Über-producer Jermaine Dupri has the Midas Touch when it comes to making hit records. The music impresario has produced and written songs for the likes of Mariah Carey, Usher, TLC, Anthony Hamilton, and girlfriend Janet Jackson. Besides heading his own label, So So Def, the ATL musical wunderkind has served as president of the urban music departments at Virgin and Island Def Jam Records. Until recently, Dupri appeared to be anointed by his musical forefathers as one of the next frontrunners of the biz. That is, until industry whisperings began about his sudden disappearing act—the second in his brief presidency. ESSENCE.com caught up with the hit man to find out the truth about his abrupt departure from Island Def Jam records, his relationship with L.A. Reid and starting a family with Janet Jackson.
ESSENCE.COM: The blogosphere has been abuzz recently about your exit from Island Def jam Records as president of urban music. Why did you leave the label?
JERMAINE DUPRI: It was a situation where it felt very stagnant to me. As a person who is used to putting out new records and continuing to do that, it just wasn’t turning over as being that place to me where I should stick to it and see if it was going to turn around.
ESSENCE.COM: What would you say was your biggest problem with the label?
DUPRI: It wasn’t giving me the open door that I thought it was going to. It wasn’t aggressive enough and it was a big letdown for me. I thought I was going to a place that understood the times we were in as a music business and how aggressive we needed to be with putting out new projects and records. This is the reason I’m speaking out; not because I’m bitter, but because I owe it to my fans that see me every day on the Internet. I wanted to let them know because they’ve left a lot of comments on my YouTube saying, “JD, you talk about everything else; why aren’t you talking about this [label] situation?”
ESSENCE.COM: There’s hearsay that your brief tenure was plagued by meager sales and a lack of new talent which resulted in the label ousting you. Is that true?
DUPRI: Island [Def Jam Records] is going to say what makes them look good. They are not going to tell the truth and say, “He just stopped dealing with us on a daily basis.” If you don’t put out my records, that’s all I have as a person. I’m a record person, so if I give you a record and you don’t put it out, then basically you’re showing me that it’s really no business. I never got a chance to put the records out. I had Johnta Austin, Ninth Ward and Dondria. I read the blogs and I’m thinking, How can they say that I’m not putting out records when anyone who knows my track record knows I’m about making music? My biggest problem is that I’m still the youngest president to have this kind of success. Music is my life. I’m a person who continues to carve out my own way. Instead of watching things happen, I make them happen. If L.A. [Reid] gets fired at Def Jam (he’s 20 years older than me) where is he going to go? Many of the people at the label; if their bosses were to fire them today, they don’t have anything else to do. Their lives are over. I’m not that dude. Life ain’t over for me.
ESSENCE.COM: So do you think it has to do with this struggle between old school versus new school?
DUPRI: I’m dealing with a lot of jealousy and have been since I first came in the business. When you’re younger they don’t want to listen to you because they know you are keener and people listen to the younger person in the office. In corporate America, this is something that I started feeling a lot. I’m keener as to what is going on in the streets, the Internet and all over the place. In a room full of people, I’ll have more answers than anyone else because I’m out there and know what’s going on, so people start paying more attention to what you’re doing. And that’s another thing: the music business thrives on young music, young ideas, newness and freshness. We have a bunch of old guys running all the record companies and they get in these meetings and argue with these young people like myself about what we know and try to make us believe that what we’re doing won’t work. I don’t see them beating the streets to find any of the artists. Matter of fact, I never see these people out anywhere because they are still living off the old times. When you have a 10- to 20-year gap, that’s a big difference, and that’s a lot of what I’m dealing with. Bow Wow is 21 years old, which means he’s 30 years younger than a lot of the chairmen of these labels.
ESSENCE.COM: You have a proven track record and have run a successful independent label since you were a teenager, and Island created this position for you. Do you think this situation could have been avoided had you taken over Jay-Z’s position at Def Jam?
DUPRI: When they gave Shakir Stewart (rest in peace) Jay-Z’s job [as President of Def Jam], I never wanted to work for Def Jam. That’s why Island Urban Music was created from day one. I always considered my label, So So Def, a direct competitor to Def Jam when Russell Simmons owned the company. I was always watching them as my competition; trying to do what they did and to do it just as good. So working for another label would be like my automatic death situation as a label owner. Everyone was trying to get that position—Irv Gotti, everyone. I wasn’t calling L.A. because I wasn’t jockin’ for the position. My nickname is Anakin Sky Walker because I always felt like I was the next person to be one of the front-runners in the business. Then I saw “Star Wars” and saw exactly what had turned Darth Vader into who he is. He became who he is because they were supposed to turn him into a powerful Jedi, but they told him it wasn’t time yet. I think that’s what L.A. did with me. He showed me that I was only playing a role because [he didn’t believe] it was time for me to be a Jedi. I was working in a place where they didn’t want to give that role to a younger person.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think there’s a need for the changing of the old guard?
DUPRI: There are so many people that want to make young urban music but don’t have the resources. I’m a threat because I don’t just sign artists—I find them, produce and have a marketing plan all in one. They are not doing that or paying attention to what’s going on because all they do is get in their cars and go home. They don’t take the time to understand the growth and where these kids are.
ESSENCE.COM: Was it an amicable parting?
DUPRI: I haven’t spoken to L.A. [Reid] in three months. I don’t know if it’s amicable [considering] that they claim they put me out. I feel like it’s not amicable. Don’t lie, be real about the situation. It goes back to their having the attitude of let’s try and do something that’s going to hurt this person, because if it hurts us we have nowhere to go after this, but he does and has at least another 20 more years in this business. Again, if L.A. [Reid] gets fired, there will be at least another ten people who will also get fired and we’ll never see them again. Def Jam is like one big clique.
ESSENCE.COM: Although it’s been three months since you’ve spoken to L.A. Reid, would you be open to reconciliation?
DUPRI: I don’t know. I saw a side of him that I had never seen before and that to me was a jealous side. I don’t know if I should be around people who are jealous of me. Mariah Carey sold more records in that entire Def Jam building and all of that was through my singles; so I’m looking like the golden boy. I only started thinking about it after I left.
ESSENCE.COM: Does Janet support your decision?
DUPRI: We don’t get down like that. She’s Janet Jackson without Jermaine Dupri and vice versa. That’s how we met doing our own thing. I talk to her about some things but it is what it is. I have to stay in my own lane—that’s where Bobby Brown messed up. (Laughs.)
ESSENCE.COM: Gossipmongers speculate that your departure was inevitable after Janet Jackson left because you left Virgin Urban Music after Janet left to go to Def Jam. Did Janet’s departure from Island influence your decision in any way?
DUPRI: No, not really. For a while I had to figure out the bad part about Janet’s departure. She was on Island Def Jam and no one ever heard me speak on the situation. Here I’m still working in the building with the people that aren’t treating my girlfriend right, but I never let my business and her business get mixed up. She might have been upset about me still being around, but it was never a situation where I was like, “This is bad; I have to move because of this.” Janet was handled through L.A. He chased her because he wanted to get her on the label so bad, and when things didn’t go right he had a scapegoat for her whole album [not doing well]—me. But what people don’t know is that Janet’s whole album was designed and made by him. He picked every song. I produced two songs on the entire album. I had a better track record with her at Virgin.
ESSENCE.COM: When it comes to your passion for music you are strongly convicted about what you will and won’t tolerate. What happened with the Grammy Board?
DUPRI: The same thing happened—they let me down. I was the president of the Atlanta chapter. The Grammys chose not to have Janet on the show because of the whole Super Bowl incident. Now, here I am as the president, and you think when you’re in that position you can impact and change things. Once they showed me that being a president didn’t mean that, I left.
ESSENCE.COM: Will you continue to helm Tag Records, a partnership between Island Def Jam and Tag Body Spray?
DUPRI: I don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s the saddest part in dealing with these situations. They try to keep the group to hurt the person who brought these artists to them. The truth is, I can always find another artist but the artist can not find another me. I have to be in a forward motion. One of my biggest focuses is that if you want to do new things you can’t do old things. I can’t be around people that don’t motivate and that’s what happened: a slow motion of people living off checks with no excitement. I’m into excitement.
ESSENCE.COM: As one of the most respected producers and songwriters in the biz you are often the focus of many rumors; one of them is that you and Janet Jackson are expecting a child. Is that true?
DUPRI: That’s false. The media doesn’t care about publicists anymore. I had my publicist send out a written statement about it. No babies, nothing.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you and Janet plan to start a family?
DUPRI: Yeah, of course. That’s going happen. We have to keep our careers and get all the rigmarole out the way but yes, that’s something that will definitely happen.
ESSENCE.COM: And can we expect you and Janet to continue your musical alliance at another label.
DUPRI: Absolutely. We’re going to always do that.
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