Hip-Hop Label 101: So So Def Recordings
By Stereo Williams
So So Def is an Atlanta music staple.
The legendary label launched in 1992 via the vision of an ambitious 20 year old producer named Jermaine Dupri, and over the course of the next decade, helped turn Georgia's capital city into a hotbed for hit music. Dupri had been a teenaged prodigy, with a music industry father (executive and producer Michael Mauldin) and a great ear, and he'd seen major success with two even younger rappers who had just become a global phenomenon.
Having scored some production work with Atlanta trio Silk Tymes Leather, the teenaged Dupri discovered Atlanta teen rap duo Kris Kross in a shopping mall and was impressed by the following of kids they'd drawn around them - despite the fact that the then-12-year olds weren't actual rappers or even any kind of group.
"My mom had seen Silk Thymes Leather in Jet magazine, and recognized them walking around the mall," Chris "Mac Daddy" Kelly of Kris Kross would recall to Creative Loafing decades later. "And Jermaine saw us, too. We got to the car and my mom said, "Y'all should get an autograph!" We was like, "Naw." But we went and asked them who they were. Everything just kind of went from there."
Impressed by their style and star power, Dupri produced the two, gave them their name and their distinct backwards-clothes image. Kris Kross dropped their debut album, Totally Krossed Out, in early 1992, and on the strength of monster hit single "Jump," Totally... crossed the triple platinum mark en route to selling more than four million in the U.S.
The experience opened Dupri's eyes. He'd landed Kris Kross on the Columbia subsidiary Ruffhouse Records, but he was beginning to realize he needed his own base of operations.
"I gave Kris Kross to Ruffhouse," Dupri explained to Rolling Stone in 2018. "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."
But Dupri's first major signees weren't a Hip-Hop act. They were four friends from Southwest Atlanta who'd been making a name for themselves on teh talent show circuit. They'd been rejected by Atlanta hitmaker Dallas Austin, and wound up at Dupri's 20th birthday party.
"I saw Xscape singing at my birthday party, and it was just in my mind that I was going to sign them."
Member LaTocha Scott gave the group an unusual name: "Xscape." And Dupri set about giving the girls their own sound. TLC and Mary J. Blige had seen major success throughout 1992 and early '93; Dupri realized that marrying R&B and Hip-Hop was the sound of the future.
"He was like, 'Y'all can sing, y'all like the ghetto En Vogue,'" Scott said in 2013. "We were kinda like, 'OK, ghetto En Vogue? Cool.' We were also compared to Jodeci cause we had the rugged look. We kinda just brought who we were to the table and Jermaine added that hip-hop flavor to the music. It was just a good mesh."
He produced Xscape's first hit single "Just Kickin' It," and the song shot all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1993.
"I wanted a record that actually was a hybrid between hip-hop and R&B, so I wanted the hook to say something that was hip-hop but I wanted it to be a song," Dupri explained to COMPLEX. "The hip-hop people would not ignore it—because at this time, when I made this record, hip-hop and R&B wasn't living together the way they do now. It wasn't the normal thing to have rappers on R&B music. So it's like the first time I thought, without putting a rapper on the song, let's just make a song that infuses both of those things."
And with the success of "Just Kickin' It" and Xscape's debut album, Hummin' Comin' At Cha, So So Def was off and running. The urban music sphere had grown exponentially by 1993; burgeoning labels like LaFace, Ruthless and Uptown were all making major waves. But Dupri was focused on building his own empire.
"I wasn't really paying no attention to [competition at Uptown Records]. As a young person, you don't pay attention to competition, you pay attention to the fact that you got an opportunity."
Dupri was making the most of his opportunity. Chicago native Da Brat had won a Yo! MTV Raps-sponsored rap contest when she caught the attention of Kris Kross. They called her onstage during their performance.
"I had my Cross Colours clothes on, I had my 'Poetic Justice' braids, I ran on stage," she recalled in a 2016 interview with REVOLT. "[Yo! MTV Raps hosts] Ed Lover and Todd 1 was hosting that thing and I went on stage and rapped and the crowd went crazy. I actually did a song that R. Kelly wrote for me, R. Kelly wrote like my first demo record and it was called 'Clean Up Woman.' The crowd went crazy."
"They saw her while they were on tour, and they came to me and said, 'We got this female rapper you should check out,'" Dupri explained in 2013. "And when they did it, I didn't want no female rapper. But I thought that since they said I should check her out... I'm like, what does she do that made them want me to look at her? So I at least decided to give it a listen."
"They told JD about me, [I] went to The Oprah Winfrey Show from keeping in contact with them, and that's when I met JD and he was like 'come to the ATL.'"
The fiery spitter was soon tapped by Dupri to help ghostwrite for Kris Kross on their sophomore album, on which she made a guest appearance on the track "Da Bomb." It was a launching pad for her own career. Dupri and Brat's musical chemistry would soon become a mainstay of So So Def, as Brat released her debut album Funkdafied in 1994, and it would become the first platinum-selling album by a solo female Hip-Hop artist.
The success of Kris Kross (though not technically signed to So So Def until their third and final album, Young, Rich and Dangerous), Xscape and Da Brat established So So Def as a force to be reckoned with, even as monster rap labels like Death Row and Bad Boy began to dominate the landscape. And Dupri became one of music's most in-demand producers, helming tracks for, not only So So Def artists, but also stars like Mariah Carey, MC Lyte, TLC and Usher. He would sign the legendary rap group Whodini to the label, and helped mainstream bass music with the So So Def Bass All-Stars compilations. Those mixes would give rise to future King of Crunk, Lil Jon.
"I met Lil Jon at this nightclub that used to be downtown called the Phoenix," Dupri told Creative Loafing in 2013. "He was DJing there. It was the only club that would let me in, 'cause I was like 19. They'd let me park my car out front and feel like I was cool. Security would walk me into the club and I used to always go holler at the DJ. When I started the label, we had a lot of positions we needed to fill. When it came to A&R, all I could think about was Lil Jon, because he was the person in the clubs. He knew people, DJs knew him. I had to hire him. I was telling Lil Jon we should start a project, and that he should do something he wanted to do. He recruited DJ Smurf, Shawty Redd, Playa Poncho, and all these people and he put together an album. Next thing I know, he brought it into my office and said it was the Bass All-Stars."
And in the early 2000s, Dupri scored another rap prodigy with Lil Bow Wow. The precocious Ohio-born rapper was only eleven when he met Dupri, who signed him to So So Def and produced his debut album, Beware of Dog. The album sold 2 million records and set Bow Wow on the road to becoming one to the most successful teen artists in Hip-Hop.
In 2013, Dupri celebrated 20 years of So So Def. The label saw its fair share of ups and some downs (Kris Kross star Chris "Mac Daddy" Kelly sadly died of an overdose at age 34 just a few months after the 20th anniversary So So Def celebration), but the name So So Def is synonymous with hits and Atlanta swagger. With the ATL eventually becoming a hot spot for hit music, the city owes a lot to So So Def for helping to forge that legacy.
“My goal was just to have a successful label and in doing this 20th anniversary, I feel like we got to that point,” Dupri said to Rolling Out Magazine in 2013. “It was a lot of things that we didn’t do, being from the south and from Atlanta and having to learn as we go—but I feel like I accomplished most of [the goals] that I started out from the gate with.”