Jermaine Dupri was barely in his ‘20s when he founded So So Def Recordings in 1993.
Fresh-faced and eager to make his mark on the music industry, he quickly signed acts like Bow Wow, Kriss Kross, Da Brat, Xscape, Usher and TLC with varying degrees of success. All of them, at one point, produced platinum-selling albums and became synonymous with So So Def’s ‘90s takeover.
Thirty years later, Dupri has positioned himself among the entertainment elite; he’s a Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, he has a star on Atlanta’s Black Music Walk Of Fame and at least one Grammy Award lining his shelves. He also has the honor of signing Atlanta’s first rap group, Silk Tymes Leather.
At this stage in his career, Dupri has an abundance of hard-won wisdom to pass down. The 51-year-old recently partnered with TIDAL on a new product called TIDAL Collabs, which helps emerging artists discover and connect with recommended collaborators in an effort to jumpstart the collaboration process. He admits being somewhat opposed to collaborating with other people when he first started but eventually understood the value in it. In fact, without collaborating with Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo on Kriss Kross, we might not have seen “Jump” or “Warm It Up” have the kind of impact they did.
“When I did Kriss Kross, I became the youngest producer with a No. 1 record,” Dupri tells Rock The Bells. “But prior to that, Warner Brothers wanted me to work with this guy Joe The Butcher, and I didn't understand why. I'm like, ‘He don’t make my beats. He's white.’ I had every problem in the world, right? Because as a young Black kid coming up, I didn't understand the reason for them telling me to do this. And their reason for doing it probably wasn't actually correct, but it ended up working. When I got there, I could identify what he had that I didn't have and what I had that he didn't have.”
From there, Dupri just kept connecting the dots and strengthening his industry relationships, while penning songs for artists such as Mariah Carey, Da Brat, Lil Kim, MC Lyte, Usher, Monica and Destiny’s Child along the way. But Dupri didn’t take the easy route—as he notes, “Hip-Hop isn’t a lazy genre.” Instead, he put in his 10,000 hours and tirelessly worked on perfecting his craft, something he finds missing in the era of “microwave rap.” He believes there’s a way to fix that though—information.
“It's a lack of information and people’s cockiness overriding people actually being cold and taught how to actually make music,” he says. “The one thing I hate about the music industry is that people think that the music industry is so easy and you can just get in it and go. It’s not. No sport is like that. I feel like people gotta respect music a little bit more.”
Dupri mentions a lack of “information” multiple times during the conversation, especially when the topic of the Billboard 200 chart is brought up. Only four rap albums have landed at the No. 1 spot in 2023—Lil Uzi Vert’s The Pink Tape, Travis Scott’s UTOPIA, Rod Wave’s Nostalgia and Drake’s For All The Dogs—which many have chalked up to the dismal state of mainstream rap music. Dupri, on the other hand, seems to think Hip-Hop has moved too far away from its analog roots.
“It's a lack of information and people’s cockiness overriding people actually being cold and taught how to actually make music."
- Jermaine Dupri
“The artists don't have the information, and the older people that are saying this are not paying attention to the artist not having the information,” he says. “It’s almost like the older people don't have the information either to speak on it or to understand. Hip-Hop is a word of mouth, street culture. That’s what it is. It’s not a technology culture, and it can't be made into a technology culture. I think that's what people are trying to do. Hip-Hop isn’t Silicon Valley. Hip-Hop is something that's in the streets, and word of mouth has always been what Hip-Hop is about.
“If people don't start getting back to that and creating that energy, then you're gonna keep having the downslide of Hip-Hop, because that's like playing basketball on an ice hockey rink. It don’t even go together. These two things don't match. They was never meant to be. We have already seen what 50 years of what Hip-Hop is supposed to be. Even for the tech guys with these TikTok algorithms and all of that, it’s cool, but that's not where Hip-Hop lives. It survives in every space on Earth—we’ve seen that. But where Hip-Hop comes from and how Hip-Hop is fed, that’s not something that can be created in a lab.”
He continues, “It’s very much a genre that breeds off street activity, meaning word of mouth, you going to actually see somebody in a club, foot traffic and all of these types of things. It’s not a lazy genre. As people get lazy and start to act like they have forgotten that part of it. The information highway to the upcoming kids is what's missing.”
That doesn’t mean Dupri has lost all hope—there’s a change brewing. More and more of the pillars and architects of Hip-Hop, especially as the genre celebrates its 50th birthday, have been more omnipresent than in years past.
Dupri agrees, saying, “I feel the shift. We're here talking about what could help change it. It’s got to start somewhere. But for the most part, people just got to start sharing information.”
Still, there’s a ways to go, and most Gen Z kids will never know the struggle of having to find your favorite record at an actual record store, waiting in long lines to buy a concert ticket ahead of the show or slanging demo tapes out of a car trunk.
“Everybody act like they got a zillion dollars,” he says with a chuckle. “Nobody wants to show people the grind that each person that we love or talk about and that we call legendary went through. They went through a lot of shit to get to where they are. And you don't ever hear none of these young artists talk about debt. All you hear them say is I've been rapping for the last three years and don’t verbalize no struggle. I know the space of a young songwriter and producer not wanting to do it. And then I also know the space of the young songwriter producer doing it and the results.”