Jermaine Dupri has always had a few big steps up on his hip-hop competition. At the age of 14, when most aspiring artists are still cribbing notes from their creative influences, JD was already producing Sylk Tymes Leather and getting the band signed to a record deal. Two years later, he started his own label, So So Def, signing and producing successful artists such as Kris Kross, Xscape and Da Brat. By the time he was 25, Dupri had already produced multi-platinum albums for urban music icons such as TLC, Mariah Carey and Usher, not to mention releasing his own successful solo album just to prove he could.
Though much has changed in the music industry over the past 10 years, JD’s success rate remains remarkably consistent in the face of universally declining sales figures. In the last two years alone, Dupri has worked with artists ranging from Dem Franchise Boyz and Jay-Z to Mariah and longtime girlfriend Janet Jackson. Currently at work producing Usher’s follow-up to their 2004 collaboration, Confessions, JD recently announced that he was stepping down from his position as president of Island Records to oversee Island Def Jam’s new label, TAG Records, which was launched in conjunction with Proctor & Gamble’s TAG brand.
Dupri recently sat down with us to discuss his influential career, and how he believes this new venture will change the music industry game for the better.
I read that your first big performance was dancing with Diana Ross when you were 9 years old. How crazy was that?
Yeah, I guess that’s what people wanna call my first big performance, but it wasn’t planned so I don’t look at it like that. It was like my discovery of what I wanted to do in life. It was my first taste of what stardom would be like, because I went onstage and the Omni was packed. When I danced, the audience went crazy, so hearing people cheer for me was like, “I think I like this!”
As a producer, you’ve obviously influenced a lot of hip-hop artists. Who were the artists who inspired you to get into music in the first place?
There were no artists; it was mostly producers. I was very intrigued by what Teddy Riley and Herbie Luv Bug were doing before me, and those were the guys that actually got me into it and put me in the position of wanting to have a crew to create an album with. I learned the craft of sound through Teddy Riley, and I learned how to create a crew through Herbie, who had Kid ’n’ Play and Kwame on his team of artists. I created what’s now called So So Def based on the model of what he did.
You got your first big break when you were just 14. What advice would you give today’s young people hoping to make it in the music business?
First I’d let them know that it’s not everything it seems to be, and second I’d tell them to let the love of music be their motivating factor. If money is your motivating factor, the music business isn’t the place you wanna be. If anything besides the music is motivating you, this business will destroy you. If you’re young and really in focus, you need to be willing to do things without getting paid. It’s one of the hardest tests of being in this business, and only the strong survive it. When I first started, I wasn’t even thinking about money or trying to pay a bill, I was just doing my thing. If you’re not prepared to work hard, you should do something else, and that’s a hard thing for young people to hear.
By the time you turned 20, you’d already produced several multi-platinum artists, not to mention starting your own successful label. What were the best and worst things about achieving that kind of success so early in life?
The worst thing is still the same today: I’m still the youngest label CEO/president in the music business, and there’s still people who don’t wanna listen to me even though I’ve made all these hits and all that. There’s always people who wanna challenge you based on the fact that you’re still a young dude. I don’t carry myself like these old men out here who think you only get a chance to see them once you make it big. I’m still out there in the … clubs and in the streets, remaining as vital as anyone else out there. It puts me in the strange position of being a boss amongst other bosses who don’t act like me, which can make it hard to function as effectively as I want to. But I came into this business believing in handling myself a certain way, and nobody has shown me a better way so far.
As one of the early architects of the ATL’s urban music scene, how do you feel about the state of the Dirty South sound today?
I think it’s still incredible today, but a lot of these younger artists are only in it for the quick dollar. They need to understand that they’ve gotta create artists, whether within themselves or with the people they work with. You can’t have a record as big as “Party Like a Rockstar” and not have people remember the group’s name [Shop Boyz]. If we’re gonna keep leading the way in music, we have to change and create artists, not one-hit wonders. People blame me for putting out snap music with Dem Franchise Boyz, but I broke that sound and expected that people would take it and make it bigger and better. But they didn’t. They just kept doing what I was doing, and it became stagnant. For me, it feels like that’s where we are right now, with a lot of artists having potential they’re not really living up to yet. In order for Atlanta to remain a music mecca, we’ve got to prove that we’re more than bubblegum music. We need more Outkasts.
You’ve obviously had your frustrations with the major label game in recent years, and spoke out pretty strongly about the way Janet’s labels failed to promote her projects properly. Do you think urban music has less respect for veteran artists than rock does for bands like the Rolling Stones?
Yeah, totally, and I’m still trying to figure out why. I think it’s the people who are guiding the ships who aren’t paying attention to the veterans. I blame the label presidents, because they don’t treat [urban music legends] like they treat the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones’ last record didn’t sell, but they’re still treated like royalty, while Michael Jackson can’t even get a record deal right now. Prince isn’t really signed to a record company right now. The people that owned these companies back in the day had more love for music than the people who run them today.
What do you think major labels need to do in order to adapt to the changes facing the music industry today?
Let younger people run ’em!
What’s your overall mission for the TAG Records label?
My mission is to use this platform in the right way; to create artists with the potential to have at least three or four hit albums under their belt. That’s first and foremost. Secondly, I want to create music that people really like, and I’ve never had too much trouble doing that. [Laughs] But most importantly, I want to create a stable of artists that the fans truly like, because every other record that comes out, people are mad at the artists. Like when I put out this new artist, Rocko, nine times out of 10, the blogs that I read were calling him fake and cheesy. So I’m trying to find that artist that people are gonna connect with. People feel like rap music is just the same ol’ thing over and over again, and they’re tired of all the hustlers. We’re all looking for the next Biggies and Tupacs instead of acknowledging that incredible artists like that just don’t get discovered every day. That’s why there’s only one Biggie, one Tupac, one Jay-Z. We gotta get the idea of finding artists like that out of our minds and focus on building incredible artists. Fans are impatient: If Outkast came out with Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik today, do you think audiences would even give them a chance?
They’d tear them down before they even got an opportunity to create Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. What Soulja Boy did was incredible—he wrote all his lyrics, produced his own album and created his own hype at the age of 16, got a record deal, sold a platinum album and a … load of ringtones in today’s market. He created a positive and lucrative movement, but people still say his music is crap and talk [smack] about him! Give the kid an opportunity to turn into somebody! It was his first album! He’s 16! Let’s give him a chance and see what he turns into, not knock him down before he even gets an opportunity to prove himself.
What advantage does teaming with a company like TAG provide to the artists who sign with you, as opposed to a traditional label?
Well, I have a marketing budget like nobody’s ever had. That’s the craziest thing. Artists are always looking for sponsorship, but with this they’re automatically coming out of the box with sponsorship, so you’ll see that artist in commercials, hear them on radio spots, basically whatever TAG Body Spray does to promote their product.
How do you think this and Jay-Z’s new deal with Live Nation are emblematic of the ways artists can benefit from the new music industry business model?
What this deal does for me personally is to create excitement within the music industry. The industry has lost that sense of excitement. That’s what I liked about going to Island Def Jam—the label itself was newsworthy and people were always writing about what was going on at the label and who was gonna be the next president. That creates excitement. When I announced the TAG deal, it was a little overwhelming to me because I didn’t think people were gonna get hyped up like that. But now people are excited to see what I do with this music and where I take this label, because hopefully it’s gonna be the stepping stone for the next era. Apple keeps the computer business exciting every time they put out new products, and I think me and Jay-Z have pumped some freshness into the music business.