A few weeks shy of Jermaine Dupri’s 50th birthday, the super-producer is deep into conversation with Variety about his long history of hits and some of the latest notches on his belt… or about as deep as he can be, with Usher repeatedly calling him to discuss the upcoming album they’re in the last stages of finishing, before Dupri finally tells him they’ll have to catch up the next day. Ironically, Dupri can’t talk to Usher right now because he’s busy talking about Usher — in particular, how their 2004 album “Confessions” became a blockbuster and altered the R&B landscape, whether or not it’s always celebrated by the culture at large as a major game-changer.
But there are contemporary accomplishments to discuss as well, like how Dupri is in the middle of a public uproar over his latest contribution to R&B, “If I Get Caught Cheating (That Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You),” from the Canadian duo Dvsn, comprised of singer Daniel Daley and producer Paul “Nineteen85” Jefferies. Immediately after the song was released, it ignited fiery debates about infidelity and toxicity on Twitter that have increased Dvsn’s profile tenfold practically overnight.
At press time, there are over two dozen cover versions of the supposedly pro-cheating song, including a number by prominent female artists, like Chloe Bailey and Baby Tate. Kandi Burruss and Tamika “Tiny” Harris got together to adapt it into a female answer song, “If U Get Caught.”
“Kandi was on the radio talking about how toxic this song is, and I had to remind her that I wrote a song for Xscape that’s more toxic than ‘If I Get Caught,’” Dupri says. “She didn’t even realize the lyrics in ‘My Little Secret’ are way more toxic.”
It’s impossible to ignore the irony of two members of Xscape, Dupri’s first SoSoDef act, taking part in a cultural moment sparked by another Dupri production. When Dupri signed Xscape in 1993, the wave of R&B girl groups that would eventually dominate the era had yet to break, but trusting his instincts paid off then, as it continues to three decades later.
Someone who witnessed those instincts in action early on was music mogul Scooter Braun, who got a boost in his career as a young protege of Dupri’s. “He’s a storyteller and he’s never gotten the credit he deserves,” Braun tells Variety. “People talk about Quincy Jones and all of these guys, and they should, but Jermaine deserves to be in the conversation with them and the other greats. If you look at the charts you will see he beat Quincy’s record for the most years with a No. 1 record on the Billboard chart but no one is talking about these things.”
Dupri looks back on how he put Xscape on the map as a female vocal group in the early ’90s as the first of many times he was able to prove he was not a one-trick pony.
“I was looking at Xscape like, ‘Yo, me starting over with this group is going to make me look crazy,’ like, ‘Damn, this dude just did a rap group that sold 8 million records’” — referring to the phenomenal rap duo Kris Kross — “‘and now he’s coming out with a singing group that can actually sing.’ I didn’t want Jermaine Dupri to be boxed in as a rap producer, I wanted to be across the board. So I was, like, if I put these girls out and they can really sing, they’ll pay attention to me as a guy who is more than 11- and 12-year-old kids rapping. I luckily wrote a song that became a hit record, which was ‘Just Kicking It…’ And once we got ‘Understanding,’ that song broke the barrier of people saying, ‘Oh these girls can really sing.’”
Dupri has been a successful music producer for 30 years now, topping the charts with No. 1 hits from not just Kris Kross, Xscape and Usher but Da Brat, Mariah Carey, Monica, Bow Wow, Janet Jackson and more. But what isn’t recognized enough is his undeniable influence on the current cultural climate.
Latto, who is arguably one of the top selling female rappers of this era, was handpicked by Dupri as the winner of the first season of his Lifetime competition show “The Rap Game.” Burruss is currently at the top of her career as a television star of both unscripted shows like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and acclaimed scripted ones like Showtime’s “The Chi,” and that’s without mentioning her strides in songwriting and television and theatrical production. The biggest meme of the year belongs to Usher, whose NPR “Tiny Desk” performance of “Confessions” launched millions of #WatchThis posts. It’s also worth mentioning that Ari Lennox, without question one of the most talented R&B singers of our time, has Dupris to thank for her latest hit, “Pressure,” which happens to be Lennox’s first No. 1 hit at radio.
Asked how “Pressure” came about, Dupri recalls meeting up with Lennox in the studio, where she played him some samples.
“I went ‘OK, you on the sampling thing.’ So I started feeling like what I did with Xscape and Mariah, but at the same time keeping it youthful while I go in the sample mode — keep it earthy, which is her style. The ‘Pressure’ thing was a song created with the mindset of marketing, because when I found the sample I told her, ‘Listen, we should make a song called ‘Pressure,’ because that’s what all the girls on Instagram were saying. I told her, ‘Watch what happens.’ And it happened.”
Dupris is straightforward about how his production naturally integrates marketing into his songs. Instead of forcing artists to make TikToks and reels using their work, he’s already mentally putting the plan inside the music, and organically fans are following what the songs are saying.
“That’s your marketing plan,” Dupri says. “I’m doing this without thinking about it. It’s just my mindset of how I feel like things should go.”
It’s been nearly 30 years, but what Dupri is doing now is similar to how he masterminded the marketing behind Kris Kross when he launched the group to fame with their first single, “Jump.”
“If you look at ‘Jump,’ you got backwards jeans and all of that stuff inside the whole making of Kris Kross. So when you saw Kris Kross they had backwards jeans, the titles on their records were backwards, everything was crossed out. Even the [term] ‘crossed out’ is basically the definition of saying everything goes backwards. All of my artists, I try to do that without sitting around and having a whole marketing team with me.”
Now, with his latest release, Dvsn’s “If I Get Caught,” he’s made the group a topic of conversation everywhere you turn. It’s become so inescapable that it’s also brought glaring attention to the fact that while Dvsn is preparing to release its fifth album, much of the public is just now discovering that it’s a group — not just a solo singer.
“Music and records have a duty,” Jermaine says. “They have a purpose. I feel like, I didn’t know this song had this purpose, but it ends up having the purpose of breaking the barrier of people not knowing who they are.”
If you ask Dupri how he’s so good at making hits he will tell you, matter of factly: “Practice.” He’s spent 30 years in the studio nearly every single day, by his reckoning. And turning 50 doesn’t make him particularly introspective. “The only thing I’m thinking about is, when Quincy Jones turned 50 he made ‘Thriller.’ That’s the only thing that matters to me. I’m trying to figure out what’s going to be my ‘Thriller.’”
Dupri believes the deck has been stacked against him in some ways. He mentions a perceived east coast bias that many argue has ruled the music industry for decades. He believes being from Atlanta, and continuing to represent the city for pretty much his entire career, has resulted in his being at times overlooked and underestimated. He’s also always been his own boss; while this is something that some people might see as a strength, he views it as having to carry his own weight.
Of course Dupri isn’t the only 50-year-old music mogul still actively contributing to the culture. During the pandemic peak of Verzuz popularity, fans and critics alike tried to pit the SoSoDef founder against Sean “Diddy” Combs for a battle, but Dupri was adamantly against an online match.
“History shows that playing music on the internet for Verzuz, if the wifi doesn’t work, the music doesn’t sound right and people create their own idea from that point,” Dupri says. “I’m not getting ready to set myself up for that. Why? Because Puff’s music sounds good, my music might not happen to sound right. I’m not taking that chance. I gotta play my cards differently than everybody else because I feel like I’ve been dealt a different deck.
“The one thing that Jermaine Dupri has never had is a support system that supported my success,” he adds.
He mentions how a number of his peers —Jay-Z, Irv Gotti, Ruff Ryders and others came up under Def Jam— had Lyor Cohen to champion their careers and successes. He points out that Diddy similarly had Clive Davis helping him build his empire. He’s got a legitimate point; in the music business a lot of, if not most, Black executives have been elevated thanks to more powerful white executives. Dupri further points out that the music industry has numerous examples of white execs who’ve inherited their status through nepotism.
These assertions might lead most to wonder whether Dupri’s father, Michael Mauldin, was able to similarly guide his path.
“When it came to Kris Kross and the music side of this, me and my father almost put each other on at different times,” Dupri explains. “I think it took my dad a long time to digest this, but this is the truth of the matter. When I got Kris Kross my mindset was that I’m not a manager, so I went to my dad to manage the group while I produced the group – so this was still my plan.
“It’s never been Kris Kross brought to me by someone. I found them and I decide every play about them. Same thing with Bow Wow. When Bow Wow came to me, my next move was for me to give him to my dad because I felt comfortable with that. And all the others – with Brat I did the same thing. I’ve never been the guy who had a Clive Davis speaking for me.”
The irony is that Dupri might be able to claim responsibility for the success of a top white executive, instead of the other way around. Enter Scooter Braun.
“I was about to turn 20 years old,” Braun says in a separate interview. “I was a sophomore in college and Jermaine hired me as the director of marketing, and then made me the VP of marketing within six months. For the next four years, I dropped out of college and became part of SoSoDef and worked for Jermaine. I was Jermaine’s go-to guy on all things marketing across the board and that’s how I became close with Usher and all of these people, because Jermaine was making ‘Confessions’ and I was one of the people in the studio. Jermaine was the first person to show me a world outside of what I knew and show me my potential in the music industry.”
Braun has since become one of the most powerful music executives in the business, thanks to his work with Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, J Balvin and Demi Lovato, among others.
Braun shares a quick anecdote about one of his trips to Los Angeles with Dupri, when he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Dupri and Brian Michael Cox to leave the studio where they were working on “Confessions Pt. 1” to go to the club with him.
“Jermaine kicked me out of the studio because he said, ‘We have to finish this song,’ and I’m really glad he did,” Braun shares. “I was young. He showed me a world outside of what I knew — showed me what it could be and gave me the confidence to go into the music industry.”
The album Braun is referring to, Usher’s “Confessions,” is a project that Dupri reflects on with both pride and pain. During our conversation, at one point he mentions the album is diamond RIAA status, for 10 million in sales, but he is equally amazed that Rolling Stone left the project off its top 100 Greatest Albums list. (Not that his work lacks for accolades from the media across the board: He’s jubilant that his collaboration with Mariah Carey, “We Belong Together,” was named song of the decade by Billboard.)
“I feel like that affects me,” Dupri says of what he sees as the Rolling Stone snub. “All of that goes into that bucket. That’s why people are debating about Verzuz, because one of my biggest albums, people don’t actually give it up the way they would have for somebody else. Usher didn’t win album of the year at the Grammys. You make an album that big and people act like it’s not that big so for me I feel like that’s why I’m the most challenged. Nobody thinks that Usher album is that crazy but Black people.”
In just this week alone, Dupri is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Usher’s 7-times platinum “My Way” project; a 1998 single with Usher, “Nice & Slow,” was just RIAA certified 3-times platinum this month; the first single he produced for Mariah Carey, “Always Be My Baby,” went 5-times platinum earlier this year.
There’s still more to come. Besides the forthcoming Usher album, Dupris is currently in the studio with Nickelodeon star Young Dylan working on his EP. Next year he’ll celebrate the 30th anniversary of SoSoDef, and in just a few weeks he’ll turn 50. For all he’s already achieved, Jermaine Dupri appears more motivated than ever, whether to prove something to himself or those who might have taken his smashes for granted… or, better yet, to finally arrive at his own “Thriller.”