One day this past spring, Duke University’s “History of Hip-Hop” class turned to current events. Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest album had just been released and was about to debut at the top of the charts, so students were discussing their takes on it.
Class co-teacher Patrick Douthit – better-known as Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder who has worked with Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Beyoncé with Destiny’s Child and many other musical A-listers – let the students in on a previously top-secret detail about Lamar’s album, “Damn.”
“I have something to tell y’all,” Douthit/Wonder told the class. “I worked on the last song, ‘Duckworth.’ ”
The students’ response was pretty much universal – whoa – as Wonder explained how he’d been sending beats back and forth with Lamar’s team before the album emerged.
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“During the semester, before the album came out, we had no clue he was working on that,” said Jason Fotso, a senior who took the class that semester. “It was amazing to get that historical perspective from somebody actually embedded in the music industry. That was some fascinating background.”
Wonder gets most of his attention for the names on his studio resume, including Mary J. Blige (her 2005 album “The Breakthrough,” which won him a Grammy), Drake, J. Cole (who grew up in Fayetteville), Ludacris and more. And yet his academic resume is just as impressive.
Wonder’s on-campus career began more than a decade ago at his alma mater, N.C. Central, teaching hip-hop courses that were equal parts history and how to break into the industry. From there, he has gone on to teach and do research at Duke, Harvard (subject of the 2014 documentary “The Hip-Hop Fellow”) and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the Smithsonian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Not bad for someone who never actually got a college degree.
“It’s to the point where, if I get a Ph.D in anything, it will be the first of its kind,” Wonder said with a laugh. “No, I never did get the degree. I’m what you’d call a professor at practice. So I’m kinda building the curriculum as I go along.”
That’s pretty much how it works if one is in an unconventional field.
“It happens in every field and medium of study,” Wonder said. “There was not always a Ph.D. in jazz studies or African-American studies – or even psychology or psychiatry. Somebody had to develop that. Slowly but surely, this has become my life’s work, whether I want it to or not.”
“He’s quite literally the celebrity professor at Duke, but still very relaxed and chill,” said Claudia Choi, who also took the spring 2017 history course. “It was cool to get his insider’s perspective, and he was generally just very real about his experiences without ever lecturing us about believing one thing or another.”
While Wonder’s studio-to-classroom evolution seems unusual, in retrospect it’s inevitable that he would wind up teaching. He grew up the son of a teacher in Winston-Salem during a hip-hop golden age, the late ’80s and early ’90s. When he came to Central in the fall of 1993, it was as a history major.
“When you talk to Patrick, he’ll tell you his plan was always to become a history teacher,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American studies at Duke who is Wonder’s co-teacher on some of his classes. “Then hip-hop happened. So he’s still a history teacher, just in a different context. His teaching provides perspective in that it’s grounded in historical aspects of the subject. That’s pretty unique.”
That perspective carries over to Wonder’s work in the studio, too. Even though Marlanna “Rapsody” Evans never took one of Wonder’s classes, making records with him was just as much of an educational experience.
“He knows so much about culture and music and history, how it all connects,” said Rapsody, a North Carolina rapper whose latest album, “Laila’s Wisdom,” Wonder produced. “He’s always doing his teaching. It’s like a free course with him in the studio.”
College gives way to music
Wonder arrived at Central in the midst of a mini-boom for North Carolina hip-hop. Black Sheep, the New York duo that originally formed in Sanford, had a hit single and gold album in the early 1990s with “The Choice Is Yours.” And Lords of the Underground, a trio that formed at Raleigh’s Shaw University, were all over the radio in 1993 with “Chief Rocka” and other hits.
Between classes, Wonder started deejaying and making beats with a crew in Durham. That became Justus League, from which emerged Little Brother – a trio where Phonte Coleman and Thomas “Big Pooh” Jones rapped while Wonder created musical backdrops.
But school wasn’t going as well as music for Wonder. He dropped out and went to work at the UPS call center in High Point.
“I’ve always thought that education and knowledge is great, but at that time I just didn’t believe college was the answer for me,” he says now. “Graduating from college could give you a job, but would that give you happiness? So I was battling with myself.”
All the same, between Little Brother and Duke radio station WXDU’s late-night “Street Flava Mixshow,” Wonder was still around campus a lot. Little Brother became a full-time proposition after the group’s independently released debut album “The Listening” put them on the map in 2003. That led to a major-label deal with Atlantic Records for 2005’s “The Minstrel Show.”
Neither album broke through commercially, leading to Little Brother’s eventual dissolution. Post-breakup, Coleman picked up a Grammy nomination as part of the electronic R&B group Foreign Exchange. And Wonder’s penchant for old-school soul beats, infused with samples from the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Gladys Knight and Bobby Womack, made him an in-demand producer.
Wonder’s most recent Grammy nomination, shared with Rapsody, was for their work on Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” They were up for album of the year, but …
“We lost to Miss Taylor Swift,” Wonder said. “Much as I thought ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ was album of the year, I had the feeling that would go her way. It is what it is. But that was a phenomenal album to be part of. His latest one, too.”
Wonder still runs his label, Jamla Records, and recently signed a teenage vocalist from Charlotte named Reuben Vincent. He’s busy at both Central and Duke most semesters. One of his Duke classes this fall is hip-hop cinema, involving discussion after viewing movies like 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood.” For the final class project, each student devises a plot, cast and soundtrack for a proposed movie.
Come spring, Wonder will teach a class at Central about the business side of hip-hop. That class is anything but a feel-good, you-can-make-it-if-you-try experience, however.
“You know the saying: ‘Once you see how the sausage is made, you might not wanna eat it,’ ” Wonder said. “Some of the stuff is heartbreaking, shows kids just how manufactured some artists are. We know about it in the industry, but we don’t want to ruin the fantasy. So we don’t talk about it much around people who aren’t in the game.”
But even though the class is as likely to discourage as encourage anyone’s dreams of a music career, he’ll probably have a full house.
“I try to show the ins and outs of how the industry works,” Wonder said. “That can be empowering, or discouraging. It’s that way with anything – music, movies, sports, the media, whatever. It just breaks down to how much you’re willing to take. A lot find out the hard way they’re maybe not willing to take as much as you need to.”