What year is often associated as the beginning of hip-hop music?
What popular Motown song almost didn’t make it beyond the studio?
Those were questions to Elizabeth City State University students attending Thursday’s lecture on the origins of hip-hop by super producer 9th Wonder.
9th Wonder, whose real name is Patrick Douthit, has worked with dozens of top artists, including Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J Blige and Drake. His lecture in the auditorium of ECSU’s Mickey L. Burnim Fine Arts Center was part of the university’s Community Connections Lecture Series.
The Grammy-award winning producer spent about two hours holding a conversation, as he called the lecture, with students.
“We’re gonna have a conversation,” he said.
Before he began, Douthit encouraged students to raise their hands at any time to ask questions. Douthit is used to the classroom-like atmosphere; he teaches music courses at his alma mater N.C. Central University, as well as at nearby Duke University in Durham.
Douthit began his lecture by talking about the spirituals that slaves sang to one another as they were being transported in slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1600s. The spirituals were not only uplifting, they also provided a means for the slaves to communicate without “somebody” understanding the message, he said.
“We gave messages to each other through music,” Douthit said, before adding that “somebody” was “massa,” or the slaves’ master.
Douthit worked his presentation from behind two turntables on a table at the front of the auditorium. He paced right and left in from of the students and stopped every so often to play samples of more than 9,000 songs he said he had on his computer. The songs reflected different stages in the history of Black music in the United States.
Douthit noted that in 1959, a new label was begun by a man named Berry Gordy Jr. What started out as Tamla Records was a year later folded into the larger Motown Record Corporation.
“Motown was easily the greatest label we ever had,” he said.
Gordy’s dedication to producing meaningful, soulful music was bound to one question: “Would you buy this music, or would you buy a sandwich?” Douthit said.
Gordy started Motown with just $400 but went on to produce records by rhythm and blues legends like Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, the Chi-Lites, Stevie Wonder, among others.
The Motown Sound was characterized by its emphasis on the 2/4 song beat.
When Douthit touched on points the students found significant, they snapped their fingers in applause. One student asked why they are snapping their fingers instead of clapping.
People attending coffee shop poetry recitations in the 1950s or spending time in speakeasies of the earlier Prohibition era snapped their fingers, as opposed to clapping their hands, which was louder, Douthit explained.
One song that almost didn’t make it past Motown’s “quality control” was Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” the producer said.
Several years later there appeared another influential performer by the name of James Brown and “everything changes,” Douthit said.
The producer discussed music of the 1980s, that realized groups like Run DMC. Also in 1984, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin started Def Jam Recordings in their dorm room at New York University for $600. Among their first clients were LL Cool J and Beastie Boys.
Three years later, a man named Ted Demme created Yo! MTV Raps, which aired at 10 p.m. on Saturdays.
Douthit also discussed the Latin-Caribbean influence on Black music, heard in such bands as Incredible Bongo Band, with their song “Apache.”
A great thing about music is that it can be used to bring people of different backgrounds and cultures together, Douthit said. “Music is the equalizer,” he said.
Speaking to someone in the audience, Douthit told a student if he didn’t like the person next to him ask them what music they like, and they’ll form a common bond.
Douthit studied music at N.C. Central, where in 2007 he joined the faculty as artist in residence. He teaches similar courses at Duke. He’s also involved in a music research project at Harvard University and in 2019 he was inducted into the N.C. Music Hall of Fame.
He is a graduate of Glenn High School in Winston-Salem and as a graduate of an Historically Black College and University he said he could relate to the ECSU students in the audience.
“I’ve been where you are currently,” he said, referring to campus life.
Douthit said much of what he’s learned, including life’s lessons and about the music industry, he learned from listening to records.
“Some of my greatest professors were rappers,” he said.
Douthit called today’s music “soulless” and told the students if they demanded better music, they would get it.
As for the origins of hip hop, that goes to a building still located at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx Borough of New York City.
Last Sunday, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and U.S. House Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., attended a ceremony at the address to celebrate a Congressional resolution declaring 1520 Sedgewick Ave. as the birthplace of hip hop. According to the resolution, the origins date back to Aug. 11, 1973, when the “Back to School Jam” was hosted in the building’s recreation room.