Few producers and songwriters have a more impressive resume than Jermaine Dupri. When Kriss Kross’ “Jump” topped the Hot 100 in 1992, Dupri became the youngest studio-wiz in history to craft a Number One hit. That gave him the chance to helm his own label, So So Def, which he used to help break acts throughout the Nineties, including Xscape, Jagged Edge and Anthony Hamilton. He also broke other labels’ acts with his writing and production: Usher owes his first major hit — and eight subsequent ones — to Dupri. Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” the biggest hit of the 2000s, as measured by Billboard, is another Dupri special.
So So Def is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Rolling Stone spoke with Dupri about the origins of the label and why he deserves more credit for the sound of music today.
Why did you set up So So Def in the first place?
So before I was making records — before I even thought I could make records — I was making mixtapes and selling them as So So Def mix tapes. I gave Kris Kross to [another label], Ruffhouse. Once the success of Kris Kross happened I realized that, you know, I did all the work for this group: I produced their records, I wrote the records, I dressed the kids, the majority of everything you saw from Kris Kross was my idea. And Columbia came to me and said, “you want your own record company?” This happens to damn near every producer in songwriting once they have a hit record at a company. And once they suggested it, I’m like, yeah, this needs to happen, because I have these ideas for my artists and this is what I actually do.
Is it true that you were developing TLC in the early days too?
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Yeah, they was my group before I had Kris Kross. I had TLC and was trying to develop TLC before I wrote “Jump” or anything. Once Kris Kross blew up I started saying, you know, this is what I want to do. I saw Xscape and I immediately just started talking to them, like, yeah, I’m gonna sign you, ’cause I have an idea for y’all.
When I looked at record companies, Motown was the only label, that had, to me, done what I thought I could possibly do, which was constantly bring out multiple artists back to back. That was the only label that I knew that had done that. Def Jam was just starting so they didn’t have that type of role and Def Jam was a rap company. Def Jam, Russell Simmons moves, I paid attention to the moves, but Def Jam in the nineties was a rap company. All they made was rap records. I mean I think Oran “Juice” Jones was the only R&B artist that came out of that company. They weren’t really about signing R&B music.
I was very much in the mood of making R&B music, so I just jumped out there and said, listen, Kris Kross already made millions, let me go ahead and get into this R&B business and try to start what I want to do.
What was the scene in Atlanta like at that time?
Very talent rich. I mean, you know, we had Arrested Development, we had Goodie Mob but Goodie Mob wasn’t Goodie Mob yet. There were a lot of different artists that you see out there today. In the College Park area, where I’m from, you would see a lot of artists. We just didn’t have the outlets that we needed to get the music out.
Was the competition tough? Obviously you had other labels like LaFace doing a lot at that time.
The competition from New York and L.A was tough. Atlanta wasn’t getting the credit for being a nurturing, musical city.
It was hard because what I was doing was bringing out young music. First people were fighting me being from Atlanta, then people was fighting that I was 19 years old. People weren’t trying to actually believe that they were gonna listen to someone under 21 tell them something or allow that person under 21 to be a force in the music business. Because it had never happened before and people weren’t ready for it. You know what I mean? When I put out “Jump,” I was the youngest producer in history of music to have a number one record.
That just lets you know how foreign what I was doing was to other individuals in the music business. Billboard had never charted a person 17 years old with a number one record as far as a producer. Artist-wise, they had, but as far as a songwriter and producer it had never happened. With that being said, I still had to deal with people believing it was a fluke, people believing that okay, it happened once, we ain’t gonna see this no more. You will have to deal with more than a congratulations.
Do you think the label was known for a certain sound?
I posted something the other day about the Monica record “Everytime tha Beat Drop” with Dem Franchize Boyz. None of her records — like “Angel of Mine” and “The Boy is Mine” and all of these songs was in the pattern of this old R&B, what people thought R&B was, but Monica was an artist to me that was dripping with the sauce of Atlanta. And everything she did was hood, shit, go in the hood-club and partying and loving this hood type of music. So I took this chance to try to make her a record that felt like where she would go partying, felt like the things that she actually loved, right?
And this happened in 2006. I posted two days ago, I asked a question: Who else from Atlanta was making R&B music like this? The sounds of that R&B that you hear now, I mean people don’t give me credit for it, but I was ahead of the curve. I won’t say I created it, but I guess I should, because I did.
In terms of really fusing rap and R&B in that way?
It terms of fusing R&B with that trap type of mentality we found. What you hear from like, the Weekend and 6lack and PartyNextDoor, those type of records weren’t being created when I created Xscape, when I did the Monica record in 2006. Even in 2006, nobody was making R&B records like that.
R&B has to now find it’s space, the same way hip-hop did. One thing I can say is that, people still wanna hear people sing. We just gotta know how to do it. You gotta be smart about how you do it and when the Ella Mai record came out, that should make people realize that people are not done with R&B.
How did you discover Anthony Hamilton? He had a different feel for So So Def.
I was sitting in my office in New York and prior to that, a week before that, me and my dad were having a conversation about artists that have these voices that once you hear them, you never forget them and every time you hear them, you know exactly who that person is. So we were talking about Bill Withers and we were talking about Aretha Franklin. He and I both were saying it would be dope to find an artist, a young artist in this day and time that has that type of voice.
Not long after my dad heard Anthony singing. He called me and was like he heard this guy who sounds like what we was talking about. And I was like, “yeah, right.” He’s like, “I’m telling you.” So he sent the demo to my office. And I was like yeah, he does sound like what we talking about.
So I was like, tell Anthony to come to the office. He agreed to come, and I was telling people in the office, “if this guy sounds anything like the demo when he gets here, I’m signing him on the spot.” He walks in the office and he started singing to the demo. I turned the music down low. And he said, “well, turn it off.” I turned the music off and this man started singing for me and I was like, instantly a fan.
He sang backup for D’Angelo on the Voodoo tour — had that already happened, or not yet?
Yeah, that had already happened.
So you signed him on the spot?
Yeah. I also put out the demo that I heard. I didn’t even go mess with it. I didn’t try to produce. I’m like, this song sounds amazing the way it is. We’re putting this out.
Those demos were the album?
Yeah. “Charlene,” “Comin’ From Where I’m From,” the whole album basically was already sung that morning when my dad called me.
When did you start having conversations about this 25th anniversary tour?
When we did the concert on the 20th anniversary, I did a show here in Atlanta that was pretty successful and people talked about, then I was like, on the 25th, we should probably try to take this on the road. And then Xscape did the Essence Fest and that gave them a certain type of gas that made me say, oh people really wanna see this.
I just really wanna make sure people have a good time. We live in a world now where if you’re trying to make people pay attention to what you’ve done, you’ve basically pretty much lost. Because the world we live in now, these kids is just paying attention to everyday, they’re not paying attention to much that happened in the past. They like a lot of things culturally, but for the most part, when you throw around stats about this day and that time, it makes people think you’re super, super old. And I’ve always been against that. I’ve always been against feeling super, super old.
Do you have plans for the label moving forward?
I’m looking for new artists now. The difference is, it’s not as easy finding artists that live up to artists that have come out. We talking about Anthony Hamilton. To find an artist that follows in the footsteps of him is probably more difficult than even creating your own company. There’s not many artists out here that have that talent and I gotta find things that live up to expectations that people might have for So So Def.
You talked early on about how you wanted to follow in the footsteps of Motown. Do you feel like you achieved that?
Oh no, I never accomplished anything that Motown did, besides making it to the 25th anniversary.