Jermaine Dupri has been known to co-sign young stars — he discovered Kris Kross and launched the career of Bow Wow. Now, the So So Def CEO‘s taking his business to the small screen for the new show The Rap Game, where rapping youngsters try to impress J.D. and a roster of industry heavyweights including Usher, T.I. and Da Brat for a contract with So So Def Records.
For its inaugural season, the Lifetime TV cameras follow buzzy acts Miss Mulatto, Supa Peach, Lil Niqo, Lil Poopy, and Young Lyric through a series of workshops that include penning their own lyrics and performing their songs in front of a live audience. Dupri recently stopped by Billboard to discuss his new syndicated gig, diversifying his on-screen resume with the forthcoming show Media Moguls and his hope for creating a kid-friendly version of Coachella.
What made you decide to tackle a project like The Rap Game that focuses on young artists?
That’s always been my direction. Following in the footsteps of Berry Gordy, I always admire what he did. Launching [the careers of] Kris Kross and then Bow Wow, I think those two things together made this be like, “Oh this is a perfect fit for me.”
Is there a challenge in dealing with teens in an adult business?
No, ’cause I don’t attack it from that perspective. I attack it from [the mindset that] we’re dealing with their world. I basically tell these kids, “Don’t pay attention to the adult world cause adults don’t care about them, so why should they even care about the adults?” They should be trying to get their fan base in their age group. They should be writing songs about the person that’s the same age.
How did you go about picking the talent?
We just found them on the Internet and we looked at the ones that seemed to be pushing a little bit harder than the others ’cause there’s a bunch of kids out there, but then there’s just a few of them that’s trying to push it a little bit harder. These five were amongst those.
What do you mean by push harder?
They’re just trying to be seen a little bit more. Like Niqo was a very well-developed artist. He was signed already to the label. He had a deal with Def Jam. A lot of artists know him. He’s been in the studio with a lot of people. He really had nothing to lose but he also had a lot to lose ’cause people looking at him like yo, this is a second chance for you. You might not have it. This might not be your calling. You had a deal. You lost the deal and now you on the show and if you don’t win, it might not be your calling. But to go back to the pushing, he’s an artist that more people probably know than the rest of the kids on the show. Then you got Poopy that was on CNN and his whole controversy. They was talking about Poopy on Hot 97 one day without him even being on the show. That’s what I mean by pushing. They just artists — they’ve got a little bit more edge on a lot of the other little kids.
Recall the initial conversation you had with Queen Latifah when conceptualizing The Rap Game.
It really wasn’t nothing. It was just like everybody feels like this is my world, my lane. ‘Like Jermaine, this is perfect for you.’ At that point, it was self-explanatory. It was like are you gonna take this and do it the way that it’s supposed to be done? The way that you would do it? That’s why I started putting artists on there ’cause at first it was sketched out to be a TV show, like a reality show. We didn’t have artists coming by like Usher, Silento, T.I. and Ludacris. None of the stuff was written in. Most of these shows, they can’t get these celebrities on the show. I just took it and made it The Jermaine Dupri Show.
How important is a massive Internet following when launching a rap career?
For this show, it’s the most important but as far as the industry goes, I don’t really think it’s the most important. I like stars that people don’t see. I like finding artists that people don’t know about. Supa Peach is probably the least famous online but she’s probably one of the brightest stars on the show. It just depends. Personally, I don’t care if you have likes and followers. If you’re out there on the Internet, you’re putting your music out there and you don’t have likes and follows, that’s not a great sign but if I find you and that’s not what you’re doing right there, I’m not gonna push you towards that. I’m gonna tell you you should get on that once we start putting music out but that’s not gonna hinder me working with you.
What does The Rap Game offer in a world where shows like Empire and Love & Hip Hop are king in terms of ratings?
I feel like my ratings are high because it’s something you’ve never seen on TV. Yes, it is hip-hop. That’s 50 percent of partially why people are watching, but at the same time, it’s a piece of hip-hop that they’ve never gotten a chance to see. And hip-hop overall — there’s so many questions about what’s actually going on. Even people watching Empire. I just did an interview [where I was asked] is [Lucious] Lyon supposed to be you? I’ve never heard it before but I think that it just opens the door for all these questions that people have and that’s why I think The Rap Game wins. There’s so many questions about if you write [your own songs], does it matter if somebody writes a song, do you know how to dress, do you know how to dance. You hear about me making all this music, but you don’t ever really see me making music, so you don’t know if I’m actually really doing it or if it’s somebody else and I’m lying about it. There’s people out there we thought was making music and they weren’t so I just think hip hop is a big question mark when people wanna see what’s going on.
What is your vision for The Rap Game?
I definitely want it to be at least as long-running as The Voice. I think they on they 10th season by the way. I definitely think I can continue to keep coming up with ideas and make The Rap Game last that long because they haven’t even put out an artist with The Voice. I’m definitely putting out music. My mindset is to do the show and then put the artists out. It allows Jermaine Dupri to put out as much music as I want to.
Many rappers are constantly pushing out music. Do you think quantity hurts quality?
No, I think that these guys are just doing it. They’re scared to lose their spot ’cause they think that people forget things very fast but I don’t condone throwing music like that that fast. Future put out his mixtape and it’s a good mixtape but it’s not gonna really start being heard until three months from now ’cause the records he has put out prior is still going in the club. It just feels like it’s a reckless release as opposed to it being thought about and put out in a way that — I could be wrong. Maybe the fans like him ’cause he puts out multiple music. I think that once you make a mark right now and the way music is, you’re pretty much a stay, especially if people want to keep hearing you. They’ll wait for your music to come.
Describe your upcoming show for BET called Music Moguls.
Music Moguls is basically me, Snoop Dogg, Dame Dash, and Baby from Cash Money, and it’s a docuseries that follows us all around each facet of our lives. Like they would be following me right now doing an interview at Billboard, then whatever my next interview is. It’s just to show people the behind the scenes — same type of attitude about the show and same type of direction.
Any plans to work on Usher’s upcoming album?
I have worked on projects. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with my songs yet, but I have worked on his record.
What’s up next?
I just gotta start worrying about these kids. The little ones gotta start working on their projects and get the record out and go to season 2 then I am gonna do a Rap Game tour with these kids though.
What details can you offer?
Details in my mind. I know that just being out here doing interviews and walking around, people on the streets know these kids names. The platform that we have I don’t believe there’s one bigger. It could be an argument that radio [is bigger than Lifetime TV] but I don’t think radio is bigger than Lifetime TV. With that being said, bringing these kids [on tour] to actually let people see them perform and putting more kids on the tour — I just have a belief that it’s a market space demographic that’s very much ignored. My idea is to bring to life a children’s version of Coachella but inside of an arena or inside of a place that these kids can come and party and listen to music — just a young party. I don’t think it’s ever been done where my father created the Scream Tour so between the Scream Tour and the Bow Wow Tour, I still don’t believe that what I’m talking about has ever been done.