Jermaine Dupri is honoring his record label So So Def Recordings’ 30th anniversary by hosting a two-day music festival in Atlanta this fall.
The Grammy award-winning producer also curated the “Southern rap experience” portion of ESSENCE Festival of Culture’s (EFOC) hip hop 50 celebration. During his set, he performed classic So So Def hits, brought out fellow ATLiens (T.I., Ludacris and Lil Jon), and jammed out with the audience when the DJ spun No. 1 records Dupri made with his music peers. Before he hit the stage, the industry veteran took a moment to speak with REVOLT about how hip hop impacted his life, the South’s influence in rap music, and the origins of most of his working relationships.
In September 1972, not long before hip hop made its American debut, Jermaine Dupri was born. Growing up in the music industry, his father, Michael Mauldin, became a stage and production manager for the 1970s funk and jazz group Brick. This led to the rapper dancing on stage with trio Whodini, Herbie Hancock and Run-D.M.C., according to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Although Dupri started dancing at the age of 12, he fell in love with hip hop a few years before that when he first heard “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.
“It’s the first song I actually memorized without rewinding the tape, so this is when I actually knew how infectious whatever I was listening to was because it was the first song I was actually like, ‘I’m going to memorize this song,’” he told REVOLT. “I didn’t memorize it from a standpoint of taping it and rewinding the tape. Every time I heard it, I just tried to remember what I heard, so when you think about it, that’s falling in love with something. You’ll never forget it; it’s always on your mind and you’re reminded of it.”
Many critics predicted the music genre would be a fad. Despite not knowing how long rap culture would last, the record executive knew something was special about hip hop from the moment he became a fan.
“When I heard ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ I felt like it was too infectious to be a fad. As long as people made more records like ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ I could’ve told people back then this is going to be around forever ‘cause I’ve never actually had the yearning to learn music. I learn all songs, but this was like, ‘I have to learn this today… I have to know this rap right now.’ The urgency of learning music comes from rap,” said the 50-year-old.
Dupri went on to spill a fanboy moment he had when he met Melle Mel at the club one night during EFOC. The renowned producer used the moment to give Melle his flowers for the way his music shaped hip hop.
“I went out to the club last night, and I saw Melle Mel, and we spoke, and I just let him know he’s actually probably one of the greatest of all time because his first record, ‘The Message,’ has been a hit in rap for almost four or five decades,” the entrepreneur told REVOLT. “Puff made it hit, Coi Leray has a hit now, it was a hit when they did it… like four or five decades that song has been a hit record. To me, that’s pretty incredible. That’s the first song that these guys put out and it’s lasted through generations — that’s crazy. That’s a real record.”
The Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee believes he is the embodiment of hip hop since he witnessed the revolutionary style of music evolve throughout the decades.
“Hip hop is my life ’cause I’m basically the same age as it, so I am hip hop,” he said during a press conference the night of his EFOC set. “Everything about me and how I grew up. The way I grew up, I am a breathing example of what hip hop is… how I learned it, how I fell in love with it, how I ended up doing one thing one minute to the next, then to the next, and to now. Hip hop is life to me,” he explained.
As one of the industry’s leaders, Dupri played a major role in helping Southern rap music reach the masses. His eye for talent launched the careers of artists like Kris Kross, Bow Wow, Xscape, Da Brat and more, which ignited more styles of hip hop. He recalled how it took time for his region to be added to rap conversations because of where media hubs were located — New York and Los Angeles — and noted it’s still “overlooked” today.
“I just think that it gets left out of the conversation a lot of times because of media,” the co-creator of the “Rap Game” reality TV show said. “I think the media plays the biggest role because the majority of the media outlets that ran hip hop in the ’90s were from New York and Los Angeles. It wasn’t really nobody from Atlanta that was really driving media. It was nobody from Dallas, TX — or Texas period — that was driving media that you had to pay attention to.”
He continued, “It was always BET or Don Cornelius. When I brought out Kris Kross with Don Cornelius at ‘Soul Train,’ it was back and forth from LA to New York, so in-between that, it didn’t feel like… of importance. We had to either go to New York or LA for us to feel important.”
As to what he thinks about the budding generation, Dupri is interested in collaborating with many of the new artists if there is a natural connection and nothing is forced. The So So Def CEO didn’t spill the beans on who exactly he would like to work with, but he did admit that he would navigate some of the young stars’ careers differently.
“I’ve got a new record with Jacquees, and it was my first time working with him. I got a new Ari Lennox record… I mean, I have a bunch of new records with a bunch of new artists that are of the new generation,” the Atlanta native said. “I don’t really put it out there like, ‘Oh, I want to work with this person.’ I feel like it’s just going to happen organically, but I do like a lot of artists. I just feel like what I would do with them is different than what they’d do with themselves. I really just want to get in the studio with a bunch of people and see what happens.”
In addition to new singles dropping, fans can look forward to Dupri hosting one of the biggest events for hip hop this year — the So So Def 30th Anniversary Festival. The event will take place in his hometown to celebrate the label’s huge milestone and all the work Dupri has done since founding the Atlanta-based record company in 1993. Details of the event haven’t been revealed yet, but he shared it will be in October, and the lineup will only consist of artists who were on his label or whom he’s worked with. In addition, Saturday will be filled with all R&B acts, while Sunday is set to consist of only rap artists.
“That’s going to be how I keep my festival different than everybody’s. If I didn’t produce you or haven’t worked with you in some type of capacity, then you won’t be able to be on my show,” he said.