Interview: Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Built The Platform For ATL Hip-Hop
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.
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.
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.
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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