When the phone of Durham hip-hop producer 9th Wonder rings, he glances at the screen and either politely pardons the interruption or catalogs the name of the caller and returns to conversation. And this afternoon, 9th's phone—a gray, sliding thing that looks like a credit card when wrapped in his long fingers—rings almost constantly. Two rappers are on the way to his studio, and his presence is requested at a concert in Raleigh tonight. He's scheduled for a festival throughout the weekend in Fayetteville, and, on Tuesday, he and his beats will fly to Atlanta for a recording session with Southern star Ludacris' newest group.
But 9th Wonder isn't content with this itinerary. He's also an instructor at N.C. Central University and he demands more work, or at least stops in his schedule that mean more than seeing a show one town over or making potential hits down South.
"I don't feel like I've been used by the university properly," says 9th Wonder, who speaks with his hands in grand gestures of excitement and emphasis. "I could go from school to school to school in North Carolina and bring back 10,000 recruits. But I don't think the university understands, 'We need to use this kid in the right way.' If this university won't, somebody will."
According to the paper sign dangling crookedly on the corkboard outside his office on the third floor of the Lee Biology Building, this kid—known to hip-hop enthusiasts and collaborators worldwide as 9th Wonder—doubles as a college instructor named Pat Douthit. He's 34 years old and from the tiny Piedmont town of Midway, near Winston-Salem. His "Southern Christian" parents, as he says, didn't listen to jazz, much less hip-hop. But he's an addict with two record labels to his name. And as the co-director of N.C. Central's Hip-Hop Initiative since 2004, he wants to be an emissary for hip-hop and this area and an educator for students with hopes of turning their rhymes or rhythms into a career. They can honor their state and heritage while doing it, he insists.
"If we want the arts to be nationally recognized here, why go somewhere else? Every time we look around, we have to leave to 'make it.' It's always a dream to go to LA or New York or Atlanta," he says. "If I want to make it in hip-hop, let N.C. be the fourth place on the map I have to go."
After all, that's exactly what 9th Wonder has done. For the better part of this decade, he's been one of the busiest beatmakers in hip-hop. His style—a refined, relaxed rattle that eases Southern comfort into New York's gritty, head-nodding rhythms—has earned him a Grammy with Mary J. Blige. He has produced songs both with superstars like Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Erykah Badu and more obscure rhymers like Jean Grae, Murs and M.O.P. He's proud of this versatility and the stable, signature sound that affords it.
"I've worked with Destiny's Child and M.O.P in the same year—on a pop record—and a group from Brownsville, and I still stay me. Not many producers can say that," he says, cocking his head back to laugh. In the past few months, 9th has grown a beard. Given his boyish looks, gangly frame and casual demeanor, it's an odd fit, but it underscores his odyssey from the smallest to the biggest of situations simply by, he says, making the music he wants to hear. "When I got with Beyoncé, I said, 'What do you want me to do?' She looked at me and said, 'What do you mean? We want you to do you.' This is my sound."
He's not satisfied, though. About five years ago, or when 9th Wonder's former Durham trio, Little Brother, was preparing to release its debut for a major label, the energy within the Triangle's hip-hop community seemed like you could touch it, pick it up, spin it around like a basketball. It had been building through a latticework of clubs in small shows and locally released records for most of the decade, and its moment of deliverance, it seemed, had arrived. But that Little Brother record, The Minstrel Show, flopped. Little Brother left Atlantic Records. 9th Wonder left Little Brother. And in the wake of those unfulfilled great expectations, the energy seeped from the scene like a punctured basketball, leaving area listeners and artists in small, largely powerless fragments.
9th Wonder admits he'd be lying if he said he didn't feel some responsibility for that collapse. He's trying to rebuild it with emcees bearing, literally, fresh air. And so the Hip-Hop Initiative looks more like a midsized entrepreneurship than a collegiate classroom or a scientist's laboratory. Two offices and a conference room are strewn with note pads, food containers and magazines but dominated by desks, computers, filing cabinets and straight-backed chairs.
Today, sprightly Raleigh emcee Rapsody sits in one of the Hip-Hop Initiative's smaller rooms, watching an edit of a new music video for her Raleigh group, Kooley High. Big Remo, a Winston-Salem rapper who 9th discovered on the last verse of a track on a tape someone gave him, his gold teeth gleaming underneath the office's bright overhead lights. Rapsody and Remo join 9th Wonder in the room he proudly calls the studio. Stacks of records and their tattered covers clutter the floor, mixing with a multitude of hard drives and convenience store cups and cardboard boxes. Two wide computer monitors perch just above his sightline, and a small menagerie of sound makers—two turntables connected by a mixer, a drum machine, a sampler—rest on most every flattop in the room.
In the middle of the mess sits a hulking 24-channel mixing board, covered in digital readouts, manual knobs, tiny square buttons and, conspicuously in one corner, a white sticker with a bar code and a reminder that this equipment belongs to the school. But as Rapsody and Remo gather behind 9th, they make it clear he's the one that will make it count.
"Without this, I'd be making this record in somebody's closet," says Rapsody, laughing. "We're blessed to have this."