Born Jermaine Dupri Mauldin on September 23, 1972, son of Tina (Mosely) and Michael (a Columbia Records executive) Mauldin. Addresses: Office--So So Def Recordings, Inc., 685 Lambert Dr., Atlanta, GA 30324-4125. Website--Jermaine Dupri Official Website: http://www.jermainedupri.com.

In May of 1995, Newsweek reported on four young black record producers it called "flashy, streetwise and entrepreneurial"---young men raised on street talk and hip-hop and now working with R&B and rap superstars ranging from Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown to Boyz II Men and Kriss Kross. The four producers, according to the news magazine, were, "shaping pop music the way the songwriters and producers at Motown and Stax [record labels] did three decades ago"---and selling plenty of albums, some 70 million among the four of them. Remarkably, not one of the four producers described was over the age of 30. The youngest, then just 23, was Jermaine Dupri.

Although Dupri's name wasn't readily familiar at the time, his work was: the 1992 Kriss Kross multi-platinum debut Totally Krossed Out, which sold eight million copies; Kriss Kross' follow-up platinum LP, DaBomb; the 1994 platinum Funkdafied by Da Brat; and the platinum Hummin' Comin' at 'Cha by Xscape. Dupri has also been responsible for such individual songs as Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby," TLC's "Baby, Baby, Baby," and Toni Braxton's "Breathe Again," plus the hit "Keep On Keepin' On," by MC Lyte, from the Sunset Park movie soundtrack.

As he approached his 24th birthday in September of 1996, Dupri paused in his busy studio schedule to reflect, in a phone interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) from his base in Atlanta, about his fame and considerable fortune---the same month Vibe magazine dubbed him a multimillionaire---as well as So So Def Recordings, the record label he acquired in a 1993 deal with Columbia Records. Speaking in the profanity-laden street talk with which he identifies, Dupri described the harsh upbringing his artists have had, and spoke of his own love for rap and appreciation of R&B.

Keen Business Sense

Speaking about his early start in the music business, and vigorously defending gangsta rap, Dupri tried to explain his success. Marketing is his secret. "I always watch each market and see what time it is---if it's time for stuff to change," he said. "I think the big major labels, not to dog them out [but] their ears are not to the streets anymore, because all the old-fashioned ways of music have changed. Like, all the underground records are above ground. And all underground records be big records right now. Snoop's [Snoop Doggy Dogg] record 'Doing It Doggie Style' is underground, Tupac [Shakur] same thing." He paused and then remarked, "Yo, the streets is where it's at right now.

Although Dupri has looked to the streets for his inspiration, his origins are from rather more fortunate circumstances. Born Jermaine Dupri Mauldin in Asheville, North Carolina, on September 23, 1972, he was the only child of Tina (Mosely) Mauldin and Michael Mauldin, a road manager for groups like Brick, the S.O.S. Band, and Cameo. "I'd go to rehearsals with him. Then I'd try to do what they did," Dupri told Vibe.

Dupri received his own drum set at age three---the same year the family relocated to Atlanta for better opportunities. Music was his destiny. Skeptical about reports, which his publicist has confirmed, that he was named for Donny Hathaway's guitarist Cornell Dupree, and for Cal Dupree, a local DJ, Dupri believed that the spelling was changed because it looked more French and his parents thought that was cool. Whatever the reality, he later dropped his surname to differentiate himself from his father, who is in the same business. In fact the professional lives of father and son are closely linked; Michael Mauldin---now executive vice president of Columbia Records Group's black music division---would later manage Kriss Kross and Xscape. Although his parents separated when Jermaine was only ten, Michael Mauldin played an active role in his son's upbringing, and the two men remain close.

As a child, Jermaine was a firecracker on the keyboards and drums. He also loved to dance. He was 10 years old when he made what might be called his professional debut. He recalled being at a massive Diana Ross concert with his mother: "Diana Ross wanted kids to come on stage and perform with her. My mom went to the bathroom; I went on stage." And he was such an unabashed performer he was featured in the morning papers the next day.

Toured as a Dancer

At age 12, with his father's connections, Dupri had a chance to tour as a dancer with the rap bands Whodini and Run-D.M.C. during their "New York Fresh Festival." His first nationwide rap and dance tour gave Dupri his own invaluable connections in the business. The Whodini link was especially telling; years later, Dupri would find a way to repay the opportunity they gave him.

Dupri soon dropped out of school, though, where he was already making and selling his own tapes on a do-it-yourself label he called "So So Def." He was assigned a tutor, but his schooling ended in the eleventh grade. "I was into all musical aspects, more than the hip-hop, more musical aspects. I was taking piano lessons, playing drums. I was more into the musical side of the situation than the rap side. I was heading more towards musicianship."

Determined to be the "ultimate Atlanta B-boy," Dupri told Vibe: "I was wearing shell toes with no laces, Lee's with the crease." His aim, he said, was to be "a person that's just totally down with everything about rap, whether it be the graffiti aspect, the popping [dance] aspect, the rapping and DJ. I used to want to do all that." He got his wish, but in a way he had not anticipated when, at age 14, he met a new girl rap group called Silk Tymes Leather.

"There were these two girls who were my friends, and they wanted to make a record, and I had this little energy within myself that I could be the person to make these records," Dupri recalled in Vibe. "I really had no equipment. I just felt like I had the energy and half the knowledge to go into the studio." In 1987, he produced the album It Ain't Where Ya From, which was released in 1990 to modest success; but the teenager had attracted attention, and he was making strong contacts. He managed to get Silk Tymes Leather into Geffen Records, where he himself had been paired with Joe "the Butcher" Nicolo, who had already produced songs for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

Hit it Big with Kriss Kross

The association with Nicolo served them both well when, in 1989, Dupri made a major addition to his stable of artists---Kriss Kross. He had spotted the two 11-year-old boys, Chris Smith and Chris Kelly, leading around a pack of adoring little girls in a local mall and was intrigued. "I just saw them, and I just thought they should be doing something that they needed to, and I was the person to make them do something. They had some glow about themselves no other kids had." Nicolo had just started RuffHouse Records. Kriss Kross was Dupri's housewarming gift. Totally Krossed Out, released in 1992, was written, arranged, and produced by Dupri; it went multi-platinum. Da Bomb, Kriss Kross' next album, also went platinum.

Suddenly, at age 19, Dupri was a name in the industry. Audiences loved his ability to marry hip-hop to melody. "Unlike the gangsta- inclined George Clinton/Roger Troutman boogie that defines Suge Knight's electrifying Death Row Records (at least when Dr. Dre was there) or Puffy Comb's notoriously smooth aural fashion show," Vibe wrote, "Dupri's sound is down-home, basically bassy, and lusciously---marketably---bubblegum."

Dupri was anxious to prove himself in R&B as well as rap. At his 19th birthday party, he met his next big group, Xscape, a female group out of traditional R&B. Hummin' Comin' at'Cha, the album he produced for the foursome, went double platinum and included the gold single "Understanding." In 1993 Columbia offered the 20-year- old Dupri his own label deal.

In an interview with CBB, Dupri described how R&B artists value his rap background. "R&B artists always want somebody who's hip to know what's going to do good in the rap world as well as do right for the music they do," he said. That's why he has worked so well with Mariah Carey, he noted. "I keep my head level enough to be able to tell her, `If you sing over the top of this beat, my rappers are going to fill it,' and `If we put this melody here, your audience ought to be able to get with it too.'"

Still, gangsta rap remains his first love. "That's all I listen to," Dupri told CBB, listing some of his favorite groups: Tupac, Snoop, Dr. Dre, and Notorious B.I.G. "I think people don't like gangsta rap because it's like the second phase of rap. It's the phase where the rappers realize, `We're like news people now." They're giving you the news of what's going down in the streets. People in Georgia, where I'm from, aren't exposed to the things you'll see in the ghettos. So, when groups like Wu-Tang Clan come out talking about the projects, and Biggie and Snoop came out, all they're telling you is what's going on, where they're from. I mean, it's stories."

As for rap's misogynistic message, Dupri defended the use of the word bitch as a part of scenery of the ghetto and therefore its music. "They got to be true to themselves," remarked Dupri during his CBB interview. "All they know is this hard lifestyle in the 'hood, and that's all they can talk about." This was his belief when he met another of his label's major artists at a Kriss Kross concert---Shawntae Harris, professionally known simply as Da Brat. Her rap sound was rougher than that of previous women rappers.

"I saw realism from Da Brat," Dupri told CBB. "There are a lot of female MCs out there, and I just felt like it was time. And I felt there wasn't a solo female out there that had had production time put into her. And I think I like challenges, and one of my biggest challenges was to make Brat be the first female rapper to go platinum." Brat's 1994 Funkdafied went platinum-plus, but Dupri did not seem surprised. "Within me and Brat, we built a star. We built someone that once you see her, you never forget her. And that's the same with Kriss Kross."

Cool Head Lead to Continued Success

Dupri's sense of the music business provides a strong foundation for his success. He concentrates his keen eye on the voids in the music and continues to fill them. He told Jet, "You can see the gaps and see where gaps are. It's like being at a football game. Those up in the box seats can see the field better than the coach. That's what I consider myself, as someone in the box. I can see what's going on." His special talent has been finding young men for black girls to "scream for," as he told Jet. After Kriss Kross, he spotted Usher Raymond and produced Usher's hit album My Way, which became one of the best-selling albums of 1997. He then became the mastermind behind teen heartthrob Bow Wow.

But Dupri does not confine himself to the talents of others. He too aspires to the spotlight. He performed with Mariah Carey on 1998's Sweetheart. For his first album as a performer, 1998's Jermaine Dupri Presents Life in 1472 and the album's single, "Money Ain't a Thang" Dupri earned Grammy nominations. The album went platinum to further establish Dupri's dominance in the music industry. He followed these with Instructions in 2001, and Green Light in 2004.

Making Hits Into Next Century

By 2003 Dupri had created the most celebrated teen heartthrobs in the black music industry for a decade, including Jagged Edge, Anthony Hamilton, and J-Kwon, and produced some of the best talents in the industry, including Mariah Carey, TLC, Aretha Franklin, Ludacris, Alicia Keys, and Janet Jackson, to make the So So Def one of the most successful independent music labels in the industry. And the more established record companies took notice. Arista Records made an exclusive production agreement with Dupri, naming him senior vice president. Under the agreement, Dupri's So So Def label would be distributed by Arista and Dupri would find and develop new talents for Arista. One of the first talents Dupri signed under the new agreement, Bone Crusher, signaled his continued success.

Besides releasing Green Light, Durpi remained busy through 2004, working on numerous tracks, most notably producing songs for Usher's multiple Grammy-winning Confessions, as well as working with Fantasia, TLC, J-Kwon, Tamia, and Nelly. 2004 also saw his relationship with Janet Jackson, which went public in 2002, start to heat up. In an article published in the The Mirror, Dupri said, "I want to marry her." Dupri was forced into the spotlight to defend Jackson, who had a "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 NFL Superbowl, where she bared her breast on national television during a performance with Justin Timberlake. In the wake of the scandal, Dupri quit his job as president of Atlanta's chapter of the National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences. He was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying, "I'm just resigning as of today because I feel like I don't want to be a part of something that's not treating musical people in the right light. And I feel like what's going on with Janet is very unfair right now."

Near the start of 2005, however, things started to turn around for Durpi, as the Superbowl scandal seemed to subside. Late in 2004, Billboard named Dupri the sixth best producer of the year. In February of 2005, Dupri was named president of Virgin Records Urban Music. In an article published in Jet, Dupri said, "I plan to do for Virgin what Russell Simmons did 10 years ago, when he moved Def Jam to Island Records. I will catapult Virgin into a young, hip label with chart-topping success in both R&B and rap music."

by Joan Oleck and Ryan Allen

Jermaine Dupri's Career

Dancer with rap groups, c. 1984; formed own label, So So Def, c. 1985; produced first album, It Ain't Where Ya From, for rap group Silk Tymes Leather, 1987 (released, 1990); president and CEO of So So Def, a division of Columbia Records, 1993--2003; released debut rap album, Life in 1472, 1998; named senior vice president of Arista Records, 2003; released Green Light, 2004; named president of Virgin Records Urban Music, 2005.

Jermaine Dupri's Awards

American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Rhythm and Soul Music's Songwriter of the Year, 1997, 1999, 2000, and 2001; National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Heroes Award, 2003; ASCAP Golden Note Award, 2005.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

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