9th Wonder has told the story probably dozens, if not hundreds, of times by now — the story of how he met Jay-Z and produced the song “Threat” for him under pretty intense pressure.
As if that weren’t enough, the legendary rapper gave the rising producer a nod of approval in a life-changing way that 9th Wonder is still experiencing today.
“He said my name on the song, and that’s when my career kind of took off,” 9th tells The News & Observer in a phone interview.
He says this somewhat matter-of-factly, but it’s clear the moment — when he heard one of the greatest rappers of all time record his name — is permanently etched in his memory.
“I went to the bathroom and cried,” said 9th, now 44. “Seriously. It wasn’t like a sobbing cry. It was a moment. ... That was my moment in time that I could say, ‘Wow, I made it.’”
That was in 2003. In the 16 years since, 9th Wonder has become a Grammy-winning music producer and label CEO. He’s worked with a roster of A-list artists — Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Mary J. Blige, among others — and has grown talent through his Jamla Records label, including Grammy-nominated Rapsody, also a North Carolina native.
But more than being a musician, he is committed to preserving hip-hop music, culture and history using the classroom as one of his platforms. He’s a professor at N.C. Central University and Duke University and has taught classes at Harvard University through a fellowship with the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute.
He is a member of the Kennedy Center Hip Hop Culture Council, alongside other luminaries like Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and LL Cool J. And he has been a supporter of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, providing input as curators assembled an exhibit at the Washington, D.C., museum. This month, he was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in Kannapolis.
“He is a staunch supporter of hip-hop being in these institutional spaces,” said Timothy Anne Burnside, curatorial museum specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“He knows if he and other folks are at the table, it’s being done in a way that is inclusive,” Burnside said. “That’s here, or the Kennedy Center or Harvard or wherever. The fact that people like him are being invited to the table, not just as a ceremonial thing, but to be involved — that’s big.”
For his musical accomplishments and his efforts to promote and preserve hip-hop, 9th Wonder is The News & Observer’s October Tar Heel of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina and beyond. He will be considered later this year for Tar Heel of the Year, the N&O’s annual honor named in December.
“You can learn a lot from the past,” 9th Wonder said in a sit-down interview on Duke’s campus, following a class. “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from. That’s either your family tree, or your musical family tree.”
9th Wonder’s real name is Patrick Douthit. He’s named for his mother, Patricia Douthit, who retired this spring after teaching for 46 years with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools. His father, Elmore, was a professional landscaper as well as a truck driver for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. He built the home they lived in.
He’s the youngest of three. His older sister died in 1977, when he was just a few years old. (She inspired the name of his Bright Lady Studios.)
Growing up in Midway, a town about 14 miles south of Winston-Salem, 9th says he was raised by a village of relatives, teachers and his friends’ parents.
“The day I was born, probably every teacher in the school was at the hospital,” he said in a phone interview. “By the time I got to (school) at the age of 5, everybody knew who I was anyway. And they made it plain to me, I don’t care who your mother is, I’m going to discipline you like I discipline everybody else’s child. And that’s what I appreciate about them.”
His childhood provided him with his music education. His mother was in a gospel choir, and when he spent time at his aunt and uncle’s house in Winston-Salem, he was exposed to R&B, soul — and his first rap song, “Planet Rock,” by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force. That experience left an indelible mark on his upbringing, he said.
9th says he felt like a “different kid,” always walking around with his Walkman headphones on. He had a love for history, too. His mother said he was serious, unless he was cutting up with his friends.
“I loved to know things, facts,” he said. “My friends tell me, ‘You just know everything about everything.’”
In sixth grade, he joined the band to play the clarinet, ultimately learning how to play an array of instruments, including the French horn, trumpet, trombone, saxophone and percussion.
Considered academically gifted, he was recruited in the eighth grade to participate in Project Ensure at Wake Forest University, which encouraged African American students to go to college, and to consider Wake Forest as one of those options. During the summer programs through high school, he took a class taught by the late poet, Maya Angelou. He read “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
The group produced lawyers, a cardiologist, academics — students who are still in touch today with each other and the leader of the program, Ernie Wade. Many were at 9th’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony this month.
“I sit back as just a proud father of all of these young folks who have done so well,” said Wade in a phone interview. Wade, now 80, was Wake Forest’s director of minority affairs when he led Project Ensure.
He remembers 9th bringing his beat equipment to campus, despite Wade’s protests.
“He wants to give me so much credit for his success,” Wade said. “Pat was very much the leader. You could see that he was becoming something. ... I often laugh. Who would have thought hip-hop would have attained the heights it has? He takes it to a whole other level.”
College and Little Brother
Living in North Carolina, going into the music industry never was on his radar and was seen as “outside of the box,” he said. He was encouraged to attend college and get a job. Pop culture helped solidify this as an option, thanks to “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” on TV and Spike Lee’s film, “School Daze.”
So he set out to become a history teacher, attending N.C. Central University in Durham for two years. He moved to Raleigh to attend N.C. State and to be closer to his girlfriend and their son. But attending a historically black school and a predominantly white college were two different experiences, and he returned to Central. He dropped out and remains 17 credits short of graduating.
He had other things going on. He had started making beats — the foundation for his music — and producing. He helped form the group Little Brother with Phonte Coleman and Thomas “Big Pooh” Jones, and they were making waves with their album, “The Listening,” and music they shared online, before the practice became commonplace.
Through a series of connections, Jay-Z’s sound engineer Young Guru became a fan of 9th Wonder’s work and invited him to a New York City studio for a . That was September 2003, and Jay-Z was working on “The Black Album,” which at the time was billed as his final album. Anyone who worked on the album was going to be part of history.
9th Wonder shared more than two dozens beats with Jay-Z. But Jay-Z had other ideas, asking 9th to return to the studio a few days later. That day, in a span of about a half-hour, 9th transformed a sample from an R. Kelly song into something that Jay-Z was ready to record.
More than a transformative moment for 9th Wonder’s career, it validated 9th’s sound and process. It also turned the industry’s attention to North Carolina’s music scene, said Christopher Tyson, who goes by the name Khrysis. He is a producer and mixing engineer at Jamla Records, the label 9th Wonder started in 2010, and has known 9th for 19 years.
“There were eyes here on us already,” he said. “People did pay attention. But nobody really said, ‘OK, what’s going on down there?’ until 9th Wonder was heard.”
A few years later, in 2005, he won a Grammy for his to Blige’s “The Breakthrough,” which won Best R&B Album.
The 9th Wonder sound
9th is all about the samples, weaving together snippets of music, layering them and repeating them to create something new. He gravitates to soulful songs from the mid-70s for his inspiration and can transform them into something that newer generations of listeners appreciate.
Producers, he says, like to call themselves “vinyl archaeologists,” carefully selecting just the right record to chop and manipulate, and wanting to go down a wormhole to learn everything about its origins. He might stumble on a song in the most unexpected places.
“I can be anywhere,” he said. “I’ve been in the mall, something will play that I’ve never heard.” He’ll quickly use an app to identify it and then get to work on it.
When he gets a record, he quickly drops the needle haphazardly across the vinyl, finding the piece that catches his ear. From there, he seems to enter a zone as he crafts a mosaic on his laptop and production equipment. Most of the time, the beat, or several beats, could ultimately serve as the backdrop for a rapper’s vocals.
As a producer, 9th Wonder likes to pay attention to the background of a song more than the foreground. It’s not that the words aren’t important. But he knows about the work that goes into building a song from scratch.
“It’s like watching a movie,” he said. “You know the actor and actress are there. The setting is there to complement the actor, but you’re not paying attention to how much time was put into the setting for this period piece.”
People in the industry praise his intuition and knack for hearing something that others might not. All he knows is the process is like chasing a high — a feeling. It’s the feeling he gets in his chest that he just can’t explain. That’s how he describes it in “The Wonder Year,” one of two documentaries about him, his music and his work.
“Sometimes I hit it, sometimes it hits someone else,” he says in the 2011 film.
In the classroom
Last week in his hip-hop production class at Duke, students watched the process unfold before them. The previous week, 9th Wonder went record shopping with the students, an eye-opening experience. On this day, he planned to show them how to make samples with the records they had bought.
But first, he praised the nuances and characteristics of a vinyl record — its sound quality, the liner notes, the production credits, the album art — all things that aren’t as readily found on a streaming service.
He also honed in on the generation gap between him and his students, including some who had never used a record player before. When he asked if anyone had been to a party with a DJ spinning vinyl, no one raised their hand. 9th just shook his head.
A typical 9th Wonder class contains elements of a lecture, demonstration, sometimes hands-on exercises and then story time. That’s when the students start peppering 9th with questions about the famous people he has worked with and how he made certain pieces of music.
Names like Kendrick Lamar, Destiny’s Child, Erykah Badu, Anderson .Paak — he’s worked with them all. But he shares these stories in a relatable way, said Julia Loni Turner, a senior who has taken three of 9th Wonder’s classes at Duke. She has seen him in both bigger lecture settings and smaller groups, like the 20 or so students in the production class.
“He actually explains our shared experiences about what the real world is,” she said. “He’s the first teacher you realize, he was in your shoes once. You know he was sitting in your chair, struggling through school, trying to figure out what you were doing in life. ...
“It wasn’t a lecture and it wasn’t to just say it to say it,” Turner said. “It was part of his story. It was so much easier to sit there and just feel like you had a friend saying this, not a professor, nor a world-renowned producer.”
9th has been an instructor at NC Central for 13 years and at Duke for nine years. He also taught at Harvard as a fellow, in addition to working on a continuous research project for Harvard’s Hiphop Archive and Research Institute.
Tyson describes 9th as a “natural coach” who can inspire and motivate others, whether it’s in the classroom or in the studio. He said teaching is a way for 9th to build his legacy and pass it on.
“This is a perfect way to pass on knowledge to people who want it,” he said. “For his style of teaching, and the language he is able to use that can cut through different demographics, he has that down.”
Turner recalled several times when a 9th Wonder lesson resonated with her. On the first day of the semester, he always tells students his background, which surprises many who don’t realize the “Patrick Douthit” in the course catalog and 9th Wonder the producer are the same person. One day, he stayed after class with a group of students to debate the talents of a well-known rapper. Another time, he brought “the most massive boombox” to class, Turner said.
“He walked up and down the rows of seats, describing the context (another professor) had already explained,” she said.
But the production lesson last week, Turner said, was “single-handedly the best, most impactful, life-changing” class she has experienced in four years at Duke.
“Never do you get to see someone work their magic,” she said. “You’re understanding how he works when he’s with those artists you look up to. We’re seeing this man do what he does for artists — and on such a grand stage. We’re so fortunate for this to be our class period.”
Leaving a legacy
When someone is inducted into any kind of Hall of Fame, it might symbolize a Lifetime Achievement Award, or that a career is on the cusp of winding down. But 9th Wonder is still actively making music, while laying down a foundation for his own legacy. For him, it’s not just a job or a career. His work is about opening people’s eyes to music that might be unfamiliar, dispelling stereotypes about who makes the music, and guiding young people.
“He’s got this multi-generational impact,” Wade said.
Take the “Musical Crossroads” exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a 6,000-square-foot space that is divided into different musical genres. Before the museum even opened in 2016, Burnside said, 9th served as an informal adviser to her and the museum overall.
“He was really on our short list because of the many different areas he’s in within the hip-hop community,” Burnside said.
Burnside traveled to Raleigh to interview 9th Wonder at his Bright Lady Studios for a video that now plays on a loop in the museum. It’s in a section called “Getting the Music Heard” about how music is made and how hip-hop is rooted in African American music traditions. The video appears next to equipment where visitors can make their own samples.
“He’s authentically himself,” Burnside said. “He’s never compromised that. He believes in changing the culture from within, and being inclusive of folks like him.”
On a more local level, 9th Wonder spends a lot of time talking to young people, particularly basketball players. He knows players at Duke and Central and has talked to them about how to cope with pressures on and off the court. He travels to other schools to do the same with their players.
But he is especially an avid supporter of girls youth basketball, which he says is underserved and isn’t treated the same as boys basketball. He started the Carolina Dream team, with support from Nike. His 15-year-old daughter is a player at Heritage High School. And he wants to do for the players what Wade at Wake Forest University did for him: prepare them for higher education and the realities of the world.
He also leads the Black Jedi Zulu organization to support and promote the arts, which 9th Wonder says is being “taken out of schools at a rapid pace.” The organization has awarded eight scholarships to high school seniors who want to pursue careers in the visual arts. The scholarship, with funds raised at an annual sneaker affair, is named for his late friend, Cranston Hargrove.
“Hopefully, when it’s all said and done, they say he tried to change people’s minds about the culture that he belonged to,” 9th said. “I do care what people think about it. I care what people think about it a lot, because I love it a lot. They might not understand it, but they at least understand why I’m so passionate about it.”
Tar Heel of the Month
Name: Patrick Douthit, known as 9th Wonder
Family: Married with three children
Occupation: Music producer, CEO Jamla Records; instructor at Duke University and N.C. Central University
Awards: Won a Grammy Award in 2005 for his contributions to Mary J. Blige’s “The Breakthrough,” which won Best R&B Album. Nominated in 2015 for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Nominated in 2017 for his work on Lamar’s “Damn”; 9th Wonder produced the song “Duckworth.”
Accomplishments: Teaches at N.C. Central University and Duke University. Fellow at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute. Member of Kennedy Center Hip Hop Culture Council and executive committee for hip-hop and rap at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
Who should be the Tar Heel of the Year?
Since 1997, The News & Observer has recognized North Carolinians who have made lasting and significant contributions in the last year and beyond. Honorees have come from all over the state and from different sectors of the community, including the arts, business, philanthropy, education and science.
We will name four runners-up and one ultimate honoree. Tell us who you think should be honored. Go to nando.com/tarheelnominate. The deadline is Nov. 1.