Jermaine Dupri on Hitting the Studio With Aretha Franklin: 'She Came to Work. She Didn't Come to Play Around'

Aretha Franklin
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin sings in the Atlantic Records studio during 'The Weight' recording session on Jan. 9, 1969 in New York City.

In the wake of Aretha Franklin’s death from pancreatic cancer at age 76 on Thursday (Aug. 16), producer Jermaine Dupri tells Billboard about working with Franklin on her 1998 A Rose Is Still a Rose LP and what she's like in the studio. As told to Nolan Feeney.

I’d met Aretha a couple of times in passing before I got a chance to actually work with her, but I didn't know exactly what to expect. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous then, because I had heard a lot of different stories — she was the Queen of all queens.

I was expecting her to be late, but she was on time. She came to the studio in Detroit with one or two people, and she came to work. She didn’t come to play around. She came with Chinese barbecue food, and we talked about that for a second, and that's when she told me, “Let's get to the song, I ain't got long. I’m going to give you a few takes, and then I’m going to go home. I got food cooking.” She let me know that she had left food on her stove at home. It was cut and dry like that.

The song “Here We Go Again” had already been written, and she came to the studio ready to sing it. That’s amazing to me because of who she is — I work with younger artists that don’t even do that. They claim they want to do this so badly, but then they get in the studio and mess up. Aretha just showed me what excellent and greatness is.

She did the song all the way down five or six times, and it was basically perfect to me. I heard a couple of things I wanted to fix, and I think she heard those things as well, because she seemed like she was waiting for me to correct her, like, I know I can sing, but I hired you to tell me how you want your song to sound. There was a moment in the studio when she thought she didn’t hit a good note and actually said, “So are you going to produce me? If you’re not going to produce me, then I’m going to go home.” I’m sitting there like, It’s Aretha Franklin! What can I tell her? But this was the first time I realized that no matter who I’m in the studio with, no matter what their name is or how big or popular they are, if they ask me to come into the studio with them, they want me to be the way that I am with all the other artists. She broke me out of my bubble.

Being in the studio with her made me become a better producer. When I got a chance to do work on The Emancipation of Mimi with Mariah Carey around 2004, I immediately thought back to this Aretha Franklin conversation. We got ready to do “We Belong Together,” and I was like, “You have to sing.” I had been in the studio with Mariah before, but this time I wasn’t holding back. And I didn’t care if Mariah got mad at me for saying it, because Aretha Franklin had put me on this track. If Aretha Franklin tells you to tell people what to do, then you do it. Great artists are great because they don’t hold back — they take advantage of every little element that’s going to make them better.

Eventually, Aretha let me know when she was done in the studio. She actually said, “Okay, I'm done.” I guess she gave me the opportunity to say, “Well, no, I think we should do blah blah blah,” but she knew how good she was. Once she was ready to go, whoever was with her started packing up, and that was it: “Thank you, I love the song, I’m out.”