Hip-hop producers 9th Wonder and E. Jones are sitting behind the soundboard inside one of the rooms at N.C. Central's old biology building, now home to a recording studio. The studio is part of the school's three-year-old Hip-Hop Initiative, a program that teaches hip-hop history and industry to interested students.
9th Wonder co-founded the program and teaches several of its courses. A Grammy-winning producer, he's worked with Jay-Z, Destiny's Child and Murs since gaining notoriety for his laid-back beats and distinctive snare drum pop in his Durham rap trio, Little Brother. Today, he's fuming about the 2008 Southeast Music and Entertainment Summit, which honored a rather unaccomplished South Carolina beatmaker with its "Producer of the Year" award rather than the more obvious choice, Virginia super-producer Nottz. 9th Wonder carted off the award last year, so it's a selfless lament, really. In a genre where rooting for the other guy borders on sacrilege, 9th Wonder is the rare breed who seems to care more about the music itself than the clique with which it's associated. That is, if hip-hop were a sporting league, 9th Wonder would be looking straight past jerseys and straight for the all-stars.
In fact, tonight, 9th Wonder—a long-time Durham resident and an outspoken Duke Blue Devils basketball fan—shares the studio with Oakland, Calif., native Quentin Thomas, known to fans of ACC basketball as "Q" or "QT." Just last year, Thomas was the fan-dazzling, frenzy-prone senior point guard for UNC-Chapel Hill's Tar Heels. He helped capture an NCAA title in 2005 on the way to becoming the player with the best record in school history. The majority of Thomas' tenure at UNC, though, was plagued by foot, knee and ankle ailments, all of which prevented him from becoming the break-out star that Tar Heel coach Roy Williams (who was at Kansas at the time) recruited him to be. But fate, it seems, intervened, delivering Thomas, who rapped back in California, onto 9th's hip-hop radar. Turns out, the old Dean Dome star can actually rap, and that's going to keep 9th's basketball bias on hold for a bit.
"The funny thing is that I was in L.A. at the Lakers mini-camp in June," says Thomas. "On the second day of the mini-camp, my knee started bothering me, and I couldn't play anymore. I couldn't go to Vegas for the showcase that's out there for the NBA teams. The day that my knee started hurting, 9th Wonder called me."
Thomas debuted in 9th's studio in June, the same night frequent 9th Wonder collaborator and dominant female rapper Jean Grae arrived to record some new material. Of all female emcees, Grae is the one you don't want to inconvenience. She raps tough and relentless. It appeared Thomas was going to have to sit on the bench again.
But Grae had to leave before her session began, and the rest is ... well, a bevy of songs recorded by Thomas and 9th in the four months since. Those several dozen songs have been heard by very few people outside of these studio walls. In fact, neither Thomas nor 9th is even willing to divulge any of the track titles: "Just tell the readers that it's the third song," 9th and E. Jones joke while Thomas sits in the corner, chuckling and experimenting with a drum machine.
On the speakers, Thomas shreds through a track from Greensboro producer Fatin. In three unrelenting verses of self-aggrandizement and flow promotion, Thomas invokes the euphonic rhyme-swing of a Philly emcee like Cassidy, infused with a smidgen of the threatening demeanor seen in rap battles. Thomas' braggadocio on the track actually makes you mad: He hasn't even been around the rap circuit and back, yet here he is referring to himself as "trouble"—not the hyberbolic thug trouble, but the sly-fox, onerous brand of trouble that Thomas gave his opponents on the court.
Listening to Thomas rap, it's clear that he's an undeniable, fiery performer on the hardwood and in the studio. But, thing is, unless it's game time or recording time, you'd never know it. Whether it's the obligatory political correctness of media training that most collegiate athletes have adopted or the genuine modesty of a newcomer to a rapper-eat-rapper industry, Thomas is surprisingly constrained, delightfully dignified.
"I really don't say [to people] that I'm doing music. I'm real laid-back and to myself. But if people ask me what I'm about to do, I might say that I'm going to the studio, and they might laugh and ask me if I rap or sing," he says. "I say that I rap a little bit, and when they hear me they're like 'Wow, you don't rap like a basketball player.' But I guess because of all the athletes that have tried to rap in the past, people have a certain stereotype."
9th Wonder sees Thomas as a natural emcee: "He understands how to rhyme. A lot of cats just rap. There was a lot less to teach him in the beginning. We haven't taught him a lot. We probably formulated some songs or gave him some concepts, but as far as a lot of the little stuff that we have to teach rappers—we don't have to teach."
With certain emcees, 9th has been known either as a co-signing, "yes-man"-producer or the hard-nosed song-sergeant who will work a rapper endlessly in the booth until they emerge with a good track. Not everyone has the skin for that sort of criticism and pressure, but Thomas' experience at one of the top basketball programs in the country steeled him for the sessions: "I was intimidated a little bit. The first time I came in the studio, I didn't know anybody. ... 9th's been around so many artists and I had to make sure my stuff was right. But 9th and everybody made me feel comfortable."
Thomas is currently considering playing in the NBA or somewhere in Europe. He's living in Colorado as he recovers from more knee surgery. Following another month of rehab and therapy in Oakland, he'll make his way back to N.C. to finish up his recent work with producers 9th, E. Jones and Fatin. He tentatively plans to release a mixtape sometime after Thanksgiving, followed in short order by a full-length album. He's confident he can pursue both basketball and rapping without compromising either of those passions.
"It's not like I'm just doing this because I can't play right now," he says. "I want to take this as far as it can go ... I want to surprise people."