Slicker this year: The duality of 9 th Wonder presented on film, online

by Ryan Snyder

Through the good and the bad, 9 th Wonder remains one of NC hip-hop´s most visible figures. (courtesy photo)

I don’t think we decide our own legacy, to be honest with you,” Grammy-winning, Winston-Salem-born hip-hop producer 9th Wonder says as a foreword to his new album The Wonder Years (see this week’s Album Review). “When you leave the game or leave this earth, people will decide your legacy for you.”

9th’s statement on his legacy introduced “Make It Big,” a track he produced for Raleigh emcee Khrysis, but was initially drawn from filmmaker Kenneth Price’s Spring 2011 documentary The Wonder Year. Like he says, it’s not for him to decide, but the question of 9th’s legacy has likely come up more in the past year than at any point in his career. More than his much scrutinized split with the celebrated Raleigh hip-hop trio Little Brother, certainly more than his work with Jay-Z on “Threat” or Destiny’s Child’s “Girl,” and more than his reinvention of rapper David Banner on “Death of a Pop Star.”

As one of three North Carolina hip-hop artists with albums to debut in the Billboard Rap charts’ top 10 this past week, 9th Wonder was instrumental in branding Oct.4 as North Carolina Hip-Hop Day (hashtag #nchiphopday on Twitter). Along with former Little Brother member Phonte Coleman, whose solo debut Charity Starts at Home debuted just ahead of The Wonder Years, the pair brought attention to the state’s hip-hop scene on the shoulders of their own releases but also through an even more high-profile effort, J. Cole’s debut Cole World: The Sideline Story. It was undoubtedly a source of pride for the state’s music scene when the Fayetteville rapper’s album came in as the number one release in America, but some had fundamental disagreements with how #nchiphopday was handled.

Rapper and occasional 9th Wonder associate Kaze released a 16-minute video on Oct. 9 framing the producer as aloof, opportunistic and through one anecdote, Svengalian during a lifesaving parlay. The timing of the video was not accidental. A story published in the Independent Weekly on October 5 (“NC Hip-Hop Day sent mixed messages about the state of local rap”) tended to corroborate Kaze’s stance. The story offered quotes by Durham rapper Jozeemo in which he criticized 9th and Phonte for what he perceived as promoting themselves as the faces of the state’s hip-hop scene on North Carolina Hip-Hop Day in order to boost their own work.

Jozeemo, who has been unrelenting in his assault on 9th Wonder through a recent music video and his Twitter account, connected #nchiphopday with 9th’s efforts to promote artists under the banner of his own Jamla Studios.

But therein lies the rub: His insulation was that he should be more publicly and financially supportive of all of North Carolina hip-hop, not simply those on his label. According to 9th documentarian Price, such a movement is not only unreasonable, but impossible.

“He can’t do it for everyone, he’s just one person. I don’t think he feels he needs to be NC’s hip-hop savior. I think he helps the people he thinks he can help with the time and resources he has,” Price said. “There’s 100 counties in North Carolina and everyone has someone who can spit hot fire. Everywhere we go there’s someone in a parking lot waiting to rap for 9th and you just can’t help everyone.”

Since approaching 9th Wonder as an outsider with a keen interest in the state’s hip-hop scene, Price has developed a professional relationship with the producer through his work on The Wonder Year. It has led to him working on music videos for Jamla artists and other projects, in addition to being an official part of the label. Price has arguably spent more time with 9th over the past two years than any other professional relation during filming and post-production and the producer’s self-sufficient philosophy has undoubtedly rubbed off. The film, which focuses on 9th’s Winston-Salem upbringing and how educational opportunities affected the artist he is today, shows 9th quickly chopping up beats on his laptop. He relays an anecdote in which DJ Jazzy Jeff marveled at his efficiency with such minimal gear while the legendary Jazz was fruitless with his “Starship Enterprise” setup.

Price began to approach his own work similarly. With only a Canon 7D and a Macbook Pro, the result was a film that strays from the Little Brother controversies, predates current beefs and presents 9th Wonder as the influential curator of hip hop grounded in classic soul that defines him as an artist. Price presents 9th Wonder neither sympathetically nor controversially, instead crafting a story of a lover of records, his family and his hometown, controversies be damned.

“Twenty years from now I don’t think he’ll be running a record label, I think he’ll be back in Winston. The music industry’s not built for him,” Price said. “I think a lot of the stuff he runs into, a lot of the criticism, at some point comes from not caring what the industry thinks of him. He believes what he believes in.”

The Wonder Year will screen at a/perature in Winston-Salem on Friday and Saturday.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan