Durham County

9th Wonder teaches real-life lessons about hip-hop industry at N.C. Central

A sign outside a classroom building at N.C. Central University lists departments within: History. Political Science. Hip-Hop Central. That it is, in multiple ways. Inside and down the hall, Patrick Douthit, the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist and producer known professionally as 9th Wonder, teaches a second level hip-hop history class called “Hip-Hop in Deep Concentration.”

An assignment this semester has been to create an independent label and sign an artist. Black Bullies, led by Ivey Johnson and Nia Darby, signed Ernest Third, a rapper from Baltimore that Johnson heard about when they were both students at the University of South Carolina. Johnson is at NCCU for the semester before she heads back to USC. Ernest’s new album, “Highway Meditation,” drops on April 21.

In class on a March afternoon, Johnson told 9th Wonder about Ernest Third and held out her phone for 9th to listen.

“He’s good. Y’all know that, don’t you,” 9th said.

When you listen to music in a university classroom in 2017, you pass around a smartphone. The class discussed other artists and listened to music, passing around phones. 9th cautioned against sounding like everyone else. He moved to the white board to write.

2000: Crunk. 2005: Snap. 2010: Jerk. 2015: Trap.

“This is what happens for artists trying to get in the music industry, especially hip-hop ... Trends change,” 9th said. There’s a five-year window to get in on a trend, he said. “If you chase a trend and you don’t get in that five-year window, it’s over. It’s over.” The class discussed the timeline of trends. In between those trends came artists like Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Drake, J.Cole and Kendrick Lamar. 9th wrote their names separate from crunk, snap, jerk and trap. They set their own trends instead of following one, 9th told his students. He advised against chasing a trend. “But that takes courage, that take no fear.”

9th Wonder is the producer of Kendrick Lamar’s track “Duckworth” off Lamar’s new album, “Damn.” 9th’s own independent label, Jamla Records, includes Rapsody, who was featured on Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” 9th is a former member of Little Brother, with Phonte and Big Pooh, and has worked with many rappers and hip-hop artists, including Murs and Jay Z, throughout his career spanning two decades. Little Brother formed when 9th was a student himself at NCCU. Jamla’s work includes the 9th Wonder and Talib Kweli song “Every Ghetto” featuring Rapsody.

“If you tell your story, somebody’s going to be able to relate to it,” 9th said in class. “Kanye once wrote a song about being insecure.”

But the industry is also about social media, about views and Instagram likes. It’s all about numbers, he said.

“In hip-hop we don’t know what’s going to work anymore, it’s all about the sell,” he said. “Anytime an artist’s name leaves your lips, they’ve made it.”

The prerequisite for “Hip-Hop in Deep Concentration” is 9th Wonder’s hip-hop history class. He led the launch of NCCU’s hip-hop program in 2014, in partnership with the history department led by Jim Harper. The future of the program is still to be determined since “our beloved chancellor [Debra Saunders-White] passed away. She gave me and Harper the go ahead to do this,” 9th said. “Saunders-White understood it’s important to become progressive and meet students where they are.”

In the hip-hop history class, he tried to get students to think about hip-hop history and black history, 9th said. “This class is about taking that critical thinking and applying it to yourself. It could be a job in hip-hop or starting your own engineering firm,” he said. The deep concentration class is about teaching kids to be self-reliant and self-disciplined and have self-worth and self-determination. The student label project is semester-long in both of his classes and teaches them to go out and get it on their own.

Johnson and Darby, CEO and vice president of Black Bullies respectively, are both public relations majors. Darby said the class project is harder than she thought, trying to get someone to listen to someone that they’ve never heard of. Ernest Third, who signed a three-month contract with Black Bullies, is already popular in the Baltimore area, she said.

Ernest Third, who’s full name is Ernest Hawkins III, will drop “Highway Mediation” as a follow up to his previous album, “Dorm Meditation.” Darby played “Dorm Meditation” in her car with friends.

“Everyone said, ‘This is nice, who is this?’”

Ernest said he had nothing to lose to sign with Black Bullies for the next few months. The fact that 9th Wonder teaches their class played a big role in it.

“9th Wonder is a legendary producer. I was inspired once I heard his name. He’s inspiring,” Ernest said in a phone interview from Columbia, South Carolina, where he recently returned from Baltimore. He played football at South Carolina for a year and wants to go back to school this fall. His music has a bigger purpose than sports for him, he said, and using his words, music and voice to tell his story. His new song, “Bridge the Gap” off “Highway Meditation” is about that.

Previous songs include “Success” with Mighty Mark in Baltimore, and “Old Summah,” which he made when he was living in California. Ernest previously went by Ernest Peso, but changed it to Ernest Third to reflect growing up, and that he’s also the third Ernest Hawkins in his family. “Highway Meditation” is an EP, and Ernest will work on an EP later this year with Mighty Mark, which will feature “Success.”

Moving back down South in March was for a change of scenery. As an artist, Ernest Third was ready to try new things.

Johnson said that 9th has given them the guidance and background, and it’s up to them to take it whatever direction now. Darby said that being in 9th’s class is also being taught about life, not just the music industry.

“I’m trying to put everything in their hands. There’s not a farm league in the hip-hop industry,” 9th said. “They’ve got a rude awakening of how hard this is. This is not an overnight thing.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan