9th Wonder Explains How J Dilla Changed The Sound of Hip-Hop and Fathered “Neo Soul” In The Process (Interview)
After the ascendance of greats like DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip in the 90s. There was a new wave of producers that would come to prominence in the 2000s who would carry the torch for Hip-Hop and take it in new directions. This new generation of beatmakers included the likes of Madlib, Kanye West, Just Blaze and J Dilla. Another one of these well-respected track masters was North Carolina’s 9th Wonder, whose warm and soulful records combined with hard boom-bap drums made the Little Brother trio of Phonte, Rapper Big Pooh and 9th one of the most beloved groups of the 00s.
Beyond the group, the producer born Patrick Douthit would go on to craft tracks for everyone from Jay Z and Destiny’s Child to Buckshot and De La Soul. Most recently, he has worked on Anderson .Paak’s Malibu album, released Brighter Daze, his sixth collaborative project with Murs, and put out Indie 500, a compilation with Talib Kweli. 9th also runs his own label, Jamla Records, home to artists like Rapsody and GQ, as well as managing a collective of producers known as The Soul Council. To say he has a full plate would be a massive understatement.
Another endeavor he is undertaking is celebrating J Dilla at Dilla Weekend in Miami this weekend (2/5-2/7). 9th was not only a peer of Dilla, he was a fan. He took time out of his busy schedule to speak with Ambrosia For Heads, at length, about what made Dilla different from other producers, Jay Dee’s approach to making records, and the separate branch of Hip-Hop the MC/producer created.
Ambrosia For Heads: There’s photo of J Dilla holding a vinyl copy of Little Brother’s The Listening. Had you seen that before?
9th Wonder: Yeah, I have. That photo was taken in the ABB [Records] offices in 2003, when [Little Brother] first signed to ABB. The Listening vinyl was released. Dilla was in the ABB offices, and he took a picture with it. The crazy thing about that though is I never met him. Not once. [We never talked] on the phone, nothing. The only thing I know in my relationship with James Yancey is…well four things: his mom and uncle, his music, that picture, and his grave. That’s it. I’ve never talked to him. I’ve never met him. I never had a phone conversation. Nothing.
Ambrosia For Heads: That’s crazy. I had assumed you guys had worked together, since you were peers. What was it like for you to work on the remix to “The Look Of Love”?
9th Wonder: “Look Of Love”…that was 2002. That was around the time where I was just remixing anything that I could get my hands on. I did a thing called 9th Invented The Remix; I remixed an Amerie joint, I remixed a Bilal joint. This was before I [released] God’s Stepson. All of this stuff…I was remixing anything I could, [Nas’] “2nd Childhood,” anything I could touch. “The Look Of Love” had an acapella to it. I remixed it—this was at a time when I was selling beats for $50. It’s early times, hungry times. When I put it up, everybody was like, “Damn, this remix is dope.” That’s one of the songs that if a 9th Wonder fans wants to prove that he or she has been down with me since day one, that’s one of the songs they mention: “I been down with you since ‘The Look Of Love (Remix).’ I’m like, “Jesus. Really, 2002?”
Ambrosia For Heads: So you had to have been aware of J Dilla’s work before that photo. Would you say you admired his work? Were you a fan?
Ambrosia For Heads: I remember, and in the movie.
9th Wonder: — In the movie, right—the bar scene, it’s playing in the background. That’s when I knew who he was. That was ’98. Prior to that, of course there was [De La Soul’s] “Stakes Is High” and there was [The Pharcyde’s] “Runnin’,” but I didn’t know he did those. I was stuck in “[DJ Premier], Pete Rock, RZA Land.” I was stuck there. Once you get stuck in an artist or producer’s [niche], it’s hard to see anything else—even if it’s dope. But I knew “Runnin'” was dope, and I knew [A Tribe Called Quest’s] Beats, Rhymes, & Life was dope, and I knew Stakes Is High was dope. But I didn’t know this guy from Detroit who was doing it. So Slum Village was like my introduction to Jay Dee. It was through that, it was through my good buddy Pizzo from HipHopSite.com, it was through his site, ’cause he posted “Players” on his site. That’s when you used to click on it and the quality was shitty, right? The quality was totally bad. So I got introduced to Dilla that way.
Ambrosia For Heads: So that’s exactly the same way for me. I remembered that movie, and checkin’ it out—and I remembered “Players.” That sent me to Slum. Then I started doing the research, and that sent me to Janet Jackson, and Erykah [Badu] and all of that. I know you worked on Erykah’s New Amerykah Part One, with “Honey” being the breakout single. A lot of that album was kind of an ode to Dilla and his passing. Did you and Erykah talk about that as one of the themes surrounding the album?
9th Wonder: No. Not as much. I just knew by listening to it that’s what it was about. It had something to do with Dilla—the sound of it. In talking about that album though, if we discuss the idea of—which is a term I really don’t deal with a lot is “Neo Soul.” Neo Soul became a market after Erykah and D’Angelo [came out] and everybody was like, “What is this?” They never called it Neo Soul themselves; they just wanted to be different from Jodeci and Boyz II Men and 702—whoever was R&B contemporary at the time. But the wild thing about it is the sound of what people know as quote-unquote Neo Soul, Dilla is the father of it. The warm sounds, the hand-claps and all of that—Dilla is the father of it. I don’t even think that he meant to be the father of an art-form or market that some people see as pretentious and some people see as snobbish in certain ways or conscious. But the Dilla we know was in strip clubs. [Chuckles] The Dilla we know used to make beats, go to the strip club, and then come back. Like, if you look at the cover of Welcome 2 Detroit, it’s a stripper on the front. [Laughs] It’s kind of ironic that the sound he quote-unquote fathered and the things that it represented, as we now know as Neo-Soul, it wasn’t Dilla at all. Now we’re all children of Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest; let’s not get this confused—when I say he is the father of quote-unquote Neo Soul. Whether we’re talking about The Roots, Outkast, Little Brother, Slum, Pac Div, Drake, Wale, Kanye [West]—we’re all children of A Tribe Called Quest, all of us. That’s how we started that jazzy family tree—Tribe started that. But to break off of that family tree and have a family tree of his own, Dilla was that, that sound—not necessarily the beliefs, but that sound. I say all that to say; it makes sense that Badu would [pay homage to J Dilla on New Amerykah Part One].
Ambrosia For Heads: A lot of people know about his work in Soulquarians, but what you’re saying is that it started before that. When would you say it started for Dilla? What are some of the influential records?
9th Wonder: I’ma say the whole Slum Village sound. With “Runnin'” and “Stakes Is High,” those were still hard, boom-bap records. But once we get to like Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 and 2, those two, it turned from simple boom-bap records to kind of some James Brown-standing-around-the-campfire-clapping type records. That’s what those hand-claps were. It sounded like some ’70s “Ay!” Clap. “Ay!” Clap. That’s what “Get This Money” sounded like. It wasn’t just the hard, quote-unquote New York-influenced sound. It sounded like somethin’ totally different. It was more laid back than that. “Players” was like that. “Get Dis Money” was that way. “Go Ladies” was that whole clapping [club] type of shit. I think it started there. I think once he tapped into that it just opened up a whole new lane for beatmakers.
Ambrosia For Heads: In addition to the hand-claps, what would you say about the records he was using for samples? Hip-Hop went through our James Brown movement in the ’80s, and we got to more George Clinton/P-Funk stuff in the ’90s with Dr. Dre. What kind of records do you think he was pulling that were shaping that sound, in addition to the hand-claps?
9th Wonder: It wasn’t too far from—again, what Q-Tip started. Q-Tip started the whole idea of “Okay, we beat up every James Brown record that we could. We exasperated every P-Funk record that we could.” So Q-Tip took the idea of “some of this Cal Tjader record” or “what’s up with Lou Donaldson?” or “What’s up with Cannonball [Adderly]?” or “What’s up with Grant Green?” or “What’s up with Grover Washington? Why are we not using those?” So what Dilla did was take it to the next level. “Okay, we got the American Jazz artists. But what’s up with the Brazilian Jazz records? What’s up with the German Jazz records, or the Japanese Jazz records?” Again, which is another family tree. Like you said, it was James Brown, James Brown, P-Funk—Soul. Then it turned into Jazz Fusion, Jazz. The only Jazz [Hip-Hop] was sampling at one point was Bob James, right? Then we turned into “Okay, let’s find Gap Mangione. Let’s find another Jazz guy. Let’s find this computerized, mathematical guy, and sample that.” Once it got there, it made crate diggers stop looking in the conventional places—which, in turn, meant your ear had to be in a certain place.
Ambrosia For Heads: You talk about crate digging. What does it say about the work ethic that Dilla had to have to be finding these obscure records in the time before the Internet, before everything was available with a click? What did you learn about him by listening to those records that he was pulling?
9th Wonder: It took a lot. We’re at a 20-year cycle for this boom-bap sound. On the mainstream, more-exposure level, with the success of the Anderson .Paak album, and even some of the stuff with me and Rhythm Roulette and stuff like that, we’re at a turning point where boom-bap is becoming the new old thing again. At one point in the mid and late 2000s, the room for creativity and the room for being different, when it comes to this sampling thing, was getting thin. There’s only so much you can do with a Soul record. So I came into the game around 2001, 2002. At that particular time, this is right after [Jay Z’s] The Blueprint. Kanye, Just Blaze, and BINK! were speeding up records and looping records. Me as a producer who also sampled Soul records, I was like, “Huh. I might not want to sample what they’re saying so much, I’m more concerned with the instruments behind it.” It’s just the fact that I can’t take the words off. So if you listen to a lot of my early stuff, I had to make that lane. “I can’t lift Curtis Mayfield’s vocals off of this song, but I can chop around his words. I can do that.” Dilla made crate-digging, looking for songs, looking for samples like “Okay, I know this sounds like a Pete Rock sample. How can I make this sample mine? How can I make it into a Dilla-sounding sample? There’s a lot of records out there, but sometimes we run up on the same stuff. How can I chop this record—which I know my contemporaries got. How can I make this record mine?” Dilla made you think when it comes to listening to a joint. Dilla made you think on that particular level, with the records he chose and the beats that he made.
Ambrosia For Heads: How would you compare and contrast your style of beats with his?
9th Wonder: [Pauses] Man…I don’t, to be honest. That’s a dangerous thing, to compare yourself to Dilla. I would say that, in large respect, we come from the same thought process of “Yo, this is my sound.” If anything, I’d say that Dilla and I, and Madlib, and Alchemist, and all the beat-makers…all the way from Pete and Preem, all the way to Marley Marl, if anything we all contrast each other in what we all believe in. We believe in our sound. We believe in the sound that we come from. We believe in preserving that sound, and making that sound go—no matter who’s rapping on it, whether it be your most conscious rapper or your most hood trap-rapper. It don’t matter. Our sound is our sound, and we refuse to compromise that for anybody. Dilla’s was respected across the board, from the undergroundest of the underground kid to Justin Timberlake, he’s respected all the way across the board. I would like to say in some respect, in some way, shape, or form, I try to make my brand, make my career, or make my sound respected like that as well—from the most underground kid to Destiny’s Child. It’s that particular sound no matter what, from the pop record to the record found on Sandbox Automatic. It don’t matter. That’s [how] I see, in that particular way, that me and Dilla are alike. We understand that scope. We understand that we ain’t gotta compromise to make a Janet Jackson joint or to make a Destiny’s Child joint, or “I can do a Badu joint and turn around and do a Common joint and then turn around and do a Frank-N-Dank joint.” So I took that and said I can do a joint with Murs or Jean Grae, and also turn around do a joint with Jill Scott and Mary J Blige and David Banner and Big Boi. I can still branch myself out without compromising myself.
Ambrosia For Heads: Who would say are your 5 favorite producers, they don’t have to be “top,” in any genre?
9th Wonder: Oh wow! Any genre? I’m a huge Teddy Riley fan. Huge. I’m probably a bigger Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis fan. I love the production of Al B. Sure and Kyle West. I was in love with that. Al B. Sure’s “Right Now” record which was kinda like the Tevin Campbell “Alone With You” record—them and Chucky Thompson really taught me how to make R&B-Hip-Hop records. When dudes like me can ride down the street bumpin’ a slow jam that got some bottom to it! We can talk Pete, Preem, and Da Beatminerz all day, and Dilla and Madlib, and Hi-Tek, and Nottz–and my own team, the Soul Council and all the people I love. But we talkin’ about producers, bruh? Those [ones I mentioned earlier] shaped the early ’90s. All those shaped my high school and middle school. We talkin’ about Guy, and Janet, and New Edition—and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis produced the N.E. Heartbreak album. That shaped my life, bruh! Outside of the Rap records, those are the records. So, we got Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, we got Teddy Riley, we got Al B. Sure and Kyle West—that’s three. Chucky Thompson, that’s four because of Mary J. Blige My Life. That album alone… For the fifth, man, I’ma say Raphael Saadiq.
Ambrosia For Heads: You know who I thought you were gonna put in there? Devonte.
9th Wonder: And you know… Gimme a sixth one, man! Devonte Swing… That’s my middle to high school, outside of Hip-Hop, love songs. Take those out, I wouldn’t know how to love, bruh—to be honest.
Ambrosia For Heads: So what can people expect from you coming up on Dilla Weekend on Friday?
9th Wonder: Just the Dilla Weekend and things like that, they are mainly for me. We celebrate Dilla and celebrate his life. His mom gonna be there and everything, those be therapeutic for me. A lot of those times, you get to see people you ain’t seen in a long time. It’s good to have all of us in one place. All of us are fighting a certain fight of what we believe in, and the music. I think Dilla Weekend is a testimonial to that—that we are trying to preserve that particular legacy—not only his life, but his sound, his soul, everything. For me, I’ma try to put on a great show—and at the same time, see all the people I haven’t seen, to be a fan. Those be like all-star weekends, man. We are fans of each other too—Black Thought, Jay Electronica [Laughs] in the same place. What? And Bun B, Royce Da 5’9, and DJ Premier—all in the same place. You go ’cause you have to work. But at the same time, you try to contain yourself from not being a fan or a kid. I’m still a kid. I’m still a kid to Thought and Premier and Royce Da 5’9—when I first heard “Boom.” To be on the flyer with those guys for the Dilla Weekend, I don’t take none of that shit for granted. I don’t. I don’t treat it lightly. I’m going down there pay homage and at the same time, celebrate something that I’m a part of—active participant in. This weekend helps us all bring that back to life.
To see 9th Wonder, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jay Electronica, Bun B, Royce Da 5’9 and more perform at Dilla Weekend, click here for more details.