimedia art. The two originally planned to hold the class last spring, but both ran into obstacles.

“I was on a visiting professorship at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and I didn’t have enough time to prepare the curriculum,” Neal says. “At the same time, 9th was in the last year of a three-year contract at NCCU. Doing the class this spring just made more sense.”

Now that Sampling Soul has come to fruition, Neal—a veritable encyclopedia of soul music knowledge—has been pleased by co-teaching dynamic with 9th.

“Duke is big on team teaching, because it allows for a more diverse perspective,” Neal says. In this case, “9th brings a professional knowledge, both as a producer and as a performer, that I [can’t replicate]. So I’ll do a 20-minute set, then he’ll do a 20-minute set, then we’ll collaborate for the rest of class.”

The course itself focuses on a broad variety of topics relating to sampling music in hip-hop. Sampling Soul meets once a week for two-and-a-half hours, with lectures ranging from intellectual property law to the making of Nas’ 1994 landmark album Illmatic. Neal’s book What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Popular Culture, among others, features prominently. Throughout the semester, the course concentrates on the prevalence of soul music in popular culture. In light of a hip-hop climate that has shifted definitively toward electronic influences, 9th views the promotion of soul in the genre as paramount.

“We need to [preserve the influence of funk and soul in hip-hop],” he says. “I was having a conversation with [Philadelphia hip-hop producer] Don Cannon, and he said, ‘There’s a million people that do synth beats in mainstream music, but there’s probably only like five or six of us that do funk and soul sounds.’”

“The best way to preserve any art form is through academia,” 9th argues, “as long as you’ve got the right components and the right people in place.”

At the same time, 9th is committed to revitalizing the hip-hop community in the Research Triangle. The once-vibrant scene led by the Justus League, a rap collective which included Little Brother, has witnessed a drop in both productivity and prominence.

“There was a serious local scene in the early 2000s, but it’s sort of died off,” 9th says. “With [record labels] Jamla and Academy, I’m trying to create a farm league for some of these local guys.”

“I don’t ever plan on leaving the Raleigh-Durham area. A lot of guys who do good things in music leave North Carolina—I mean, what’s the point?” he asks rhetorically. “You can’t cultivate your state, your local scene, by living somewhere else.”

With 9th remaining in the area indefinitely, Neal views a future reprise of Sampling Soul as possible, if not definite.

“We’d love to do it again, but part of the challenge is finding funding, primarily to pay 9th’s salary,” he says. “We also don’t want to water down the class. We could maybe do it once every other year, or once every few years.”

But even against the backdrop of reviving hip-hop in the triangle, 9th views a reunion with Little Brother as unlikely.

“Sometimes things happen for a reason, and sometimes people in your life are seasons,” he observes, flipping a Kanye West lyric. “It’s sad to say, but I think that time has passed.”

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