So So Def Recordings’ famous afroman billboard along Interstate 75/85 in Atlanta stood as one of the city’s most prominent landmarks for many years. The iconic signage may be gone, but So So Def CEO Jermaine Dupri isn’t.
Dupri, who steered the careers of top-selling ’90s artists like Kris Kross, Xscape and Da Brat, and scored No.1 bops as a rapper, continues to work with established artists, but is now focused on creating his hip-hop label’s next crop of artists. He just wrapped his third season of Lifetime’s “The Rap Game,” the reality TV show he executive-produces that gives aspiring hip-hop artists the chance to work with him.
“We’re doing things that I’ve never done before, and that’s all that matters: to continue doing stuff that I’ve never done and things that others have never done,” the 44-year-old producer told XFINITY.
He kicked off the “Jermaine Dupri Presents: SoSoSUMMER 17 Tour” in March to showcase the newest members to join the So So Def family, who also were part of the first three seasons of “The Rap Game.” The “SoSoSUMMER 17 Tour” performers include Miss Mulatto, Mani, Lil Key, J.I. the Prince of NY, Nia Kay, Supa Peach, Nova, Deetranada and King Roscoe. In addition to the teen concert tour, Dupri is also encouraging youth to become more community-minded through Next Generation of Leaders (NXG), a nonprofit he created eight years ago. NXG is the formal philanthropic kickoff extension to the SoSoSummer 17 Tour.
Before Dupri was working with younger millennials, the Grammy winner was a go-to for Gen Xers who wanted a guaranteed hit. Jay Z, Mariah Carey, Usher, Ludacris, Nelly, Young Jeezy, Da Brat, Monica and Lil Jon are among the artists who benefited from Dupri’s expertise. Dupri rose to prominence as a teen when he introduced the teen duo Kris Kross in 1992 and then founded R&B quartet Xscape, who had a string of hits throughout the 1990s. The group’s members include Kandi Burruss Tucker, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, LaTocha Scott and Tamika Scott. The group disbanded after members left to pursue solo projects and, after years of feuding, all four members are reuniting and will perform at the Essence Fest this summer.
"I'm excited that they're all back together because it's all my music, too. I don't want people to ever get it twisted: They're singing songs that I wrote, so I'm extremely happy that they're back and I hope people enjoy it," explained Dupri, who said he doesn't talk to any of the group's members.
Though previous reports stated that Dupri was working on an Xscape biopic with TV One, Dupri confirmed that he isn’t as of now.
I sat down with Dupri at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago where NXG held a town hall meeting. There we discussed whether R&B music is dead, the artist he’s feeling now and his nonprofit organization. Be sure to also watch Dupri in Lifetime’s “The Rap Game” and BET’s “Music Moguls,” as well as “A Very Soul Train R&B House Party.”
WATCH: “The Rap Game”
Many people feel that black artists today, such as those in R&B, don’t have the opportunities that existed in the ’90s or before.
JERMAINE DUPRI: They don’t. It’s not a secret. At the same time the support is different too. People have to support [R&B] artists the way that they support other artists in other genres and then it’ll be different. But they don’t. Radio stations only play the bad music that we know they should not be playing. The video outlets only show the videos that they know they shouldn’t be playing as well. And it’s always been like that though. When I brought out Bow Wow, there’s wasn’t “106 & Park.” I created that show for him and then everyone else just followed along.
What rap artists or pop stars are you feeling now?
DUPRI: Drake seems like the most-focused person because he’s out here trying to make hits and break records. And that’s what I’ve always been about: creating hit records and breaking people’s records and being great. That’s what it’s about. I think a lot of artists are lazier now than they were in the past. And that’s what people notice when they say, “This ain’t nothing like the ‘90s.” Yeah, the artists are a lot more lazy because it’s easier for them now. You have the Internet and people go off perception and your talent isn’t really being shown. To me, Drake is showing people that he has the talent and the smarts to do what you gotta do.
Many people believe R&B music is dead. Is it?
DUPRI: Nah, not really. I just think people are scared to make R&B music. I don’t know why but I’m not but they are.
What are your thoughts on Xscape reuniting? They're performing at Essence Fest next month.
DUPRI: I think it’s great. I think it’s good that at a time when people are saying R&B music is dead, one of the greatest singing groups of the ‘90s comes back and people can get with it. Hopefully they stay together, go on tour and give people all of the stuff that people don’t get a chance to see.
Any advice for new artists or those hoping to break in?
DUPRI: Just stay focus on your craft. You can’t control the actual ground that you walk on but you can control your product and that’s it.
WATCH: Jermaine Dupri in “Music Moguls”
What prompted you to start this organization?
DUPRI: Just the fact that what we see when you put this tour out, or when I did Bow Wow or when I did Kris Kross, there’s a whole group of fans and kids who don’t have anything but what we give them. Right now, this tour is the only thing that these kids got. I posted a message this morning and a mom responded saying that her 11-year-old kid had a great time last night and that they don’t get that anywhere else. That’s what the whole thing is about. Rap is about finding your own lane and being in your own space and controlling your own space. It’s not about doing what everyone else is doing. So with this, we’re doing our own thing.
Do you think people still misunderstand rap artists and the genre, even though it’s been part of the mainstream for a few decades?
DUPRI: Nah. I know why, once again it’s the other things that happen in rap that people don’t pay no attention like this. I’m glad to see that there’s this much press here paying attention to [something positive]. Most of the time, people don’t pay attention to this. There would probably be 200 more press people here if it were a shooting at our concert or something like that. Most press come out for something bad than for something good.
What major concerns have you noticed that teens are expressing?
DUPRI: All teens ever want is someone to listen and pay attention to them because people always act like if you’re a teenager then you don’t have a voice and won’t be able to voice your opinions until you turn 21. I was always a person who defied those odds. I was 17 when I became a millionaire so you’ve got to listen to what the kids are saying.
What’s next for So So Def?
DUPRI: Continue to blow these artists up. Nova just won and he’s an incredible superstar.
WATCH: A Very Soul Train R&B House Party