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Harvard Univ. Hip Hop Archive hosts 9th Wonder

Kendra Graves | 11/30/2011, 7:21 a.m.
A diverse crowd packs Harvard University’s Hip Hop Archive to listen to Grammy Award-winning producer 9th Wonder discuss his music and documentary “The Wonder Year.” Hip Hop Archive

He talks about the impact a college prep program for local African American youth had on his appreciation for learning, and how 80s television programs like “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” suddenly made it cool to be young, gifted and black again, an idea that helped to redefine how his generation — the hip hop generation — engaged with education.

Though he enrolled at North Carolina Central to study music, in the film, he notes that he always wanted to be a history teacher. Almost 20 years later, things have come full circle. After a three-year stint as an artist in residence at North Carolina Central, where he taught hip hop history, he’s now co-teaching a course with Dr. Neal titled “Sampling Soul,” where students explore the history and art of soul music and music sampling.

Even before becoming a Duke professor, teaching the next generation the ins and outs of the industry was always one of 9th’s career goals.  

“That’s been my fight, to get in the classroom to really tell people exactly what hip hop is, and especially from the artists’ standpoint,” he said. “There’s really not a Ph.D. in hip hop music; you have to live it and grow up with it to really know how to teach [it].”

When the film ended, the beatmaker continued to drop jewels about the importance of creating opportunities for people to learn about — and through — hip hop. He was especially concerned about helping today’s youth cultivate a basic knowledge of hip hop, something he said they often lack because the music is such a prevalant part of their lives.

“When it comes to hip hop, we expect the younger generation to know things that they really don’t understand,” he pointed out. “Although they listen to hip hop, it’s everywhere for them — it’s like water for them. You have to teach [today’s youth about] the first generation of hip hop all over again.”

“A lot of these kids getting in the game, their only frame of reference is Black Entertainment Television. There’s nothing on television except these images that are portrayed, so a lot of these kids go into the game with lofty expectations,” he continued. “We have enough music from our generation that can offset [those] images — we just need to expose them to it.”

He also reminded the audience that even young children can use hip hop as a learning tool. “We forget that everything taught to us in elementary school was taught in a cadence,” 9th said. “I think what we can use from hip hop [to teach children] is saying things in [a] rhythm.”

And though some might be reluctant to introduce elements of hip hop into a child’s curriculum, 9th pointed out that in this case, the ends (hip hop) justify the means (learning). “Trust me, if you teach a kid how to do something, the parent’s going to be happy no matter how you taught them. And if hip hop is it, it’s it.”

Still, he wouldn’t think of passing on hip hop’s history without paying dues to the elders that paved the way. And yet, he respectfully expressed his disappointment in the older generation’s refusal to support or acknowledge hip hop as a universal musical and cultural force.

“We got a lot of older people out there that frown upon what we do, and it’s been the problem. The civil rights folks didn’t pass the torch to the hip hop generation, and I don’t want to repeat that process,” he insisted.

“I’m trying to tell them that you’re living on through us. If we sample a record, we’re giving new life to the person that we sampled. We’re the bridge, man.”