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Little Feat

April 1, 2005
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It's 2 p.m. on a dreary day in Morrisville, N.C., and by North Carolina standards, it's plum nasty. Rain droplets cling to tree branches sprinkled among church steeples and quaint homes set along lolling country roads. Clad in camouflage fatigue pants, Pat “9th Wonder” Douthit is going to work. Like many music producers, 9th Wonder arrives at his finest moments working the second shift in studio sessions that run well into the wee hours. With a wife and children to think about, he's serious about his music — there's no room for wild and crazy partying in Wonder's world.

After sending off MP3 files that contain yesterday's recordings, the producer makes the crosstown trek to his record label's brand-new offices in Durham. With a flurry of productivity, the Hall of Justus label has outgrown its current digs in a cozy condo tucked away in sleepy Morrisville. Even though fax machines and filing cabinets still need to be transferred over, the key component is up and running in Durham: the studio.

Wool hat pulled protectively around his ears to ward off the rain, Wonder climbs into his GMC Yukon Denali, fiddling with the car stereo as he juggles cell-phone calls from Atlantic Records label executives and local Raleigh artists. Leaning into the steering wheel, he looks the part of a 30-year-old man on a mission as producer Khrysis and rappers Chaundon and Joe Scudda, also part of the Hall of Justus arsenal of beat and rhyme makers, hop into the truck. The label, headed by Big Dho, boasts about a dozen acts but is best known for last year's Foreign Exchange album collaboration with Dutch producer Nicolay and rap trio Little Brother — the freshest princes in the game.

Made up of Wonder and MCs Big Pooh and Phonte, Little Brother is gearing up to release its sophomore album, The Minstrel Show (Atlantic, 2005), which XXL magazine designated as one of 2005's most anticipated albums. It's the trio's first effort on a major label since its indie release, The Listening (ABB, 2003), became an instant underground hip-hop classic. Wonder's trademark soul-sampled flow complemented the album's simulated radio broadcast, sampling noticeably from groups such as A Tribe Called Quest. On The Minstrel Show, the group intends to bring back the Little Brother flavor with Big Pooh and Phonte's hard-hitting lyrics.

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IN THE BLACK WITH JAY-Z

On his own, Wonder has production credits of note including “Threat” for Jay-Z's The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2003) and two joints on Destiny Child's album Destiny Fulfilled (Sony, 2004): “Is She the Reason” and “Girl.” “Jay is a pro,” Wonder says. “I made the beat on an IBM ThinkPad laptop. He loaded the WAV files on Pro Tools in the big studio, and then he rhymed over that. And Guru mixed it.” Jay-Z famously sought him out to do the Destiny's Child release after being impressed by his production skills. This time, Wonder supplied beats from a Toshiba laptop at a Los Angeles studio and then handed over his beat tracks to an engineer.

With the exception of Jay-Z and Destiny's Child, Wonder and his crew handle their own engineering and mixing from their Spartan studio. “You can jump in there, or you can't,” he says. “There's not a school that teaches you how to mix well. Either you're born with it, or you're not. We engineer our own stuff.”

Wonder ratcheted up his status and ignited the trend of remixing entire albums when he remade Nas' God's Son (Columbia, 2002) into God's Stepson (available only on www.hiphopsite.com). Meanwhile, Wonder has also produced for Murs, Buckshot and Masta Ace, who all sought out his distinctive style. “I guess it's because of the sounds I use,” he muses. His sound is flavored with accents and beats that blend with full-bodied sampled hooks entirely drawn from vinyl. Wonder might be next-generation, but he relies on classic hip-hop sensibilities. He scours record stores fueled by Raleigh-Durham's large population of college students and delights in the joy of unearthing songs with that certain feeling. “I don't use sample CDs; I just straight sample from old records,” Wonder says. “I wouldn't even make a sample CD. They got to go record shopping like I do.” The producer grins, like a veteran of his craft.

The last stop en route to the studio is at rapper Jean Grae's hotel. Everyone is primed for the task at hand for the day: knocking out a good chunk of Grae's album, produced by 9th Wonder and Khrysis. He is hyped about working with Grae, who he worked with for “Supa Luv” from her last album, This Week (Babygrande, 2004). “Watch out — she's the next Lauren Hill,” Wonder proclaims. “Just don't forget the little people,” he kids with her as they discuss the work that's already been cut.

BASIC BOOM-BAP SCIENCE

The posse arrives at the new studio offices off a Durham side street. The actual studio is a cramped space, with a small sound booth and bare-bones production tools. Sony Book Shelf Speakers serve as the only monitors, and the only gear in sight includes a mixer and a Sony MiniDisc player that Wonder says are never used.

He heads straight for his innocent-looking Dell computer with a 25GB hard drive and Windows XP. “It's like the black Dell they advertise on TV, nothing major,” he says matter-of-factly. He pauses to respond to a common inquiry. “The only people who don't ask me why I don't use a Mac are people who have been doing beats for years,” he says with a knowing chuckle. “This is what we learned on. We stick with what works. This is how the first album was done. We go by the motto ‘If it's not broke, don't fix it.’”

While Grae settles in the booth, Wonder fires up Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro 1.2 (now called Adobe Audition). “I do all the mixdowns in the PC using Cool Edit Pro,” he says. Like a painter dabbling at his palette, he begins clicking the mouse with ease as beat patterns fall neatly into place. He calls up the beat files composed in the program he swears by: Image-Line FL Studio 4. He insists that everything he needs is squarely within this program, formerly called Fruityloops, running DXi instrumentation. “I can make it do any type of beat I want to,” Wonder says. “I listen for bass lines and the way I can tighten up the drums. I can make it sound like a crispy, empty beat or a dirty beat.”

The loop-based program allows Wonder to chop up his samples and create spacious rhythms, leaving room for vocals as well as a little swing. “Some samples you can chop up and make sound like a loop,” he says, stopping short and shaking his head defiantly — he won't divulge his process for extracting samples. “I can't talk about how I do beats. I very selectively choose who I show what I do with the beats.”

Nevertheless, he does reveal one clue about adding a little swing to the mix. “I learned this from producer J Dilla: Move your hi-hats, slidin' your hi-hats on the scale,” he says. He scatters the samples across the loops, resulting in hooks that move with the grace of the soul songs that Wonder loves, including his favorites by Curtis Mayfield and Al Green. From old-school singers to classic hip-hop producers, Wonder studies the masters. “I learned a lot from Premier and Pete Rock and J Dilla [aka Jay Dee] from bass lines,” he continues. “Wails and moans, I learned from RZA.”

With his beats in place, Wonder's writing process is usually pretty complete by the time he meets with a vocalist. “I might hear a drum track first; I might hear a sample,” he explains. “I might hear a drum track and try to match up a sample. Sometimes, I make [the track] and hear someone [who would be good] over it. Every artist has a certain type of track they pick.”

Wonder's skills shine as he applies his beats to accent the vocalists. “The challenge is trying to find a sound that fits the artist and will still stay you,” he says. “I'd like somebody to say, ‘I know a 9th Wonder joint.’ I'm a ‘boom bap’ producer. I do a lot of straight drum tracks. I'm an old-world producer. I'm a Pete Rock and Premier descendent because that's who I learned from. Whatever I learn from them, I take it and make futuristic. I want to make younger listeners hear what they missed. Everything runs in circles.”

His beats move with an even flow that sounds sweet on the dancefloor or on the Apple iPod. “Most artists devote everything to making a club track,” Wonder says. “Outside of Dr. Dre and Pharrell, there's nobody else getting in the club. I make tracks for the cats in the jeeps, the cats in the streets.”

SKIES ARE GRAE

As Wonder gets down to business, he separates each vocal track, building about 10 tracks before him on the screen for each vocal part. “I've got 64 tracks that can be overlapped,” he says. “It can be 128 if you know what you're doing.” His ear is immaculate, and with Khrysis by his side, they listen for imperfections in the mix. When the sound gets louder, he opens Cool Edit's modification panel and levels out the streams, aligning the waves using the program's compression function. Khrysis and Wonder speak in codes formed over long-standing working relationships. Khrysis plays the part of the studio's executive engineer. “The beat's gotta come up,” he says. With two sly clicks, Wonder is satisfied and bobs his head anticipating each nuance, feeling the depth of each change and staying in tune with how much compression is needed. “On vocals, some words come out louder than others,” Wonder says.

An audience of about five people crams in the studio to watch Grae and Wonder interact, with a lot of hooting and hollering going on at the results. A clear communicator, Wonder makes the studio experience fun for all, pushing through tough spots and celebrating victories — even singing the beats in pitch.

“Double that again,” he says to Grae, instructing her to layer another track on top of the last to thicken the sound. She hugs into the mic and nods, clearly vibing with her producer. “There's a big difference in the way the beats sound and the vocals since she started coming down here,” Wonder says. He turns a random 16-bar loop into a more full-bodied song, running Cool Edit Pro's filter plug-in to streamline the sound. “That's a graphic equalizer we use to make a high lift,” he explains. “It brings up the hi-hats so it just don't sound muffled like the high end or the bass end of it.”

As he continues to edit, he flavors the vocals and drums with Cool Edit's echo effects. “In a big studio, the engineer would do that,” he says. At lightning speed, he matches the vocals with time and pitch functions to get the tempo just right. “You can pitch your time to match whatever vocal you're using,” he continues.

Using studio code, he communicates with Grae. “You gonna ad-lib that?” And boom, bap — half the song is laid down in less than 15 minutes. Wonder's instincts are smooth and graceful, honed from years of experience with synthetic music.

AS A WEE LAD

While growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wonder played in the school band and learned the basics of several instruments. “I played some drums,” he says. “Anything on the treble clef I could handle: clarinet, baritone saxophone. The trombone gets a little confusing. And I can't read piano music. My first keyboard I got was in sixth grade, and I kept upgrading keyboards. Every Christmas, I would ask for a new keyboard.”

But it was Wonder's devotion to hip-hop that laid the groundwork for his future. “When I was a kid, hip-hop was really on the incline,” he remembers. “I got into replaying what I heard on the keyboard. I really didn't know it was a sample from an old record. I tried to play what I heard. I'm playing overtures in the daytime, and in the nighttime, I'm hearin' Brand Nubian and A Tribe Called Quest.”

But the keyboard was not Wonder's choice vehicle for sound. “All my keyboards are gone,” he laments. He sold his last keyboard, a Yamaha PSS-480, in 1996. “I pawned my keyboard to go to see a girl,” he says. “And we broke up shortly after. I hope I see her again and it'll be like Ricki Lake — look at me now.”

North Carolina Central University brought Wonder to Raleigh-Durham and provided the foundation for his recording interests. “I was trying to save up to get an MPC,” he says. “I had a good friend who had a computer. He started makin' beats and showed me what he did. Once I found something that worked, I stuck with it. It was the only option I had to make beats, but it worked.”

At school, he began to collaborate with Big Pooh, Phonte and the Justus League clique. They were committed to creating real hip-hop with meaningful lyrics and soulful backdrops. “They try to label us like the rest of the South because we're below the Mason Dixon,” Wonder says.

As a student, it took time to find an affordable system that he could manipulate with ease. “For beats, at first, it was the HammerHead Rhythm Station,” he says. “It was the worst, but it was all I could get. And then JavaSound FM BeatBox — I left BeatBox and went to Fruityloops and found Cool Edit Pro from the jump.”

BEATS KNOCK 'TIL THE TRUNK POP

Although his equipment is somewhat primitive, Wonder has the industry's finest touting him as the dude with the ill beats among the leaders of the brand-new school of hip-hop. When Jay-Z and Grae seek you out, you know you've found a formula that's hotter than hot. “The beautiful thing about hip-hop is that you can't overthink it,” Wonder says. “As long as you got a nice, quality hook, let it go.”

As the night oil burns, Wonder and Grae plow ahead to cut four tracks, working off existing loops and her rhyme writing. Without taking breaks, a flurry of activity in the tiny studio speeds along until 2 a.m. And then, it's time to go to Waffle House.

Even after a grueling studio session, a weary Wonder is still polite and laid-back. “I'm a Southern boy; I grew up with good manners,” he says. Back in the Denali, he pops in a beat CD containing tracks with the session's results. Grinning from ear to ear, he's rockin' to the beats as he rolls off into to the night, making good on his own words: making beats for the low-key cats riding around the streets.

A SMALL WONDER OF A STUDIO

Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Dell Dimension 2650 computer
ViewSonic Professional Series PS 775 monitor

Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Behringer Eurorack UB802 mixer

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixer:
Technics SL-1200 turntables

Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Image-Line FL Studio 4 software
Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro 1.2 software

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Apex 430 condenser mic
ART Tube MP mic preamp

Monitors:
Sony MDR-V600 headphones
SSK10ED Book Shelf Speakers

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