Producer 9th Wonder Talks Using Music to Educate & Hip-Hop's Next Leaders at D'usse Pre-Grammy Party

9th Wonder and Rapsody
Courtesy of D'USSE

9th Wonder and Rapsody at the D'USSE mixer on Feb. 7, 2019 in Los Angeles.

The weekend leading up to the Grammys is often filled with fun libations, but on Thursday night, the D’USSE Re-Mixer Series decided to switch things up and place the cocktail-making in the hands of the consumers. Held inside Hollywood's Beauty & Essex, the event was anchored by legendary Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder, who explained to guests -- from Rapsody to Memphis Bleek -- the interesting connection between DJing soulful samples and mixing the perfect cocktail.

Educating is another lane 9th Wonder is conquering, as he's using his extensive knowledge of the music industry to professionally lead hip-hop history courses at esteemed universities like Duke and Harvard. Along with teaching, the producer also serves as the national ambassador for Hip-Hop Relations and Culture for the NAACP, is a member of the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts' Hip-Hop Culture Council, and is a curator for the Smithsonian and National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ahead of the D’USSE Re-Mixer, 9th Wonder spoke to Billboard about what drives his passion to teach, how he helps craft artists' legacies and who are the next leaders in hip-hop.

In what ways is D'usse making the art of combining music and mixology unique?

You can get a sense of what everyone likes, because of the passion that they have. So whether you can DJ or you bartend or whatever, that passion is across the board. Bartenders are craftsmen within themselves. Just how DJs know a lot about records -- whether at a party or making beats, they know a lot about what drinks go together. So I speak on that and they get it, so we kind of cross-pollinate without them even having to touch the turntables at all.

Speaking of your passion, what was your wake-up call moment when you realized that it should lead to educating others?

My mom is an educator, and I guess it rubbed off on me. She got a joy out of it. I learned a lot of my people skills from her, because she was always trying to teach children new things. She’s been teaching for 40 years as a kindergarten teacher. Kids in their 30s and 40s still come up to her and say, “You were my favorite teacher!” Now when I teach my students, the most rewarding thing is when they come up to me and say, “I remember that day when we talked about this in class and I enlightened somebody else [about it].” That’s what I like, for people to pay it forward.

Now that you’re stepping in your mother’s shoes, what other rewards or lessons have you collected since passing along your knowledge at these universities?

Just to be accepted in academia without graduating from college, you know what I mean? Now I have the chance to teach at the most prominent HBCUs and Ivy Leagues without having a degree, because I have a passion and understanding of my job. Life experience is what I have, and a lot of people these days want that. And for me to be able to do this without going down the conventional road, I’ve created my own job.

In what ways have your students taught you valuable lessons?

Yeah, I learn a lot from my students every day. Just to be able to look at things through a different lens. I think we in the older generation of hip-hop look down on the next generation -- but we’re not faced with the same things they are. So I’ve learned to see things from their standpoint too.

You’ve produced for a myriad of legacy artists, but are there any artists of this new generation that you believe are on that timeless path?

Most recently, Nipsey Hussle and Travis Scott. They’ve been around for a while, but they’re just now getting the dues they deserve. But I think it’s good that way. If you get mainstream buzz overnight, you’re gonna be gone overnight. If you spend time building your foundation and a fanbase, those fans don’t go away. H.E.R. is definitely [one to watch] as well -- I’m speaking for all the Grammy-nominated artists. I believe those three will be around for quite some time.

That’s actually one of my issues with rap currently: all the popcorn rappers who are just looking for one quick hit. What are some things you’d like to see change or improve in hip-hop, particularly within our black community?

[Laughs] Well, I think there is a steady flow of rappers, but we don’t take time enough to look. I think we wait till they get to a certain status and everyone knows about them. But by that time, they’re either tired or get watered down. Spotify has a total of 2 million artists on there, so you’re bound to find somebody. You just can’t wait for conventional avenues to get music -- there’s plenty music out there to like, listen to and to grasp onto. We have as much music in this generation as we did in the last generation. It’s just that all the music that’s good doesn’t make it to the forefront all the time.

What kind of zone do you get in when you’re in the studio? Do you light candles?

Nah, man, I ain’t with none of that! [Laughs] My studio for me was my bedroom in high school -- I just put on my music and listened. And I haven’t broken away from that. When I go in the studio, I don’t have to get in no kind of special zone or turn on certain lights. I just go back to how I felt when I was 16 years old.

I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but name me your top five favorite records you produced.

“Duckworth” by Kendrick Lamar is definitely up there. As for projects, I’m gonna say Rapsody’s latest album [Laila’s Wisdom] because I learned so much from it. Also Destiny’s Child’s “Girl” and “Is She the Reason” [from 2004’s Destiny Fulfilled], I love both. “Threat” by Jay-Z [on 2003’s The Black Album], because it’s one of the reasons why I’m here.

I was reading that you’re producing Smif N Wessun’s upcoming album The Fall, and of course they’re legacy hip-hop artists. What is your definition of legacy, and how do you help artists curate that?

Just being around them for a long time. When they’ve had a long career, I have to make sure they don’t lose that essence. So the only thing we can do is update the formula, which is what I’ve done with Smif N Wessun.

You’re a member of the Executive Committee of Hip-Hop and Rap at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Why is protecting our culture so significant now more than, say, 10 years ago during the Obama presidency?

The beauty of hip-hop is that it’s supposed to do what it’s supposed to, no matter who’s in office. Hip-hop represents the people regardless, whether it’s Trump or Obama. I’ve lived through Reagan, two Bushes, Clinton, Jimmy Carter -- that’s my lifespan. So no matter what, hip-hop is supposed to be a voice for the people. So it’s always important to tell our story, and we need to control the narrative.

2019 Grammy Awards


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