Somewhere some staunch Little Brother fan will weep after seeing this interview.
Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder stopped through #DXHQ ahead of the rollout of LRG’s briLLiant Youth EP—which he executive produced—and cooly perused through seemingly every historic avenue of his now expansive career. Right after the North Carolina-native reminisces on Phonte’s six or seven hour jaunt through New York City as Percy Miracles (Te’s comedic alter ego) and just before sharing the group’s takeaways after learning that BET banned them for being “too intelligent,” 9th reveals the original theme for the LB’s third LP—the one that would’ve been released had they not disbanded. “The next Little Brother album was supposed to be a Blaxploitation movie called Can’t Win For Losing,” he says.
He continues: “If all of us would have stayed together as three, it was supposed to be the Blaxploitation movement and the cover was supposed to look like a Blaxploitation film with the cartoons and all of that. And it was going to be called Phonte, Big Pooh and 9th Wonder of Little Brother: Can’t Win For Losing, ‘cause we already thought The Minstrel Show didn’t do what we wanted it to do and we’re trying to do the best music that we can and we’re still getting the short end of the stick ‘cause we don’t decide to do this or decide to do that. So we were going to name the album Can’t Win For Losing."
In retrospect, a major label pushing a project called “The Minstrel Show” in 2005 is as unexpected as a hurricane in NY. The critically acclaimed release even came complete with promotional flyers boasting a cartoonish version of the painfully iconic blackface image that smacked equally hard both historically and metaphorically. Then, the Trap Star reigned supreme and the “Turn Up” era was right around the corner. While it may seem like a (Percy) miracle that Atlantic Records would release a record with such racially vivid imagery (especially without making any changes to any of the songs included), the album—and the group’s—pinnacle could have reached higher peaks had Little Brother had a better understanding of the power of branding, something 9th Wonder says their contextual contemporary, Kanye West embraced from the first time they met in 2003.
“We didn’t know what branding was,” 9th Wonder explains. “Us musicians think that just the music is going to carry us—the beats and the rhymes. Well yeah, that’s to a certain point. If you want to get past a certain point it has to be more than just your beats or raps. You have to have something about you. For Kanye it was his branding. It’s branding, he had the music, he had the rhymes, but he had the Dropout Bear. We didn’t have the Dropout Bear. That became his. It even made him prevalent for having the cover with him that had the bear head off. Then the next album, in Late Registration, you don’t see him in the artwork at all. You just see the bear. Then Graduation, same thing. So he created this persona, this brand that we just didn’t have. He just tapped into that and it was off to the races. So yeah, he did beat us to the punch.”
Branding is something that the Harvard Fellow impresses upon his Jamla Records roster, along with the necessary life lessons to help his artists achieve longevity, something he describes in this conversation. He also explains the modern era of the Universal Zulu Nation, of which he is a part. He even confirms that he’s teaming up with David Banner again for the sequel to their 2010 gem, Death Of A Pop Star. 9th Wonder takes the lectern.
9th Wonder Explains How He Crafts Sound For Jamla Records Artists
HipHopDX: I’m pretty excited about the Jamla roster.
9th Wonder: Are you really?
DX: Yeah, I’m easy. I just like talented emcees. I’m a lyrics-first person. You got GQ’s project coming up. What are you excited about?
9th Wonder: I think people love growth, right. People like to hear growth of an emcee, especially coming from somebody that is “seen as underground” even though I’m on like 20 million albums [Laughs], you know what I mean? People like to see that as us not growing and not expanding and things like that. So when an artist of mine grows and shows versatility, not necessarily trying to make a big hit, but just shows versatility it says something and that’s the thing about Q’s album that I’m excited about because he is probably the most versatile artist that we have. He came in that way. Some artists are one way and then some artists are like "Oh I’m gonna have this type of track or that type of track." No, he’s been like that since day one. I’m excited because he gets to show that and he also gets to show another side of Oakland that hasn’t been shown in a very long time—through the Hyphy movement and all that stuff. But lyricism, like pure just straight driven lyricism, lyrics and deciphering bars. Not to say that doesn’t exist in Oakland at all, I’m just saying in the forefront, it’s been awhile since that has been showcased. And I think that’s the thing about GQ that’s exciting to me and also exciting to the people of Oakland—that he is just straight lyricism as if he is not even like an Oakland native. He may be an Oakland native in his stories, but as far as the way he is delivering it, it’s kind of hard to tell [where he’s from]. So that’s what I’m excited about.
DX: How do you approach when you’re crafting sound for an artist, or how does let’s say a GQ album differ from a Rapsody album?
9th Wonder: Just being able for an artist to tell the story. I look at producers like directors and artists like actors. A director makes sure the story line is right or even the setting is right. For us producers, settings to directors is beats for producers. And I have to make sure each artist has a way that they can tell their story on the right setting. And that’s how it’s different from every album—from a Rapsody album or a GQ album, that’s how it’s different. I have to make sure the setting is right for the person to tell their story. A Rapsody setting is gonna be totally different from a GQ setting if you look at them as actors, so that’s how I kind of divide it.
DX: So is it based off their style? Is it based off their content?
9th Wonder: It’s based off topic, it’s based off style, it’s based off demographic, who’s listening, you know what I mean? That’s the way it’s divided. It’s a real big psychological science behind creating albums like that you know as far as sequencing and setting the scene for a particular artist. Every time I come to [Los Angeles, California], it sounds cliché, I’ll listen to The Chronic. If you didn’t live here, listening to The Chronic while you’re here makes you feel Los Angeles or feel LA. You know where some of the beats the vibe [were derived from] because artists make music from vibes and surroundings. And it’s always good for Q to go home, spend some time in Oakland and come back to North Carolina because we can’t feel Oakland like he can but he can tell us about Oakland like no other. And I have to have a setting to give that. Same thing with Rapsody and talking about things in North Carolina. I have to have the right setting for it.
DX: Do you spend time in Oakland also just to get closer to that?
9th Wonder: No. I’ve been to Berkley. In the early Little Brother days, I’ve been to Rasputin which was the big store. That’s from my Little Brother days. I think my biggest connection from Oakland is ABB Records. ABB is the label that Little Brother was on Phonte, Big Pooh and myself. We started in Oakland and that was in 2002 when I first came and that’s my connection. But I’ve been back for shows and things like that. I haven’t necessarily been where Q lives but it seems like, listening to his music, I’ve been there already if that makes sense.
9th Wonder Details How Kanye West Embraced Branding Before Little Brother
DX: Do you reminisce on the creation of The Listening at all to this day?
9th Wonder: The creation? I relive it every time I walk into somebody’s house and I see a microphone in their bedroom. Every time I walk into somebody’s house and they got a microphone in their bedroom and they look at me and say, “Man, this all I got.” I’m like “Man, that’s all I had.” We didn’t have a booth. I would be in the chair and Phonte would be standing right [over me] recording. That’s how we recorded The Listening. And we just had the little egg crates up in the corner, you know what I mean? But that moment in time we decided to say, “We all hungry and broke but, why not? Let’s just see if we can make a great project. Not 'can we get a deal,' not can 'we get on.' Can we make something we can listen to ourselves?" We all love music and we know what good music sounds like to us, and we look at music from an objective standpoint. Let’s see if we can do that sit back and say, “Yeah, this is kinda dope.” So that’s what I really miss, just the simplicity of the time, it’s a very simple time. It was just us, that Compaq Presario and that microphone. That’s all we had and the rest is history.
DX: How often are you asked about "The Yo-Yo?”
9th Wonder: A lot. “The Yo-Yo” was one of those songs that people don’t really pay attention to. That was kind of the precursor to what Kanye West ended up being if I’m making sense. Kanye was rapping about being the first person "with a Benz and a backpack,” right? Well, Phonte at the time was trying to dispel the myth of what underground rap really was. That’s why he says “I’m gonna kick some Trick Daddy next poetry night:” To let you know that just cause we listen to a certain thing doesn’t mean we don’t like this or we don’t like that. Phonte's verse ended being a Hip Hop quotable in The Source. And to be honest, Slum Village did it before that. Slum Village talked about ménage à trois and all this stuff on Fantastic Volume 2. But it’s kind of funny when you hear underground Hip Hop fans say “I don’t like to hear about sex and money and drugs” and all this. I’m like “Well, Slum talked about sex a lot, talked about smoking dope.” And Phonte kind of carried it on and kind of dispelled this myth of what underground Hip Hop is. So that’s what’s special about “The Yo-Yo,” it was that song trying to dispel that myth.
DX: Kanye’s talked about how he was scared of you guys, how he thought you guys would beat him to the punch.
9th Wonder: [Laughs] Man our history with Kanye West is when he came to North Carolina and met us at the Southeastern Music Conference. He met us down there and he was like, “I know who y'all are.” We didn’t know that Young Guru was playing The Listening all year prior to June of 2003. That’s when we met Kanye West and he played us what he had done from The College Dropout. And he was saying that the label wasn’t really behind it and he really wanted to do some things with it. He thought it was gonna be a big album and we’re sitting there like, “Yeah the songs are dope. We don’t understand what the problem is.”
That’s when we cut the song “I See Now.” It was in June. July we did the Billboard Hip Hop & R&B Awards in Miami and it was hosted by Idris Elba. I didn’t know him at the time, we cool now, but didn’t know him at the time. It was funny that Kanye went on before us, like this is the kind of trajectory and to see him grow that fast. Right after that, The Black Album, and we’re on the same record. I hit him up. I called him when he had Alicia Keys' “You Don’t Know My Name” record on the radio at the same time as “Stand Up” by Ludacris. Even going back, in June of 2003, he came by my house and him and Phonte was freestylin’ over beats and it was like eight of us in my two bedroom house at the time. He went to the VCR and was like, “I got a video to show you” and he put in the first cut of “Through The Wire.” We watched the video and was like “Man, they trippin' on him. They trippin' on him. They don’t know what they gonna do with it.”
We were supposed to do a show in Virginia Tech in October of that year. It was supposed to be ours. We headline it and he opened up for us. After that it was like off to the races. And I think the next March of 2004, we were opening for him on his tour. [Laughs] It went that fast. I think that Kanye really tapped into something that we didn’t: Branding. We didn’t know what branding was. Us musicians think that just the music is going to carry us—the beats and the rhymes. Well yeah, that’s to a certain point. If you want to get past a certain point it has to be more than just your beats or raps. You have to have something about you. For Kanye it was his branding. It’s branding, he had the music, he had the rhymes, but he had the Dropout Bear. We didn’t have the Dropout Bear. That became his. It even made him prevalent for having the cover with him that had the bear head off. Then the next album, in Late Registration, you don’t see him in the artwork at all. You just see the bear. Then Graduation, same thing. So he created this persona, this brand that we just didn’t have. He just tapped into that and it was off to the races. So yeah, he did beat us to the punch.
DX: Is that something you think about now with your label with Add-2, with Rapsody, with GQ?
9th Wonder: I think so, I think that branding is something that I did by happenstance myself. But I learned over time. My brand was making beats on the computer. I didn’t know it, but that was my brand, making beats on the computer. Then my brand turned into doing albums with one artist all the way through—whether with Murs, whether with Jean Grae, whether it’s with Buckshot, whether it's with David Banner. That’s my thing. Then my brand became remixing albums, to the point where I see people in the street like, “You need to remix this album, this album, this album, this album!” I get on Twitter and be like, “Well, I got this such and such acapella,” and everyone’s like, “When you gonna remix it?” And that became my brand, too.
Later on my brand became teaching and that’s something that I didn’t think was important. So I try to pass it on to my artists that look, “Questlove’s afro is important. Everyone who’s doing rap hair is important.” These things are things that people recognize. When we first started doing Jamla videos I would make sure that all Jamla videos started the same way: The Jamla sign, the title, the artist, the producer, the exact same way. That’s just branding. So people know what’s coming like a movie. When a movie comes on and the Universal sign goes around the world, it’s the same thing but you really don’t think about that when you’re just so engulfed in the music. So I try to do that with Jamla.
DX: I went to a movie the other day, and the Universal logo came on and at the bottom it said “A Comcast Company.” Now we have internet service providers also being the content providers. Does any of this stuff effect independent music at all?
9th Wonder: It’s something about the streets you can’t stop, man. You can’t stop the power of human contact. I think that’s the one element that Hip Hop has that a lot of other music genres don’t have. Hip Hop and Punk Rock and Grunge, you know what I mean? The Grunge scene in Seattle in the early 1990s—there’s a sub terrain, an under surface thing that corporations will never be able to understand or touch. Hip Hop was always on the ground swell. Somebody got to a point where the corporations take it and try to filter it down. By the time it gets all the way up here it’s so different from where it was down here, but it always starts in the street. Always. Anything that’s manufactured, it doesn’t stay long. It’s always exposed—from Milli Vanilli all the way down.
When it comes to Hip Hop, it’s always a ground swell. Whether it be the ground swell from Louisiana, whether it be from NC, whether it be from Seattle—it always starts with the beat and a microphone. It’s simple as it can get. So I really don’t care about corporations and stuff like that. Because now, everyone’s trying to compete with Katy Perry. When you were in the early 90s, rappers weren’t trying to compete with Madonna. [A Tribe Called Quest] wasn’t trying to compete with Madonna, or at the time the B52’s, whoever was the pop sensation. It was okay and it was fine. They looked at it like, “Okay, you’re top over here, but in our world we’re over here.” But now it’s so many of us not really looking at what’s big over here, and being the top over here. In a way I feel like that dilutes our music some, but it still starts with the ground swell. You just can’t stop the street.
9th Wonder Confirms Death Of A Pop Star Sequel With David Banner
DX: You mentioned Death of a Pop Star, your album with David Banner. That album is one of the 24 most important albums in my life. It’s on two of the walls in my house right now. David Banner talks a lot about how we’re losing our drums in a lot of our music. EDM music for example doesn’t have the same type of drums as Hip Hop. If it still all starts in the street, is there a threat to the culture itself?
9th Wonder: I don’t think it’s a threat. I think that we also need to look at the fact that it starts in the streets and it starts in the streets around the world, too. But I mean, we just came from Europe. Every time I go overseas or anytime I go to South America or whatever, it just keeps reminding me the boxes the medium of Hip Hop lives in in the United States, it’s just not big enough to hold it. We just get sucked into this whole we have to make it this way in the United States. “You gotta get on the radio. You have to do this. You have to do that.” But every time you go overseas, it tells you something else. You really don’t have to do that. As Samuel L. Jackson would say, “That’s just pride messin’ with you.” That’s just pride messing with you. It’s stinging with you that you’re not known around your friends or whatever. But when you go overseas it’s like “Aaahh.” I don’t think it’s a threat to this culture at all as long as we have the ones that do it. If this happened to us 20 years ago, then we would be in trouble because there is no other medium to carry it. There is no erasing of the middle man. Now we have internet, we have Soundcloud, we’ve got all these different avenues that we can get to your fans right now. As long as that exists then it will never go away, because you will always have those artists saying “I don’t care about the status quo. I got 100,000 fans right here on my Soundcloud, waiting for me to drop something. I really don’t care.” As long as that exists, then it’s never going to be a threat to our culture.
DX: What was David Banner like in your opinion when writing Death of a Pop Star? I think that was his first album that he didn’t produce on.
9th Wonder: He’s probably one of the smartest dudes I’ve ever met. Period. Just the way he approaches life, just the way he approaches music. It’s really a thinking mans game with him when it comes to doing music. “Nah 9th, I gotta do this because of this, this, this, this, this, and this.” He’s probably one of the dudes that helped me think not to level five but to level 10 on every situation. Sometimes that can help, sometimes that can hurt, but to think it all the way before we do something. “Nah man cause if we do this, then…” I think that’s the core of who David Banner is. Him being as smart as he was in college and outspoken at Congress and stuff like that, that’s no façade. That’s just him straight through and through. So that’s what I got from working with him on that project. That’s the type of person that he is.
DX: I feel like that project just had so much bad luck around it. It came out the week after Christmas. It was too late to hit all the yearend lists. I think it was delayed maybe two or three times before that. It was supposed to come out a year in advance. What happened?
9th Wonder: Oh man, we put it out through a certain company and that’s what happens, man. If we put it out ourselves, we would have made it a lot earlier in the release. But the thing about who Dave is that we come from two different cultures of making records. He comes from a system where he was on SRC. When you’re in that system, you want label services to handle certain things. Me being in Little Brother, we didn’t understand label services until we got to [Atlantic Records]. That’s after The Listening. When we get to Atlantic, they’re like, “We have a whole department that’s going to handle these things that you’re going to do.” We’re like “What? Nah, that’s slowing up the process.” And they were like “Alright fine, we’ll let you do it.”
I think with Death of a Pop Star, that was kind of the thing. It was a big album so we let the big man handle the album. What we’re learning now is that the big albums are not handled by the big men. Some of the biggest mixtapes that have come out in the last six years—Kush & Orange Juice, So Far Gone, Section.80, Return of 4eva, Best Day Ever, She Got Game, those Weeknd albums, Nostalgia Ultra—these records were big on different levels without the big man. I think certain artists from that time period or earlier on didn’t want to take that road, man. They don’t want to take that road. Their version of doing that was when Jay Z did the Samsung thing. It’s like, “We’re just going to drop it this week.” Or better yet when Beyonce put out Beyonce, “We’re just going to drop the jam, and y'all ain’t gonna know.” All of us looked around and were like, “We do that all the time.”
That’s the culture of underground. Welcome to the underground. But you underground with three million, you know what I mean? Even the higher ups are saying that there is something refreshing about putting something out without everybody knowing about it. When Beyonce dropped her record, that was the talk for the whole weekend. “Oh she just dropped an album. Oh it’s like that?” It became the talk instead of three months of promotion, the album’s coming, the album’s coming. So I think that’s what happened to Death of a Pop Star. If we would have just dropped it on our own, did two weeks of promotion, dropped it ourselves in the Summer, who knows what it would have done.
DX: That album cover looks like it should be in a gallery. I felt like the single choices were interesting. I’m looking at songs like “The Light,” for example. Were you involved in choosing the singles?
9th Wonder: Yeah. I think we wanted something that was going to be a colorful and fun type video. That was one of our favorite songs. The thing about “The Light,” even with the “Stutter” joint with Anthony Hamilton and everybody was like “I thought that was going to be the next single.” We just wanted something fun. With “The Light,” there was a lot of heavy songs on that joint. Some heavy political type [songs] and I think with David, I don’t think he wanted to jump to political that fast. He’s coming off “Play,” he’s coming off these Chris Brown records, he’s coming off some major records. Although “Cadillac On 22s” and stuff like that was still political, he was still a political figure, but he had entered into this whole different type of branding situation when he became a sex symbol and all of a sudden you’re going to turn around and be some Marcus Garvey. So we wanted something that was a happy meeting and that’s why we went with “Be With You.”
DX: I’ve been praying for a while for a reissue of that project.
9th Wonder: We might, man. Well, we’re going to do another one.
DX: Oh dope, you’re working on it now?
9th Wonder: No we haven’t started yet. We’re going to do another one, though. Death of a Pop Star 2. But we’re not going to release it in December. [Laughs]
9th Wonder Reveals Blaxploitation Theme For Third Little Brother Album
DX: I was at The Minstrel Show, at BB Kings in New York City.
9th Wonder: I remember that night.
9th Wonder: Yep. Crazy. Crazy.
DX: Did that moment feel like what going major is supposed to feel like?
9th Wonder: Man, we never really felt like what going major is supposed to feel like because we never moved away from North Carolina. If we would have moved to New York City and been there all the time and got into the culture and been around it all the time, then maybe we would have felt it. But it’s just like it still didn’t feel like being major because we still did the music we wanted to do. We still turned in an album in full. It wasn’t like we turned in an album and they were like, “Okay we can’t have this song, we can’t have this song, we can’t have that song.” No no, we turned the album in in full. We turned our artwork in in full. We turned everything in in full. Like, “Here is the album. You are going to take it. You are going to pick some singles and you’re going to run with it. That’s what’s going to happen.” So it still felt like we were doing things on our own, so to speak. But it did shock us that Lyor [came to the release party]. We were outside of the venue signing autographs or whatever and Lyor walks up. He’s like, “Guys,” and we were like, “Wait what are you doing here?” And he was like, “Man y'all my guys. I came to see the show.” They all sat in the corner and Lyor, Julie [Greenwald], Craig Kallman, T.I. had a table, it was nuts. Like it was nuts but it still felt like our music was not far removed from what we did already. So it just felt like we was just doing a show. It was just packed.
DX: Atlantic always seems like, to me, the label that moves like they provide a formula, or believes they have a formula. I think it was Wiz Khalifa’s first album on Atlantic [O.N.I.F.C.], Lupe Fiasco's Lasers and B.o.B's The Adventure's Of Bobby Ray came out within the same year and they were all basically in tune with each other. Even if you look at some of their stage shows, they all reach to the crowd from the same point or the same emotion. It’s amazing that you just turned the album in and Atlantic just accepted it in full.
9th Wonder: It’s amazing. They knew what they were getting, man. You sat in that room, you’re dealing with—and I’m not saying this to affect you in any way, maybe it does maybe it doesn’t—you dealing with three black kids from the South who don’t drink or smoke, who have a clear frame of mind, who are known for going against the grain, and coming in with the attitude “I don’t care what y'all say” or “If we ain’t ‘gon do it, we ain’t ‘gon do it’. And you know we’re not going to do it, we’ll take our album and go back to the street.”
At that time, Phonte had already [achieved] Foreign Exchange success. I had already had three Destiny’s Child records and a Jay Z record, already. So they’re looking at us like “We just don’t know what to do with y’all. Y'all aint gonna do nothing we say,” especially when we named our album The Minstrel Show. And we were like, “Okay, we’ve got a title for our album” and Craig called Lucas and was like “What is it?” [We said] The Minstrel Show. [They were like,] “What do you mean The Minstrel Show?” [We said,] like “M-I-N-S-T-R-E-L. The Minstrel Show. Like Minstrelsy? Blackface?” You saw the whole table say, “Oh my God.” They just didn’t know what to do with it.
I think Craig had wanted to pick “Say It Again” as a single. We were like “Nah, ‘Lovin It.’” We just weren’t having it. Phonte came to Atlantic dressed as Percy Miracles one time and walked around Atlantic and met everybody. He had on a wig, the glasses. I’ll never forget it man, we’re on tour, Phonte and I were roommates a majority of the time. One day we were in the room and he said “Look man when I go in this bathroom and when I come out, I need you to talk to me like I’m Percy Miracles. If you say ‘Te,’ it’s not going to work. If you say Percy, that’s what I need to get going.” I said alright. So he went in the bathroom, he came out I said “Percy wassup man?” He said: “Wassup baby?” And it was crazy, it was me and him in the room and I’m like “This nigga is crazy.” So we leave and he said “Nah man I don’t take no cab I want to walk up the street.” So we’re walking up the street to Atlantic cause we stayed right around the corner in a hotel. He was dressed as Percy Miracles. He has on a light Carolina blue suit with the ruffles and the big bow-tie and the white shoes and the wig and the shades. I’m like this is amazing and he goes up in Atlantic, he went in Julie’s office, “Hey Julie baby wassup.” And he stayed like that for like six or seven hours. I think that was the point where they knew like, “We can’t do nothing with these dudes. We really can’t do anything.” But it wasn’t like outlandish, we weren’t being disrespectful. We just like look we’re coming in to represent the South. We’ve got certain fans we don’t want to lose. We’re coming in representing the art form. Our name is Little Brother so our big brothers are [De La Soul], [A Tribe Called Quest], [The Roots]—all of them are looking at us to be them dudes. We’re not changing for none of y'all. I don’t care what y'all say. And that’s what it was, that’s what it was at Atlantic.
DX: That album was well branded though. That album cover in my mind, is the most distinguishable of any in y'alls career.
9th Wonder: Yeah we see it all the time. It was supposed to be The Listening was the radio show. The Minstrel Show was the TV show, and the next album was supposed to be the movie. That’s how it was supposed to be, set up that way. The radio show WJLR, the TV show you are watching UBN, U Black Niggas Network, and the movie was supposed to be next. And the next Little Brother album was supposed to be a Blaxploitation movie called Can’t Win For Losing. If all of us would have stayed together as three, it was supposed to be the Blaxploitation movement and the cover was supposed to look like a Blaxploitation film with the cartoons and all of that. And it was going to be called Phonte, Big Pooh and 9th Wonder of Little Brother: Can’t Win For Losing, ‘cause we already thought The Minstrel Show didn’t do what we wanted it to do and we’re trying to do the best music that we can and we’re still getting the short end of the stick cause we don’t decide to do this or decide to do that. So we were going to name the album Can’t Win For Losing.
DX: Did you guys ever get started on it?
9th Wonder: [No]. We had a song, there was going to be a song on there called Can’t Win For Losing and the hook was going to be “A nigga can’t win for losing.” Straight up. I cannot make this up.
DX: Do you know how many Little Brother fans that are heart broken right now?
9th Wonder: I know it. And that album ain’t never coming out. But at the time, before things went a rye, that’s what it was supposed to be.
DX: Did BET really ban “Lovin’ It” because it was too intelligent?
9th Wonder: Yep
DX: That wasn’t a rumor?
9th Wonder: No. BET at the time, and the thing about it and I say this with all confidence, Stephen Hill was a Little Brother fan. He said “I played Little Brother in my car.” A lot of people play music in their car, corporate people play music in their car that they don’t feel will work in the mainstream. It happens. So the whole too intelligent for BET’s market, we were talking about things that were not going to fit. We were talking about 2005 BET. You getting us to get on BET to rap about what we was rapping about? Nah, it’s just not going to work. That’s what had came to us. These are the lists of artists you don’t play on BET and De La was on that list, a bunch of people. We’re not playing these artists because they don’t fit into our scheme.
DX: What was your initial reaction to that?
9th Wonder: It wasn’t surprising. At first I was [disappointed]. I think the biggest thing for me was that that was one of my first instances of realizing something ain’t right with this game. Like, there’s something going on up top that I need to start paying attention to. Something’s not right. Something’s not right of how we were seen in the media, something’s not right in how Hip Hop is seen in the media, how Black men are seen. I got to really start paying attention to that. Some people never get that epiphany. Some people never get that light bulb. That was my light bulb moment to say okay: We’re too intelligent? Who says that? So what are you saying about the audience? Then we started to think, well who on TV is intelligent? And then we started thinking, well maybe they don’t want intelligent stuff on TV. Once you start thinking on that line it just turns to something else. That was our mind frame when we heard that.
DX: The other thing I learned from that show was how different Phonte’s voice sounded live versus on the album. He also brought Percy Miracles out.
9th Wonder: Yeah Percy came out.
DX: His voice didn’t sound as smooth or relaxed live as it did on the track, did you ever notice that?
9th Wonder: Yeah you know doing shows with Phonte, he would yell into the microphone. But I think that’s a part of the show experience. If you look at all rappers in the history of shows a majority of them are like, yelling. Going from 2000 on back, but the new artists they want to sound exactly on the record. And that’s fine, but some people say it takes away from the show experience as a rapper. When you’re singing, no I don’t want you to miss a note. But when you’re rhyming it’s like you want to feel that aggression on stage. Some rappers they want to sound exactly how they sound on record. They just don’t want to differentiate from that. But with early on rappers, they like that. If you watch any old LL Cool J, Run DMC, Chuck D, they walking across the stage, yelling, half saying the words. But for this generation it’s different. They want to sound exactly how they sound on the record. They make sure they got they microphone up so loud so they can hear themselves. It’s really like they aren’t performing. It’s like they’re in the booth rapping the song again to give the audience, “Okay, I’m giving you the album live.” Instead of, “I’m doing the album live exactly the way you hear it at home" instead of giving you a live performance and the live experience of the album.
DX: I never really thought of that before, but artist’s shows are super polished. I remember when I saw Drake he sounded like his album.
9th Wonder: He sounds just like the record. It’s right on, man. It’s coming through the microphone and you’re just like, “God he sound just like the song, man.” So to some people, some kids they may like that. For us it’s like I could have sat at home and listened to the album and closed my eyes and imagine Drake being in front of me—or any rapper, not to say it’s just him.
DX: I think GQ mentioned that he got signed right after he graduated in 2008. Rapsody was signed in 2008 and her first project came out in 2010. She told me this dope anecdote about how Jamla moves kind of like Rap camp. Is this intentional? Is this the culture of Jamla?
9th Wonder: Yeah, I think it’s the culture of Jamla. It’s a culture of competition, which I think has always been a part of Hip Hop. But being able to compete when you have nothing, understanding that the microphone for an emcee and the beat machine if you’re a producer, before you have all this money, this is all that you have. So you need to be hungry about this first before you start getting all this stuff. So the best emcees in the world, the best rappers in the world—even we brought up the thing about Drake. Drake has this money. Drake has all this fame, but one thing that will bother Drake to the core is if you say he can’t rap. That starts from having this sheer competition.
A lot of these kids come up and they don’t have competition. Their whole goal is to get on and make some money. The essence of Hip Hop is competition. The battle is Hip Hop. So if you sitting there with a room full [of emcees], you remember those days that we used to go back and forth, it brings a certain hunger that you will never lose. You’ll always remember those days. It’s like sports. It’s like playing in the backyard or shooting by yourself or anything like that. You have to instill that first before the money comes because you have to make most of it muscle memory or just repetition. Because if you don’t, once you get that money, you’re going to stop going to the gym. If you make it natural like breathing, you’ll never stop going to the gym even if you have a $100,000,000. It’s called the love of the game. Michael Jordan had the Love Of The Game clause in his contract. “No matter how much money I make with the Chicago Bulls, you all can’t stop me in the off season from going to any playground in Chicago and playing somebody one on one.” That’s what camp is.
DX: Three years, that seems like a long time for artist development in 2014. Do you feel like an outlier? You have a label that actually develops artists and makes them work before they put out an album, before they get to be on TV and travel overseas. Are you the only one? Or do you have conversations with other label heads that take the same approach?
9th Wonder: Not that many. It’s some producers that I speak to that have artists. A lot of times I’m different from them because I’m a teacher by nature. It’s not just me being a producer and giving you a beat. We try to get you on. Anybody in Jamla will tell you I’m trying to teach you about life first. Be careful about what you’re about to walk into. Phonte, Big Pooh and I, even now Phonte and I have conversations over and over and over about new artists. And it’s like “What you think gonna happen with this dude? Are they going to make it to the top? Or are they going to self-destruct by the time they get to?” It’s kind of like the old dudes looking at the young dudes in the corner that’s drinking too much. “Go on keep drinking, man. You think you can handle it? Keep right on.” That’s what it is for me. You can’t save everybody, I try to give you the warning signs. Some of my artists still fall, they still fall on their face like, “Man, what am I going to do now?” It’s still a learning process.
When Little Brother was coming along we didn’t have that. Everything we had to figure out was from trial and error. We didn’t have somebody over our back saying, “Don’t do that, bruh.” When we went our separate ways then everybody came and said, “Man, you should have did this and why didn’t you come talk to me?” And I’m like, “Where were y'all at then?” So for me, I try to instill that within my artists. I want them to understand who they are and don’t lose yourself once you get all of this. And understand when you do get on TV, that’s not the end of the road. That’s not the end of the line. Once you get them focused on that more than just the accolades that leads for a long career I think.
9th Wonder Describes Relationship with DJ Drama
DX: It caught me by surprise when you did a Little Brother Gangsta Grillz mixtape with DJ Drama. She Got Game was presented by Drama. How’d you two meet?
9th Wonder: Drama did Separate But Equal for us. He did a Little Brother tape. The history on Drama is, Drama’s from Philly. Drama is from an intersection from our world. When I mean our world that Slum, Little Brother, [Rawkus Records], he knows his records. He could tell you about any Trap record but at the same time he could tell you about any Rawkus record. Drama and DJ Jamar from Atlanta, that’s where we all intertwined in those circles. Well Drama had always been a Little Brother fan and so he did Separate But Equal for us. Every time I would see Drama out, whether it be Drama or anybody in the Hip Hop universe people won’t necessarily pair me with, they don’t think I know these people. So when I see them out they like “9th what’s up?” So I approached them about doing a mixtape, hosting a mixtape for one of my artists and I kept it that way.
I’ll never forget it. I hit him like, “I want you to do a mixtape for one of my artists.” And he said “Who? Rapsody?” And I was like, “Yeah.” and he said “I’m down. Whatever you need I’m down.” That simple. Then I saw him at the CIAA tournament in Charlotte and we spoke about it again and it went from there. It wasn’t a constant “Drama please…” I mentioned to him that I wanted to do something and he picked the artist out the pot and we went with it. And that’s how we got the She Got Game mixtape. And he made it his point, of all the mixtapes he’s ever done, not to talk as much. You notice a lot of people say “I don’t want to listen to that tape I don’t want to hear Drama yelling.” He does not do a lot of yelling on this tape. And he said “I’m going to make sure I keep it minimal and I want to make sure everyone is hearing what she is saying. I don’t want to get in the way because she has some great songs I want people to hear.”
9th Wonder Details History Of Universal Zulu Nation
DX: I didn’t even notice that until you just pointed it out. One of the great things we have at DX is that we tend to skew older in our demographics. One of the challenges to continue to get over is that Hip Hop will always be as old as we are forever. It’s not going away. But it’s also, we have an opportunity to entertain in a way that I don’t think other sites have the opportunity to do so. A lot of that also has to do with us trying to explain historical things to people who might not be familiar with because there are so many new generations within Hip Hop all together. Here’s a great opportunity: Please explain the Universal Zulu Nation and its importance to Hip Hop and its relationship to your organization.
9th Wonder: I think one of the biggest misconceptions about the Universal Zulu Nation is that it’s a Hip Hop organization, and it’s not. With the inception of the Universal Zulu Nation, it was a community saver. All of the Universal Zulu Nation members in the beginning were Black Spades, including Afrika Bambaataa. And he wanted to do something to join the community.
We always look at it as Hip Hop was divided two ways in the beginning: The more corporate side with core and understanding business and making Hip Hop a business and the cultural side with Bambaataa. So for us it’s peace, unity, respect, love and having fun. To be able to take a community like The Bronx [which] at the time was dilapidated in 1973 and 1974 and to make all these gangs stop, not to say it killed all gang violence, but to take a lot of gang members and turn them into Hip Hop connoisseurs. Whether it be B-boys, B-girls, graffiti artists, deejays, it wasn’t any emcees at the time because people thought emcees started in 1973, too. To take that and make those connoisseurs of the culture, that’s what the Universal Zulu Nation was.
I didn’t hear about the Universal Zulu Nation until I heard “Planet Rock” and it really started back up again. It always coincided in the late 80s/early 90s. Because you had a big back to Africa movement going on with the music, with the Native Tongues, being Black and being positive and being cool with The Cosby Show and A Different World and being smart. And to hear all of that at the same time that you hear Q-Tip say “Zulu Nation,” just hit home with me more than anything else. I felt like I always wanted to be a part of that.
At that point, I wanted to be a part of whatever that was. It’s that whole movement, the culture, I wanted to be a part of it. So I became a member of it in 2010 and it’s a new generation of us. Myself, B-Real of Cypress Hill, the Souls of Mischief, Rakaa from Dilated Peoples, Sean Price—it’s a new generation of us that is stepping forward and carrying it onto another generation. We’re much different from the Zulu’s Kings of 1973. They come from a different time period. But we all have the same purpose. We’re not like a governing body of Hip Hop, but we’re just really focused on the cultural side. We have enough people focused on the corporate side of Hip Hop. We have enough. More than enough. But we really focus on the cultural side it because it’s still a culture.
DX: What’s the craziest question you’ve received from a student—in class or out of class?
9th Wonder: To be honest, I don’t get a lot of crazy questions from students. I don’t get a lot of crazy questions. I don’t get a lot of questions like, “Yo what in the world bruh?” I don’t get a lot of that. From my students I really understand that you’re a generation removed from the stuff I’m teaching. Unless you had an older brother or sister or an older aunt or cousin to put you on, you’re a generation removed. So if you ask me something about Illmatic that you think is supposed to be common knowledge to an 18 year old, to an average 18 year old, then I don’t look at that as being crazy. I understand that you really want to know. I think our generation hawks on our kids don’t know about Smiff-N-Wessun. Come on, man.
I even get in debates with people my age. “They don’t know about Pete Rock and CL Smooth. They don’t know about Nas and they don’t know about the history.” And I look at them and say “Man listen, when I was 13 years old I didn’t give a damn about Cameo, bruh. I didn’t care about Cameo or Parliament.” I heard it. I heard old people play it but I didn’t give a damn about that old stuff, man. Slick Rick, you playing Slick Rick? You’re not? Then I don’t hear what you’ve got to say. I don’t care about Surface and all the S.O.S., I don’t give a damn about that. Public Enemy you got some of that? So I can’t expect an 18 year old not to be about A$AP Rocky, or Chief Keef or any contemporary at this time. I can’t expect them to know everything about A$AP and know everything about Illmatic at the same time. It’s not their music. You have to give them time to grow into it. With all that being said, if a student comes to me and asks me something about the history as absurd as it may sound to your average person, I just take it all in. This kid doesn’t know, they just want to know.
DX: Any insightful questions? Ones you didn’t expect to come from them?
9th Wonder: What can I do to change things? What can I do to become part of the solution? I’ve gotten that from a lot of my students from the three universities that I’ve taught, but as a whole I’ve gotten that from my Harvard classes. We talked about how Hip Hop has changed over time. What can we do to change it? What can we do to be a part of the solution? And to hear an 18 year old say that, that’s empowering. To hear a kid say I want to be a part of the solution, I want to change it, I want to do what I can to make things better. I don’t want to just sit back and not do anything. That’s something I heard and was like, “That’s dope.”
DX: That’s crazy. I just learned the other week that Nas leaked Illmatic. I didn’t even know he was part of the leak for that album.
9th Wonder: Wow, I didn’t know that either.
DX: What’s your day-to-day like with LRG?
9th Wonder: [Laughs] You know LRG for me, there has been a learning curve. I think LRG for me is my first real taste of corporate structure—learning how to deal in a corporate setting. You can kind of say that from a university standpoint but universities are not like LRG. Well, first of all, I’ve been with LRG for 11 years. It’s a family from the standpoint I knew [Jonas Bevacqua]. I know [Kevin Delaney], the guys over there [Robert Wright], they watched my career go from here to here. It’s just been learning, just knowing how to operate within the corporate structure. It’s my first taste of corporate America.
Some people get their first taste out of high school and out of college. This is my first taste of corporate America. So my day-to-day with them is just to make sure that, we have a college program that’s about to launch. We’re about to do that. We’re trying to get the brand curated back to the point to where we can pick certain types of artists. We show that with the briLLiant Youth EP, Dizzy Wright, just trying to bring back the essence of what LRG stood for. Although you may see different faces over time, we can go back and look over all different faces over time, LRG is definitely different from what people are used to seeing when they see us. But in large part, we’re trying to get back to finding the right person. Not necessarily the person that’s so underground. They really have to have all the key components to be branded a LRG artist. So that’s what we do and that’s my day-to-day, to just make sure I keep that going and looking for that. And also make artists understand what it means to be loyal to one brand for such a long time. That’s another thing for me. But just from that and the educational piece that I’m doing is my day-to-day as Director of Creative Outreach.
DX: Man, you’ve had an incredible life, sir.
9th Wonder: I try, I try, dog. [Laughs]