On the heels of taking Atlanta's snap scene mainstream with Dem Franchize Boyz and recrafting Mariah Carey's stale stardom into the multiplatinum, worldwide success that was "The Emancipation of Mimi," Jermaine Dupri recently became president of Island Urban. Waving goodbye to his president of urban music position at Virgin Records late last year, following the lackluster sales of girlfriend Janet Jackson's "20 Y.O.," Dupri announced in February that he was joining the Island Def Jam family.
A producer at heart, Dupri acknowledges that he's working on several projects, including Usher's fourth-quarter disc and Whitney Houston's forthcoming "comeback album." (He wrote and produced "Never Give In.") Dupri is also attacking the YouTube generation with his newest artist, Jason Fox. Dupri was recently honored at ASCAP's 20th annual Rhythm & Soul Awards with the songwriter of the year award for the seventh time.
Reflecting on his career—which visibly began in Whodini's "Freaks Come Out at Night" video with a wide smile, denim vest and slick breakdancing moves—Dupri says songwriters are served best when they "just try to write as many songs as you can and always believe in your songs. Don't let somebody tear your records apart."
Dupri—whose autobiography, "Young, Rich and Dangerous: My Life in Music," arrives Oct. 16 via Simon & Schuster—has yet to discuss with anyone exactly what he plans to do with the newly formed Island Urban imprint. During a one-on-one conversation with Billboard, Dupri couldn't help but talk about Jackson's new label home (Island), Carey's new album and why today's kids don't care about charts anymore.
First things first—what are your plans for Island Urban?
I'm going to continue what I've been doing: bring new, young and fresh talent to the label. I want to re-create what Hiram Hicks had when he ran Island Records separately from the Def Jam brand. Artists like Dru Hill and Ron Isley made Island's urban music more of its own situation. The kids want to be on Def Jam. It's like when I'd sign somebody to Virgin and they'd want to be on So So Def. It's the branding that they recognize. However, So So Def artists feel differently to me.
What's different about a So So Def act and an Island Urban act?
Johnta Austin and Jagged Edge are So So Def. The So So Def artists are more in tune with my life and want to be a part of Jermaine Dupri at all times. You've got artists that want to create their own thing and their own movement. They've got their own production company and already have their thing going, so that doesn't really lend itself to being molded. At So So Def, we create the momentum around you. The Def Jam artist Sterling Simms is going to become a So So Def artist. He's a nice, cool kid that we could definitely groom in the right direction.
How will you build the Island Urban brand?
We're just going to put out records, and most importantly, create hype with the records. Once the records are released and people start recognizing the records, then I'll begin doing the parties and building the brand that way. But right now it's about the music.
What are your first releases?
I've got a bunch of releases coming up on Island Urban. One of our first is Jason Fox with the song "Aunt Jackie," which is out now. Johnta Austin's single "Video" featuring DJ Unk is also out now, along with Jagged Edge's "Put a Little Umph" featuring Ashanti. I got them off of Columbia Records and signed them to Island Urban. Hot Dollar also has his first record called "Streets on Lock." Both Hot Dollar and Johnta's albums are coming out Aug. 21, and Jagged Edge's album is due Aug. 28.
Now that you're part of Mariah Carey's label, have your responsibilities with her upcoming project increased?
No, I'm doing the exact same thing I did before. But I do get to hear more music from the other producers beforehand. Last time, I just went into the studio and did what I did. Now, it's a little bit more A&R work. We're working on her album right now.
Is there a tentative album release date and title?
I want to say the week of Thanksgiving. And no album title yet, though I'm sure she's got it already.
When you're signing artists, are you more intensely focusing on hip-hop or R&B?
I don't really have an agenda in that way. I'm hoping that I can kill on both sides. I'm coming with a lot of R&B records and have more R&B records coming right now than I do rap.
Has Janet Jackson been officially added to Island Urban?
She's on Island, but it's more or less [Antonio "L.A." Reid's] project. I let him deal with that on a day-to-day basis. He's going to A&R that project, too. Janet's record is one that he's wanted to do for a long time. He's very passionate about it.
Does he have plans to partner Jackson with her original production team, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis?
I don't really know what he's got in mind at this point. His past record isn't shabby so I'm going to let him do what he's going to do. I'm going to do Mariah, and we're going to make it seem like we're in competition to see who's going to have the biggest album of the year.
You signed Jason Fox to a singles deal. Why?
That's all he had, so we hope to sell a shitload of ringtones and have it be one of the most popular records of the year.
What drew you to him?
Jason Fox created this dance called the "Aunt Jackie." I was drawn to him because the kids in Atlanta are creating their own buzz. There's a kid called Soulja Boy, and he's signed to Mr. Colipark. He's got over a million hits on his MySpace page and a song in Atlanta called "Crank Dat." It's a new dance that all these kids are doing, but I'm like, "Where the fuck are they seeing this dance?" There's no video on TV, yet it's big.
These kids aren't paying attention to the charts. If it's big to them, it's huge in their mind. When they go in these teen clubs, these are the records they want to hear and the dances they want to do. So when I saw Jason Fox and the Hood Presidents, it reminded me of the same thing going on in Atlanta. People keep trying to separate these cities, to make them so different. The sound is different, but attitude and the atmosphere is the same. The kids are just trying to find their own thing, and Jason Fox is representing Harlem.
Do think the record industry is returning to it’s initial pattern of releasing just singles?
I am. I don’t know about everybody else. [Singles deals] make it a lot easier. The artists want the records out, and so does the record company. Anyone can give you some money, so let’s try to come up with something more complicated things than just money. It’s hard to find a hit and make a hit, that’s the hardest thing in the world.
What do you think labels can do to stem the downfall of album sales?
I think record companies have to get out of being spoiled. In life, we always tell our kids that they’re spoiled, but nobody’s telling the record companies that they’re spoiled.
When the records started selling over 100,000 the first week, I don’t know if the older record company guys just said ‘oh this is the wave and this is where it’s going to remain’ but no wave remains. I tell people all the time, Kris Kross sold like 45,000 records their first week. I wasn’t disappointed or upset. They had a number one record. We sold 2,000,000 Kris Kross singles, it sold 45,000 albums initially but went on to sell 8 million albums. Whatever happened in that period of time between Kriss Kross selling 45,000 to 8 million records is what we have to figure out now. I wasn’t in the record company at that time but I’d seen it happen and I know that its not impossible. I know back then, record companies weren’t complaining about spending so much money. Now record companies are so spoiled, they don’t want to spend any money and they want to sell all these record based on just the music and that’s the biggest problem I see right now. Record companies are going to have to get back into grinding. To me, fifty percent of the record company employees don’t even know what to do anymore because they haven’t been working. They don’t even know how to work a record and make it sell. They just do their little cookie cutter act that they’ve been for the last ten years and if it doesn’t work, then they say ‘lets go to the next record,’ praying to God that it sells. Then they put everything on promotion asking ‘what’s going on?’ ‘How many spins are we going to get?’ That’s not what records were built on.
People used to have to work. It was about touring and making sure you kept putting the artists’ in peoples face. Now companies try to make us think we’re spending a lot of money for poster boards and flyers. But those things don’t cost any money compared to a $500,000 video. You have to think back, even when Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album dropped, I guarantee he didn’t sell 200,000 records his first week.
How many do you think Michael Jackson sold his first week?
I don’t know, but I bet you it wasn’t 200,000. But he eventually sold 40 million. And so people are freaking out but the biggest albums ever didn’t sell what these records are selling now. The artist selling 200,000 records their first week, they’ll never reach 10 million. It’s as if the record companies are just giving up. Something’s happening and I’m willing to pay to try to figure it out.
I’m not with that new school game of play the record and if it doesn’t work then switch to the next single and if that record doesn’t work either, switch again. That’s relying on a record and records don’t sell that easily. Records sell based on everything including touring, marketing and promotions. If sales relied solely on the records, then videos wouldn’t mean anything. But if you don’t have a video on BET, so what? You can put it on youtube and more kids will see it there than anywhere else. So you can’t tell me that a video doesn’t matter. Kids have to see the video to connect with an artist. Even Jason Foxx’s song, they made their own homemade video that’s how I found them. They had over 200,000 people doing their dance just from their home video. That’s genius and its just smacking the people in the face who believe that videos don’t matter anymore. A lot of these record company guys are just spoiled in hitting their numbers. And it became more about hitting numbers than being one of the most creative people in music.
What are you going to do when the higher ups tell you to cut back your Island Urban budget?
I don’t see how they can tell me that as long as I keep putting out records. It’s all about making records. Most of the people getting cut aren’t putting out any music. I keep bringing records. Every time I’m in New York, I’m signing someone new. I’m putting out a bunch load of records. If I’m in Atlanta, I’m making music but in at the Island Urban New York office my goal is just to keep putting out records. That’s why I was brought here. I wasn’t brought in to make the numbers, that’s the people in finance. I was brought here to be the president of a new company and teach my A&R’s how to create and find new talent.
Is the significant slippage in hip hop just a microcosm of what’s happening in the overall industry or is it something the hip hop industry should be paying attention to?
I think hip-hop has got to pay attention and get back to what it was initially. Hip-hop was about a single and one record dominating a whole year. “Ballin’” by Jim Jones is a good example because it’s not an album, but one record dominating hip-hop. You should start seeing that more often and people have to do singles deals. People have to make artists realize that if you’re going to make money, it’s coming from shows. Artists got into making money from the record companies like ‘the record company gave me $1 million.’ So what? If you don’t sell any records then the $1 million doesn’t mean anything. We just have to get these guys back into loving and caring about the music. Even Def Jam should so go back to doing single deals. I know Island is singled out. We’re going to have one million singles. Every time I hear a hot record, and that’s all an artist has, I’ll sign them. They’ll have some money in their pocket. You might not be a millionaire but it will create enough opportunity for you to become a millionaire. People are scared to climb the ladder of success these days, they want to blow up off the bat.
When you say the ladder of success, do you mean that the artists are afraid to work hard?
From any standpoint, people don’t want to struggle for anything. They just want to see it happen. I don’t come from that world so I can’t understand when people come see me and want an album deal off the bat. If LL Cool J had a singles deal first, then everyone can get a singles deal. Def Jam was just trying to build their artist. That’s what I believe we have to do now. You have to let people say “I like this artist’ and make people start really checking for the records again as opposed to flooding the streets with one artist a few weeks before their album comes out, then consumers buy it and that’s it. You have to switch it up a little bit because I think the people are immune to that tactic.
We can’t trick them by not selling the single in stores so that they go buy the album. People notice and the world is smarter than we actually think it is. So you have to come up with a different way for people to connect. These kids on youtube are finding a way. They don’t have anything on MTV or BET so you have to go to the computer to check them out and it’s actually working.
Is there room for more black executives in the music industry?
I think there’s room for more to come at my level, but they have to be a supercharged A&R. My A&R’s can’t sign records before I see it. And I’m not saying they can’t meaning I won’t allow them--I’m just in the streets just as much as they are so they’ve got to find acts that I haven’t even seen. That’s really hard. Every time I’m out somebody’s handing me a CD so I’m getting things way before my A&R’s. So it makes them work even harder. Anybody with that mentality can get a record company job easy because record companies are in trouble. They need material more than anything and they need young music. These record companies can’t keep living off these older artists, like we know Whitney Houston was here, but when are the new people coming? You’ve got to create new stars and it’s definitely a hunt to find a person that can find new talent.
Do you think A&R’s are drawing fault unfairly for the downturn in record sales?
If you aren’t finding any material and you’re stuck on one artist, then that’s an old A&R who’s used to just getting money from the record company. Nowadays, its time for A&R’s to sign new records.
The last few years have proven that if the music is good, it’s going to sell. Mariah Carey’s “The Emancipation of Mimi” album is a great example. She had great music, videos and everything else that went along with it. But the music was all over the radio and when you bought the album, everyone said ‘I listened to the album and I loved it.’ So you need great music to sell a lot of records but you also have to create the momentum. And really, you just need a good record, it doesn’t even have to be great. Artists today don’t make records like the old artists. Marvin Gaye probably made about 25 albums. I know James Brown had about 20 albums and those are great artists. You look at Usher, and he only has five records. When are you going to make 20? When are you going to become James Brown? It just shows you the working hustle is so different now.
Do you have any advice for up and coming songwriters?
If you’re a songwriter, just try to write as many songs as you can and always believe in your songs. Don’t let somebody tear your records apart. That’s one thing I don’t do. When I write a song, the pieces that I put in the song are made particularly for that record. It’s always hard when people start coming in and telling me to change my songs. My songs shouldn’t really be changed because I tailor them specifically for people. So if I write a song Mariah, it won’t fit for Janet, or anyone else, even if it’s a great song. Most of the time it doesn’t feel good to me if the original artist I made the song for isn’t on it. That’s the one thing that I really stick to.
With song-writing, you have to know the ingredients. Always have a great hook, a cool middle section, a bridge, and the verses have to make sense, but really the hook is the biggest part. Make sure you concentrate on that hook and make sure that people know the song and what they’re listening to.
You were very involved with Usher’s last project, what direction are you taking his new project?
Usher’s got a lot of new things to write about, like getting married since he’s engaged. And I haven’t started writing too much about his personal life because the last time people thought his album was about his experiences. But It wasn’t really about his life, it was more a mixture of mine, his and everybody else’s life. A lot of men went through that same situation though they act super tough. But sometimes you have to go and confess. A lot of guys told me ‘I had to go through the same thing.’ But I think this record is going to a little bit older, but I can’t say if it’s going to a concept record yet. I’ll be in Los Angeles finishing his record soon.
What else are you working on?
We’re about to do the Omarion and Bow Wow album. Its called “Face Off.” It will be a back to school album on Columbia and they’re going to do a tour.
What will that record sound like?
It’s going to sound like “Let Me Hold You” to the tenth power. That was our first try at creating a collaboration between those two and it was a success. The tour was crazy and girls like both of them. So we’re just going to do something that adds more fun to the music and give the girls something to buy and buy into.