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Fri April 4, 2014
Music

Hip-Hop Academy: Inside A Beatmaker's Harvard Class

Originally published on Mon April 7, 2014 8:21 am

Hip-hop was born back in the early 1970s, around the same time college students were graduating with new majors in Feminist Studies, Environmental Studies and Black Studies. Initially seen by much of academia as marginal at best, PC at worst, those subjects are now considered conventional. Filmmaker Kenneth Price grew up with hip-hop, and noticed that over the past decade, a number of prestigious institutions had taken an interest in and were studying hip-hop with the same rigor as other disciplines.

"I was curious about this field of hip-hop studies," Price says. "I wasn't aware of the depth that was happening at these Ivy League schools, and was kind of amazed that no one had made a film of it yet."

So he did by following Patrick Douthit, or 9th Wonder, as he's professionally known, to Harvard. 9th spent the 2012-2013 academic year as a Harvard Fellow, teaching at the Hiphop Research Institute. It's part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, often billed as the most comprehensive collection of African and African-American studies in the country.

At the film's outset, 9th confesses it was an unlikely scenario, "Nobody from hip-hop was supposed to go to Harvard without a degree," he says. "Nobody. To do anything."

But degree or no, 9th turned out to be a born teacher. The filmmaker caught him giving the class a semester-long assignment — to decide, collectively, on a list of albums that constitute standards of the genre.

To do that, students paid attention to sampling: the art of taking snippets of sound from other, earlier records and dropping them into new work. Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Jr., heads the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, and he says sampling has a well-established literary equivalent.

"T.S. Elliot. Herman Melville, with Moby-Dick. Ulysses by James Joyce is an entire extended riff on The Odyssey by Homer. That's how literature works — it's repetition, with a difference," Gates says. "And sampling is just another word for what, in literary circles, we call intertexuality."

Pulitzer-winning historian Diane McWhorter was another Harvard Fellow during 9th Wonder's tenure. She says that as he talked about being a vinyl archeologist, she saw how he was using music from her past to explain his present.

"When he talks about being a crate digger — you know, going through all the old LPs to find new stuff? Well, it was a little bit sobering, because the stuff he was discovering was stuff I had grown up with," McWhorter says.

Mixing the old with the new has enabled hip-hop to create, as 9th likes to call it, a bridge between generations. Harvard's Hiphop Archive is now cataloging hip-hop's lyrics, so they can be critically assessed.

"We have the data to show that to a student," he explains. "'Read this. Now read this. Now what's the difference? This is more poetic than this is.' They get the chance to see that."

Hip-hop is no longer kids' music; at 40, it's officially middle-aged, and 9th Wonder says generational rifts have emerged. Some older hip-hop fans feel their music was more significant, more worthy, than the music younger fans are playing, work the grownups are dismissing as nothing more than noise. Sound familiar? You'll hear that again in 20 years. Someone will probably write a thesis on it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, the study of Hip Hop music and culture is fast becoming a part of the curriculum at many elite colleges. A new documentary called "The Hip Hop Fellow" looks at how 9th Wonder, a respected hip hop DJ, producer and musician helped Harvard students figure out what was really going on in the world. Here's NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hip hop was born back in the early '70s, around the same time college students were graduating with new degrees in Feminist Studies, Environmental Studies and Black Studies. Initially seen by much of academia as marginal at best, those subjects are now considered conventional.

Filmmaker Kenneth Price grew up with hip hop and noticed that over the past decade a number of prestigious institutions had taken an interest in and were studying hip hop with the same rigor as other disciplines.

KENNETH PRICE: I was curious about this field of hip hop studies. I wasn't really aware of the depth that was happening at these Ivy League schools and thought, you know, I was kind of amazed that no one had made a film about it yet.

BATES: So he did, by following Patrick Douthit, or 9th Wonder, as he's professionally known, to Harvard. 9th spent the 2012-2013 academic year as a Harvard Fellow teaching at the Hip Hop Research Institute; it's part of the WEB Du Bois Institute, often billed as the most comprehensive collection of African and African American studies in the country. At the film's outset, 9th confesses it was an unlikely scenario.

9TH WONDER: Nobody from hip hop was supposed to go to Harvard without a degree. Nobody. To do anything.

BATES: But degree or no, 9th turned out to be a born teacher. Here the filmmaker caught him giving the semester's assignment.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

WONDER: What is the standard? What are going to be the rules for being, OK, this is standard, classic, hip-hop album? Level of influence, the sound of it. So these are the type of back and forths we're going to get into when we decide what's a classic album that's going to stand the test of time because we are going to decide that list.

BATES: To do that, they paid attention to sampling - the art of taking snippets of sound from other, earlier records and dropping them into new work. It's been called everything from re-creating to outright stealing. Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Jr. heads the WEB DuBois Institute. He told the filmmakers sampling has a well-established literary equivalent.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: TS Elliott, Herman Melville with "Moby Dick." Ulysses by James Joyce is an extended riff on "The Odyssey" by Homer. That's how literature works -it's repetition with a difference. And sampling is just another name for what in literary circles we call intertexuality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "READY OR NOT")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (singing) Ready or not, here I come, you can't hide...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

DIANE MCWHORTER: As a historian of the Civil Rights Movement, I kind of had a hard time seeing the trajectory from Dr. King to Dr. Dre.

BATES: That's Pulitzer Prize winning historian Diane McWhorter in the film. She was a Harvard Fellow with 9th Wonder. McWhorter says that as he talked about being a vinyl archeologist, she saw how 9th was using music from her past to explain his present.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

MCWHORTER: When he talked about being a crate digger, you know, going through all these old LPs to find new stuff, well, it was a little bit sobering, because the stuff that he was discovering was stuff that I had grown up with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (singing) Oh. Oh. I was looking for affection so I decided to go...

BATES: Mixing the old with the new has enabled hip hop to create, as 9th Wonder likes to say, a bridge between generations. And it's more than just beats. 9th says Harvard's Hip Hop Archive is now cataloguing hip hop's lyrics so they can be critically assessed.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

WONDER: We have the data to show that to a student. Read this. Now read this. Now what's the difference? Well, this is more poetic than this is. Oh, OK. And so they get the chance to see that.

BATES: So hip hop, at 40, is no longer kids' music, it's now officially middle-aged. Professor Wonder says there's now a bit of a rift: some older hip hop fans feel their music was more significant, more worthy, than the music younger fans are playing - works the grownups are dismissing as nothing more than noise. Sound familiar? You'll hear that again in 20 years. Someone will probably write a thesis on it. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Hey, this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. MORNING EDITION's theme rap was composed by BJ Leiderman. His stage name is DJ Leiderman. Arranged by Jim Pugh. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN I KICK IT")

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (singing) Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it?... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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