For many, Jermaine Dupri is a household name. The Atlanta icon is one of the early multi-hyphenates, with cred as a rapper, actor, DJ, producer, record executive, manager, and so on. While older generations are fond of him for developing legends such as Kriss Kross and Usher, millennials credit Dupri with bringing Bow Wow into the music world. Everyone, though, owes him thanks for co-creating Billboard’s song of the last decade, Mariah Carey’s 2005 hit “We Belong Together.” He’s also the driving force behind hit TV talent show The Rap Game.
This month, Dupri was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It’s an honor that has only been given to one other hip-hop artist in the 49 years it’s been around. Dupri is also celebrating the 25th anniversary of his label, So So Def, and is releasing a compilation with all of his greatest hits, including Diddy, Snoop Dogg, Murphy Lee, Da Brat, Biggie and more, on Sony Music’s Certified Classics . In the fall, he has plans to take the party on the road with the So So Def 25th Anniversary Cultural Curren$y Tour.
We sat down with the music mogul to reflect on the past, make predictions about the industry’s future, and the true nature of the art of the rap beef.
When you were first starting out in the business, what were some of your goals and how has that changed now?
I really think about this a lot. When I first started, the pool for music and talent was at an all-time high. My goal was to try to be in that mix and to be spoken about in the same breath as all of these great people that was before me. I never really felt like I was ever there, really. That’s what’s crazy. So this induction [into the Songwriters Hall of Fame] makes me believe that I finally got to what I was trying to get to in some kinda way.
You know, I still never felt like I was there, so I just kept putting out music, music, music. I tried different ways to put out different music, to try to see if it would change the path, but not realizing I was creating a path and making my own. I was trying to get in the mix of everybody else.
You’re only the second hip-hop artist to be inducted into this Hall of Fame. How does it feel to grapple with that reality?
I can’t speak for other rappers, but I feel like that’s a bad thing that I’m the second to get inducted. Because it’s a bad thing for the Songwriters Hall of Fame to look like they’re not up on the fact that rappers actually are writers. That’s what I think. That’s the message I get from it. Like, Jesus, y’all ain’t think that Run-D.M.C. wrote they records or you gonna respect what they wrote, or you don’t respect what Nas or anybody else that’s come prior to this?
At the same time, you have to have 25 years of writing. That’s one reason why rappers are not in this. I think that this needs to be said: there’s not really a popular rapper that’s been going 25 years and still poppin’ to date besides JAY-Z. I think Eminem is up next year, something like that. They had N.W.A. on the ballot this year, but it’s artists like N.W.A. that ain’t even together no more that are up for this ballot.
With that being said, you gotta take that into consideration. I’m looking at it one way, like the young people look at it like, “Oh, that’s fucked that you didn’t get in there,” but you still have to write for 20 years. If you have 20 years of writing as a rapper, you’ll probably get inducted, too.
There are so many people involved in an artist’s development, from the engineers and producers to the rapper and singer or songwriter. Why, then, is ghostwriting still an issue?
It’s because of your story. I just did a episode on The Rap Game where I had these kids write a story rap. I had them read nursery rhymes at first to understand somebody else’s story, and then write their own story. I think that in the midst of that, that’s what rap is about. Rap is the exposure of somebody’s story. I didn’t learn about Queensbridge through nobody but Nas. I didn’t know about Marcy but through JAY. I learned about Compton through N.W.A. People learned about Atlanta from me, right? This is the story. This is our story.
It’s been put out there that if you’re gonna tell a story about you and where you from and trynna get people to understand it, how can someone else tell you a story? That’s where rap and singing changes, because songs are like, “I love you.” Anybody can write a “I love you” song. If it’s technical, about a place where you stay and where you live — right now, I know nothing about you. I could write a rap for you, but I couldn’t write and tell anyone where you live at, where you stay, what you do every day. You would either have to tell me or write it yourself. I think that’s what it is.
What are some of the proudest moments in your career?
One just happened with finishing season five of The Rap Game, ’cause I never thought I would be doin’ a TV show this long. “We Belong Together,” song of the decade. I don’t know how I got to that space, that’s not something I can tell you how to do or anything like that. The success of [Usher’s] Confessions and then Kris Kross without a doubt, because it was just like a dream that I didn’t know exactly what was gonna happen. You don’t know what’s gonna happen, you just throw yourself out there and you believe in something, but you don’t know what’s gonna happen. Even now when I sit back and look at them, I’m like, “Damn, this Kris Kross thing was pretty big, right?”
I also think “Money Ain’t a Thang.” Sometimes people be saying I be slightin’ myself on my own records. I think “Money Ain’t a Thang” hit because I visualized what I thought JAY-Z was gonna be before anybody else. I put him on my record because I thought he was the next guy. I felt the rumbles in the streets on what people were sayin’ and I felt like he needed somebody like me to get on a song with hi’ to give hi’ that platform.
I don’t know if I did that, but that’s what I was thinkin’ at the time when it happened. I remember people at Sony were saying, “Why did you put this guy? Why are you not using Mariah? What’s going on? Who’s this JAY-Z guy? He’s not commercial enough.”
I’m like, “Y’all just don’t understand. You don’t get it.” To me, that’s one that people talk about the most out of all of my catalog. They talk about that song. It’s not a No.1 record but it’s one of those type of records that you gotta have.
Are there any newer artists right now that you think are possibly going to have that type of impact? Is there anyone you’ve had your eye on that you think is doing something different?
I think Dave East is gonna turn into somethin’. I think he wants it and he understands that he has to make a body of work that speaks. I don’t know how long it’s gonna take him to get to that spot but he understands it. When you have a rapper that understands it, and they look like they understand it, and they want it, nine times outta 10 they get there. He’s just one that I see, that I feel like is not really there yet. People can’t really understand what’s goin’ on with him, they just know his name. He has a shot to do that, I think.
I manage another artist that I feel like has a lot of potential: 24hrs. He has an undeniable mindset. You can’t do anything to this guy to discourage him. He’s gonna figure out a way, and I feel that he’s definitely gonna go with or without me at some point. He’s just gonna blow and people gonna be looking back like, “Wow.”
I signed him first when his name was Royce Rizzy. He wasn’t really feeling how people was being receptive of him as that name. So then he went away from me and everybody, he changed his name to 24hrs, and he came back with a hit record. People was like, “You know that’s the same guy you signed?” I’m like, “Yeah, I told y’all.” He’s got one of them things where you better watch him.
How do you market an artist in a time when it seems like artist development isn’t really a thing? Back in the day, people really took the time to establish an artist, to make sure they’re working with the right people and growing.
That’s not hard to me, ’cause I pay attention to what’s goin’ on. I do artist development because nobody else is doing it. I would do artist development if I was other people. I would really make sure my artists are well prepared before they come out. Before you see ’em. The YouTube videos and Instagram, there’s nothing you can do about that as a manager or anything. Your artist, they gonna put stuff up. But real songs or whatever it is, you should make sure they right before they go out.
I will say that I just came from doing Sway in the Morning, and Sway talked about Nova, who won The Rap Game season three. He said that of all the new artists that’s come to that studio, Nova was the most prepared for that interview and that rap session. All that is what I taught him at The Rap Game and got him prepared for that. He wasn’t that guy before that show. [If] you pay attention to artist development, it definitely works and it puts you in a better space.
Everything that people do today, they think they have to rush. I’ve learned that, in this world, if you throw it out there, it’s not going away. So you have to throw out the best hits you can because if you don’t, it’s gonna sit out there and it’s gonna be this thing that you did and people gonna remember the thing. They don’t forget anymore.
That’s what’s wrong with the younger rappers — they believe that somebody created “tweet and delete” as a saying, so then people do it. Kanye’s done it, Wiz Khalifa’s done it, and all of these big, top rappers have tweeted something that, after they put it out there, they don’t want people to actually think about. It’s too late at that point — [the press] have taken it, everybody’s gotten it, and it’s talked about.
With that being said, that’s where the young people have started following. [Kids] believe that they can put it out there and it’s gonna go away. They don’t understand value either. I would be sad to be born in this era, in this time, for real. Kids in this era have no “go, stop” mode. It’s just “go go, go.” They don’t understand the difference between when you supposed to fall back and when you not, and what’s special and what’s not special. It’s like everything is everything. There’s no rhyme or reason why they do it anymore. You should do things — I know I do things that mean something.
Fourteen years ago you quit The Recording Academy because of how it treated Janet Jackson after the Super Bowl controversy. How do you feel it has or hasn’t changed since then? Especially in the wake of Grammy president Neil Portnow stepping down.
I feel like I did what I was supposed to do. At the time when I was president, I couldn’t understand. Things happen for a reason. It was important for me to get to a space where I understand more about NARAS [National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] and the Grammys and all of this.
My definition of president [is] you could do whatever you want to do as the president. You can make things happen as the president. My hands was tied at that particular point in time. I felt, like, “I need to be able to do something.” I don’t think they was prepared to do something crazy enough for me that was gonna make it look cool for me to be a part of it. It was time for me to walk away from it.
I think it’s crazy that Neil’s walking away from it now. At the same time, he’s been there forever — he probably wants to do something else. I think they should give it to Jimmy Jam though. People probably scared of that ’cause they probably think he’s gonna black it out when they put it out. It won’t be like that, he’s not that guy. I’m sure that’s what they are — they said that this year. Didn’t they say something about it was the first year there was no white male singers? I think people was already trynna to go in that direction, so if they give it to Jimmy Jam, people might go crazy. They might boycott the Grammys. We don’t need that right now.
I just wanted SZA to get a Grammy.
Let me tell you that Diana Ross has never won a Grammy, so if you think SZA’s gonna win — you might be right, but I’m just saying, the Grammys are so weird. Diana Ross had never won a Grammy, so when I don’t win, I’m not really that mad because I’m like, “Tupac didn’t get a Grammy, Snoop Dogg doesn’t have a Grammy.”
I like that they put that one there ’cause I don’t think we have enough things in life that make people wanna work harder anymore. The Grammys make people… You lose, you wanna work harder. I lost Confessions, and I went back with Mimi and I lost again. I won on “We Belong Together,” but I didn’t win on the album. I still look at Quincy Jones holding 20 Grammys at one time for Thriller and I’m like, “Fuck, what do I gotta do to get that?” It’s still stuff out there like that. They have to keep it like that to make people like myself want to do more.
I’m glad you said that ’cause I was going to ask you how you felt about ceremonies like that and whether or not they’re still relevant now.
I don’t think when I first got in the music business I even cared if people was watching the American Music Awards and the Grammys and all of these shows. I thought these shows was just for us, the people that’s in there. I didn’t ever really hear about the rating being high or down. I don’t even know if that actually ever mattered to the Grammys prior to this new era of time. I just hope that they don’t become a victim of that, ’cause I’m seeing so many things that’s changing based on likes and people paying attention to it that didn’t matter before.
I’m trying to figure out what’s the difference now. I’m sure the ratings weren’t as high back then as they have been these days. They always talk about it, like Billboard — that’s the first thing they post when the Grammys go off. The numbers are down or up. I hate that. I hate that we put the business of these type of things into everybody else’s hands. That’s supposed to be for the business people. We don’t know what’s going on at Facebook right now until he tells us what’s going on at Facebook, right?
We put too much of our music business out to the public and let them dictate what’s gonna happen to it, I believe. I hate… Everything I hear people say, I take into consideration that you might be saying something that makes these shows disappear, ’cause people might not wanna watch ’em no more at some point. But they gotta have something. We gonna have to have something. So I don’t know.
I think the BET Awards is safe because you don’t get opportunity to see none of these artists anywhere else and, that’s becoming a good thing, as opposed to what it used to be. People can’t wait to see who’s on the BET Awards.
I’m not sure if you’ve been following the whole Pusha-T and Drake situation, but I wanted to know what your thoughts were on beefs in general and whether you think they’ve been good for rap.
I think it was amazing for hip-hop. Then it took a left turn, like, “I’m never talking about this again.” It’s a waste of my time and energy because I’ve felt like we was gettin’ ready to see something.
I’ve been watchin’ battles since LL Cool J and Ice-T. If I come in on it, people don’t understand. It’s a lot of people don’t understand the battle culture and understand what that is when you get into it, how it’s supposed to be. Ice-T was married to this girl that used to be on the covers of his albums named Darlene. LL Cool J told him he used to take his album cover to the bathroom and jack off on Darlene on his covers. He said, “These are bad things, right?”
I saw something in Billboard where it said, “Could Pusha-T possibly go to court for what he said to Drake in the diss record?” I was like, “What are we doin’ right now? Where did this go?” I just got lost in it. I’m happy Kanye put out some more music so it’ll go away. Let’s hear some more music. That threw me off. Why is it goin’ in that direction?
I feel like I got dissed by Dr. Dre, Eminem, and whatever that other guy’s name is. They all dissed me. I took that and I dissed ’em back. Then me and Dr. Dre became friends and it’s cool. I know it’s hard when somebody that you like diss you. That’s a hard thing to swallow. It is what it is and it’s the sport that we’re in. If it happens, you gotta just deal with it and keep it movin’.
I thought it was gonna be one of the best battles ever, ’cause Drake came back so fast. I thought this was gonna get very interesting. I think we’re all let down. This was so important to hip-hop. And so much talk about this battle, I had never seen it like this. That’s why I thought it was the biggest thing that could ever possibly happen. Then the balloon just ran outta air.
Given all of your experience and expertise, what is the one piece of advice you would give to an artist who’s trying to break out right now?
Never think that people think like you. Never think that people understand the way you think and your thought process. That’s the best way for you to get your feelings hurt in this business, if you feel like people would think like you. If you’re a loving person, never think that that love is gonna rub off on people and they gonna be the same loving person that you are.
I hear so many people talk about how they take care of people and then that same person they take care of turns around and does something to them. That’s because they was thinkin’ that that person has the same heart as them. People don’t have the same heart as you, not in this business.
You gotta pay attention to what you do, guard what you do, and continue to make sure that you keep it in a space that you want it to be in. You put it in somebody else’s hands, it could definitely go dead wrong. That’s the problem with most artists: they trust people and put things into other people’s hands, and it doesn’t go the way they want it to go.
Over the years, what has kept you motivated to keep working?
I just said this on my Instagram: ’cause nobody else is gonna do it. Who’s gonna do it for me? I’m celebrating my legacy. It’s something I started with my idea and it got to this point. It’s people that helped me get it to this point, but the start of it was never something people came to me and said, “Yo, you should do this, you should do that.” You have to do it. It’s always about you unless you’re not the main person involved — then it’s a different story. But if it’s your story, you gotta stick to it and never let it go. My biggest deed now is to try to protect my legacy. So I gotta be right here all day, every day.
For more of our interviews, read our chat with the inimitable Azealia Banks.
- Photography: Bryan Luna