Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Hip-Hop Professor 9th Wonder Talks Musical Storytelling, NBA Rap Skills, And Rowing

Grammy-winning rap producer 9th Wonder.
Grammy-winning rap producer 9th Wonder.
Photo: Getty

Patrick Douthit, otherwise known as 9th Wonder, is a Grammy-winning producer and a hip-hop veteran. Formerly of North Carolina rap standouts Little Brother, 9th Wonder soon found success cooking up tunes for TV, and in academia, where he serves as a professor of his craft — all while still contributing to blockbuster albums like Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.”

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Most recently, 9th Wonder contributed the soundtrack for “A Most Beautiful Thing,” a story detailing the hardships faced by the country’s first all-black high school rowing team — west Chicago’s Manley High School — in the 1990s. The film documents that team’s return to the waterfront, decades later, to serve as a shining example of what kids can make out of themselves. It is slated for a June 12 release in AMC theaters nationwide.

9th Wonder, also an executive producer on the project, joined Deadspin for a Q&A to discuss how he got on board, his personal connection to the Manley rowing team, and pro athletes’ skills in the booth.

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How did you get involved in this project — “A Most Beautiful Thing”?

(Executive producer) Grant Hill did. Grant Hill and I (have) so many ties together. We’re friends. He played for Duke. I am a professor at Duke. We became friends around 2010, 2011, and our relationship has grown. I’ve known him now for 10 years. He thought I would be a perfect person to do the music side of the project, he has told me many times he is a fan of my work. He is a musician himself. He asked me to do it and it went from there.

What guidance or request did (Grant) Hill make and the other executive producers of the film as it pertained to audio and sound?

He didn’t necessarily give me any particular direction. He told me what the film was about but the majority of the direction of where we needed to go came from (director) Mary (Mazzio), but at the same time, she gave me the free rein to take it where I thought I wanted it to go. She really didn’t put a rein on me, not to say, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” She wanted me to be as honest musically as possible. So that’s what happened. She trusted me in doing that.

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On the seven-song soundtrack, how did you go about selecting the artists (FEMDOT, Ian Kelly, King Draft & Swank, Reuben Vincent) I see some are Chicago based and some aren’t. What was your relationship with them before this project?

The artists are mainly comprised of my label’s artists, Jamla (It’s a Wonderful World imprint). The artists from my label. I told her (Mary) that’s what I would like to do. We’re very close with Top Dawg Entertainment, and they had done the soundtrack for “Black Panther.” I thought that it would be a good idea if my label did the soundtrack for this film. So that’s the direction we took on that, with me and the artists that I have.

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Was there any track that was more difficult than others to create, writing, mixing, producing wise?

When you produce music for film or a visual sometimes it can be difficult if you don’t relate to what’s sitting in front of you. You might have to go to a place you’ve never been before if the film has something to do with something you’ve never experienced. Being the fact that this film is a story about black kids in the inner city or even black kids stepping out of their comfort zone is doing something else. I’ve experienced that. And that time period of them joining the team from the ’90s, which was college time for me. The music was great, as far as hip hop was concerned, was the period. So it was an easy thing for me to do. It wasn’t hard at all.

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Chicago’s reunited Manley High School rowing team, the squad at the center of the upcoming documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing.”
Chicago’s reunited Manley High School rowing team, the squad at the center of the upcoming documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing.”
Photo: Clayton Hauck/50 Eggs Films

What are the differences when creating a project let’s say a mixtape as opposed to a soundtrack for a film or documentary?

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Timing. I’ve done some TV before. I scored the second season of “The Boondocks.” I’ve done it before. It’s all about timing. Some people watch movies and they don’t necessarily pay attention to what’s going on in the background. They don’t know what the soundtrack sound was. Then I grew up in the ’80s, born in the ’70s, soundtracks were a large part of movies. Sometimes the soundtrack was better than the movies, so I had a history of knowing about that. But as far as process is concerned, just making sure everything is in sync with the scene. If something is happening in the scene, something needs to be happening in the music. Knowing that kind of stuff.

The sports and hip-hop worlds have collided on numerous occasions — from Drake to Le’Veon Bell. What other athletes have you worked with, and has it been stand alone projects or something like this documentary where it’s going along with film/acting?

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I’ve worked with Kemba Walker on a project with JBL stereo company. I’ve done a few things but the majority of the time I’ve dealt with athletes not necessarily in private to make the music but actually teaching them the history of the music. I teach (Hip-Hop History) at Duke University for the last 10 years. I’ve taught probably 15 (NBA) draft picks. I have had the opportunity to teach the future of the NBA.

It was one time Marvin Bagley III, he came by my studio and he jumped in the recording booth because he can rhyme He is really a good rapper. And he did a couple of things But other than that, it was more of a history lesson.

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Anything else that you think viewers would be interested in, in regards to your work on the film?

It was good to meet Arshay (Cooper), who was on the rowing team. It was good to meet Mary because I got a lot of stories from her. I learned a lot about rowing. I’m always interested in someone else’s craft. So it’s always good to learn about the crafts of different experts. That was probably the thing that stuck out to me most about the film. Learning about a world that I knew nothing about. Just the passion. The way they spoke about it is always a good thing, especially when you’re passionate about your craft.

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