Celebrating its 25thanniversary this year, So So Def has also checked off another milestone. It’s now the first R&B/hip-hop label to be the focus of an exhibit at the Grammy Museum.
So proclaimed a rightfully proud Jermaine Dupri, the pioneering Atlanta label’s founder/CEO, as the Los Angeles-based museum officially opened Jermaine Dupri & So So Def: 25 Years of Elevating Culture this week (Sept. 20). Featuring colorful stage outfits, photos and additional memorabilia from Kris Kross, Xscape and other So So Def stars, the exhibit will run through March 2019.
It also coincides with the upcoming So So Def 25th anniversary tour, which launches Oct. 14 in Washington, D.C.
To help kick off the opening, the Grammy Museum hosted a conversation with Dupri. He also brought along a few of his friends, namely acts from the storied label, to celebrate, including Anthony Hamilton, Da Brat, Jagged Edge and Dem Franchize Boyz. After being presented with a proclamation sent by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti — and before adjourning to an after-party on the roof — Dupri sat down with Grammy Museum artistic director Scott Goldman. During a rollicking conversation that boasted colorful anecdotes from Dupri’s comrades, the Grammy Award-winning songwriter/producer and 2018 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee revisited his career and So So Def’s pivotal role in Atlanta’s emergence as a cultural and creative force.
Jon Platt, another longtime friend and industry colleague (who will be exiting as chairman/CEO of Warner/Chappell Music Publishing), noted during the Q&A with Dupri that “music is in his system. He just never stops working. It’s hard to match his energy and work ethic as a songwriter and producer.”
Among the conversation’s other memorable sound bites:
Discovering Kris Kross: “I saw something in Kris Kross that I still haven’t seen to this day,” said Dupri. “They were swag before the word was being used. Their favorite artist was Ice Cube and they played his AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted to death. I watched them rap lyrics like Ice Cube. As soon as I saw that, I thought, if I can write a song that they halfway like, this might be something. I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I could take a song and make it theirs.” [Kris Kross’ “Jump” spent eight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.]
Creating So So Def in Atlanta: “I started the label because of what Russell Simmons did [with Def Jam],” he said. “Then there was Berry Gordy who created Motown with $800 and signed Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Rick James and more. Plus Atlanta just had something different; it was a city that didn’t close. I didn’t care about established artists that much. I wanted to find the next one.”
Working with Jagged Edge: “Kandi [Xscape member Burruss] brought a demo of the group to me,” he recalled. “Then I invited these church boys to my house. I thought I could break this male group off this female group. When they came, I was trying to have them sing over [The Honey Drippers’] “Impeach the President.” They’re like no, we don’t do that s–t.”
Jagged Edge’s Brian Casey added that he remembered Dupri saying, “I see you all as being like the male Xscape.” “We’re like hold up,” he said. “We’re not really on the hip-hop thing. But he convinced us to start merging hip-hop with R&B because we were strait-laced R&B, period.”
“They’re like nah, you need to listen to Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band; that was their thing,” Dupri chimed in. “So like with Kris Kross, I had to pay attention to what Jagged was about. And once I started that process, it helped me change my sound because Xscape and Jagged Edge records don’t sound anything alike.”
Helming Anthony Hamilton’s first platinum album: “I’m a big Bill Withers fan and I’d wanted an artist like that, whose voice you know no matter the song,” Dupri continued. “So my dad [Michael Mauldin, former president of Columbia Records’ urban department] sent me Anthony’s demo. And I start thinking, this is that f–king voice I’m talking about. This was the first time I ever took a demo and put it out; I didn’t do anything to his record [2003’s Comin’ From Where I’m From]. It wasn’t an automatic [success]. But I stuck with it. It made me stronger about sticking with things that you believe in.”
“Jermaine heard the raw talent and understood it when most labels weren’t listening for something they thought they already had,” Hamilton said. “He was like, ‘Don’t change the music, don’t shave’ … [then Arista chief] L.A. wanted me to shave and put on a suit [laughs], And JD was like, ‘No. This is the vision, I see it. You’re already packaged and we’re going to put this out.’ And it was my first platinum album.”
Getting funky with Da Brat: “Her energy was super bubbly but very aggressive,” Dupri said. “When she came to Atlanta from Chicago, she stuck this demo/beat in my car tape deck and it became a concert. She was going to town with this whole choreographed situation. At that point I became a fan. I saw her energy and how devoted she was to me being the person she was going to sign with.”
“But you made me call you like 100 times,” Da Brat said. “I would call his assistant and then talk to 50 other people at the label. Then he finally calls back. I remember watching In Living Color at my grandmother’s house in Chicago and Kris Kross came on the screen. I felt I was a part of them because I used to wear my pants backwards and cut holes in my baseball caps to let my ponytail stick through. So I had to know who created this group and it was Jermaine. He told me that girls don’t do platinum, that I should be happy if I went gold. I didn’t give a damn if I went double copper, I just wanted to be a part of So So Def. And needless to say, I was the first female solo rapper to sell a million records [1994 debut album Funkdafied].”