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Scene & Heard

9th Wonder schools Harvard students on hip-hop’s history

Adam Sikora

When 9th Wonder’s career in hip-hop began to develop at North Carolina Central University in Durham in 1998, it wasn’t necessarily in the classrooms or libraries. With classmates Phonte Coleman and Thomas “Big Pooh” Jones, 9th (born Patrick Denard Douthit) formed the group Little Brother, a reference to their position relative to their musical inspirations such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul; in other words, the new generation learning from and building on their predecessors’ achievements.

Fourteen years and one Grammy Award later, 9th now qualifies as the proverbial “older brother.” Having survived the industry’s tumultuous digital revolution, his own departure from Little Brother, and hip-hop’s fractured support base over the past decade, he’s accumulated a wealth of experiences that can help teach the next generation, just as he learned from inspirations like J Dilla and Pete Rock. But there’s one significant difference — those guys never had a class at Harvard.

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“I have been in college preparatory programs, walking on college campuses, and sitting in classrooms since I was 14,” said 9th by phone from North Carolina. In May, he was invited to become a Hiphop Archive fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard, a three-year program highlighted by his co-teaching a course next semester. He is calling it “The Hiphop Cipher: ‘These Are the Breaks.’  ’’

“I understand that Harvard is arguably the most prestigious university in the United States if not the world,’’ said 9th, “but to me it’s not as intimidating as people would think it is. It’s a great opportunity and a groundbreaking situation to have somebody like me on that campus teaching something that people wouldn’t even put with the name of Harvard.”

The appointment of 9th as resident fellow is the latest and perhaps highest-profile story of hip-hop’s ongoing integration into higher education. As the music and culture have matured, colleges and universities have turned their attention to examining hip-hop in various contexts: Author Michael Eric Dyson has taught sociologically focused classes on Tupac Shakur and Jay-Z at Georgetown University, while rapper Bernard “Bun B” Freeman and the Roots frontman Amir “?uestlove” Thompson hold down teaching gigs at Rice University and New York University, respectively.

But 9th’s teaching career began in 2006, when he taught a class on hip-hop history at his alma mater, and continued with another course at Duke University in 2010. In speaking to students a generation younger, the challenge became to connect with an audience that’s also been raised on hip-hop, but may not share the same conception of it.

“People get the culture of hip-hop confused with the rap music industry, and that’s two different entities in itself,” 9th explained. “And that’s why some people feel like, what’s the reason to teach what I see on TV or what I see on the radio? What’s the depth in teaching that? They’re right! There is no depth. But there is a depth in teaching something that started in 1973 and started a way that turned into something else.”

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He continued: “We understand that there is two if not three hip-hop generations now, going on four. It was a unique experience to teach that class and reach that generation of kids who walked and talked and watched a lot of TV but didn’t have a sense of where it came from as far as the culture is concerned.”

“It’s not your average thing where the professor says, ‘I’m smart’; it’s really, ‘I’m trying to figure this out,’ ’’ said Marcyliena Morgan, executive director of the Hiphop Archive since its founding in 2007. She will also co-teach the undergraduate class with 9th in the spring, which will focus on examining “content and what is going on socially, politically, and artistically” in hip-hop. “He’s really a person who’s incredibly knowledgable about the techniques he uses, but interested in ideas and theories, and interested in working with anyone who is engaged in those things, and that works perfect for the Hiphop Archive and Harvard in general.”

The academic setting also provides some relief from the incessant and often hypersensitive buzz of the Internet, where thoughtful discussion of musical preferences often devolves into digital mudslinging, as 9th experienced last year when his seemingly innocuous comments about Jay-Z and Kanye West’s much-hyped “Watch the Throne” album (“It’s not for me,” he wrote) sparked a media mini frenzy on rap websites and discussion boards.

“We live in a generation where everybody has to like the same thing and if you don’t, you are scrutinized for it,” 9th said. “That’s what I found funny about that situation. It was like something you have to be on just to be in the in-crowd. That’s something that I think this generation is afraid of, of not being in the in-crowd. In the academic setting, you are free to think and free to have an opinion, and that’s what it’s all about.”

It should be noted, of course, that 9th is not simply a detached observer of hip-hop; he remains as active and busy as ever, and by year’s end will have full-album production credits on three different projects. The local hip-hop scene should benefit from having him around, as he predicts he will be actively working within it after he moves to the area next month. Whether in Harvard’s lofty classrooms or through a pair of speakers, one thing is sure: 9th will be teaching.

“I believe that a majority of us that’s in the culture that’s able to articulate what the culture is about are truly the ones that are supposed to teach,” 9th said. “We are just now realizing that we are the ones. Just like they created a book for calculus or sociology, we need to create the book that’s about our terms, because every book was created by someone saying ‘This is how it is.’ We need to create the book and I believe that’s going to happen.”

BONUS TRACKS

Local talent Greyscale opens for indie stalwarts Zion I and Minnesota on Friday night at the Middle East Downstairs. . . . Dutch ReBelle, Charmingly Ghetto, and 1982 (Termanology and Statik Selektah), all profiled in the Globe this year, received nominations for best hip-hop artist at the 2012 Boston Music Awards, which will be held at the Liberty Hotel on Dec. 2.

Martín Caballero can be reached at caballeroglobe@
gmail.com
. Follow him on Twitter at @el_caballero.

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