by Jordan Green
The students in Len Neighbors’ entrepreneurship and communication class at Wake Forest University could hardly have found a more substantial musical partner than 9th Wonder for the inaugural run of DashPop, a music festival slated for March 27-29 in downtown Winston-Salem.
A veteran of the seminal rap trio Little Brother, 9th Wonder, neé Patrick Denard Douthit, went on to produce hip-hop and R&B stars the likes of Jay Z, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, Ludacris, Common, Erykah Badu and Drake, all while becoming an adjunct professor at Duke University. He also happens to be from Winston-Salem.
“The very first artist we talked about was 9th Wonder,” said Kent Garrett, a junior majoring in sociology with a double minor in entrepreneurship and journalism. “We knew how well known he is in North Carolina and across the region. Being from Winston-Salem we knew he would be a great fit. With all the work he’s done for Duke, Harvard and NC Central University, and he’s a brand ambassador for LRG [clothing company], he’s really perfect for a festival put together by college students.”
A graduate student working as a teaching assistant for the class reached out to 9th Wonder through a mutual friend, Neighbors said, and asked the hip-hop producer if he would be interested in showcasing the roster of artists on his label, Jamla Records. The students started by laying out their proposal to 9th’s assistant, Tia Watlington, in November, and by January they were meeting with the artist himself.
Reached by phone in Raleigh last week, 9th Wonder indicated in a matter-of-fact manner that he wanted to help the students develop their entrepreneurial abilities and appreciated their interest in his hometown.
“Wake Forest as a university is trying to connect with the community,” he said. “What better way than to get someone who is a native and has done some things in the music industry to come on board?”
9th Wonder’s relationship with Wake Forest University goes back to his teen years when he participated in Project Ensure, a program that brought gifted minority students on campus for three weeks every summer. Later, as a student at NC Central University in Durham, he became an advisor in a similar program called Kaleidoscope.
“I found him to be a remarkable guy,” Neighbors said. “Musically, he’s very gifted, and he has an eye for other people’s talent. He has a strong sense of community and loyalty to the place where he grew up. From our first meeting I got the sense that Winston-Salem matters to him. He was interested in the fact that we were trying to keep the cost down so anyone in town could come and see the festival.”
The Jamla Records showcase at Ziggy’s on March 27 will feature practically the entire roster, including smooth-flowing emcee Rapsody, sultry and gritty R&B chanteuse Heather Victoria, poetic rapper HaLo, Winston-Salem rapper-producer Big Remo and Chicago emcee Add-2. 9th Wonder is currently producing Add-2’s debut album Prey for the Poor, slated for release in May.
“At the beginning we set out some broad goals,” Neighbors said. “We wanted it to be downtown. We wanted to have a mix of local and regional acts. We didn’t want to have a festival that would be limited to one genre or one ethnicity. We started looking for acts that would have a lot of crossover appeal. There’s going to be a very diverse group of music fans. The goal is to serve the city that exists, not just the Innovation Quarter.”
To complement Friday night’s Jamla Records showcase, Saturday will largely feature reggae acts, with the Movement and Leilani Wolfgramm filling out a bill with Tribal Seeds at Ziggy’s.
Bookings for the Garage on both nights are geared more towards rock and indie, with locals Spirit System, Bare the Traveler, Bocanegra and I, Anomaly sharing the stage with out-of-towners Bastards of Fate, Fury and the Sound, Good Graeff and Hedera.
Neighbors is an old hand at festival organizing, having helped put together the Athens Pop Festival with a group of friends in Georgia before he moved to Winston-Salem.
“One of the real challenges in teaching entrepreneurship is simulating risk — the stress and inherent flexibility that goes into it,” he said. “I was looking for a way to show them what risk feels like. A lot of students take entrepreneurship classes, and they don’t know if they want to be business owners. You probably don’t want to invest your life savings and then discover that it’s not for you; maybe you’d rather take a 9-to-5 job with a steady salary. It occurred to me that a good way to do that would be to put on some kind of event, so I made a proposal for a year-long class that would culminate in a music festival.”
Working with musicians only made the project more interesting.
“They are at once the best and worst customers, the best and worst suppliers,” Neighbors said. “They’re interesting and the situation’s fluid, and they’re all different.”
The students aren’t putting up any of their own money, but on the first week of the class Neighbors instructed them to tell all their friends about the festival, reasoning that if they didn’t pull the gambit off they would wind up feeling embarrassed.
“There were moments where I didn’t think this was going to happen,” he said. “They appreciate that there are businesses all over town that are going through this, although you might not see it. So an important aspect was getting them to push through. The most important time to sell is [when] you’ve just lost a really big client or just landed one. The pattern over the year has allowed them to discover that moment when you have to find your own motivation when the world isn’t rewarding you as you think it should.”
In addition to a small grant from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, the festival has attracted sponsorships from MailChimp and Paz Studios, and Neighbors said they’re working to finalize an agreement with a third sponsor. And on Sunday night, a Kickstarter campaign for the festival cleared a goal of $7,500.
“We’ve got an enormous amount of support from the Winston-Salem community,” Neighbors said. “The Kickstarter campaign shows a level of community spirit that’s heartening. Everybody who contributed — 87 people in Winston-Salem — thought it was worth the risk and put up their own money to make it happen.”
Neighbors said whether the students stay in Winston-Salem or return to their hometowns, he hopes they will take away a sense of the importance of collective action.
Georgia Hunsinger, a sophomore majoring in communications with an entrepreneurship and English double minor, seems to have gotten the message.
“Our main goal with DashPop is the students involved are trying to break down the barrier between Wake Forest and the community,” said Hunsinger, a member of the PR and marketing team for the festival. “We have this vision to burst the bubble. A lot of people say that Wake Forest is this big bubble, that the students never go downtown and mingle with the locals. We’re hoping that through DashPop we can break the barrier and get the students downtown and to be more immersed in the culture of downtown and use DashPop as a means to bring the students and the community together.”
For tickets and other information, visit dashpop.com.