In a world of DJ’s, synthesizers, 808 drums, star producers, and mega talent—Jermaine Dupri is really real. After launching a myriad of careers including Mariah Carey, Usher, Da Brat, Jagged Edge, Kris Kross, and star manager Scooter Braun, Dupri has remained charmingly humble. His admiration for his artists shines supremely like a parent’s pride in their valedictorian child. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of his iconic label, So So Def Recordings, the GRAMMY Museum is honoring all of his work. Curated under the genius eye of Nwaka Onwusa, the exhibit, Jermaine Dupri & So So Def: 25 Years of Elevating Culture, puts on a potent and passionate show of Atlanta’s original influencer.
On the evening of the exhibit’s opening, Jermaine spoke about the value of ideas, psychic song-writing, and of course, Atlanta.
TANYA AKIM: In “Money Ain’t a Thing” you wrote, “In the safe is shit you could never buy, know why? Cause I write the songs that the whole world sing.” That was 1998. This year you were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Do you think it was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy?
JERMAINE DUPRI: [Laughing] No because in the song I was talking about uh Usher, Mariah, and Xscape. The records that I had written that were out at the time were songs that the whole world were singing. It was a line for me to let people know it was a rap record but I was also letting people know I write. It was a slide, uh into that because a lot of people still act like they don’t know that I’m writing these songs. It was my way of telling people that I’m rapping but I also write these songs that the whole world sings, so [pause] in some kind of way [pause] probably. The energy was there, but [SHOF] was never my mindset at the time.
TA: Someone once told me that ideas are cheap and execution is everything. What do you think about ideas and execution and artists sampling other artists?
JD: I wouldn’t say that ideas are cheap. I think ideas can be really expensive [laughs]. And they can be difficult to create because a lot of times ideas take multiple people to help you bring them to life and then you don’t usually have those people around you. But execution is everything. And the execution of an idea will get your adrenaline really going to want to do it more. That’s like me and how I work.
TA: How do you feel about seeing your life’s work in a museum?
JD: Uh.. it’s crazy. It’s just crazy. I mean [pause] honestly I was walking through there and I thought, “This is just crazy”, when [Nwaka Onwusa] opened the rope she said this entire floor is yours and I said, “Oh man, I thought I would only get a wall or something.” There just aren’t words besides “Crazy.”
TA: You put Atlanta into the larger collective consciousness in a lot of ways. How did Atlanta influence you and mold your work?
JD: Just to be strong because when I started making music coming from Atlanta people weren’t open to me being from Atlanta and they didn’t think Atlanta was cool and people weren’t, you know, they just weren’t into it. They thought it was all country. It wasn’t the thing you know, you didn’t get points for being from Atlanta when I first came out. Me continuing to tell people you’ve got to come to Atlanta and me telling people I’m from Atlanta and not shying away from it. Me not moving to LA or New York and continuing to keep my company there and try to basically do everything I saw other people doing in other cities in a place that I knew people weren’t receptive of – it just taught me to be strong because once I saw it happening, my chest was out.
TA: Your songs in the early 2000’s and late 90’s really shaped the way opulence and hedonism of hip-hop culture was experienced by my friends and me. What record do people most often tell you is their pivot point or favorite?
JD: Mmm [pause] wow, well I guess it depends on the time. A lot of people tell me that the So So Def All-Stars album is the soundtrack of their life and they listen to those songs. Multiples of those songs. Then some people talk about Usher’s “My Way” album as something that never stops playing in their life. It just depends on who it is and what they’re going through at that time.
25 Years of Jermaine Dupri and So So Def is on display at the GRAMMY Museum now through January 2019.