When people celebrate their 25th year in an industry, there’s usually an announcement of retirement soon after. Not for producer Jermaine Dupri. After working with a plethora of artists including Xscape, Kriss Kross, Da Brat, Bow Wow, Jagged Edge, Usher and so many more, he’s not slowing down anytime soon. In celebration of So So Def’s 25th Anniversary, MADE caught up with JD to talk what he looks for in an artist and how his ability to cultivate talent has built him a legacy that will last forever…
MADE: So I’m just going to jump right in—what are you most looking forward to concerning the tour?
JD: It’s funny because it seems like I’ve done it before but this is like the first tour that I’ve done like this. Just putting this show together and all of that… it’s kind of new for me. I’ve done it for Bow Wow and other artists but for myself, as far as how I want my show to look and how I want people to perceive me when people come see me—it’s all new for me. That’s the most exciting part about it, I actually try to get to do something new.
MADE: Billboard posted the greatest of all time R&B songs, the number 1 single was “Be Without You” by Mary J. Blige and number 3 was Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna,” which were songs that you were a part of. You have worked with so many notables like producer Bryan Michael Cox. As an esteemed hit-maker, what synergy do you look for from a production standpoint when you are collaborating with others to make these hits?
JD: Well for me it has to be someone that understands songwriting first because a lot people don’t. A lot people don’t understand songwriting and how one person is supposed to suggest something and allow the space for somebody else to interject their ideas. Then, you take that idea and you start moving into another space for your next idea. It’s like finding people that understand songwriting.
The thing about Bryan is that he was writing with Jagged Edge before I even met him. Jagged Edge actually introduced me to Bryan and was like, “Yo, there’s this guy that you should use that I feel like would be good for what we do. I had a writing partner before– Manuel Seal that I did “We Belong Together” with. I did Escape’s first album and Jagged’s first album with Manuel. With that being said, I felt like they thought it was going to be the same thing. People see it and people say something. Sometimes I try to use young people and it doesn’t work so well. I’m also a worker though. I try different stuff every day to find my space. It’s not something that I ultimately just jump into. These are things I work on every day.
MADE: You’ve said, while most producers chase placements, I chase creating space for a placement. Flau’jae, who is a front runner on a cross cultural platform, America’s Got Talent, was discovered by you on season 3 of The Rap Game. You have an eye for not only identifying talent, but also cultivate talent as well. There are a many of rappers looking to be identified by someone of the likings of a Jermaine Dupri. What do you look for? What catches your eye?
JD: You have to want it! We can use Flau’jae as an example. I knew that she wanted it—that’s first and foremost thing that you have to build a successful artist. You have to want it badder than anything and she wants to be an artist so bad. She wants to make sure her father is represented through her music and it’s not something that her mother is pushing on her. This is something that I saw in her among the camaraderie around all the other kids. It’s like this kid really wants it, she’s just not there yet. And she’s 14 on America’s Got Talent. That alone is more than damn near half the world does for themselves when they’re 14 years old. She’s been on two TV shows. That should give anybody the motivation that they should be able to do it but for her, she’s definitely headed in the right direction, so she has to pay attention. That’s what I liked about watching her on America’s Got Talent. The night that she did her performance, she had a stage, she had a set and she had to get the crowd lit. I’m sure in the back of her mind, she was like, “I learned this at The Rap Game. I know exactly what I’m not supposed to be doing and I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.” Her coming on The Rap Game was a win because it made her better for the next time that you see her. You have to take each thing as a win. Being on The Rap Game was a blessing because it made her better and made her want to be better. That’s what you need all the time.
MADE: We know something that is really important to you is safeguarding your legacy. Can you talk about what does that truly mean to you? Also, what’s next for the So So Def Family?
JD: This tour is the most challenging for my legacy. The narrative has always been when an artist gets this far in their career—25 years—that they are old and they should go talk to the older stations and they don’t get as many interviews as I get. They don’t get as much press as I get. They are not in the mix with all of the new artists the way I am. That’s the narrative, that’s how it’s always been. You never see artists from the 80s kicking it with me and Kriss Kross in the 90’s. It’s always been a thing where people think that artists that have this much longevity should almost just bow out. I’m not cut from that cloth. It’s not even a part of my DNA. Even to get older people to understand that’s not who I am and that’s not where I’m from is difficult because older people automatically try to put me in this box and are like, “Jermaine, you know you are one of us.” I am older by age but my label and the spirit of what So So Def was and how we do it, has never been in that box.
We’ve always been something different and we always move different. So the protection of the 25 years is to make sure we celebrate it, but make sure at the same time people don’t brush this off like, “Ok y’all had y’all’s time.” I haven’t had my time. I took some time to do what I had to do, but I haven’t had my time. I think that’s what people have to realize. A lot of these shows that have come out and things that you see, they are created for whatever new artist is out and what’s hot right now, then people try to cater to that. It’s just like being inducted into the songwriters’ hall of fame. There are only two people from this era that are in there—me and Jay Z. That’s pretty much how life is when you have a 25th anniversary. It’s not a bunch of rappers celebrating their 25th anniversary as an owner of a record company.
People really don’t know how to do it, so then I have to teach people. Then you got people out there that think that people should automatically know what to do, but they haven’t dealt with a Jermaine Dupri celebrating a 25th anniversary prior to me. A lot of times, even people that work for me, I make sure that they understand that this not something that has happened before. This is something new. It’s interesting that when I say that, I am saying that it’s something new, but we are celebrating a 25th anniversary. That sounds like an oxymoron—How is it something new, but it’s 25 years old? That’s what I’m saying, you have to protect that. Although it’s 25 years old, it is still a new situation in the world that we live in.
MADE: A lot of people don’t know that you have been vegan for 12 years. You kick box regularly, and you proudly wear shirts that say, “Make God Cool Again.” How do you think your spirituality and healthy lifestyle play into your success?
JD: These are lessons learned. I saw a bunch of my friends having heart attacks at young ages and it was clear to me what is was. At the same time, I felt it too. We all feel when food is making you act a certain type of way. It was the same with me smoking weed—I saw all of my friends smoke weed and then go to sleep. I don’t want to go to sleep, therefore, it’s not something I am going to do. That’s what it’s going to make you do. 9 times out of 10, the people that I’ve seen smoke weed, that’s what they do. I’m not trying to be the person that goes to sleep in the daytime. I never smoked weed ever.
[Writer’s Note: The call was disconnected at this point, but it’s clear that JD is excited for the tour.]
Keep up with Jermaine Dupri @jermainedupri.