Interview with 9TH WONDER, producer for Jay-Z, David Banner, Erykah Badu, Destiny’s Child - May 31, 2010
“Soulful doesn’t mean taking a soul sample from a soul single, soulful is a feeling.”
Honouring Curtis Mayfield’s maxim “Our purpose is to educate as well as entertain”, producer and sample alchemist 9th Wonder is not only an exemplary student of hip-hop and soul – having lent his soulful magic to Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, Erykah Badu, David Banner and his very own Little Brother - but now a professor too, teaching seminars on the roots of hip-hop, as well as fostering his own stable of young talent as part of Jamla/The Academy.
9th Wonder talks to HQ about the death of black music, why it’s important to learn about the roots of hip-hop and which artists are keeping its spirit alive …
You’ve recently been involved with teaching youngsters about the type of soul music that have inspired your productions. Why did you decide to get involved with that?
Educating the youth on where hip-hop comes from and the history of it, using the records we use, gives hip-hop a longer life. I decided to become an advocate of that.
What has the experience been like and what kind of response have you had?
I’m a professor at Duke University and we just did a seminar talking about [Nas’] ‘Illmatic’, and the response from that was overwhelming.
It’s kind of crazy for some of my students to see me in that because some of them are fans of my music. I plan to keep on doing it and will probably continue to do it until I decide to retire from making music professionally.
When artists sample old tracks it often sparks renewed interest in the source material. Are you conscious of this with your own sampling - do you want your listeners to go out and discover the originals?
Yeah, that’s a good thing for them to do - to find out what the sample is and explore, and give it to friends … But I don’t want them to go online and sample the original - that takes the fun away from it.
Instead of moving the media, hip-hop has moved the people spiritually. So that’s the best way for hip-hop to be represented.
Which artists covered in your classes do you think make great role models for any young students looking to pursue a career path in music - not only in terms of the music they made but also their attitude?
I would say a lot of the producers that we talk about make “great role models”. They care a lot about the music as opposed to anything else and their attitude is very laidback.
Your sampling over the years has drawn heavily from soul to the extent where it has defined the 9th Wonder sound. Does it therefore make it hard for you to take samples from different genres?
Even in my earlier work I take samples from different genres but whatever genre I take it from I make it soulful anyway. Soulful doesn’t mean taking a soul sample from a soul single, soulful is a feeling. You can sample a jazz record and make it soulful, it’s just the feeling that’s created around it.
Do you have to like the song you are sampling from, or have you sampled songs that you would never listen to but have a nice sound you want to capture?
It helps to like the song but sometimes you don’t like the entire song, just that one piece of it. Maybe the piece you take has a weird break in it - breaking off in the song in a way that’s totally different and unexpected.
Like the song I sampled for ‘Nighttime Maneuvers’ [from Little Brother’s ‘The Listening’]. I ain’t going to say the name of it but I really didn’t care for the entire song. That part I used though just jumped out at me.
We interviewed the pop producer JR Rotem recently and he said he deliberately uses samples from big hits so that people have that immediate familiarity when they first hear the track. As this goes against your own philosophy for sampling, what do you think about that idea?
Sometimes people sample stuff like that - that’s just the way he does it. I understand the philosophy of that but I choose not to do it that way. That doesn’t mean his way is right or my way is right, you know …
Can you talk us through the process from a first sample to a final track. For instance, do you hear potential samples while listening to songs at home, record them straight to a laptop and then take them into the studio to work on – how does it work?
That’s like asking how do you dunk. Most people who are attempting to produce, attempting to make beats, all start off the same but once you got that needle on the record it’s what you do with that sample then when it becomes totally different. That’s what separates the men from the boys.
Other than that, there’s really not a lot of explanation to this, it’s all down to feeling after a certain point - it’s what you feel in the sound that you’re looking for.
What do actually you use to record the samples and then to play with them?
I use Cool Edit Pro or sometimes when I’m using my MPC, I’m using my MP. That’s it.
What are your primary tools at the moment?
Right now it’s Pro Tools, MPC2500, and FL Studio still, and a lot of ingenuity, man. A lot of imagination - imagination takes up a lot of what I do anyway.
As an example how did Erykah Badu’s ’20 Feet Tall’ come together? Did it just grow out of the Wood Brass & Steel ‘My Darling Baby’ sample?
Yeah, I began with that sample, and then James Poyser played it over. It was pretty much a situation where he played us the record over, but there is a version of that song with just the sample and drums.
How about with Ludacris’ ‘Do The Right Thang’ and the Arthur Verocai ‘Na Boca Do Sol’ sample?
I played a lot of beats to Lud, and with that one Lud looked at me like, “You know, that’s the one! That’s the one I like!” It wasn’t really a loop per se but more of a chop that I made sound like a loop.
Is that right that Ludacris was a big influence on you with regards to the business side of things?
In the short time that we were in the studio together I learned a lot of lessons from him as far as taking care of the business aspect of everything and how to handle things when it comes to dealing with major artists.
I learned that same thing from Badu and from Mary J [Blige], and from all the big cats, of Jay [Z] and Destiny’s Child.
What people do you have as part of your team, either working with you and on your behalf?
I have a production partner by the name of E. Jones. He did work with me on MURS, when we did ‘ForNever’, and he’s done work with me on a Ludacris record as well. He’s also done work on his own, with Talib Kweli, Small World from DTP (Disturbing tha Peace) and various artists.
It’s beautiful - I have a production team. It’s E. Jones, my man AMP - who just produced a job for my artist Rapsody, ‘A Man’s World’ - Cash, who did a lot of work with a group here by the name of Kooley High.
What artists do you have in your own Jamla/The Academy stable at the moment?
I have Actual Proof, Heather Victoria, TP, GQ, Tyler Woods, Skyzoo, Rapsody, and Big Remo. We’re talking to a few other artists, but right now that’s what we have.
Who is the one securing your placements?
For the most part, it’s me and my management team that secure my placements. I’m not really looking for placements on a mainstream level right now. I’ve had enough placements in my career that now it’s now time to make the artists that I have go and get placements from producers. I’ve done big records, I’ve been on landmark albums, and now it’s time for me to pretty much do my own thing when it comes to my artists.
You’ve collaborated with David Banner on his upcoming record ‘Death Of A Pop Star’. Stylistically you two are seen as coming from different ends of the hip-hop spectrum – is that one of the reasons that you wanted to work together?
It just came from a conversation that David Banner and I had on the phone where we said, “Let’s do a record.” We share a common bond and common views when it comes to the industry at large and when it comes to manhood. He just wanted me to bring beats and soulful side to the table.
Anyway, if you look at David Banner pre-solo career, he was in a group called Crooked Lettaz and that’s not that different from what we see.
What were the things that were inspiring your work together?
We thought that in many ways the death of Michael Jackson meant the death of black music, and that’s where ‘Pop Star’ comes from. Not to say black music is dead all the way, but on the mainstream side there’s not really much of a focus on soul. There’s not a lot of people trying to redefine soul music. It’s a situation that we wanted to address and put out in the mainstream arena.
Your production for Jay-Z’s ‘Threat’ was an important career cut for you. How did you come to be showing Jay-Z your beats on a laptop in the first place?
Young Guru was a fan of Little Brother and liked the production on the record, and he found a way to reach out to me. We had a mutual friend, a nice guy by the name of Tee Smif, who’s a director that did a lot of work with Spike Lee, and at the time was working on the Jay-Z documentary ‘Fade To Black’. So he reached out to me and the rest is history.
Jay-Z was clearly impressed by your work but do you think he was also well aware that by putting your beats on his album that he was giving your career a helping hand?
I think he was. He said in a couple of MTV interviews, “In two years the world is going to know his name.” And, you know, I kind of stayed dear to that and believed what Mr Jay-Z had to say, and I’ve been sticking to that ever since. He also got me on the Destiny’s Child record, no question that I’d be on there without him, and that’s what it’s all about. I just saw him recently and we spoke and it’s just like old times really.
Your remix of Nas’ ‘God’s Son’ album was credited as starting the trend for unofficial homemade remixes and earned you a lot attention and acclaim. What inspired you to do that in the first place – why a whole album and why that particular album?
I think all of us at one point want to hear Nas on something different. His voice is like another instrument on a track. So I decided to just see how it all went.
It wasn’t done to create a buzz - I didn’t even think anybody was going to hear it - but it ended up creating this crazy phenomenon about this ‘remix’ record, and everybody kind of caught on to it and liked it. No complaints over here.
But while you were making it, were you at least thinking that it could be great promo for your skills?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, I never thought any of this of me as a producer was going to happen.
I came out of a time when hip-hop was in a different place - it wasn’t like all sample heavy. I mean, Jay-Z had just put out ‘The Blueprint’ but it was in a different place. It wasn’t where it was in the early 90s. And I just believed what I believe in and just stuck with it.
Did you ever get a response from Nas about what he thought of it?
I played some beats for him recently and we had a conversation about it - a really short conversation. One thing he did say when we got together was, “It’s been a long time, long overdue, that’s what it is.” So I’m happy about that.
Homemade innovation is part of hip-hop’s culture – what should young producers be doing now to draw attention to their skills?
Just learn the craft, stick with your sound, get artists, have an artist, get involved with projects, and just let it get heard - your name travels faster that way.
That’s something I learned along the way, it wasn’t like a plan of mine. It’s like, hey, my name is travelling as opposed to, there’s a placement here and there’s a placement there.
A landmark record on your discography is ‘The Listening’ by Little Brother. The album seems to show frustration at the shallowness of mainstream hip-hop fans. What do you think of hip-hop culture at the moment – has it changed since then?
A great deal has changed, really. As far as ‘The Listening’ is concerned, the type of listener in the game has changed. The way we did music back then has changed. But, that was a big thing how it changed from ‘The Listening’ to now.
Is there anyone around at the moment that in your mind is keeping alive a spirit of hip-hop where the lyrics and beats connect on a deeper level?
Jay Electronica, Laws, my team … There’s a guy from Atlanta by the name of CyHi Da Prynce. Skewby from Memphis, that’s another guy that’s doing it. Several guys are keeping it alive. And there’s a many amount of pack deals that are keeping the sound alive too.
What are you currently working on and what’s in the pipeline for 2010?
Buckshot and I are doing another record. MURS is going to come down and do another record. So, it’s basically just doing the 9th Wonder brand. The rat race of trying to make a mainstream record is … I was never wanting to run for placements anyway, and was always very fortunate for placements to come seek me out.
It’s just building the brand on a homegrown level, from North Carolina, and trying to get your sound out of line here.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Three fresh soul and R&B artists take a turn in Professional Demo Review
Read On ...
* JR Rotem on his sampling philosophy
* Beatmaster Focus... on the claustrophobia of the New York music scene
* David Banner's manager Scott Johnson on the challenges facing southern rap artists
* Rihanna producer Mike City on why the radio is no longer a home for hip-hop
* Memphis artist Skewby on how he's keeping the spirit of hip-hop alive