Patrick Douthit, better known as hip-hop producer and DJ 9th Wonder, says he leads a double life: fan and producer.
He neglects to mention he’s also a scholar.
After teaching classes at NC Central University and Duke University, 9th catches flights to Cambridge, Mass. to work on his fellowship at Harvard University. The hip-hop savant began research as a Hip-Hop Fellow there six years ago and is dedicated to enshrining the Top 200 hip-hop albums of all time in the Hiphop Archive at the Loeb Music Library. He’s curated projects at the Smithsonian and National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Kennedy Center appointed him to its Hip Hop Culture Council alongside the likes of Common and Roots drummer, Questlove, last year.
He’s worked with artists like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Buckshot and Ludacris and earned a Grammy for production on Mary J. Blige’s 2005 album The Breakthrough. Last December he dropped his ninth studio album Zion II, an instrumental project featuring no less than 43 sublime aural collages, and supporting artists like Rapsody on his label, Jamla Records.
And now he’s home, in Winston-Salem, for his high school reunion.
Tonight he’ll share the Ramkat stage with Brand Nubian, Black Moon, Nice & Smooth and Dres from Black Sheep. 9th curated the evening as the 25th reunion for Glenn High School’s Class of ’93.
Before the show, 9th says some things are the same as they were when he grew up here. He always drives by his old high school, catches up with the same friends he’s had since sixth grade and makes a point to visit Mountain Fried Chicken. He still craves Moravian sugar cake from Dewey’s Bakery.
“There’s been lots of talks of gentrification,” 9th says. “What’s strange about downtown to me is… to see these $1,900-a-month apartments in the [RJ Reynolds] factories where not only my dad but a lot of my friends’ dads and moms worked. Even the tobacco smell is gone. Merita Bakery’s smell is gone.”
“Change is good but depending on who’s looking at it but it’s bittersweet,” he continues. “People living in these areas are being forced out because of things being built, being displaced. Change is always gonna happen though and that’s what it is.”
Past, too, are the days of combing through cassettes at Peaches Records & Tapes on Peters Creek Parkway.
“Buying CDs was an event, buying a tape was an event,” 9th recalls. “Then you finally found it and you got to take it home. Now it was time to listen to it and you lay on the edge of the bed and lean back and read the credits.”
Other than the living legends of the hip-hop pantheon who will join him on Ramkat’s stage tonight, he says his high school soundtrack oscillated between artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock and LL Cool J to Mary J. Blige to Digable Planets. Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Biggie Smalls all emerged as 9th rounded out his senior year. Couple that coming-of-age exposure to the Golden Era of hip-hop with his ability to read sheet music — the future musical impresario played in the all-state orchestra, commanding no less than seven instruments by eighth grade from clarinet to drum set — and you having the makings of a Renaissance man.
But 9th never planned on becoming a prolific producer and DJ; he studied history and planned to teach it during his time attending NC Central before leaving to pursue music-making as part of Little Brother.
Even prodigies need community support, whether through tangible resources or mentors. 9th had Earnest Wade, then-director of minority affairs at Wake Forest University, who invited Douthit to participate in Project Ensure, a summer program aimed to prepare high-performing students of color for college.
“Being at Wake kind of changed us,” he says. “Dr. Wade really pushed me intellectually… to take the hip-hop I was listening to and drive it forward with the books that he gave us: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, A Raisin in the Sun, They Came Before Columbus. He gave those to me when I was 14… [and] the zeitgeist of that time was to be young, gifted and black like the Aretha Franklin song and the Big Daddy Kane song.”
From that time on, hip-hop and academia became a lens through which he could understand himself and the world.
“A lot of rappers were some of my best teachers,” 9th says. “They taught me… how to see, to search for truth, to not settle for what somebody’s telling you. Brand Nubian, they were catalysts of, ‘Go out young man — read, study, understand what’s going on around you.’”
That emphasis on historical memory — personal, political, cultural, whatever — is the crux of his curricula and why his concept of “paying it forward” lies beyond teaching his students to craft beats or score recording deals. He says it’s about knowing where you come from, an idea upon which he’s long meditated.
“People say, ‘Oh, your music sounds like you’re from New York,’ and I say, ‘Well, New York hip-hop was based on the musical theories of James Brown who was born in Georgia. I’m following in the footsteps of… a Southern kid.’ You take sampling out, hip-hop is gone.”
Despite this consciousness, he says he felt a sense of not quite fitting in as he made and mixed music from studios in North Carolina.
“What changed that was the coming of Outkast,” he says. “When Outkast stepped into the scene in 1993, it gave me a sensibility of ‘Okay, now I feel like I don’t have to change my accent. I don’t have to not be country to be a part of this thing.’ André 3000 felt like a cousin to me… and spoke about things that the New York cats did, but in a Southern way that I could relate to.”
That night, onstage in his Southern hometown, 9th made sure his old classmates knew their histories, playfully quizzing them on classic hip-hop samples from the stage, shaping new lineage stories just like those told in the liner notes he found tucked into those jewel cases from Peaches.