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So So Def: 30 Years Later, the House that JD Built

Jermaine Dupri is arguably one of the best collaborators to work with in the music industry. It’s hard to believe that the rapper, songwriter, producer, and music mogul was not born when hip-hop was first invented. 50 years ago, while DJ Kool Herc and his friend were hosting a back-to-school event in the Bronx, New York, Dupri’s mother was a month away from welcoming a child into the world. There is something poetic that one of the most important musical figures was born right at the beginning of a game-changing music genre. Now, the record label Dupri founded, So So Def, is celebrating its 30th anniversary during the same time as hip-hop’s 50th milestone celebration.

The house that JD built — So So Def, is not an exaggeration of a statement. The Asheville, North Carolina, born icon was one of the main factors that made a generation fall in love with music, fall in love with hip-hop, and fall in love with hip-hop when it meets R&B. For those who knew Dupri, his being able to command the stage and draw the attention of the masses did not come as a surprise. This is the same man who at 9 years old was able to get on stage with the legendary Diana Ross and dance along with the Motown superstar during one of her shows in 1982. The same man who at 12 years old got his start as a dancer for the iconic hip-hop group Whodini, appearing in videos such as Freaks Come Out at Night. Dupri is the same man who opened the New York Fresh Festival with Run-D.M.C. and GrandMaster Flash. It is safe that hip-hop is in Dupri’s blood.

It was in the early 90s that the producer flexed his knowledge and innovation for all that hip-hop could be when he produced his first act, the female hip-hop trio Silk Tymes Leather. Dupri continued that success when he formed the teen duo, Kris Kross. Showing his early genius, Dupri helped the group achieve multi-platinum status by writing and producing their major hits Jump and Warm It Up. It was then in 1993, the man, the myth, and the legend created So So Def. With such early success and still being an active player in hip-hop, there aren’t many who could speak about the evolution of the genre.

“If you weren't a part of it in the early days, you can't exactly see how much it has evolved,” Dupri says of the movement. “It is constantly evolving, but it is something that changes every three months,” he continues. Dupri points out that back in the day, hip-hop used to change every “one to three years.” That constant change is no different than how fast the news cycle is now, which could be attributed to the evolution of social media. “I call hip-hop a monster because it is a weird type of animal to me,” Dupri explains. “It just transforms to one thing and then to another thing and then just sits in different cities.”

One city that continues to be at the forefront of hip-hop, in part thanks to Dupri, is Atlanta. “Welcome to Atlanta where the playas play,” the rapper says repeatedly in his 2002 hit. For most fans of hip-hop and music in general, Dupri is a staple of the city who helped discover the city’s sound and kept Atlanta on the map in the continuous battle of music greats who come from one city. Before 2002, the songwriter had already proved his love for Atlanta by signing his first act to So So Def, the R&B queens of Atlanta, Xscape. The power of Dupri’s ear was proven yet again when he helped contribute to Xscape’s multiple platinum albums.

It could be Dupri’s constant mindset as a student of life and hip-hop or the fact that he is also the son of Michael Mauldin, a Columbia record executive, as one of the reasons he has been a producer over the past 30 years with the Midas touch.

“I’ve been in school for 30-35 years just learning so many different details and learning so many different aspects of hip-hop,” Dupri says. It is the education of the ground-breaking music genre that Dupri feels will help constantly change hip-hop for the better. “I am hoping in the next 50 years the youngins in hip-hop now will say that they learned as much as I learned because if not, it will not be as fun,” he says of his hope for the next 50 years of hip-hop.

At one point, Dupri was placed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest producer to score a number-one record. For this, the artist knows that there is no one else like him. “There is no Jermaine Dupri to compare to,” he says while acknowledging why many may have a hard time realizing just how powerful he is in the music industry. But for Dupri, not only has he recognized his power, he knows just how powerful music can be. So powerful that “music is indescribable.” Which speaks volumes of the importance and the impact of the artistry.

Creating impact has been Dupri’s driving factor during the course of his career. The same impact Atlanta has had on him and the culture is the impact he strives for in music and entrepreneurship. As fans of his music, we see the performances and the videos. We hear the records on the radio and see moguls like Dupri collect award after award, but it is easy to forget that running a label means you are an entrepreneur. It means you are in rooms where you may be one of the three Black men who are sitting at the table making the decisions, creating the budgets and discovering new talent.

Dupri, the songwriter who has written for top music acts such as Usher, Mariah Carey, Lil’ Bow Wow, and DaBrat, is not the same version of Dupri who sits in boardrooms and makes tough decisions that go on to affect So So Def’s bottom line. Creativity meets Black businessman for an artist like Dupri. A fine line that many other creatives try their best to walk on.

“You really have to own what you do,” Dupri says about entrepreneurship. “And if you are a super creative person, try to own as much of your creativity as possible.” As Dupri celebrates the 30th anniversary of So So Def — something he said he never thought was possible — he says, “You have got to control every aspect of your creativity” if you want longevity because “30 years can happen fast.”

While the house that JD built has established itself as a force that will never be forgotten, the constant student of life has his eyes set on continuing his legacy in other areas. From taking over the ice cream industry with JD’s Vegan Ice Cream to his new liquor brand, and even new music, Dupri’s upcoming EP For Motivational Use Only, with New Orleans-based rapper Curren$y is scheduled for release on April 4th - 404 Day in Atlanta, proves that the mogul is not slowing down anytime soon. With his latest single Essence Fest heating up the charts, Dupri is building new levels to his house as he celebrates the past that has gotten him this far.

Check out the 2023 Power Issue.

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