Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

Welcome To B&S



9th Wonder and Phonte: Southern HoSPITality

Phonte, B&S' Christopher Daniel and 9th Wonder shoot the breeze
Phonte, B&S' Christopher Daniel and 9th Wonder shoot the breeze

Rap music has been geographically specific since hip hop culture’s inception out of the New York City boroughs in the 1970s. Growing out of much respect to embracing public space, the then subculture’s indigenous music out of the parks, abandoned buildings and the street corner was the definitive cultural product, roast fest and popularity contest: layering clever rhymes (possibly resulting in embarrassment) over looped, extended versions of classic soul and jazz. As hip hop culture would transition in a matter of four decades over into other regions, cities, boardrooms, news headlines, mass media, Billboard charts, New York Times Best Sellers’ list, academic institutions and internationally, rap music became more and more countercultural depending on where it came from and where it landed: making everything about hip hop somewhat of a conundrum.

Yet, it’s funny in the South how a laid back dialect, aloof cadences, the spirit of a hustler’s ambitions, narratives about street life (not saying all are good) from a pastoral landscape, crankin’ out a couple of syncopated 808 drum loops emulating handclappin’, gettin’ on the floor and doin’ the latest dance, shoutin’ out the neighborhood, payin’ respect to “block stars” associated with the appropriate corner green street signs, maybe a thunderous chant or two, a fascination (damn near obsession) for glossy candy paint on a classic big bodied automobile, a few tablespoons of gaudiness, a side order of T&A, a couple of Swisher Sweets rolled full of some of that loud and a few cups of excess would set the standard for our region. What many of y’all call “the country,” “the Dirty South” or whatever is true… well, to an extent. Still, it’s quite frustrating to leave one to ponder as to why there may not be challenging hip hop artists below the Mason-Dixon.

Count on true Carolina (North and South) natives to know when something is blazin’ (clearing my throat…and I’m not just sayin that considering I’m from Spartanburg, South Carolina, but I digress). To this day, there remains an idea of nothing but ghost towns with not a trace of musical culture coming out of two polarizing states. In comes 9th Wonder (nee Patrick Douthit), out of Winston Salem, and Phonte (Coleman), out of Greensboro. Meeting in 1998 as undergraduate students at Durham’s North Carolina Central University, along with another rapper/classmate, Big Pooh, the critically acclaimed trio, Little Brother, created their own indigenous, nonconventional style of hip hop that combined much respect and an extensive knowledge of the generations of music that came before, tight lyricism of working class themes set to slick (sometimes rugged) soul-drenched production. With three studio releases – notably The Listening (2003) and The Minstrel Show (2005) -- and six mixtapes until 2007 (again in 2010 with their fourth effort, Leftback), their musical offerings would only blossom. Phonte – with Netherlands-based producer Nicolay – formed The Foreign Exchange in 2004: going onto release four critically acclaimed albums and in the process earning a Grammy Award nomination. Performing also under his R&B alter ego, Percy Miracles, Phonte collaborated with Detroit-based artist Zo! in 2008 on the pair’s Love the 80s compilation and even released a solo effort, "Charity Starts at Home," in 2011.

9th, on the other hand, went onto become one of R&B and hip hop’s most prolific, respected and in-demand DJs and producers: producing tracks for Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, Drake, Mary J. Blige (for which he earned a Grammy Award), MURS, Jean Grae, Buckshot, Chris Brown, Erykah Badu, Kooley High, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Ludacris, Mac Miller, Wale, Common and David Banner. Under his It’s a Wonderful World Music Group (IWWMG) imprint sits his record label, Jamla: home to his artists Skyzoo, GQ, Rapsody, Tyler Woods, Big Remo, Thee Tom Hardy, Khrysis, Sean Boog, Halo, Heather Victoria and Actual Proof. One who prides himself on being a purist and purveyor of good music, 9th was appointed the National Ambassador for Hip Hop Relations and Culture of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), hosted a radio show in Fayettville, NC and founded the True School Corporation in 2006 to assist in the preservation of black popular culture.

9th’s career vitae radically extends outside of his extensive knowledge behind the turntables, Pro Tools, FL Studio, the Akai MPC 2500 and multiple crates of records; he spent three years beginning in 2006 as an Artist-in-Residence at his alma mater teaching a hip hop history class. Currently alongside famed black pop culture scholar Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, 9thMatic (his rap enigma) transitioned to the esteemed Duke University as an Adjunct Professor for the institution’s “Sampling Soul” block. Along with former student Kenneth Price, 9th’s day-to-day routines in and out of class were chronicled in Price’s master thesis-turned-documentary, The Wonder Year The Wonder Year. Currently, the pair are also in fundraising mode and production for another year-long documentary highlighting the producer’s latest development – becoming a Hip Hop Archive Fellow under the direction of iconic authority Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates at Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research.

No doubt that hip hop culture has indeed come a long way, but 9th and Phonte both know what it takes to keep the culture in motion. For one, they know their friendship is important to maintain. 9th and I played catch up, too: paying respect to Red Bull for showing us both love [I moderated a 2011 panel in Miami courtesy of the energy drink powerhouse featuring 9th and hip hop artist Talib Kweli during Winter Music Conference]. It’s quite humid this Tues., May 29, 2012 evening approximately two hours prior to the National Finals for Red Bull Emsee, a freestyle battle set to randomly selected images and words. We’re chillin’ in the basement of Atlanta’s landmark rock venue, The Masquerade. Adding to the point that Carolinians know when something in blazin’, 9th -- frequently checking his iPhone and BlackBerry -- keeps a white towel draped around his neck as Phonte grips his; 9th insists that he’s in for great laughter at this particular battle. Phonte -- who remembers his days coming up in the battle rapping circuit and admitting he would be competing many moons ago -- stresses the importance of self-branding, honing any musical craft, honesty and authenticity but does so with an animated comical approach with the other surrounding press.

We, the Carolina trio, collectively sit for a brief chat by the wall closest to the exit – me on an elevated bar stool while the other fellas sit in fold out chairs: discussing the relevance of hip hop culture on college campuses, what makes great emcees, hip hop culture and corporate interests in relation to our collective relationships with Red Bull, the importance of maintaining stable relationships and of course…our respective upbringings in the Carolinas!

…on bringing hip hop before higher education.
9th: “Just being a college student prepared me to do stuff like this. As far as academics, luckily I’m not just being thrown into the fire. So that’s what it’s all about: just tryin’ to lend my piece to the archives.”

…on battle rapping.
Phonte: “The emcee – the one that’s gonna take it – is not the one that’s gonna have the most people in the crowd (chuckles). It ain’t the one that brought 50 niggas with him; it’s gonna be the cat that has the clearest delivery. The audience has to be able to understand what you’re sayin’. It’s gonna be content, connecting with the audience on a level and dissin’ your opponent in a way the audience is like ‘Oh my God! I was thinkin’ that same shit.’ Then, it’s gonna be the performance. How well do you perform? How well do you connect with the crowd? That’s personally what I’m lookin’ for, but the crowd ultimately will decide or the judges will. We’ll see how they measure up.”

9th: “It’s hard for a lot of people to do. The whole thing about emcee battlin’ is one big insult contest…to be honest. Those are the best emcee battles: who can make the other person look bad talkin’ ‘bout they shoes, talkin’ bout they pants, talkin’ bout what they breath smell like. ‘Cause you can get up on stage and spit anything that’s written; I’ve seen a lot of that. They shoutout the whole block; ain’t got nothin’ to do…

Phonte: “It’s so not about that…”

9th: “…ain’t got nothin’ to do with the dude on stage. He went and ripped up somebody else’s neighborhood; dude standin’ in front of you. It’s definitely about the dude standing in front of you, what he got on…just makin’ him look bad but do it in the art of rhyme.”

…on collaborating with Red Bull.
9th: “[Red Bull] is one of those few companies that really stays true to the essence of hip hop, you know what I mean? When it comes to the b-boy/b-girl battle, the emcee…all of that: the art of creation when it comes to the music in general, Red Bull stays true to that. There is a situation when it comes to a company, but [Red Bull] has people within the company that you form relationships with and just really believes in it.”

Phonte: “For tonight, I thought it was kinda a way comin’ full circle; 10, 11, 12 years ago, I would’ve competed in this battle, but now, I’m to a point where I can host it. It just shows me how I’ve grown and how I’ve progressed as an artist. As a host, my goal is to just to bring everybody together and keep the crowd engaged in between rounds. It’s like church service to me; this is my congregation tonight. Hopefully, we’re watchin’ the next artists from this that will progress and go on from this part.”

Photo: DJ Blak Magic
Words Christopher Daniel

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