A Conversation With Jermaine Dupri & Friends
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Interview: Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Built The Platform For ATL Hip-Hop

On the heels of So So Def's 25th Anniversary Tour, Jermaine Dupri talks to VIBE about his brand's legacy and influence on today's hip-hop sound. 

The landscape of hip-hop is heavily stacked with talent coming from Atlanta. Some of the biggest names in the industry are all ATL-bred, including Migos, Future and Childish Gambino. While it’s hard to imagine what hip-hop would be like without the aforementioned voices of today, it would be a disservice to not mention one of the most significant influencers in putting the South on the map: Jermaine Dupri.

Over the course of 25 years, Jermaine Dupri has been at the forefront of the Southern movement. From cultivating and nurturing the careers of groups like Kris Kross and Xscape to global sensations like Bow Wow, Dupri has proven—against many odds—that Atlanta’s rich musical culture should be heard and respected just as much as the culture of popular regions like New York and Los Angeles.

“The narrative of hip-hop was that [it] came from New York and it would be there forever. Then the West Coast came, and they pulled a little of that energy, but people were still fighting for it to come anywhere else,” he tells VIBE during a phone interview. “I went through DJs in New York telling me that my records were whack. People fought this whole movement for a good little while. It was not easy for me to break.”

Instead of just talking about it, Dupri proved his point with hits. He’s produced and written some of the biggest bops of this lifetime including: “Jump” by Kris Kross; “Always Be My Baby” and “Don’t Forget About Us” by Mariah Carey; “The First Night” by Monica; “Nice & Slow,” “U Got It Bad,” “Confessions Part II” and “Burn” by Usher; “My Boo” by Usher and Alicia Keys; and “Grillz” by Nelly feat. Paul Wall and Ali & Gipp. His skills have earned him countless accolades, including the most recent honor of being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

If you don’t already know, you can soon learn about Dupri’s influence as well as the impact of the artists he’s cultivated at the So So Def 25th Anniversary Tour, which will kickstart in its hometown of Atlanta, Ga., on Oct. 21.

Before he walks down memory lane, Dupri chopped it up with VIBE about So So Def’s legacy and influence on today's hip-hop sound.

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VIBE: How do you think So So Def changed the landscape of hip-hop history?
Jermaine Dupri: You look at where music is today, it doesn’t sit in the same place that it sat 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, people thought that music was only going to stay in these same places – New York and L.A. What I was able to accomplish showed other cities we can make Atlanta hot. St. Louis can come in and then this place. It opened the door for other people coming from other places besides what’s already out there.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in order to convince the rest of the world that ATL's sound was a force to be reckoned with?
Getting the mindset to change, to believe that there was room for those other places, getting the mindset of what we were trying to bring to the table wasn’t what New York or L.A. was doing. The narrative of hip-hop was that [it] came from New York and it would be there forever. Then the West Coast came and they pulled a little of that energy, but people were still fighting for it to come anywhere else. So, I went through DJs in New York telling me that my records were whack, telling me that they were tired. People fought this whole movement for a good little while. It was not easy for me to break. It was like pulling teeth.

 

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In addition to music, So So Def also had a big influence on street style and even dance culture...
Oh yeah, 100 percent. I would get credited for all of that if I was from New York or L.A. The fact that I’m from Atlanta, people don’t credit me with fashion because Atlanta’s not connected to the fashion network. You don’t think about fashion when you think about Atlanta. The other day I posted the suits that me and JAY-Z had on in “Money Ain’t A Thing.” That was in '98. The whole suit and the undershirt were all Versace. People didn’t start understanding what Versace is until the Migos. Even B.I.G.—people give Biggie and Puff that fashion [credit] as well. I think it’s just because I was coming from a place where people weren’t paying attention. Everything about Kriss Kross was style. Even when I brought Xscape out, they were a different-looking female group as opposed to dresses and high heels. They were a little bit tougher, but if you go back and look at it now, it’s a style that you see girls dress like. I was basically the stylist for all of my groups.

What influences from So So Def do you hear in hip-hop artists today?
Every record that’s on the radio that has a hi-hat, all of that, that’s all me. Because other records came from the South [feature those hi-hats], people just look at it as that’s just the sound. I did an interview the other day with Questlove on his podcast, and the first question he asked me was why are my hi-hats always so loud. In production, they know that Jermaine Dupri is known to have the loudest hi-hats on any songs, whether it be Mariah, Usher, Brat, whoever. You could turn the record all the way down and still hear the hi-hat.

Putting hip-hop beats under ballads is another one. If you think about Usher’s Confessions, it doesn’t feel like a Bobby Brown record. It feels like a rap record that somebody’s singing on top of. Jodeci had a lot of hard R&B ballads, but the simplicity that was done with the Usher records gives it its own breath. Even the way that I wrote Usher’s My Way album, the way that he’s singing on “U Make Me Wanna” and “ Nice & Slow,” that style of singing – Chris Brown, Trey Songz, 6lack, Bryson Tiller, Drake – everyone singing over rap records, that was not happening until I did that with Usher.

READ MORE: Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Tour Features Bow Wow, Da Brat, J-Kwon And More

As you may know, hip-hop recently celebrated its 45th birthday, and So So Def has been around for more than half of hip-hop’s history. Have you ever processed that?
Never. You know why? I have the weirdest career in hip-hop and I say that because I started so young. I started So So Def when I was 17 years old. My first group when I was 17 was Kris Kross. So what that does, that makes people believe that Jermaine Dupri is as old as Puff or JAY-Z. I’m not as old as these guys. I’m not far away from them, but they’re older than me. They're at least five to six years older than me. So it’s crazy when people talk to me, they speak to me and ask me questions about the '80s in hip-hop. In '83, I was 12 years old. I wasn’t even old enough to get in no club. I actually feel like hip-hop was further along, so I get lost in it because I was so young.

It’s unique that all of your artists will be participating in the anniversary tour. How do you maintain a family dynamic over 25 years?
I’m very good at separating things, and one of the things that I’ve always separated is that my business from one artist to the next has nothing to do with each other. Although Kandi brought me Jagged Edge, I never presented Jagged Edge as “Presented by Kandi from Xscape.” I never sold my artists on the backs of nobody else. That’s what other companies do, they sell you on Biggie, Faith Evans is his wife, and you know the story there. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I always stayed away from that. When I brought out Anthony Hamilton, most people don’t know Anthony Hamilton was on So So Def because I didn’t connect him to anything that was over there. Bow Wow was the king of 106 & Park, but I wasn’t bringing out Anthony Hamilton. And people were looking at me like why are you taking this harder road, won’t you just put Bow Wow on his song and dumb it down? I don’t think like that. I feel like each person always deserves their own space if they’re their own talent. With that being said, nobody has a reason to argue with Anthony Hamilton. We don’t have a reason to even talk to the other artists unless I ask them to. So the only problems that could ever happen inside So So Def, is with me and the artists. The artists always support each other because they are all a part of that brand. It’s like kids going to a college, you don’t get mad at the college. You might get mad at the teachers, but everybody represents the university.

But So So Def’s roster is so versatile and spans across many different genres. So, isn’t that difficult to maintain each person as their own entity?
I started so young, I got the opportunity to see people’s mistakes. I watched the Teddy Riley era with the New Jack Swing. I watched Hurby Luv Bug with Salt-N-Pepa and Kid N’ Play. I watched so many camps come up and people trying to build clues in hip-hop that I saw things that didn’t work for them. I’m not afraid of taking long walks. A lot of people want to be great, but they want to cheat to get to the greatness. I’m cool with talking the walk around the block to get to where I want to go as opposed to the cheat because the cheat has flaws. It has things that will come back to haunt you. I always use Anthony Hamilton as an example because Anthony Hamilton was a long walk. When Anthony Hamilton came out, we were doing shows in different places. I couldn’t get but 50 people to come and check him out. And So So Def was So So Def, and every artist was already platinum. But the way I was selling Anthony was not on the back of Bone Crusher. I want people to understand the mind of Jermaine Dupri as far as signing artists as well as understanding the depth of this artist and how different he is from anyone else that I have on this label. So I’m really a stickler with trying to make sure people understand my mindset. When dealing with people understanding your mindset, you got to stick to what it is you’re doing. When you stick to what you’re doing, sometimes that road ain’t as easy as the rest of them.

When you were starting out, black-owned music labels were hard to come by. What has allowed you to maintain longevity in the game in comparison to other labels that have folded?
I think my artists eventually started to understand me. It’s interesting because I had workers who used to work for me and I have a whole company and I would go out and produce Usher, and people at my company would wake up in the morning and be competing against their boss. And would call me into a meeting and say, 'Jermaine, you and your selfishness are keeping…' One time Bow Wow had “Like You” and Mariah had “We Belong Together” and “Shake It Off.” I had No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 on the Billboard. They were all my records but they were from two different companies. One was So So Def and the other two were Def Jam. “We Belong Together” moved from No. 1 and “Like You” went into No. 1, but “We Belong Together” was keeping Bow Wow from getting to No. 1. What I’m saying is, I didn’t care about that. I care about longevity. I care about us continuing on. I would have been selfish to not give Mariah that record. I would not be doing myself the justice of who I am as a songwriter and producer to hold songs. I say that to say that I feel like all my artists started realizing my mentality and that’s the only way that you have longevity in this business, is that you continue to keep moving on and don’t try that selfish mentality of holding on. So when you look at Tiny and Kandi, and how they started writing on the TLC records and “No Scrubs,” they wrote for a female R&B group. Prior to that, I’m sure they would have never even thought like that. ‘We not writing for TLC to help more females outdo us.’ That’s how the mentality of those people think, but I think being around me, you start learning that you don’t have to live your life like that. You don’t have to think that this person is going to be bigger than you just because you helped them. There’s nothing wrong with helping people. I’m looking at Loud Records and Wu-Tang. Wu-Tang is celebrating their 25th anniversary but Loud Records has nothing to do with it. So, it’s not all the companies; it’s the mentality behind the person who owns and runs the company.

 

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Growing up Hip Hop is back this Thursday! @guhh_wetv, look at my little girl 😢

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You’ve previously discussed So So Def’s knack for staying ahead of the curve. What’s the next phase that will take the brand to its 30th or 50th anniversary?
Just that TV show in itself. If you look at The Rap Game, I’m in my fifth season. By the time young guys realize how much TV I’ve done, I’d already done did 30 to 40 shows. And I say that because that’s the whole aesthetic of So So Def. If you look at the music industry right now, everybody wants to be “Lil.” Lil this, Lil that. Where did that sh*t come from? When Lil Bow Wow came out. That’s why it’s so funny about how the press treats Bow Wow. I mean Bow Wow says crazy things on Instagram on Twitter, don’t get me wrong. But at the same time, people treat Bow Wow as if he wasn’t ahead of the curve. He was so far ahead of motherf**kers, especially now. You talking about 2018. Bow Wow was doing 106 & Park in 2001. This was 17 years ago and he was only 12 years old. It’s because I’m from Atlanta, and what I do in Atlanta, you guys don’t see. Y'all have little dinners in New York that have nothing to do with nothing. Y'all don’t hear anything from us until the project actually comes out. So people don’t get enough of it the way that they do in other cities to respect it for what it is. But as far as being ahead of the curve and not just the title, it’s no artist right now that people claim they like or they talk about that is over 25 years old.

That’s all So So Def has ever been. People act like they don’t remember. Dr. Dre and Eminem dissed me for working with kids. Now Kanye has a record with Lil Pump. Come on! Oh, now it’s cool? My whole thing has always been if you 17, I’m going to sign you. If you 12, I’m going to sign you. I never signed anybody that was 25 and up on So So Def. Da Brat was 19; Xscape was teenagers; Jagged Edge was teenagers. So to see the music industry, where it is right now, it definitely says you guys weren’t paying attention. I’m saying people see what the Kardashians are doing. The most famous person in the world is Kim Kardashian and she’s only famous because she has a TV show. So now, think about the most popular rappers in the world: Eminem, Drake, JAY-Z, you could throw Puff in there. Who has a TV show? None of them. Me. And who has a TV show that’s a rap TV show, not Making the Band, The Voice, not no bullsh*t American Idol. A show that is about our culture. I am the only one right now in 2018 that has a TV show that’s about the youth. You can’t be more in the mix than that. Our demo in the rap game starts from five to 50 years old. All they know from watching The Rap Game is So So Def. They not hearing about nothing else right now. I’m so far ahead of the curve it’s ridiculous. That’s not where it’s going to stop, but that’s just to show you. That’s So So Def. Wherever I lay my head is my home.

READ MORE: Xscape Docuseries Is Reportedly Coming To Bravo

At one point did you stop keeping track of your No. 1 records?
I was reminded by Scooter Braun who used to work for me that for 16 years straight, I had a number one record on the Top 100. I never thought about that then and I didn’t start thinking about it until I made it to the Songwriters Hall of Fame because I had to really start thinking about was I worthy to be there. It’s only two people from this world that’s been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which is me and JAY-Z. I start only paying attention to it for the artists. Mariah’s last number one record or biggest was “We Belong Together.” So I’m looking at that saying at some point we have to top ourselves. Quincy Jones made Thriller when he was 50. I got five years to make Thriller.

What do you want people to take away from this tour?
I want to make sure that with this tour because it’s one in a million. People should come see this for a bunch of different reasons. One, if you love the music and you were a fan of the music, but two is just the fact that black music, the narrative is that we don’t get our shine and we don’t get our celebration until the people are dead and gone. Every artist that was signed to So So Def since 1992 will be there. That in itself for black history and black music, you don’t get that. People should come just for that, to be a part of it so that at some point in life you can say I saw it. It’s no other company in the music business that’s even on the pace to do what I’m doing right now. Cash Money got the most artists out of anybody that’s out, and that’s only three. Ten. Everybody that’s on this tour is so ready to go on this tour and give you one of the best shows that they could ever possibly do.

 

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Vinyl collectors and lovers

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READ MORE: Jermaine Dupri Becomes Member Of The Songwriters Hall Of Fame 2018

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VIBE Vault: Jada Pinkett / August 1994 Issue

The first thing you notice about Jada Pinkett is her long, curved, scarlet-enameled fingernails—“ghetto Vogue,” she calls them, laughing. Describing her meteoric ascent from the Baltimore School of Arts (where her best homie was Tupac Shakur) to overnight Tinseltown success. Pinkett coos for a few moments over her continuing romance with former Duke star hoopster/future NBA player Grant Hill, and those acrylic claws click like miniature castanets.

With close-cropped hair and a pearly smile, the tiny, gamine Pinkett is even prettier in person than she was as Lena in A Different World or as Ronnie in Menace II Society. Her compelling feature film debut as the heroic teenage single mom at the center of Menace’s world of adolescent violence and moral indifference catapulted the 22-year-old actress to the top of Black Hollywood’s A-list and into starring roles in three major movies this year.

Those nails actually belong to Peaches, Pinkett’s loud-mouthed, sassy character in Keenen Ivory Wayans’s A Low Down Dirty Shame (tentatively due this fall). Peaches brings Pinkett a sharp 180 degrees from Menace’s serious, responsible Ronnie. Her performances as Lauren, the upper-middle-class BAP brat in Matty Rich’s The Inkwell “who only worries about boys spending money on her,” and as Lyric, a fragile rural rose blooming from the dusty back roads of a Houston ghetto in Doug McHenry’s Jason’s Lyric (due in November), showcase her range further still.

The challenge of playing four radically different roles back-to-back could unsettle a young film newcomer, but Pinkett’s characters are always grounded in her own sometimes difficult life experience. “Ronnie is very close to my mother; she graduated high school with me in her tummy,” Pinkett says. “Lauren was also familiar because my Jamaican grandmother raised me in that upper-middle-class background before she died.” That loss and the divorce of her parents (both substance abusers at the time) plunged 13-year-old Pinkett into a very different world, one she says equipped her at age 18 for the Hollywood jungle—and for a character like Peaches. “I have a really obnoxious nature,” she admits, laughing. “I can get stank sometimes, all attitude and just being forward with it.” In contrast, she says, “playing Lyric allowed me for the first time to be loving, vulnerable—to let the walls down and say, ’Here I am.’”

The self-confident Pinkett, who counsels troubled teens across the country in her spare time, seems particularly savvy about her career. “I’m extremely lucky not to have been typecast, even though I’ve done only black films by black filmmakers,” she says. “It’s not, ‘Let’s get Jada for the homegirl and blasie-blah.’ That leaves my opening to grow.”

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Illustration by Alvaro

Revisit Aaliyah's August 2001 Cover Story: 'WHAT LIES BENEATH?'

With a new album and the romantic lead in the upcoming Anne Rice-adapted flick Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah is ready for superstardom. But don’t think you can get too close to her. Hyun Kim tried and found out that some things are best left alone. Illustration by Alvaro. Styling by Angela Arambulo

Aaliyah lives the perfect life. To hear her tell it, she wouldn’t change a thing. “This is what I always wanted,” she says of her career. “I breathe to perform, to entertain, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I’m just a really happy girl right now. I honestly love every aspect of this business. I really do. I feel very fulfilled and complete.”

It’s true that a young woman with a burgeoning career in music and film might as well be ecstatic about her life. In fact, there’s nothing more annoying than hearing some spoiled star whine about the pitfalls of success. So, while Aaliyah’s comments are refreshing, you can’t help but wonder if things sound, well, too good to be true. She speaks like a veteran politician – well prepared and press savvy, like she’s reading from an unseen teleprompter.

Of course, 22-year-old Aaliyah has been preparing for stardom since childhood. And now that she’s made it this far, it’s impossible to determine when she’s in performance mode, or just honestly being herself. A trained actress who is quickly becoming a hot property in Hollywood, Aaliyah has mastered the art of hiding herself from the public. It started back in the day, when she always rocked dark sunglasses. Because her eyes were rarely seen, a rumor quickly spread that she had a lazy or glass eye. She soon took to covering just her left eye with her long, straight, black hair. She hid again when, at 15, reports of her marriage to 25-year-old mentor and producer R. Kelly – the story broke in the December ‘94/January ’95 VIBE – scandalized the R&B world.

"IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO DETERMINE WHEN SHE'S IN PERFORMANCE MODE OR BEING HERSELF. A TRAINED ACTRESS, AALIYAH HAS MASTERED THE ART OF HIDING HERSELF FROM THE PUBLIC."

If you bring up the marriage with her, she sort of changes the subject. And we’re left searching dying for a glimpse inside this intriguing, mysterious woman.

It’s a bustling Thursday evening in May, and Aaliyah is lacing up her clunky bowling shoes at the AMF Chelsea Piers Lanes in New York City. She goes unnoticed by the rowdy, drunken group of Wall Street types in the next lane. Her tight, red sleeveless top and slightly faded blue jeans give more of a girl-riding-the-subway look than girl-on-MTV. She playfully tiptoes to the line and stomps her feet when her ball ends up in the gutter. But somehow you get the feeling that she isn’t particularly interested in rolling strikes either. She barely pays attention to her score, listed under the name Baby Girl. Aaliyah’s entourage – her stylist, makeup artist, and hairstylist – are more engaged than she is. The entire scene feels very staged, starring Aaliyah as the around-the-way superstar who’s kicking it with her peoples. “I like the simple things in life,” she insists. “When I have time, I stay home a lot, do things like this or play laser tag. I’ve always been a homebody.” It couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah Dana Haughton has been playing her roles well for as long as anyone can remember. All it took was a one-line speaking part as an orphan in her first grade’s production of Annie to convince Aaliyah that performing was her… From ages 8 to 9, she would sing Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston songs at weddings around Michigan. A faithful watcher of Star Search, Aaliyah was dying to compete on the show. At 11 years old, she got her shot. She sang “My Funny Valentine,” lost, and cried. Ed McMahon, the host of Star Search, who introduced the world to Justin Timberlake, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and countless others, recalls Aaliyah’s performance. “There’s a thing that you see when somebody walks out on the stage,” he says. “I call it the fire. They got that inner fire, which has nothing to do with the schooling, nothing to do with the teacher, nothing to do with the parents. There is a desire in that person to please the audience. You see enough of it to recognize it. And that’s what I saw with Aaliyah.”

It wasn’t long before she recovered from her Star Search loss and hit up the stage again. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was married to Gladys Knight when he took his then 11-year-old niece on stage to perform with the R&B legend for five nights at Bally’s Las Vegas casino. Knight would call Aaliyah out to perform “Home” and then duet with her on “Believe In Yourself.” Soon after, Hankerson introduced his niece to R. Kelly, whom he was managing. Kelly ended up writing and producing 15-year-old Aaliyah’s 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Her life as a shy schoolgirl from an upper-middle-class neighborhood was officially over.

Not that she cared. Aaliyah is not one of those former child stars who complains of missing out on the innocence of adolescence. So what if she had a full-time bodyguard attending classes with her at Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts? She was living her dream, right? Well, sort of. While she enjoys performing and being a celebrity, she doesn’t want the extra strings – like reporters probing her deepest fears and desires – that come with the package. She makes sure to give only the “right” answers, because she wants to hold onto whatever is left of her private life. So she only alludes to her relationship with R. Kelly when she says, “Of course, everybody’s had hard times. I’ve had hard times. I don’t really think I will go into detail as to what it was. But when you go through something so painful, it just helps you become a stronger person.” When asked if she’s ever been in love, she says with a bright smile, “Private life! I don’t want to share that.”

She’s like the Teflon diva, nothing ever sticks to her. After Kelly, rumors linked her romantically to Ginuwine, Jay-Z, and, most recently, the co-CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash. In May, Aaliyah hosted a bash for Dash’s 30th birthday at a New York City club where they were spotted together; one person said they were “inseparable” – he even walked her to the bathroom. “I think rumors are hilarious,” she says. “I don’t pay any attention. It goes in one ear and out the other. When you’re in the business, you hang out with people, and people are like, ‘I wonder, are they seeing each other?’ I never dated Jay. I never dated Ginuwine. Damon and I are very good friends. I’ll keep it at that right now.” It’s hard to believe her when she’s wearing a small platinum and diamond Roc-A-Fella pendant on her neck. She claims that it’s hers and that it’s “just a little symbol of a record” and changes the subject, insisting that she’s briefly dated just two men in her whole life.

Over the course of her career, the only thing Aaliyah has seemed willing to reveal about herself has been her highly touted body. Her slim frame has become a favorite from fashion figures to frat boys. “She made that hip hop look sexy for women wearing men’s clothes,” says Andy Hilfiger, who cast Aaliyah in the 1996 Tommy Jeans ad campaign also featuring Mark Ronson and Kidada Jones (daughter of VIBE founder Quincy Jones). The ads showed Aaliyah sporting men’s boxers under baggy jeans with a tight tube top. “It created a whole new look,” says Hilfiger. “It was sexy but classic.” By the time the sultry One in A Million hit in 1996, Aaliyah’s sound and look became a lot more mature and darker. Searching for a new style, Aaliyah’s mom suggested her daughter cover her left eye with her hair just like her mom’s favorite classic film actress Veronica Lake. It gave the 18-year-old an enigmatic touch. “She’s got an incredible sense of style, maybe the best of anybody I can think of,” says MTV’s Carson Daly. “She’s really cutting edge, always on step ahead of the curve. [The TRL audience] looks to Aaliyah to figure out what’s hot and what’s new.”

"MY MOTHER ALWAYS SAID I HAD SEX APPEAL," AALIYAH SAYS. "EVEN WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG, WHEN I WOULD TAKE PICTURES, THERE WAS SOMETHING SEXUAL ABOUT ME. I DO FEEL SEXY FOR SURE. I ENJOY IT."

She doesn’t have the best figure or best voice, but it’s the way she uses what she has that makes her so alluring. “When we dance together, it’s like synchronized swimming,” says Fatima, Aaliyah’s choreographer. “She is naturally sexy without effort.” Aaliyah’s singing voice, while not all that powerful, sounds like she’s whispering in your ear from the pillow next to yours, slowly seducing you over Timbaland’s simmering beats. “My mother always said that she feels like I always had sex appeal,” Aaliyah says. “Even when I was very young, when I would take pictures, there was something sexual about me. I do feel sexy for sure. I embrace it, and I’m comfortable with it. I enjoy it.”

This confidence, her mastery of her assets, is what landed Aaliyah, who had no previous film experience, a costarring role with Jet Li in last year’s Romeo Must Die. Combining hip hop (the movie also featured DMX) and kung fu, Romeo had the perfect formula for box office success. But the critics tore up the highly remixed Shakespearean plot for both its simplicity and lack of any romantic chemistry between Li and Aaliyah. “This movie needs a screenplay,” critic Roger Ebert wrote.

Still, any were impressed by Aaliyah’s depth. The New York Post heralded her performance, which ranges from crying to killing, as a “revelation.” And as for the absence of sex scenes, Warner Bros. decided to edit them out. “We did a [scene with] Jet and I kissing, and we ended up going with a hug,” Aaliyah says. “I guess they thought it was a little sweeter and left more to the imagination.” Maybe audiences weren’t ready to see one of hip hop’s prized young kittens getting it on with an Asian kung-fu master 16 years her senior.

If moviegoers weren’t ready for interracial heat then, they’d better brace themselves now. In the upcoming Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah plays Akasha, an ancient-Egyptian vampire. Based on a combination of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, the movie is slated to show Aaliyah in intimate scenes with her Irish costar, Stuart Townsend. Perhaps what’s more striking than the eroticism of her role is that Aaliyah is the biggest star in the movie. The blockbuster Anne Rice movie Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles boasted Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas and a big Hollywood budget. Queen costs $35 million and has no marquee actors. This doesn’t concern Michael Rymer. “There were two factors for casting Aaliyah. I was very keen that Akasha, an Egyptian queen, not look like Elizabeth Taylor,” he says, referring to 1963’s Cleopatra. “And not only did [Aaliyah] do a good job on Romero Must Die, but people went to see her. This is a really difficult role, and she took on a huge challenge. She worked her ass off for this film."

Aaliyah trained hard for her role, working closely with her acting coach for a month and then another month with a speech coach in New York. While filming in Australia, she worked with a personal trainer because she wore revealing outfits and a stunt coordinator for her flying scenes. “I have to exude power and be regal,” she says of her role as the mother of all vampires. “I love Egypt. I love vampires. It was the dream role, so I worked very hard.”

During her four-month shoot, Aaliyah somehow found the time to finish her new self-titled album. She began recording it in 1998 before Romeo. She stopped, wrapped the film, and released the super-catchy number-one single “Try Again” off the soundtrack. She traveled to Australia, shot Queen during the day, and hit the studio at night. The new album focuses more on her voice, bringing it to the forefront as opposed to hiding it behind the layered production. It was never her plan to take five years to follow up the double-platinum success of One In A Million. In between, her infectious 1998 hit “Are You That Somebody?” off the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack not only reminded her old fans that she still had it, but introduced her to new fans as well. At the time, “Somebody” was the biggest hit in Aaliyah’s career. She gave us just enough of the tasty appetizer to keep our palates whetted. “When it comes to overexposure, that’s something that I will always be aware of,” she says. “Because I never want that. This is my life, I love it, but it’s important for me to take breaks. Don’t want to overload anybody.”

Aaliyah’s career, like her personal life, is observed in lashes. She comes and goes when she wants. Unlike Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and Madonna, who pull the public across the fine line between their private and public lives, Aaliyah puts a velvet rope between hers. While most artists scream for creative control of their songwriting and production, Aaliyah–who modestly refers to herself as an “interpreter”–is primarily interested in performing.

“I’m not one to give everything and pour my heart out in one of my songs,” she says. With Hankerson, her uncle, as the CEO of the label she signed to, her mother, Diane Haughton, as her manager, and her cousin Jomo Hankerson as executive producer of her albums, it’s obvious that the marketing, promotion, and sale of Aaliyah is the family’s business. And her father, Michael Haughton, used to comanage her until he fell ill (her family won’t reveal with what). Aaliyah runs every decision by her older brother, Rashad. Her entire world is a tight, closed network, open only to those close to her.

When the people who know her best describe Aaliyah, you would think they were speaking of an angel. Fatima says, “Aaliyah is the sweetest artist I know.” Her best friend of five years, Kidada Jones, uses the words “grounded,” “emotionally balanced,” and “unaffected.” And according to Jones and Aaliyah’s mom, she has a great sense of humor. She’s good at imitations, especially of her mother’s deep voice. Aaliyah likes to make prank phone calls with Jones to what she calls “public establishments.” When asked to go into more detail, Aaliyah chooses not to–for personal reasons, of course.

Even when Aaliyah was young, she was private. “She was a very quiet child,” remembers Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton, whom Aaliyah says guided her education in high school. “Very polite, personable, conscientious. She knew her goals in life at a very young age.” Her mother attributes it to her daughter’s creativity. “She’s quite a complex young lady,” Haughton says. “She’s always been like that. It’s just a part of the genius of herself.”

As a child, it was apparent that Aaliyah was ahead of her peers. During her audition for acceptance to her high school, Aaliyah sang the aria “Ave Maria” in Italian. She was only 14. With the help of private tutors and independent-study programs, Aaliyah graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. Her home life was pet-packed, with ducks, dogs, and iguanas running around her suburban Detroit home. Her exposure to varied cultures has influenced her approach to music. Aaliyah encourages Timbaland to get as creative as he wants when making up her beats. “She always likes to go to the left,” he says. “She’s the only one who’s willing to use those tracks. It wouldn’t be right if she didn’t.”

"I'VE ALWAYS BEEN MYSTERIOUS. THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I DON'T KNOW MYSELF...I THINK I'M A BIT OF A VAMPIRE IN REAL LIFE, AND THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I JUST WANT TO BE MYSELF."

After bowling a low 73, Aaliyah decides that she wants to play video games before heading to her Upper West Side apartment to read Harry Potter books. She wants to get as much rest as she can. In a month, she’ll head back to Australia to play Zee in Matrix 2 and 3. After that, she’ll play the lead in the Whitney Houston-produced remake of the '70s film Sparkle, which is still in its embryonic stage. But for tonight, Aaliyah just wants to be a regular girl. She blasts away would-be killers with her pink gun in the hyper-violent Time Crisis II.

When Aaliyah eventually gets shot to death in the game, she decides she’s had enough. “I’ve always been mysterious,” says Aaliyah. “My mother and father always used to ask me, ‘What are you thinking, what’s going on?’ There are times when I don’t understand myself, you know what I mean?” You do understand, and you can’t help but believe every word she says as she continues, “I have black-out shades in my apartment, I push a button, it’s totally dark. I think I’m a bit of a vampire in real life, and there are times when I just want to be myself. I wanna be alone.”

So instead of hiding from the world, maybe all the secrecy is Aaliyah’s way of discovering herself; her way of holding on to what’s true in a hazy world of glitz and imagery. “People feel like they own you in this business, and, to a certain degree, they do,” she says. “But there’s a part of me that will always be just for me.”

-

This article originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Hyun Kim | Cover illustration by Alvaro.

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(L-R) Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Jasmin Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler in the filmed musical, ‘Hamilton.’
Courtesy of Disney

Watch: Lin-Manuel Miranda & The ‘Hamilton’ Cast Speak On The Musical’s Significance In Today’s Fight For Social Justice

Independence Day is about to hit different. As America takes part in another 3-day holiday weekend filled with socially distanced cookouts and quarantined binge-watching sessions, family and friends can finally see Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking musical, on the small screen. Alas, that subtle, 5-year feeling of envy felt by those of us who missed the opportunity to see the original cast at a sold-out showing can finally be let go. Thanks to streaming platform Disney Plus, musical theatre enthusiasts and followers of the Broadway production will now be able to relive the cultural phenomenon that debuted on January 20, 2015, after it went on to win nearly a dozen Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize of Drama, and a Grammy.

With the ongoing protests around the murderous killing of George Floyd, the unwavering #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the exposing spotlight on the systemic racism that has plagued America for centuries, Hamilton's film premiere couldn't arrive at a better time. There's a melting pot of actors, rappers, and singers of color telling the stories of figures in American history through the lens of hip-hop, R&B, and popular music. But what brings all of this full circle is the irony of how monuments dedicated to many of America's forefathers (and slave owners) are now being torn down in protest.

"Listen, I didn't care about these people either. I was not a history fan prior to reading Hamilton's book," shared Miranda—the filmed musical's protagonist Alexander Hamilton and producer behind its book, music, and lyrics—in an interview with VIBE during an on-camera interview. "All I knew about him was he was the white guy on the 10 and he died in a duel. And then I picked up this history book and my way in was that he grew up in the Caribbean and he came from somewhere else. And so, that was my way into the story. And I think that if you tell it that way, you see it through a kind of different lens. It's not an accident that we have Black and brown bodies playing these founders."

"And clearly, in this moment where we exist, it feels like if this show can give energy and momentum to the movement, then the show is serving the moment. And that's all that we can do..." adds Hamilton's director and producer, Thomas Kail. "Our hope is," he continues, "by putting it on Disney Plus where tens of millions of people can see it in one day, that maybe we're doing some kind of service towards that and just trying to participate and contribute."

Ahead of the Broadway play's cinematic debut, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle not only sat Miranda and Kali, but also members of the illustrious cast: Daveed Diggs (who plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr). They talked hip-hop, today's climate around civil rights, and who they'd create a musical around if given the opportunity.

Lin-Manuel Miranda  and Thomas Kail

On the decision to have the musical's characters inspired by hip-hop/R&B artists of past and present:

Miranda: My goal with it was I wanted to have as big a tent in terms of the casting as possible. I wanted people who had never auditioned for a musical to audition. I wanted musical folks who loved hip hop but had never been able to bring that, to come in. So, every character description was a half a musical theatre reference and half a hip hop reference. I think George Washington was a Mufasa meets ...

Kail: John Legend.

Miranda: Oh, John legend. Yeah. And Angelica's character was Desiree Armfeldt, who's the smartest character in Little Light Music meets Nicki Minaj because she's just got the fastest raps in the show and the hardest raps in the show. And it was the intelligence. That's the secret about Angelica. She's smarter than Alexander, she's smarter than Jefferson, but because she is a woman in this time, she only gets to exercise it in a few ways. And so, that was the thinking behind each of the characters. I'm trying to think of some of the other ones. King George was like Rufus Wainwright meets King Herod from Jesus Christ Superstar. I can't remember, but the fun of it was this mashup of a musical theatre character and a hip hop artist. And in contradiction, figuring out what actors would do with that.

It's Mobb Deep, it's [Big] Pun, it's Biggie, it's very East Coast '90s. There's even a little sneaky Brand Nubian in there. It's just sort of—

Kail: Wait, and Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes. So, when Busta Rhymes raps or Hercules Mulligan raps in the mixtape, it was beyond anything you could comprehend.

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Leslie Odom, Jr.

On the "Dear White American Theater" open letter and the tough conversations around systemic racism within the musical theatre industry:

Odom, Jr.: There are two important talks that are happening. There's the talk that we're having with our white brothers and sisters, our white colleagues and peers, and then there's the talk that we're having amongst each other that sometimes we have never spoken about, about trauma. What everybody's asking themselves right now, what I think the most important questions are...white supremacy is upheld by systems. And so, it's like am I actively upholding the system? Do I have hiring power? Am I actively upholding the system, or am I being used to actively uphold this system?

And that's what that letter is about. It was crafted to this industry that we love so much, and we're saying to them, "Are you being used?" It's going to take work to dismantle this thing. I'll say this. Don't wait. If you love and care for Black people, don't wait for us to get murdered by the police to care about our Black lives. Don't wait for me to get murdered by the cops. Care about my Black life right now. That's what we talking about.

On the women rappers/singers they pulled inspiration from when preparing for their roles:

Goldsberry: I actually studied female rappers my whole life...It's one of those things you never know, when you're kind of feeding your soul with things, what you're preparing yourself for. We [Jasmine and I] almost had the opportunity to do a big tribute to Salt-N-Pepa. We were going to do "Shoop."

What we love... It also mirrors Hamilton. This is a show about a group of men fighting for something, and what our hip-hop queens represent is, in this seemingly very male world, the power of women. They're standing there saying, "I'm here, and I own this, too." They [Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte, etc] were my model way before anybody asked me to play Angelica Schuyler.

Jones: For me, I didn't rap that much at all in this, but what I loved about my number in "Say No to This," it was a huge ode to an R&B ballad. The fact that even Jill Scott sang "Say No to This" on the mixtape was like...I've seen Jill Scott like five times. You know what I mean? I love Jill Scott so much, so it's just full circle for me, even the fact that she was able to do that on the mixtape. And that's who also influenced me as an R&B singer.

On the significance of seeing Hamilton today as Black and brown people fighting for racial equality in America:

Jones: It's about inspiring, and it's about seeing diversity on stage. It's about going out, getting people to vote to make a change. If you can't feel like you can't do it yourself, then go out and reach out to your friends and come together. There are layers to this show. And as Leslie said, it's the beginning of a conversation. Have it open the conversation, and let's continue to talk about it.

Odom, Jr: The premiere on Disney Plus, we hope—in the same way that I felt before the show opened off-Broadway—was the beginning of a conversation. It's the beginning of critique. There can be an honest critique of the work. There's a lot of love and hard work that went into it, but it can be looked at with new eyes and picked apart if somebody wanted to. Again, I hope it's the beginning of a conversation. I leave it to other people to sell stuff, but I think that the show is about them, but it is also so clearly about us, and you feel that when you watch it. It's about Thomas Jefferson, but it's about Daveed. It's about Alexander Hamilton, but it's about Lin, and so that's worthy of your time.

Goldsberry: This is a show about this ragtag group of people that were the voices of a revolution, and they won. We won, we won, we won, we won, right? We are in a revolution right now, and we need to win it. The risk that these people took is an example and actually reflects the risks that people are taking right now. Not to mention, don't get it twisted. This is not a country that was made by others. This was a country that was made by our people, too. And seeing people that look like you play it is the first step in acknowledging that. I think that's really hugely important.

Don't write off your history because of the pictures that they put up and showed you to tell... It's the same thing like, how do you deal with your spirituality? Because of the picture somebody showed you of Jesus? No, you claim that. You claim that, and you should claim this country. You should claim that, too. We would hope that the work that's been done in the show breaks down some of those barriers and that people look with new eyes.

Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson

On how he wasn't initially sold on the idea of Hamilton:

Diggs: It was Tommy [Kali] who told me what Lin was cooking up, and I told him it was a terrible idea. I stand by that, by the way. (Smizes) It was a terrible idea...The second that he sent me the sort of demos, which are not great. They're nothing like what we have now, but it was so clear that it was going to be amazing. The fact that it is a terrible idea has nothing to do with it being a great show. And as soon as he sent me the music, I was like, "This is a great show and I really, really want to be a part of it." It's still a bad idea. If you pitched me that idea today, I would tell you it's a bad idea.

On how his love for hip-hop began in his entertainment career:

Jackson: I grew up in Southern Illinois, right? My family, we didn't have cable and we didn't have what would be known as urban radio. We didn't have Black radio back there. Any of my friends, anytime they would go visit family in Chicago or St. Louis, we would all rush over to their house with blank tapes so that they could then record the mix shows on a loop and bring back whatever we could get. I remember running through the house singing Run DMC and "Roxanne, Roxanne" just had my mind. I had no idea what this was, but I was like, "Ahhh." I used to get in trouble for rapping at the dinner table because back then, you didn't sing or do anything at the dinner table. But I'm 44 years old. Hip-hop has been a presence in my entire life. Just as pop music has and just as Michael Jackson and any country artist because I'm from the South. It's just the amalgamation of all of these different musical things, which is why Lin and I get down so well because he's constantly mining for that kind of stuff in his work. I found that I have a little reservoir that I always get to pull from when we do stuff together.

On how Hamilton should be interpreted in light of America's forefathers' monuments being torn down today:

Diggs: I think we have to accept the fact that there are sides of the people that we have considered heroes for a long time that don't deserve to have monuments about them, that those monuments don't serve us. I don't think that is a reason to not learn about them. I think it's actually an argument to learn about them in their totality and struggle with the idea of what is useful about the things that a dude like Thomas Jefferson came up with or penned what is instructive about them. And what about him do we disagree with? He was a human being. You know what I'm saying? I think the same argument is true of watching the show.

Jackson: Hamilton shouldn't be confused with hero-worship. It shouldn't be confused with the type of veneration that historically, we viewed a history through that lens and that's not what we're doing. I think that one of the many statements that are made happen to be about the fact that we're bringing these men and women down off of pedestals, we're looking at them in their most trifling states. The founding of this country was always aspirational and was always meant to not live up to it because the men that were actually in charge at that point were not capable of being their greatest selves in regard to the way that we view this now. But slaves back then, sure enough, didn't see any greatness in them.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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