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9TH WONDER: Super Producer

The newest Hip-Hop documentary, “The Wonder Year,” based on the life and times of legendary producer 9th Wonder is required viewing.

Words: Jessica Bennett
Images: Harry B Photography

The average Joe wouldn’t think of Winston-Salem, North Carolina as a breeding ground for creative geniuses. Northern elitists may pay it no mind, and even fellow southern states may dismiss it as dull compared to Miami, ATL or Houston. Still, ask any self-professed Hip-Hop head and they will tell you that Little Brother, one of the most influential groups in Hip-Hop, calls NC home. As does the group’s producer, 9th Wonder, who has carried the weight of the state on his back all of his life.

Yes, he still lives, raises his kids and teaches several college courses there all while producing for artists ranging from Skyzoo to Mary J Blige. Of course he could hook up with the artists that demand his expertise much easier if he lived in a city like NYC. But 9th’s relationship to his hometown isn’t one of convenience. It appears that North Carolina provides security, loyalty and a cultural richness that 9th finds irresistible, no matter how much the bright lights of the big cities glow. Yet just as the artists come to him, so has the silver screen with The Wonder Year, a full-length documentary on a year in the life of 9th Wonder, by filmmaker and fellow North Carolina native Kenneth Price.

Staying true to the spirit of Hip-Hop documentaries that came before, TWY is colorfully shot and boldly edited to reflect the culture of which it examines. However, it handles more sensitive subjects with skilled hands, while subtly glancing into 9th’s world and those surround him in his beloved city. From stories about how his father built their home brick by brick, to naming his Bright Lady Studio after his sister passed away in 1977, there is a reverence present that neither negates nor distracts from the energy of the story, a delicate balance that is difficult to achieve for many filmmakers.

The audience gets a rare look into the mind of 9th Wonder the artist, who is a Grammy Award-winning producer, as well as the real man music accolades aside—father, husband, professor and mentor—Patrick Douthitt. Highlighting much of what Hip-Hop still aspires to become consistently— stimulating, intelligent, creative and diverse— through the scope of a year of Wonder’s life, originally the plan was to focus on Project Ensure, a North Carolina based initiative that helps kids reach their goals through alternative methods during their junior high to college years. While there are several success stories within that program, 9th would be considered the most notable and was therefore a perfect person to highlight first. But after Price went back and forth for about a year, it was ultimately decided to completely focus on and chronicle the renaissance man solely.

And why wouldn’t they? No doubt the masses could learn a thing or two about 9th Wonder. In an interview with 9th, he shared his one major concern during production. “I just didn’t want it to look like a reality show, or portray myself or any of my affiliates in that light. We get enough of the nonsense on TV every day. I want to show a more realistic side of what we do in the industry as opposed to the fantasy people think.”

He was also concerned about putting his family out there and committed to not allowing the cameras to roll too much on his kids. “You see glimpses of my kids, but that’s about it. I’ll talk about where I grew up and things like that, but there’s a reason I want my kids raised where I was raised, because I want them to experience some of those ‘normal’ activities, that doesn’t include being followed by cameras.”

The film also delves into his influence on Hip-Hop’s newest stars like Drake, Big Sean and fellow North Carolinian J.Cole. There is a scene where the latter remembers being 17 years old, trying to get his producer to swaggerjack 9th’s beats. Drake, too, has long been an admirer, having admitted his taste for groups like Slum Village and Little Brother and giving props to the backpack crowd that ushered him to mainstream success. And while the dichotomy of achieving underground and mainstream acceptance in Hip-Hop has always been a topic of debate, it seems that 9th is the personification of it. Though as of late, he’s been catching a lot of hell for working with Bay Area rapper Lil B, whom many consider too trivial and trite to work with the likes of Wonder. In the film, 9th addresses being caught in the middle, and how he rejects being locked down by either side.

“I make life music, I don’t set out to make an underground record, a mainstream record, none of that. I make music you live to, that’s the goal for me. It’s like people want to keep underground artists to themselves, yet want to put people on to them. But when too many people are put on and they start to blow up, then you automatically suck and get the ‘sellout’ label.”

As for working with Lil B or any other artist Hip-Hop elitists try to shut down, 9th explained his method for bridging the gap. “First off, Lil B can rhyme. It’s just that the tracks the masses are drawn to aren’t those songs. Is that his fault? Also, if I give Lil B a song to rap over with a Pete Rock sample, those 13, 14, 15 year old fans are going to hear that and ask ‘Who is Pete Rock?’ I can’t do that with the ‘conscious’ MCs people want to box me in with, I’d be preaching to the choir. The people that want to judge are usually stand-offish types you can’t even have a conversation with. It’s a polarizing culture, but I’m me and I’m working with whoever I want.”

A strong sense of self is to be expected from an individual who read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and A Raisin in the Sun when he was 13. This is the kid who got hype from reading encyclopedias, so please note that conformity just isn’t his thing. That curiosity translated itself into musical pursuits and the rest is history.

While The Wonder Year only documents a year of his journey, influence and the overall importance of Hip-Hop academia through the eyes of its prime example, with enough support for the film, it will spark a much needed cypher about the relevance of knowledge within Hip-Hop culture and respect for it’s roots… whether it is a block party in the South Bronx or a bedroom in North Carolina.

Images by Harry B Photography.

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