The penchant of cream to rise is not a surprise; the speed with which it can happen is, as 9th Wonder's producing career indicates. Though not hailing from a hip-hop hotbed, nor blessed with a huge label, large marketing muscle or an established big-name producer, Little Brother's debut, The Listening, has grown to a stature that belies its rather humble beginnings, thanks in part to the attention paid to 9th Wonder's producing.
"We really don't have a great abundance of rap artists coming from there, and I think everyone respects our grime because of that. Because we came from nowhere and didn't have a Dr. Dre or a L'il John to lift up. I think that's why a lot of people are coming on Game, saying without Dre he wouldn't have shit," he explains. "Certainly, [the Internet] helped Little Brother a lot. Without it we wouldn't have gotten the places we got to. Without the Internet, we didn't have the money to get our music out there."
But not only did it help spread the word and their music, it helped put it in the hands of Roc-A-Fella Records engineer and Jay-Z protege Young Guru, who downloaded Little Brother's record online after hearing an MP3. ("He couldn't find it anywhere. Hell, who could?" 9th Wonder asks with a hearty laugh.)
Guru and Roots drummer ?uestlove--an early, vocal supporter of the band--were two of the three crucial connections 9th Wonder made in person or musically that paved the way for him to contribute beats to Jay-Z's track "The Threat," off his Black Album, propelling 9th Wonder and Little Brother to another level.
"I'm a big believer in 'beware who you're talking to,' you never know who they know," says 9th Wonder, introducing the story. "This guy named Theron Smith, who does freelance for MTV in video design. He was chosen from a thousand plus people to work on the Fade to Black DVD. He came down because of Spectac. He did a lot of work with him and Jonathan McCloud, a good friend of mine, and Spectac's manager. We talked for a minute and hung out all day."
"Fast forward to September 2003. I get a call out of nowhere from Jonathan. He said, 'Guess who wants to hear beats from you? Jay-Z.' I'm like, 'Please stop lying.' So he's, 'No, I'm serious. Remember Theron? Well he's in N.Y., working on Jay-Z's Fade to Black DVD. He said he's gonna call you.' Five minutes later, Theron calls and he's like, 'I was riding with Guru the other day, and out of nowhere he says, 'Have you heard about a group Little Brother?'' So that's how I got to N.Y.," he says.
Since then, 9th Wonder's worked with Destiny's Child (thanks to an introduction by Jay-Z), MOP, Jean Grae (who's back in town to record another joint with him), Murs and Masta Ace, among others.
"The way the game is now, it's hard to make it without some kind of cosign. We got cosigned from Quest. I got a cosign in several cases from Jay-Z," 9th Wonder says. "They need a cosign from a major artist to let them know it's OK to buy it. A lot of cats are like that. I hate it, but a lot of cats didn't pay attention to me until The Black Album."
Which isn't to suggest anything's been handed to them. The origin of 9th Wonder's unique sound is metaphor for this. It comes in part from his unusual use of a computer to create beats rather than a sampler. But it wasn't that he necessarily had a vision--he just couldn't afford anything else.
"I just took what I had and perfected it. It's like the cat from Indiana shooting ball in the crate. He didn't have the nice recreation center or courts. But he's great from outside. The whole Hoosiers aspect. You have to take what you've got and work with it," he says. "No machine is going to give you that talent. You're either born with it or you're not. And I think a lot of cats really don't understand that. They think they can fake it, you know?"
Like he said in the beginning--the genuine article is sort of undeniable, which ought to be a lot clearer after Little Brother's debut release for its new label, Atlantic Records, arrives sometime in the third quarter of this year.
Jay-Z The Black Album
Destiny's Child Destiny Fulfilled
Murs 3:16-The 9th Edition
De La Soul The Grind Date
Jean Grae This Week