Dinner Party merges 9th Wonder’s production with leaders of the new generation of jazz

By Kyesha Jennings

July 13, 2020

2021 will mark 20 years since super-producer Patrick Douthit, a.k.a. 9th Wonder, has blessed hip-hop with his soulful productions and prolific use of samples. Starting with the sonic force of hip-hop’s beloved Southern trio Little Brother, 9th Wonder has provided production for everyone’s favorite artists, including Jay-Z, Big Krit, Destiny’s Child, Anderson Paak, Jean Grae, and Erykah Badu. The Winston Salem native is also the CEO of Jamla Records, home to Grammy-nominated artist Rapsody, and has lectured on the subject of hip-hop at Harvard, Duke, and North Carolina Central University. Most recently, 9th teamed up with jazz contemporary heavyweights Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and Robert Glasper. The hip-hop jazz-infused quartet is known as Dinner Party and their self-titled debut album was released on July 10.

9th Wonder backstage at The Underground in Charlotte in 2016 at The Hip-Hop Fellow screening. Photo: Ronald Stewart

At first glance, one may ask: Besides talent, what do these accomplished musicians have in common? “The thing that joins us all together is one polarizing figure, and that’s Kendrick Lamar. Like, we’ve all worked on a Kendrick Lamar project, whether it be Good Kid all the way to DAMN. We’ve all worked on a project some way, somehow,” 9th said. 

Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly, which features five songs produced by Terrace Martin, is a masterpiece that positions jazz at the center of hip-hop. “To Pimp a Butterfly was a reintroduction of what hip-hop and jazz can do together,” 9th said. “I don’t know if Dinner Party would be received the way it is if we didn’t have [that album].”

Although listeners may welcome Dinner Party’s sound more in today’s musical landscape because of Lamar, the group’s natural chemistry derives from the roots of jazz and hip-hop.

“To Pimp a Butterfly was a reintroduction of what hip-hop and jazz can do together.” – 9th Wonder

“Jazz is the shoulders that hip-hop stands on. We started thinking about it from that angle,” he said. “Like we really need to implement the fact that a lot of these sound beds are jazz anyway, like studying Midnight Marauders by Tribe, and studying Low End Theory, and studying Mecca and The Soul Brother by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, all of those records are studies of jazz.”

Hip-hop’s relationship with jazz is far from new. In fact, hip hop has adopted many of jazz sensibilities and aesthetics, including freestyling. Like most Black American music genres, both hip-hop and jazz offer social and political commentary. A Tribe Called Quest is often credited for bringing jazz to hip-hop’s forefront. Where many were relying on James Brown samples, Q-Tip sought to layer jazz samples, particularly ones with jazz horns and bass lines. The group even made history by inviting legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter to contribute to their 1991 classic Low End Theory on “Verses from the Abstract.”

9th Wonder. Photo: Ronald Stewart for CLTure

For 9th, Dinner Party allows leaders of the new generation of jazz (i.e. Washington, Martin, and Glasper) to create music using live instrumentation, programmed beats, and drums. The project was recorded in Los Angeles in late 2019. Following jazz traditions, the recording process consisted of intimate jam sessions. Conflicting schedules only allowed for one in-person session to occur, but the supergroup was still able to capture the essence of the historic relationship between hip-hop and jazz. “It was very organic for us. It’s always organic for us. The big thing about jazz and the foundation is improvisation, it’s not about being so structured. Music comes out based on the energy of the people that are giving it. So we have four soulful souls doing a record, it’s gonna feel that way,” 9th said.

The seven-track album includes three instrumentals and four songs with lead vocals provided by Chicago-based artist Phoelix. What started out as reference vocals ended up being the perfect match for the groups’ feel-good soulful melodies. According to 9th, Los Angeles is a city filled with unmatched talent and musicianship. An accomplished producer, rapper, or singer is bound to be present or within reach during recording sessions. “Usually it’s like, you bring somebody [who is] very dope [to] reference songs. But then you can’t stop listening to the song . . . [and] sometimes the reference is better than anything,” said 9th.

Dinner Party album cover designed by Amani Washington

In the tracks where Phoelix is present, there’s a definite balance between lyrics and melodies. This intentionality creates space for all pieces of each song to shine– the production, the live jazz instrumentation, and the vocals. The themes covered on the project are varied, ranging from love to social injustices to paying homage to our nation’s first responders. 

“Sleepless Nights,” the album’s first track, opens up with the warm yet equally alarming sounds of the saxophone. The piano, synth, and Phoelix’s gently radiant vocals join in, creating a soothing sonic texture and cadence before the beat drops. The abstract lyrics create a vision of hope for a struggling relationship– whether it be romantic or platonic or, considering the state of America, the taxing relationship diasporic folks have with systemic racism. “Cloudy days, sleepless nights / I lay awake, tossin’, wonderin’ when we’ll get it right / We’ve been down, for so long / Know change been on the way, ain’t worried no more,” Phoelix sings. 

The lead single “Freeze Tag” is the most impactful track on the album. Between the soulful saxophone and 9th’s production offering feelings of nostalgia, the urgency for change is evident in Phoelix’s voice as he sings: “How we ‘posed to get from under? / They told me put my hands up behind my head / I think they got the wrong one / I’m sick and tired of runnin’ (Runnin’) / I been searchin’ where the love went (Love went).”

Prior to the pandemic, the group had hopes of touring, but the disruption has allowed 9th to approach the album’s reception with optimism. “Most artists want you to live with the music, now you have no choice but to live with the music. So, by the time we’re able to do shows, you’re gonna know that album [Dinner Party] backward and forwards,” he said. 

As suggested by the group’s name and album title, Dinner Party succeeds at offering soulful dinner party vibes. But, unlike traditional dinner party music, this project affectionately merges some of the greatest talents in modern jazz and hip-hop, reintroducing the fusion of the genres at a time when we need it the most.

Listen to the self-titled debut album by Dinner Party featuring 9th Wonder, Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, and Phoelix.

Dinner Party: Dessert 

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