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

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Ed Buck And The Black Queer Lives That Don't Matter

The saying goes “history often repeats itself” but for those who are black and Queer, that history is often violent and unprotected.

A déjà vu moment for the LGBTQ community happened last week when reports surfaced of another black gay man dying in the home of wealthy Democratic donor Ed Buck. New and disturbingly fresh to some, the story isn’t only stranger than fiction but proves gay black men are fetishized in plain sight.

Let’s back up a bit. On July 27, 2017, police were called to the home of Buck in West Hollywood, Calif., where the body of 26-year-old Gemmel Moore was found unresponsive. The Los Angeles coroner's office would initially rule Gemmel’s death an overdose of crystal methamphetamine—a growing problem within the LGBTQ community. However, there was an immediate outcry from the black queer community, as the narrative between Moore and Buck raised more questions than answers.

Today would've been Gemmel's 28h birthday. Instead of celebrations and Instagram posts from friends, Gemmel's legacy in the public sphere is that of a sex worker—a stirring attempt to discredit his worth while subtly blaming the victim for his own death. We have seen this occur many times when discussing the LGBTQ sex worker community. Transgender women are also painted as such in stories to devalue their worth. Far too often, sex workers endure victim blaming and shaming. A societal standard that contributes to the notion that sex workers are partly liable in their own deaths because of “risk” involved with the industry, intersected with mainstream views about sex work, not fitting standards or respectability.

Questions began to arise about why Buck, a 65-year-old white man, and social-political butterfly to Democratic party members like Hillary Clinton would have someone 39 years his junior in his home doing drugs. As more reporting by activist and journalist Jasmyne Cannick and others continued, a tale of privilege, wealth, and sexual exploitation became the new narrative of story many simply tried to bury.

Reports were coming out from other young black queer men who had dealings with Buck, many of them detailing his drugging of them with meth by needle—a technique called “pointing.” Entries from Gemmel's journal were also published by Cannick, revealing just how much pain and madness he was subjected to, including Buck, reportedly getting the 26-year-old hooked on drugs for sexual pleasure.

It is not easy to live at the intersection of being Black and Queer. It’s a double marginalization where we often find ourselves devoid of allies. On one side we have our own community which like all others, deals with homophobia. That homophobia often times bleeds into social justice work around black queer people. People who feel race should come first and be the only concern.

Black queer people are often fighting for others who would never fight for them. We have been conditioned by white supremacy to fall prey to respectability politics that makes us see anything other than cishet as an attack against our own community.

Despite the painful evidence, media began doing what it does with most black victims—painting them as the deviant and the abuser as the one being victimized. Gemmel was painted as a drug-addicted sex worker, an attempt at dehumanizing his value.

The views of sex work in the United States intersected with Gemmel being from a marginalized community was a tactic that saw many blaming the victim, rather than the manipulative predatory Buck, who was being protected by his wealth, whiteness, and proximity to those in power.

Following the LA coroner’s report, social media outrage eventually forced the LA Sheriff’s department to give the full investigation into the matter that it deserved. Unfortunately, after several months of getting statements and going over the evidence, the LA prosecutor's office refused to indict Buck, leaving the family and black LGBTQ community feeling hopeless that Gemmel would ever get justice.

However, last week news broke that a second black gay man by the name of Timothy Dean was found dead in the home of ...Ed Buck. This time around, media coverage was immediate as multiple major outlets covered the story about the 55-year-old victim, a significant change from the first death. With circumstances surrounding the incident much like the first time, the story was hard to ignore with national coverage happening almost immediately. Responders arrived at Buck's home to find Dean unresponsive by an apparent overdose.

Immediately, Buck’s lawyers issued a statement removing him of all culpability and once again blaming the victim for his own death. “From what I know, it was an old friend who died of an accidental overdose, and unfortunately, we believe that the substance was ingested at some place other than the apartment,” said Seymour Amster, Buck’s attorney. “The person came over intoxicated.”

With this being the second occurrence of death at his home, investigators were more eager to look into the situation—as was the media who showed up to the home of Buck that evening looking for comment. What most were greeted by was outraged citizens, many of whom were from the black queer community that has remained steadfast since last year.

Dozens of activists and community members protested in front of the home of Buck following the second death. During the rally, several citizens spoke out including Cannick. She challenged several city council members who showed up to the rally about how disengaged and harmful they had been the first time this happened, and how their support now was questionable at best. This is an important sentiment in the story because much of Buck’s protection came in the form of those he donated too, on both a micro and macro level.

When the first death occurred in his home in 2017, politicians refused to release statements about the situation. There were some rumblings from GOP members, but only because he was a donor to the Democratic Party, not because of who the victim was—partly why the buzz died down as media coverage went away.

For his political allies, there was too much at stake. With President Donald Trump creating more turmoil between the major political parties and the #MeToo movement surrounding the behaviors targeting those in Hollywood, there seemed to be limited space to care for black life–an aspect we’re used to these days.

On a micro level, these same city council members who accepted funds from Buck in the past were silent in the first death. Not wanting to ruffle feathers with the wealthy donor, choosing allegiance to secure funding over the life of Gemmel Moore. But now, the political climate has changed. In November of 2018, the Democratic Party took back the House of Representatives, all about removing any shielding Buck may have from the party. Once word broke of a second death, those who were silent are now issuing statements and sending money back that was donated by Buck.

Black lives, in general, are not protected in media nor community. White people are more concerned about preserving power and privilege then every affording us equity and justice. This sentiment bleeds into the white queer community, which has also helped to oppress black queer people.

Most recently, comedian Ellen DeGeneres spoke up on behalf of a community she did not belong to offer forgiveness to Kevin Hart for his comments about the gay community. However, when it is someone from her own community causing harm to black queer people, (ie: Buck) she like many other white queer people are nowhere to be found. It only adds to people who love to partake in our culture while turning a blind eye or aiding in our oppression.

This is a challenge to all communities witnessing the atrocities that black queer people are facing in this country. Your silence has become complicity in our death. It should not have taken for a second dead body to be found at the home of Ed Buck for people to join in solidarity with us. We have experienced this type of violence against our community for far too long with no justice in our plight.

Ed Buck is using his wealth, class, and power to manipulate black queer men who are vulnerable. Men who are sex workers or struggling to make a livable wage to sustain their own existence. Men who are already caught up in the meth epidemic and fall prey to sexual exploitation in return from drugs. How many more lives must be lost before a stop is put to this?

In the coming days, it will be more important than ever that media coverage does not let up and continues to press the LA Sheriff’s Office to not commit the same mistake twice. If black lives truly matter, then we must be more vocal and fervent in our fight when they fall among the most marginalized. This is a continuing story, one that we will not only cover but see through till the end—an end that looks like justice for Gemmel Moore, Timothy Dean, and the black queer lives that continue to go unprotected.

George M Johnson is a journalist and activist living in Brooklyn NY with features in over 40 publications including Vibe, Essence, VICE, and Buzzfeed. His debut YA memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue” is scheduled to be released January 2020 through FSG.

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Cormega Talks ‘MEGA’ EP, Working With StreetRunner And Cultivating His Legal Hustle

Time waits for no man–particularly in music, where the constant onslaught of music makes it easy for an artist to fall through the cracks and into obscurity. But if you're an MC that possesses the level of talent as Cormega, odds are that you'll always have an audience. Four years removed from his last full-length release, Mega Philosophy, the Queens lyricist returns with MEGA, a quick-strike EP that looks to add to his legacy. Produced entirely by StreetRunner, MEGA captures Cormega doing what he does best: tugging on the heartstrings with stories of love lost and the harsh realities of navigating the concrete jungle. Known for eulogizing many of his close friends and associates through song, Cormega continues this trend with his latest work, finding the inspiration for the album's artwork while coping with tragedy.

"The album cover is jade green because it's a tribute to my friend, Jade, who passed away last month," Cormega explains via phone. "She was 29 years old. Beautiful woman, inside and out. She died and it touched me so bad and I wanted to tribute her in some kind of way. I couldn't make a song ‘cause it was done and I ain't know what to do, so I just colored the album after her name. It was just simple, to the point and beautiful."

Comprised of five songs and with Havoc as the sole guest appearance on"Live Your Best Life," MEGA puts the focus on Cormega, who delivers another quality body of work that proves why he's one of rap's most earnest street poets. And on Saturday, January 26, fans will be able to celebrate the new album with a listening and Q&A event at The VNYL in New York City. VIBE hopped on the phone with Cormega to discuss MEGA, connecting with StreetRunner, the status of his forthcoming sequel to his Legal Hustle album and why unveiling this project was his biggest challenge to date.

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VIBE: Over the past decade, you've taken your time releasing new material. Your last project, Mega Philosophy, was released over four years ago. Has that been a conscious decision and what was the reason for the hiatus?

Cormega: Well to be honest with you, I wanted to come out with another project between 2015 or 2016 or 2017, but I was working with a producer whose work ethic is not consistent with mine, so I had to break free and make this EP with a producer that prioritized me. So that's how we got to this. If it was up to me, I would've had another project out in 2016. Usually when I take breaks, it has to do with family 'cause I'm raising my daughter a lot. My daughter lives with me so I'm the head of the household cause of my child so a lot of times, she prioritizes herself.

You've kept your name abuzz between album drops with guest spots on other artists records, including your song with Capone-N-Noreaga that dropped earlier this year.

Yeah, that's gonna be on Legal Hustle 2.

What's the story behind that collaboration?

I got history with them so it was just a matter of time before we did something and it made sense. I did something on one of their mixtapes a couple of years ago so they did something for me. It's the first time they was on a Cormega project, ever, so it was time.

One of your more recent collaborations is your song "Real Ones," which features London-based vocalist Autumn Sharif. How did that song come together and why wasn't it included on MEGA?

That's also gonna be on Legal Hustle 2, so you see what I'm doing. I'm constantly preparing people for something else that's coming very soon. I'm trying to pretty much do it like Marvel do it. You watch the Marvel movies and they give you a little glimpse of something and then a next movie come out and you're like, 'ah, okay.' So the C-N-N record will be on Legal Hustle 2, and the Autumn Sharif joint will be on Legal Hustle 2. Legal Hustle 2 is coming in 2019, so it's not gonna be no more long breaks.

This project is totally produced by StreetRunner. The "Real Ones" joint was produced by a brother named Kuya Beats, and the C-N-N record, that was also produced by StreetRunner, but I didn't wanna put it on there, that was a conscious decision. I didn't wanna put it on there because it's only an EP and it's already a feature on there, so how can I respect myself for making a cohesive project that only has five songs on it, but two of them are features? That's like the easy way out. Your fans can't relate to you. If you're putting a bunch of features on your song, they might be buying your music for other reasons. I don't depend on features for the creative aspect of my music. The features is just the additional spice, but it's not the meal.

You’ve pursued a few projects outside of music, such as your book, Understanding The True Meaning, which you released in celebration of the album's 15th anniversary. What spurred you to even think of writing a book, let alone one for that particular album?

Because it was a 15th anniversary and I just wanted to celebrate it. You gotta understand that True Meaning album really changed the landscape of the independent game. That’s the first independent album that ever got a Source Award. I was an honoree at the Underground Music Awards. They gave me an Impact Award during the time of that, so that album really put me on the map and it's arguably one of our greatest albums, from the fan's perspective, so I wanted to do that. I'm gonna do books for probably all of the albums 'cause the way that we broke that album down, it was so nice and it gained so much approval from the public that I decided I'd do that with another project. Being that this one is new and that it's fresh, I might do it with this one 'cause this EP has a story.

When you announced your plans to release your new EP MEGA on Instagram, you referred to it being the biggest challenge of your career. How so?

There's no other East Coast artist putting out an album right now (during the holiday season), his label won't allow it. Only like Migos and big big acts. My album’s not even pressed yet so people gotta stand on line and they're not even gonna get it, they're gonna patiently wait for it, they're gonna get it like three weeks later or something like that. My CDs didn't even come in yet, when I left America, they wasn't there yet. … When I put out the song "Real Ones," it was a test to people, but they loved it and it's now it's the second most popular record on Spotify, which is strange cause all of the other records have been out for a while and that just record just came out so it's doing well, also. It's no label behind this either, there's no subsidiary. Usually Landspeed is helping, so they'll fund stuff. Like they'll cut checks to people that's part of the team or they'll give me an advance. There was no advance for this album, this is all me. This is the biggest challenge I've ever had. And I look forward to the challenge because I believe in my fans.

The entire EP is produced by Streetrunner, who has produced radio hits for a slew of rap stars. How did the two of you connect?

Well, first of all, let me pay homage and tribute to StreetRunner right now. He might be one of the most down-to-earth, notable producers in the game, period, because like you said, he works with mainstream artists. He had the most talked-about record in the country a week and a half ago. He did that song "What’s Free" for Meek Mill featuring Rick Ross and Jay-Z. He did a song that has Chris Brown on it recently, he just got a plaque from [DJ] Khaled. He did stuff for Royce [Da 5’9”], he's working with Yo Gotti, he's working with big artists and he still found the time to finish something with me. That speaks volumes about him. There's other people that work with other artists and then they'll have you waiting. That's how this project even came to fruition ‘cause somebody else had me waiting and I was like f**k that. So the fact that StreetRunner did that is amazing, I'm really really respectful for that. I met him through Premium Pete, I gotta give him that credit. We was at a producer event and he was like, 'yo, Mega, I want you to meet some of these producers.' He didn't have to do that. There was other people that was there that was in the industry that could've said that or did, but they didn't, Premium Pete did it. So it was StreetRunner and I was like, 'ah,' and we finally met cause I knew that he had wanted to work with me for a while. A few people had told me that, but we never linked, so once we met, we exchanged numbers and we just got cool ever since then. His girl is an aspiring artist, too. I admire and respect her and I promised her I would do something for her. I went out there and I did it, so we just got cool over the years and it's just a mutual respect thing. The music is gonna speak to our chemistry.

On "Live Your Best Life," you trade verses with Havoc, one of your longtime friends and collaborators. How did that song come to life and how would you describe your creative process when working with Hav?

Me and Havoc don't work as much as we should, but we work a lot. There's unreleased Cormega and Hav stuff; we're in the process of figuring out if we're gonna do a project, but that was one of the joints I had in the stash. And if Prodigy was alive, he would've been on it. Me and Havoc did the song and it wasn't necessarily for this, but I wanted it to be on there because the way I see it, Havoc's been quiet for a while. Nobody really heard much from him since Prodigy passed. The way I see it, if you're making new music and your friend is making music and he's quiet and you're about to do something, I think that's how you keep your friends' names floating. Other artists do that, so I wanted Havoc to be on there because out of all of the artists I deal with, he's one of the closest artists that I've worked with and that's always been there consistently for me.

The album has a cohesive sound, with each track seamlessly blending into the one after. Was that a conscious effort on your part or would you credit that more to StreetRunner's involvement in the process?

This is the most cohesive album or project I've ever done. I think it's 25 percent StreetRunner and 75 percent me, as far as the cohesiveness. I think it's 100 percent StreetRunner when it comes to the production, but I pick the beats, he gives me options and I know what to choose. The first song, "Say No More," and the last song, "Empty Promises," the beat is pretty much twins, it's just one has more to it. I did that on purpose ‘cause I wanted it like The Testament. The Testament started and ended with the same beat, it's just the ending was a song. It was "Love is Love," but how it started, it was like a poem. So I went and did the beginning and end like a story, like The Testament did. That's why we have the same beat, but just adjust it for the beginning or end. This album is conceptual in a way, like this is vibe music. It was both of us, but I definitely wanted it to be more cohesive than anything I've ever done. This is the only album or project I've ever done that I've said is beautiful. I heard other stuff and I'd be like this is hard, I like this, this is dope, but this project is beautiful.

This project includes a lot of heartfelt and introspective material, which has been a signature of your music. How would you describe your mind-state while writing and recording this album?

My mind state was to separate myself from my peers. A lot of artists that came out from my generation, a lot of them is living off their old fame. Off their old status, off their old skill or repertoire. I don't wanna be one of them. I'm better than I used to be, in my opinion. I was more raw, I'm not more raw than I used to be, but far as an artist I think I'm scratching the surface on something different that I wanna do and I wanted to distance myself. When I was writing this, all I was thinking about for greatness, this is where I wanna be looked at as a great. I'm not rapping for a check. Some people get inspired when the check gets cut, I'm not that person. I want my music to be like art. I want this to be one of the greatest EPs ever. I made some great albums, but I want this to be one of the greatest EPs ever. When people talk about EPs, I want them to be like, 'we got ‘Mega joint,' you know what I'm saying? And I wanna make a double album. Those are my two challenges to myself. A double album, that's when you really define yourself because everybody can't make a double album. A lot of people have tried and failed, so that's what my challenge is.

What song from this album are you most excited for listeners to hear and why?

"On Everything." I really respect that song. I really was curious about that because I didn't know if I wanted to use it. It was an experimental song. The production is not like the production I'd typically rock on, so when I rapped to it, it was a challenge and I was like, 'I hope I didn't mess up.' Then when people heard it and when they started naming their favorites, that song was one of the favorites or the favorite of a lot of people. I became proud of that. So I think that song and the song with Havoc are probably my favorites.

You said you have Legal Hustle 2 coming next year. How far along would you say you are in the recording process?

It's not all done, but I've secured a lot of features already. Not by word, but I actually have vocals to a lot of features. So that's good because rappers are full of sh*t. They'll say they'll do it, but you might not get the verse. So I have a lot verses already and I'm just gonna go in the studio probably next month sometime, put everything on one file and just really study it and see where I wanna go with. But so far, my goal is to make it better than the first one and the first one was pretty good. I like where I'm at with it right now, though. We'll have it next year, maybe around late summer.

With 2019 upon us, what can fans expect or look out for from you this year, musically or otherwise?

MEGA, MEGA, MEGA. All my energy is going into MEGA, ain't no more collaborations or nothing until next year, only thing we focused on right now is MEGA. I'ma text my friends, my fans, everybody 'attention attention, MEGA, MEGA. If I run into you with a phone, 'you got iTunes on your phone? Go to your iTunes right now.' I'ma make 'em buy my album right on the spot. For the people I did stuff for, the people that owe me money, buy my EP.

With 20 years in the game and being an underdog for much of your career, how does it feel to still be able to create a demand for your music and have listeners still tuning in?

Very humbling. Very, very, very humbling. Emotional. I was emotional the other day when I had the listening session in Brixton, England and I got a standing ovation. The feedback, it was like, 'wow.' A producer recently said the average rapper has a high school career. It's like you got four years, then you're out of here. For me to be here this long—but not just being here this long, because it's a lot of artists that's been around long—for me to be around this long and putting out music on this quality level to the listeners... ‘Cause this is not my opinion. If you listen to the listeners or you go to the Amazon Reviews when it come out, the opinions are the thing that inspire me. Like my last album, Mega Philosophy, I didn't know how it was gonna be received and it was like, 'wow.' People were overwhelmed by it. Artists like stunting on each other, they'll give you silent praise, but artists were vocally giving me props, like, 'Mega, the album is amazing,' or coming up to me. It was rappers I didn't even know listened to my music, like Talib Kweli. I knew we was cool, but I ain't know he checked out my music. He was like, 'yo, Mega Philosophy is nice!' He gave me my props for it. Chuck D. Like AZ. Me and AZ always been cool, but he never spoke on my music. AZ was like, 'I gotta be on there.' Havoc heard the project and he was like, 'that sh*t is super fire.' He was, like, very happy and very impressed and very honored to be on it. So I'm just humbled and very grateful to the fans. I'm very grateful.

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Luis Fonsi On Coaching ‘La Voz’ Competition And Long-Anticipated Album

With his international knockout "Despacito," Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Luis Fonsi had an explosive 2017. Multiple chart-toppers, like "Échame la Culpa," "Calypso," and his more recent success, "Imposible," helped him follow up with another overwhelmingly strong musical calendar last year. And if this month’s any indication, 2019 also belongs to the Latinx pop hitmaker.

After delivering back-to-back global hits over the last two years, Fonsi is ready to share some new-new with his fans. The 40-year-old singer is kicking off the año nuevo with Vida, his long-anticipated ninth studio album. A blend of the heart-tugging guitar ballads that started his career and the energetic pop jams that made him an international superstar, Vida, his first full-length project in five years, will show his worldwide fans exactly who Fonsi is.

“I think people will get to know, really, who I am,” the Grammy award-winning artist told VIBE VIVA during a phone interview. “I have that pop uptempo side but also this soft romantic side as well.”

Vida, which Fonsi teases is slated to release “very soon,” isn’t the only way fans will further acquaint themselves with the luminary in 2019. The seven-time Guinness World Records-holder is also a coach on Telemundo’s forthcoming La Voz. The Spanish-language version of the successful music competition reality TV show (The Voice), which premieres Jan. 13, will bring Fonsi and megastars Alejandra Guzmán, Wisin and Carlos Vives together to find and nurture the most promising Latinx vocalists in the nation, tasks he’s already undertaken as a coach on the show’s offshoots across Latin America and Spain.

Carving out some time from his excitingly busy new year, Fonsi discusses the making of Vida, what fans can look forward to on La Voz, the abundance of young Latin musical talent and key lessons on persistence that every creative dreamer can gain from.

VIBE VIVA: The Voice is one of the most successful singing competitions in the country. Why do you think a Spanish-language version of this show was needed here?

Luis Fonsi: There’s so many ways of answering this question. First of all, because we are part of the music culture, because we’re part of the music equation because our talent level is incredible. Latinos, we breathe music, we speak with rhythm, we dance when we walk. Music is in our blood, so it was absolutely needed.

There are so many young kids who have either recently moved to the U.S. or maybe have been born here and are of Latinx descent and want to be able to share their talent with the world, so to have that opportunity to sing, whether in English or Spanish, because the show, while it’s called La Voz and is on Telemundo, we’re going to have plenty of people out there who will sing in English, is great. And we’ve seen in the NBC version of the show how many Latin contestants have gone the distance, and some have sung in Spanish.

It’s part of the equation, so to be able to make it more formal and celebrate the differences between our Latin culture, by having someone from Mexico sing una ranchera, have someone from Puerto Rico sing something more Caribbean, have someone from Colombia sing something more vallenato. This format gives us the space and those parameters to be able to do that.

La Voz has been successfully exported to multiple Latin American countries including Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Spain. How will this U.S.-based show be different from those?

I’ve been a coach in many of these different formats, in almost all of them. Right now, for example, I’m doing simultaneously La Voz Spain. The biggest and most obvious difference is when a contestant is done singing in Spain, I ask, “Where are you from,” and they tell me the city, “Madrid, Seville.” Here it’s like, “Hey, where are you from,” and they can be from a completely different country.

They could be from New York and their parents are from Mexico and moved here 40 years ago or you can be from the south of Argentina. Culturally, although we are speaking the same language and although we’re in the States, culturally we’re so dramatically different versus being from the same country and just a different city. So that in itself already gives it something different; the accents, the styles, it gives it such a different vibe.

You were the first one to join the show as a coach. Why were you eager to participate in the U.S. version of La Voz?

I love the format. I truly believe in the format. I’m one of those guys that I’m grateful. I remember where I come from, who opened the door for me and also who closed it. But I’m very grateful for the people who have gotten me to where I am today. When I entered this industry 20 years ago, there weren’t any reality shows like this. And if I would have had that opportunity, I would have probably auditioned for one, because very early in my life I knew that I wanted to be a singer. I actually went to college and got a music degree, that’s how serious I was about music.

It wasn’t about being famous; it was about being a musician, to me. I always think that reality singing shows are good. They’re good for everybody. It’s good for music. It’s good for the judges, or, in this case, the coaches. And I have to say sincerely, by far, my favorite format is The Voice. It’s a positive, family show. It’s all about giving constructive criticism.

It’s not about putting them down but rather about lifting them up, even if they don’t get through the first round. Everybody leaves with their head up and wanting to keep learning, keep singing, and to keep experiencing life, and that’s something that is much needed.

Latin music, in no small part due to your own megahits, has taken over the globe with new talent and viral songs appearing almost every day. Why do you think it’s enticing a universal audience?

You’re right! Right now, Latinx music is in a really good place. Latinx music is global. We’ve seen how so many — and I’m not talking about my songs, I’m talking in general, I’m looking at it with a way bigger spectrum — we’ve seen how many Latinx songs and how many Latinx artists have had success worldwide singing in Spanish. I really do believe that the world is coming together and that this was long overdue.

As a judge, what are you looking for in contestants? What's going to make you turn your chair?

Magic, that wow moment, that feeling you get when you get excited that you don’t know how to describe it. When the hair on the back of your neck stands up. You’ll see it. You’ll see me. I can’t stop moving when I hear that voice, and all of a sudden I’m like, “What is this?” I get antsy. I get up from my chair. Sometimes, I hit that button without my brain processing it, it’s like my hand just moves. It’s just like an instinct, a reflex. And it’s not about perfection or a specific genre.

It’s not about a specific country or whether you’re young or old, male or female. It’s about that “wow moment,” that thing that you get when a voice moves you. I’ve pressed my button for contestants who haven’t had perfect auditions, but they had something I connected with. And it’s the same the other way around.

We’ve had contestants that have not made it to the next phase and have had a solid, amazing audition, but for some reason, there was something there that didn’t connect with us coaches. And that’s the toughest because it’s tough to explain to them that, “Hey, you did amazing, you have an amazing voice, it was a perfect audition, you didn’t screw up, but we didn’t turn our chairs.”

It’s horrible, but at the end of the day, it’s life, and that’s what music is all about. Sometimes you can be in your car driving and you hear a song and it’s an amazing voice, but there’s something about that performance that you just don’t connect with it and you don’t identify yourself with it, and that’s exactly how it is to be a coach. It’s fun, and I think people are really going to enjoy it.

 

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As a coach, what do you hope to offer mentees?

Just a little piece of me, what I’ve learned as a professional singer in a 20-year career, the mistakes that I’ve made, the goods and the bads, all of them. I’m going to put it out there in hopes that they could use it toward their journey. What I’ve learned as a musician. I’ve been studying music since I was eight years old. I’ve been studying guitar and piano. I have a degree in vocal performance, a formal classical degree. So I can speak to them as a musician, not just as a recording artist. And you know what, sometimes it’s not even about the technical part.

It’s about having a conversation with them and making them feel comfortable, choosing the right song. Every contestant is different. Sometimes you have to get really technical with them, and sometimes it’s a little bit more about the psychology behind it. The talent is there, but you have to make them believe in themselves.

That actually leads right into my next question. For non-Spanish-speaking folks, you came into the scene in 2017 with "Despacito," but the truth is you've been putting in work for years, from your boy band as a high school student in Orlando, to touring with Britney Spears to your own early megahits like "No Me Doy Por Vencido," "Llegaste Tu" and many more. Sometimes, when you've been putting in work for a long time and not seeing the results you hope for, it can be discouraging and debilitating. What do you think you can teach these contestants about persistence?

It’s about knowing where you want to get to and believing in your craft and knowing that to get to that point it’s not always going to be a straight shot. It’s not always going to be right there in front of you. You have to go out and get it. You’re going to fall, and you’re going to make mistakes. I have never heard an artist say, “Every song I’ve put out has been a hit. Every album I’ve made has gone platinum. I never made a mistake. I never had crappy performances.” It’s all part of the deal.

It’s like falling in love. We have to get dumped, make mistakes, we have to have a broken heart to appreciate our perfect person when they come along. That’s music. When I’m making an album, I write hundreds of songs, sometimes two songs a day. I wish I can say every song I’ve written has been recorded and has been a hit. Absolutely not! I had to write hundreds of songs to get to “Despacito,” to get to "No Me Doy Por Vencido," to get to "Aqui Estoy Yo," to get to “Échame La Culpa.” It’s an ongoing journey, and that’s what I tell them.

We talk a lot about this on the show. It’s cool to hear the other coaches’ stories because it’s something that you don’t hear every day. We see Carlos Vives and Alejandra, and to hear how many times people have completely shut the door on us, but you have to be resilient and have to believe in yourself. And we also have to be a little stubborn sometimes. You have to say, “I know I have it.” Be humble about it, but also believe in what you have to offer and keep fighting for it. That’s what it’s all about, having that hunger.

Talking about the coaches, this year the team includes you, Alejandra Guzmán, Wisin and Carlos Vives — all megastars. Describe the energy among you all on the show?

Wow! The dynamic between the coaches is incredible. We all love each other. We all make fun of each other. There’s so much honest respect. It’s crazy. You’ll see.

I want to switch gears to you and your own music. I know you are dropping an album this year, your first in five years. What can you tell us about this?

Wow. My last album was in 2014. So we’re talking about five years. A lot changes in five years, and when we talk about pop music, it has completely shifted in five years. The cool thing about this album is that by the time the album comes out, I have released five singles, four of them I can humbly say have been hits. “Imposible” is on its way; it’s already Top 10. And my first three singles have been No. 1 songs, “Despacito,” “Échame La Culpa” and “Calypso.”

To be able to drop an album already having this success on the charts is such a blessing because it’s usually like you release one single and then you put the album out there. People already really know the essence of the album, and it makes it that much more exciting to hear the other songs that are there, that tell so many stories, the ballads, for example.

I’m always happy to hear about ballads. With the major success of uptempo hits like "Despacito," "Échame La Culpa" and "Calypso," why return to ballads?

I’ve never abandoned it. I’m a pop artist. I love the dance tracks and the reggaeton-infused tracks, but I also love a guitar ballad. That, to me, is just as powerful. There's a song in there that I wrote for my son, similar to what I did for my daughter with “Llegaste Tu,” a song I did five years ago with Juan Luis Guerra. You can put a little bit of that personal touch in an album that you can’t just do with a single. You have more room to be able to tell stories and different stories. It’s cool. I think people will get to know, really, who I am.

And how would you describe yourself as an artist?

I’m bad at explaining who I am as an artist, because, again, I have that pop uptempo side but also this soft romantic side as well. That’s who I’ve been ever since I started my career in 1998. It’s not just now. I’ve never been that sort of clean-cut balladeer who wears a suit as they’re singing. I’ve never been that clean-cut crooner. And, again, nothing wrong with them. I love the Luis Miguels and the Michael Bublés. I’m a fan of those guys, but I’m too hyperactive to wear a suit for a full show. And I’ve never been a super crazy pop act that all I do is dance and dance. I have those two sides. I love to grab my guitar and just sing as well.

Hearing you speak about this album is very exciting. When can fans expect to listen to it?

I have a release date, but I can’t share it. What I can say is that it will be out very soon. I’m excited. I definitely think it’s going to be the most important album of my career. And I think people are going to be surprised. I hope people are going to be surprised.

Returning to La Voz, why should Latinxs tune into Telemundo to watch this program?

They should tune in because we’re celebrating who we are. I always say, Latinos, we have music running through our veins. We speak with rhythm. We dance as we walk. Music is such a huge part of us, so to be able to celebrate that with the most important music competition format in the world, when we finally bring it to the biggest stage in the world, the U.S., it’s time to celebrate who we are. For those who don’t know to see how much talent there is out there. And I’m going to tell you, they’re going to flip. They’re going to be so surprised to see how much talent there is out there. I’m really excited. I’m hoping that it’s going to be a very big show for Hispanic television.

La Voz premieres Sunday, January 13 at 9 p.m./8 c.t on Telemundo and its digital platforms.

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