After working with Jay-Z, Ludacris, Mary J. Blige and Drake, teaching at Harvard may seem like a counterintuitive move. But that’s exactly what makes an upcoming documentary about Grammy Award-winning producer 9th Wonder such an engaging and enlightening film.
The Hip-Hop Fellow, directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Kenneth Price, follows 9th Wonder’s tenure at Harvard University, as he teaches “The Standards of Hip-Hop” course and explores hip-hop’s history, culture and role in an academic setting. Following his work on more than 100 music videos that have appeared on MTV, VH1 and BET, Kenneth focused his camera lens on the historical significance of incorporating hip-hop music studies into academia.
The fascinating film will make its premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina – the home state for both Kenneth and 9th Wonder – on April 5. You can watch the trailer for The Hip-Hop Fellow here and also track future screenings as the film travels to other cities and universities, where they will host interactive experiences to discuss the issues explored in the film.
We caught up with Kenneth to discuss the significance of hip-hop as a music and culture course at Harvard and why 9th Wonder is the ideal man for this moment in history.
How did you discover this story, and what was it that drew you in and made you want to make a documentary about it?
I had been a fan of 9th’s for years. When I found out he was becoming a professor, the idea began to take shape that it would make for an interesting film. You just don’t associate hip-hop with Harvard and yet the hip-hop archives exist there and there’s a lot of groundbreaking work being done in the study and preservation of hip-hop culture. I thought 9th’s story would be a great vessel to explore the larger topic of hip-hop’s importance in the academy.
Not everyone could connect at the crossroads of both worlds. What is it about 9th Wonder that makes him a good fit to be both an award-winning producer and a higher educator?
I think what makes 9th so unique is the fact that when he’s producing he goes into a zone where he makes it seem effortless, and he can knock out five incredible beats in an hour. But when he goes into the classroom environment he can break down everything that is going on in his head when he’s seemingly just doing it automatically. Aside from being able to break down the production process, he has extensive knowledge of just not hip-hop music, but all music, because he’s constantly listening to and exploring new genres to sample.
As you followed him, what did you discover about the historic nature of what he was doing and the importance of people knowing this story?
I think hip-hop studies are really at a turning point. Hip-hop just celebrated its 40th year as a culture, and each year more schools begin to study it as an art form the same way they look at jazz or classical studies. I think people in the film like Dr. Mark Anthony Neal and Dr. Marcyliena Morgan are at the forefront of an entirely new field of study, and incorporating someone like 9th into the curriculum allows for first-hand insight into this emerging field.
Looking back through its evolution, where do you think hip-hop is heading?
I think it’s really difficult to tell where hip-hop is headed because it’s still such a relatively new genre. We’ve got new subgenres emerging with artists like Frank Ocean or Das Racists. I think it’s in a great place today because the barrier to entry is relatively low, thanks to digital distribution, for artists to get their music heard across the world. The responsibility isn’t on the record labels anymore; it’s on the listeners.
What do you hope the audience takes away from your film?
I hope people look at hip-hop differently. It’s easy to be swayed by what’s on the radio or on television, but it’s important to look at the history of the culture so we know where it came from and where it’s going. In my eyes, we’re at an explosive moment of creativity where hip-hop is extremely diverse, if you look outside of the same dozen artists who dominate radio and television.