In 1993, Dupri began a working relationship with a little-known local DJ who eventually would become the iconic force behind Atlanta’s crunk sound. Jonathan Smith, aka Lil Jon, put his stamp on the label through a series of street releases known as the So So Def Bass All-Stars, which brought local bass music vets Raheem the Dream, DJ Smurf, and Playa Poncho together on one project.
Dupri: I met Lil Jon at this nightclub that used to be downtown called the Phoenix. He was DJing there. It was the only club that would let me in, ’cause I was like 19. They’d let me park my car out front and feel like I was cool. Security would walk me into the club and I used to always go holler at the DJ. When I started the label, we had a lot of positions we needed to fill. When it came to A&R, all I could think about was Lil Jon, because he was the person in the clubs. He knew people, DJs knew him. I had to hire him. I was telling Lil Jon we should start a project, and that he should do something he wanted to do. He recruited DJ Smurf, Shawty Redd, Playa Poncho, and all these people and he put together an album. Next thing I know, he brought it into my office and said it was the Bass All-Stars.
Bone Crusher: I met Jermaine back in ’94 through Lil Jon, who was doing A&R for So So Def. One night [nearly a decade later], I saw him at this club called Levels – it’s gone now, but it was across from Hard Rock Café – and I had my record with me, “Never Scared.” I gave him the record, and this is when he was doing “So So Def Radio” on V-103. The next thing I know my homeboy called and said, “They’re blowing you up! They’re playing ‘Never Scared’ back to back!'” Jermaine was on the radio saying, “This is going to be the biggest record ever! It’s going to change history,” and he was right. That was the beginning of the takeover for the South, and making music the way it’s done now.
Dupri: Kandi from Xscape introduced me to Jagged Edge [in 1996]. Each one of them had a different sound. I thought about what I wanted each group to sound like — I wanted them all to be different. I wanted to be untraceable. I tried various things and it would always just form itself. I was writing and producing all the songs, or the majority of them. The artists would come in and if they wanted to change stuff, they would.
Throughout all those years, So So Def was a label, not just a production company. I don’t even know when the billboard went up. One day we were just talking about how Motown had a billboard up in Detroit a long time ago and we decided we should get one, too. Motown was a model for me, 100 percent.
So So Def’s signature act, and Dupri’s career-defining protégé, would be a kid from Ohio who got his start in the business as a preteen, much like Dupri, Discovered by Snoop Dogg after rapping on stage, Shad Moss was given the name Lil Bow Wow. More than just a producer, Dupri became his mentor and molded him into a child star who debuted in 2000 at age 13 with the double-platinum-selling Beware of Dog before continuing a lasting career of pop-rap, film acting, and television success.
Mauldin: So So Def was definitely built in the image of Motown, young America, young music, it was always that. [Dupri] became known for being kind of an idolmaker and a craftmaker of other people’s talents. Being able to just groom them. So whether it was Usher at 16 years old, or whether it was Bow Wow, whether it was Kris Kross, Jermaine would bring them into his studio or into his house and they would damn near live with him, so that part of their records were always made by him really living their life and rolling with them. That’s, why to this day, if you go to the studio, instead of walking in and seeing Jermaine in the studio, you might find him sitting in front of a video game. ‘Cause his thing is, he’s still young at heart. That’s what’s made him unique. He builds it from scratch. With every artist, he spends the time, gets to know that artist, breathes them, knows what they’re talking about, understands them. By him being a songwriter, too, he helps them tell their story.
In the aughts, Dupri began working as an executive for Virgin Records and Island Def Jam. he transitioned away from grooming and packaging artists from scratch to producing Billboard hits for well-established artists such as Usher (Confessions) and Mariah Carey (“We Belong Together”). But the two albums he executive produced for then-girlfriend Janet Jackson (20 Y.O. and Discipline) failed to garner the commercial success of her earlier records. As for So So Def, after the initial success of Lil Bow Wow, Dupri began signing a mix of street-level newcomers and independent artists including J-Kwon, Dem Franchize Boyz, YoungBloodZ, and soul revivalist Anthony Hamilton.
Mauldin: After breaking away from Sony Music [around the turn of the millennium], that was a hard time for him because he had to leave all those acts behind: Jagged Edge, Xscape. Sony had way more money than we did, so he had to leave those acts. And I think at that point in time it kinda changed his whole mind-set. However, that’s where Confessions came. That’s where he started working on other artists, artists that he’d already dealt with, including Mariah Carey, but Jermaine’s platform continued to rise and he got away from doing the kid acts. I think he felt like over the years that people always felt like, “Man, can he actually have the same success [with grown-ups]?” So I think for him, proving that he could take an act already established and make them bigger than what they were before, or make songs bigger than what they were before, was a real important threshold for him. And he had to get through that.
Dupri: I’m super-young at heart. I gravitate to youth, and in the music business, you have a longer clock if you deal with younger people. Bow Wow’s career started at 12, and he’s 25 now. He’ll have a longer career than me. The younger you are when you start, if you get it right, your career can be way longer. I built my company on youth. The youth always know. If you’re around a bunch of young people, they’re gonna give you a notion of what’s next, what you should focus on. They’re gonna keep it young.
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