(The Root) — To borrow a line from the movie Ray, when you "make it do what it do," people will come out and show you love. And that's exactly what happened for Jermaine Dupri during his So So Def 20th Anniversary Concert Saturday night at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
Dupri may not be as hot as he once was, but to overlook his contributions to the music industry would be erroneous. Reflecting on Dupri's career, one may wander: Is there anyone this guy isn't connected to?
Case in point: Dupri was clearly holding his own onstage while performing his 1998 hit "Money Ain't a Thang" when, after a brief dramatic pause, pal and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z emerged from the shadows spitting his verses, sending an already hyped crowd into orbit.
The 40-year-old Dupri told The Root that when he released his 1998 debut album, Life in 1472, he wanted "Money Ain't a Thang" to be the lead single, much to the chagrin of Columbia Records executives, who were somewhat unfamiliar with the song's co-star, Jay-Z.
"The people at Columbia Records were like, 'We think you should put out 'Sweetheart' [first] because Mariah's a bigger star than Jay-Z,' " Dupri said. "Without me saying I saw the future, I saw the future of Jay-Z. I knew Jay-Z was going to be everything that he is today."
That, of course, isn't meant to take away any shine from pop queen Mariah Carey, who also took the stage to celebrate Dupri's illustrious career. As a matter of fact, many who experienced the Dupri Midas touch turned out for him: Usher, Ludacris, Nelly, Young Jeezy, Monica, Lil Jon, T-Pain, Lil Scrappy, Pastor Troy and YoungBloodZ — and, of course, those currently or previously signed to Dupri's So So Def Recordings label, like Kris Kross, Anthony Hamilton, Bow Wow, Da Brat, Bone Crusher, Dem Franchize Boyz, members from Xscape (now Scape), Dondria and J-Kwon.
"We had the opportunity to work with him early in our career, and with all of us being in Atlanta, we all supported each other," Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas of platinum-selling TLC told The Root.
As with Thomas and Jay-Z, Dupri was present during the early stages of a pre-solo-career Beyoncé Knowles when Destiny's Child was getting its start. He produced and was featured on the group's single "With Me" and remixed a version of "Jumpin', Jumpin' " with his artists Lil' Bow Wow and Da Brat. Dupri's father, Michael Mauldin, a former president of black music at Columbia Records, oversaw the signing of Destiny's Child.
Dupri also produced Carey's chart-topping comeback album The Emancipation of Mimi. Alicia Key's first actual recording, "Little Drummer Girl," was on Dupri's 1996 Christmas album, 12 Soulful Nights of Christmas, he said. Before rapper and producer Lil Jon was telling everybody to "Get Low," he was So So Def's A&R go-to guy. And Dupri produced several Usher albums, including My Way (1997) and 8701 (2001), and was a primary producer for Confessions (2004), which sold more than 1 million copies in its first week.
While Dupri's not one for celebratory observances, the death last year of music-industry exec Chris Lighty inspired him to do this anniversary event. "[It] hit me so hard that it made me realize, like, 'Listen, I don't know when I'll get a chance to celebrate with everybody amongst everybody, and it feels right.' So it's like, I gotta do this now," Dupri said.
Dupri, who was a backup dancer for the '80s hip-hop group Whodini, credits trusting his gut as the reason he and his label spanned more than two decades. That intuition led a 19-year-old Dupri to sign two tweens he met in the mall — Chris Kelly and Chris Smith, aka Mac Daddy and Daddy Mac, respectively — to form the multiplatinum-selling duo Kris Kross. Their first album, Totally Krossed Out, sold 4 million copies, while the No. 1 single "Jump" sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks. The teen duo grew so popular that Michael Jackson invited them to join him as the opening act on his Dangerous World Tour.
"[Working with] Jermaine, it was a great experience I learned a lot. We had a lot of success together. He was always on point in terms of being a visionary and seeing a vision for the group," Kelly, who performed with Smith at the sold-out tribute, said to The Root.
Kris Kross also played an instrumental role in getting a reluctant Dupri to sign the world's first platinum-selling female rap artist, Da Brat. Kris Kross held a rap contest before a concert in Chicago where Da Brat's performance impressed the teens, Kelly said.
"From there we got her number. I think we came back to Chicago to do The Oprah Winfrey Show, and we brought her over to The Oprah Winfrey Show and introduced her to Jermaine, and from there things just happened for her," Kelly recalled. "Jermaine had a lot of trust in our word and brought her in to the label."
Dupri's hesitation stemmed from the notion that female rap artists couldn't be top sellers. "I thought it was going to be difficult — period — to get y'all to even like one song that we released for Brat," Dupri said.
Having hip-hop artists from Atlanta is the standard nowadays, but it was a different story in the early '90s — an era dominated almost exclusively by New York and Los Angeles acts. The global success of the Dupri-nurtured Kris Kross and Da Brat helped put Atlanta on the music map in a very significant way.
Shattering that glass ceiling helped other local hip-hop talent get signed and experience phenomenal success, including multiplatinum-selling rap duo Outkast, Goodie Mob and the rest of the Dungeon Family musical collective, along with Ludacris, T.I., B.o.B, Gucci Mane, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz, 2 Chainz and Young Jeezy, among others. The Voice's host Cee Lo Green got his start as a member of Goodie Mob. That unique Atlanta sound has been a driving force in music for the past decade, which led the New York Times to label the city "hip-hop's center of gravity" in a 2009 article.
Looking back on his career, Dupri said that the biggest lesson learned was the importance of remaining focused, confessing that he probably could have achieved more, but as he got older he found himself "distracted by a lot of things."
"[Those things include] women, alcohol, you know, partying. I don't think I even had a drink until after I turned 21 years old. None of those things became a problem, but women definitely became a huge factor in my life in that they didn't play a huge part [previously]," said Dupri, who has two children. His only publicized relationship was with Janet Jackson, which ended in 2009. The music impresario also experienced well-publicized financial woes over the past decade, including reportedly owing the IRS and facing foreclosure.
Despite those headaches, Dupri's focus is centered on promoting his social media site, Global 14, and nurturing a fresh crop of So So Def talent. He's looking forward to the next 20 to 30 years of his career, often noting to himself that mentor Quincy Jones was 50 when he produced Jackson's multiplatinum-selling epic Thriller.
"My ultimate goal is to break his record. I still have 10 years to catch him," Dupri said.