Producer/mogul Jermaine Dupri has been providing you with some of your favorite songs since 1992. Oftentimes his contributions to the music game get overlooked for reasons he nor I can figure out. After launching the careers of pint-sized rap duo Kriss Kross with the hit single “Jump,” Dupri invested in himself and other artists by founding So So Def Records. As with most things in hip-hop this year, Dupri is celebrating the 20th anniversary of So So Def Records with a special one night only concert in Atlanta in a few weeks.
I got a chance to speak with the hitmaking hip-hop and R&B producer while he was in the middle of preparing for the big day. During our brief interview, Jermaine Dupri opened up about the start of the record company, why he thinks he and Berry Gordy are alike, and he if he and Usher will ever make another record. Tag along with us as Jermaine and I travel down memory lane.
TUD: You’re doing the So So Def 20th Anniversary Concert. What made you decide to do that and will it be a tour or just one night only?
JD: It’s just one night only. The reason I chose to do this is because it’s the actual time. Your 20th anniversary only happens once. Last year, a few things happened that affected me in a bad way like the passing of Chris Lighty. So it was like you never know what’s going to happen to the people around you. It was also an opportunity to get all of the artists together for the show and for them to get the chance to see all of their fans. Basically, a lot of things were lining up to make this seem like it was the perfect opportunity.
We know Kriss Kross and Xscape will be there. Who else do you have lined up to perform?
Everybody is gonna be there. Jagged Edge, Anthony Hamilton, Da Brat, Bow Wow, Bone Crusher, Dem Franchise Boyz, YoungBloodZ, Lil Jon, J-Kwon, the Bass All-Stars will all be in the building performing their hits. It’s like 13 artists performing.
How tough was it for you to get everyone together to perform again?
The difference with my crew and every other crew is that we have never really been distant. It’s always, “If you got the idea, Jermaine, we’re gonna support your idea.” That’s always been the case with everybody who’s apart of So So Def.
A while back you said you felt like you didn’t get the respect you deserve as a producer and as a contributor to the culture. Do you feel putting on the show will get you some of that respect you haven’t gotten?
No because this is just half of it. This ain’t Usher. This ain’t Mariah [Carey]. This ain’t the stuff that I’d say people pay the most attention to in my career. You’re just getting the label stuff. You’re not getting my outside production. It’s not even the whole scope of my career. I’m not looking at it like that. What I’m looking at it as exactly what it is–a celebration of me putting together a company that has created artists.
It’s funny because people always talk about who put out the most artists, but a lot of people don’t even realize who is on So So Def or that’s been on So So Def. When I start naming the people who are going to be there, people are like, “For real?!” So it’s not even about respect, it’s about the knowledge. People almost ignore some of my musical facts. I don’t know why but that’s just what it is. [chuckles]
What gave you the courage to start your own record label at such a young age in the first place?
The fact of people not allowing me to do what I wanted to do when I was younger just forced me to create my own label. It was really a natural thing. I told myself that if I ever got the opportunity to do my own label, I would do my own label. I have so many ideas in my head and I knew people wouldn’t understand what I was trying to do so it was best for me to do things my own way. I idolize Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin and Berry Gordy. I saw what they were doing and I saw no other way for me to do it except to have my own.
Do you feel like you are the next generation of the Russell Simmonses and Rick Rubins because you’ve established a record label and kept it going for 20 years and they did the same thing with Def Jam?
For the most part, yeah. We’re all different though. Russell was a street record guy and a manager that could go out and sign the best artists to his company. I feel like Puff has the same way about him. I feel like me and Berry Gordy are more similar because Berry Gordy was writing the music and he was finding the artists at the same time. That’s closer to what I do. I find the artists and write the music with the artists. So there’s a similarity but we all have different traits.
With the show only being a one night event, is there going to be some sort of compilation album of new material from those artists?
I plan to put out an album of all the records that will be performed that night. I can’t say that there will be new songs. It’s going to be an album to give people a full scope of So So Def’s history and what we’ve accomplished in hip-hop and R&B. The majority of these companies live in a box. If it’s a rap company, all you’re getting is rap. If it’s an R&B company, that’s what it’s all about. With So So Def, you don’t know what to expect or what’s going to come out. When the record comes out, if I’m not talking on the record, people don’t automatically associate that artist with me or So So Def.
Probably one of the things you are going to ask is what’s next for So So Def. but last year I put out three new artists’ projects. When people ask me stuff like that, I’m like, “Yeah, you know Leah Labelle?” A lot of people don’t know she’s So So Def. They just think she’s another artist that came out. I’ve given so many different looks from my company that people start losing the mindset that it’s all apart of the same thing.
With you putting out new artists like Leah Labelle and Dondria, how come you never had them collaborate with any of your more popular acts for their debut albums?
I’ve never been the dude to use my seasoned artists as a tool to get my new artists on. I mean I did it a couple of times, but I never used the older artist as a platform. When I first signed Bow Wow, that was Xscape singing the hook on “Bounce With Me.” That wasn’t even like a real feature. I put their name on the record, but nobody really paid attention to it. When I find an artist, it’s like let’s make sure that this artist gets their own light and their own shine. I think that’s partially why there have never really been any problems as far as the artists go because each artist that’s come into the game through me had gotten their own slot. They do what they want to do and nothing they do is shared or borrowed from somewhere else.
Out of the 20 years of making music and signing artists, what had been the most important moment in the history of So So Def?
I think this is probably it. This concert is a moment that pops, at this point. This is a pretty big show and just to be able to put it on is a huge moment. It’s not like we’re just gonna get on stage and start performing. People expect a show, a good show and they expect for things to go along with the show. Putting this whole thing together is a big deal. This ain’t a small situation right here.
The fans want to know if you’ll ever get back in the studio with Usher?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. It’s a lot of things that play into that. When you do the records and you do that many numbers, and you have that many number ones, it’s a lot riding on your back. It would have to be something me and Usher sit around and talk about because it’s not like we can just go in the studio because y’all gonna critique it against “Confessions.” I don’t ever feel like I’ve made a record better than the ones I’ve already made. I don’t think I ever made a song bigger than “Jump.” But I did “confessions” and “We Belong Together.” These records have a place out there that feels like they’re bigger but I don’t believe that they’re bigger. So in my mind, I’m saying, “I don’t know if I can make a song bigger than “Confessions.” I believe I can because I have a bone in my body that says Quincy Jones was 50 when he did “Thriller,” so Jermaine, you got ten years left to figure this out. [laughs] I feel like there’s something in me to do it but its a difficult task. It ain’t easy. We just ain’t gonna go into the studio one day and surpass what we already did. Like I said before, a lot if people don’t want that weight. I don’t mind it, but at the end if the day, Usher and I just need to have a conversation.
The So So Def 20th Anniversary concert will take place on February 23rd at the Fox Theater. If you’re looking for tickets, check here.
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