“If an idea doesn’t flow, I throw it away immediately,” says Jermaine Dupri of his songwriting process. “If I have a hook that says a lot visually but I can’t come up with something to go along with it, I throw it away. People say I’m stupid for doing that. But that’s just how I write.”
That behind-the-scenes tidbit was just one in a series of illuminating takeaways revealed during “Under the Hood: The Confessions of Jermaine Dupri.” The afternoon session — featuring moderator and frequent Dupri songwriting collaborator Johntå Austin and musician Bobby Ross Avila — rounded out the opening day (Monday) of ASCAP’s 13th annual “I Create Music” Expo.
The session focused primarily on Dupri’s work in bringing Usher’s Grammy Award-winning and diamond-certified album Confessions to fruition, in particular its smash hit title track. However, during an hour’s worth of reflection, Dupri also revisited other career highlights, including collaborations with acts such as JAY-Z, Mariah Carey, Kris Kross, Da Brat and Xscape.
Musician Avila (who also co-wrote and co-produced several Confessions tracks) provided keyboard accompaniment as Dupri literally walked the audience back through the creative musings that inspired the title track. In fact, that’s how he begins every song: by walking.
“I walk around the studio to get the juice going,” explains Dupri, who will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 14. “I tell whoever I’m collaborating with at the time, in this case Bobby, to start playing what he’s feeling at the moment, and then I’ll start talking and singing lyrics that come to me. The walking around comes from me trying to memorize ideas so I can tell them to people.”
And ever since notching his own top 10 hit in 1998 with “Money Ain’t a Thang” featuring JAY-Z, Dupri says he stopped writing down lyrics. “When JAY-Z came to the studio and did his verse, I asked, ‘When did you write this?’ And he said, ‘I just wrote it.’ He writes in his mind, I sing out what’s on my mind. For me, it makes the song more fluent; makes you say things you probably wouldn’t say when you’re trying to find a [certain] word.”
Here are five more Dupri confessionals from “Under the Hood”:
“Confessions” was originally titled “All Bad.” Notes Dupri, “I just said I had to confess in the song. But that word led to becoming the title of the album, to becoming a life about Usher that people actually believed was real. None of this was real. He had no kids when the album happened. It showed the power of what writing can do: The whole world bought into this as this man’s story, as the truth.”
“Confessions” also initially included a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. “We used a guitar solo on Usher’s ‘Nice & Slow’ and again on ‘U Got It Bad.’ So it was, how can we top that? Let’s not do a guitar solo; let’s get Stevie on the harmonica. Then the label wanted a more stripped-down version. I was just trying to make the most incredible song that I could possibly make.”
Never stop the creative flow. “No one knew what the fuck I was talking about when I included the Calgon line into Mariah’s ‘Shake It Off’: ‘Just like the Calgon commercial/ I really gotta get up outta here/ And go somewhere.’ But it just came out and it worked. That’s the beautiful thing about songwriting: If it’s in you, just let it go. ‘Confessions’ was like therapy for me [Editor’s note: As in the song’s lyrics, Dupri was in a relationship when he impregnated another woman]. I never felt wrong about telling my story in that song. All that energy and pain from what I was going through mentally — and from conversations I had with other guys who had their own versions of my story — is what I put into that song. The authenticity of ‘Confessions’ is as real as it gets.”
Hooks and melody are key. “I specialize in hooks. I’ll write a hook first anytime I write, because for me that’s one of the most important parts. As is melody. When you start singing to melodies, ideas come and will take you where you want to go.”
One common thread connects all of his hits. “I look at what artists haven’t done and what their fans are probably missing. That’s the key to my success, period. I pay attention to what artists aren’t doing, should be doing and how to satisfy the people that are listening.”
The ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo continues through Wednesday (May 9) with sessions featuring Betty Who, Lindsey Sterling, Ne-Yo, musicians Greg Phillinganes and Marcus Miller; the “She Rocks” showcase featuring songwriter/vocalist Priscilla Renea; ASCAP’s annual membership meeting; and a conversation with pop icon Meghan Trainor and songwriter J Kash.