Many music fans can remember where they were when rumors of Jay-Z’s The Black Album began to swirl on early blogs in 2003. One of the most notable aspects of that particular record’s announcement was the inclusion of the then-underground producer, 9th Wonder (born Patrick Denard Douthit). At the time, Jay-Z was one of the biggest names in entertainment. For the rapper to reach to the underground to bring up 9th Wonder was remarkable, a bridge to a new generation’s sound. Ever since, 9th Wonder’s career has taken off. His appreciation for music has been validated by fans all over the world. But, perhaps first and foremost, that validation began with family – his mother, his older brother. And that familial inspiration continues to permeate 9th Wonder’s music today, including the songs he makes in the supergroup, Dinner Party, which released its latest record, Dessert, on Friday.
“For me,” 9th Wonder says, “that was the beginning of family members believing. They were like, ‘Oh, you do this for real!’ It used to make me so mad at first that people would not take my music seriously. But when I made The Black Album, that’s the moment in time when it became real.”
When thinking about contemporary music, it’s impossible not to quickly turn to its influences, inspirations and roots. To think about Dinner Party, one must think about Jay-Z. One must also think about Kendrick Lamar. In 2015, the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper’s record, To Pimp A Butterfly, changed music forever. That album, which 9th Wonder and the other principle players from Dinner Party (Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington) worked on, crystalized a modern-yet-practically-timeless relationship between hip-hop and jazz. The first clearly stands on the shoulders of the second, but without Lamar’s seminal album, the world may not know that so clearly.
“To Pimp A Butterfly is what sparked all this, really,” 9th Wonder says. “That was the album that made everyone say, ‘Oh, you can do that on a rap record!’ Kendrick melded these worlds together. This generation had never heard no shit like that before. It was almost too much.”
9th Wonder knows about melding music. In a way, it’s what he’s always done since was 11-years-old. He laughs as he thinks about growing up and being forced to listen to what his parents listened to. His older brother, who was twelve years older, and who has also sadly passed away recently, introduced him to records from bands like Boston and Night Ranger. Soon after, 9th Wonder discovered groups on MTV, like Phil Collins and Duran Duran. Simultaneously, he studied rappers like LL Cool J. His education didn’t stop there. Growing up in North Carolina, he was in the school band and orchestra, first playing clarinet and then picking up seven more instruments by 8th grade. By the time he started making beats, he was a musical encyclopedia.
“I wouldn’t say I started to pursue music,” 9th Wonder says, “I started to pursue happiness. Everything that orchestra taught me or the band teacher taught me or every hip-hop record I listened to all came out when I started making beats.”
9th Wonder was working with the rap group, Little Brother, when Jay-Z called his name for The Black Album. Since then, he’s produced for myriad artists and released many solo records. The prolific producer doesn’t want to leave anything in the can after he perishes, he says. So, he pushes himself. With Dinner Party, a group known for its jazz sounds and instrumentation, 9th Wonder provides the foundation. He supplied the seven beats for the debut chart-topping album, and the musicians used each to produce the group’s debut. 9th Wonder met Terrace Martin, who co-founded Dinner Party with Glasper, about a decade ago at a Rock the Bells show in D.C. headlined by Snoop Dogg. Ever since, the two have been kindred spirits.
“Terrace is my brother,” he says. “He’s seen some of my highs and lows, and I’ve seen some of his. Whether he likes to believe it or not, he is the leader of Dinner Party. He’s the leader of this outfit, and we trust him one hundred percent.”
Listening to the original Dinner Party album, one might expect roller coaster solos, wild expressions from each of the people involved, especially given their reputation and prowess. But it was important for the band not to be four individuals. They’re a group, bonded together for the sake of the songs. The camaraderie of Dinner Party is what smacks harder than any shredding. And their latest record, which includes guest appearances by Snoop, is equally democratic.
“There’s something to be said about getting in a group when you’re young,” says 9th Wonder. “But it’s different in a group when you’re older. At this point, we’re all established in our careers, respected by ourselves. So, there’s no ‘Oh, I’m not getting enough time, people aren’t noticing me.’ This is just a bonus.”
As a producer, 9th Wonder is not often bombastic. He’s restrained, subtle. He does not make music of chasms and snow-topped peaks. Instead, it’s everglades and chilled streams. Pines bristling in the breeze and then calming in the near silence of stillness. In this way, making beats can be harder than hiding behind giant kicks and rapid snares. It also makes the perfect bed for wizards like Glasper, Martin and Washington to make their sonic hangouts.
“Music is my sanctuary,” 9th Wonder says. “My older brother passed away three months ago – today, as a matter of fact. If I didn’t have the outlet to DJ or to make music, I don’t know how I would have made it. I just don’t. He called himself my biggest fan. Music has gotten me through so much. Even when I was first starting out and I didn’t know if I was ever going to make any money. Just making a beat soothed my worries.”