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

Apr 4, 2014
Originally published on April 7, 2014 10:21 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 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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 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.

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, "THE HIP-HOP FELLOW")

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 W.E.B. DuBois Institute. He told the filmmakers sampling has a well-established, literary equivalent.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE HIP-HOP FELLOW")

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: T.S. 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")

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE HIP-HOP FELLOW")

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, "THE HIP-HOP FELLOW")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "READY OR NOT")

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, "THE HIP-HOP FELLOW")

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 grown-ups 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 B.J. 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") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.