Jermaine Dupri: Talented Young Writer/Producer Jumps Into Success

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

For the many people who were impressed by the success of rap duo Kriss Kross’ mega hit “Jump” and think that the tune was most likely written and produced by a wise old music industry veteran, they are partially correct. The truth is that one of the biggest hits of 1992 was penned and produced by an industry veteran, someone who has been producing acts for major record labels for more than eight years, but Jermaine Dupri is hardly an old industry vet. As a matter of fact, he’s only twenty.

For the many people who were impressed by the success of rap duo Kriss Kross’ mega hit “Jump” and think that the tune was most likely written and produced by a wise old music industry veteran, they are partially correct. The truth is that one of the biggest hits of 1992 was penned and produced by an industry veteran, someone who has been producing acts for major record labels for more than eight years, but Jermaine Dupri is hardly an old industry vet. As a matter of fact, he’s only twenty.

A native of Asheville, NC who now calls Atlanta home, Dupri began his career in the music industry at a very young age. In 1982 he got his first taste of the spotlight when his father took him to see Diana Ross and the youngster ended up wowing the 17,000 screaming fans when he danced with her center stage.

From there he was selected to participate in the New York City Fresh Festival, the first nation-wide dancing and rapping tour. “At that point in time I thought I wanted to be a dancer,” Dupri recalls, “I was also doing other things like playing drums. But I let my parents know music was what I wanted to do.”

Dupri gleaned a lot of experience performing on the Fresh Festival, but eventually decided that songwriting, producing and arranging were the talents he was most interested in developing.

“At first I was an artist,” he says. “I’m at another position now and I’m glad that I went through both things, seeing the artist side and seeing this side. What I’m doing now is hard, but it’s easier gettin’ out there. I’ve been on the road with Chris and Chris and I see the responsibilities of being a star. Chris and Chris can’t even walk out of their hotel room without people wanting autographs.”

When he was just twelve he produced his first act for a major record label, Silk Tymes Leather, for their Geffen Records debut. When asked how he got a major label to let a preteen produce an album, Dupri admits they were reluctant but says his manager convinced them that age wasn’t an issue and Jermaine was their man.

Dupri admits his age may have been a concern originally, but now, with his proven track record, age is no longer an issue. As a matter of fact, Dupri’s success has paved the way for other young producers to be accepted and given the opportunity to develop their talents.

“At first they wasn’t really with it,” Dupri admits, describing Geffen’s initial reaction. “I got the chance to produce the whole album. I think they wanted some other people to produce, but my father (who manages Jermaine as well as Kriss Kross, Arrested Development and other acts) talked them out it. It didn’t really hit, but it was a good experience to do a whole album by myself at that early age. I’m real thankful for that.”

Instead of being handed acts by the labels, Dupri has always wanted to develop his own artists. “I took the approach that I wanted to have my own groups that were already signed to a label. I wanted my own group and that’s how Kriss Kross came together.”

Dupri met Chris Kelly and Chris Smith at a mall and wanted to work with them initially because the youngsters reminded him of himself at that age. He developed the two newcomers to the Hip-Hop scene and wrote, produced, and arranged their phenomenally successful debut. The album has sold more than four million. The single “Jump” was number one for an incredible eight weeks, a feat that helped garner Dupri the Pop Songwriter of the Year accolade from American Songwriter magazine.

Since then his status as one of the industry’s hottest songwriter/producers has continued to escalate. He recently finished Kriss Kross’ sophomore effort as well as working on projects for several other acts including Shanice Wilson and Run DMC.

Dupri says his age at first affected the type of acts people pitched for him to produce. “At first a lot of people were trying to pitch me all the little kiddie groups,” he says. “And I passed because that ain’t really my sound. I do whatever’s happenin’ at the time. Kriss Kross just happened to be kids, but they could have been adults. I just felt like they were really good when I saw them.

“Basically I’m a Hip-Hop producer,” Dupri continues. “I’ve got my own label now (So So Def Recordings). My first act coming out on my label, Xscape, is like an R&B Hip-Hop group, like an En Vogue with rap beats. I’m letting people know I can do R&B cause I’m doing Shanice Wilson. I did El DeBarge. I’ve got a couple R&B projects getting ready to jump off that’ll let you know I can do R&B. You get bored doing the same thing all the time.”

He admits when he first went in the studio with Run DMC he was a little nervous. “Run DMC came to Atlanta for me to do something with them and I was real excited because that’s Run DMC and they wanted me,” he says. “I was really excited about it and they were like ‘Jermaine, we don’t want to hold you back. We want you to give us the same treatment as you give Chris and them. Produce our record like how you did theirs. If not, there ain’t no reason for us to be down here.’

“When Run told me that, that just gave me a whole other attitude as far as all these other groups, like Shanice and El DeBarge. Now when I work with them, I don’t look at it like they’re a higher status than me. I look at it like I have a job to do, regardless of who they are. If I have an idea, I’m going to take it to them. I’m not gonna hold back. He opened my eyes. If they’re there to work with me, they’re there for a reason. So I should act the way I usually act and don’t hold back.”

As to how Dupri churns out the hits, he says his approach to penning a song varies; sometimes he’ll come up with the lyrics first, other times he’ll come up with the beat. “Sometimes I can be in an airplane and start writing lyrics out,” he says. “Other times I’ll be thinking about a beat and I can hardly wait till I get to my house and start putting the beat down and then write the lyrics. It just depends.”

Dupri says his days on the road as an artist helped strengthen his songwriting. “It helped me develop my rhythmic skills,” Dupri says. “If I kind of messed up the original phrasing I’d catch myself and pull it off in different ways. That’s one thing that I’m high on. I really like to phrase stuff the way nobody else does.”

He says writing rap songs is different from R&B tunes in some ways and similar in others. “I write my R&B songs like I would write a rap song. I try to use little catchy phrases and that type of stuff,” he says. “Raps have more lyrics than songs. You can write a couple of lyrics for a song and the verse will be finished. With raps you have to write stories and they have to make sense. You can’t put down just anything. Raps are a little bit harder, but it’s easier when you do it everyday. I did Kriss Kross’ album in two weeks. Some musicians might say ‘that ain’t nothing, he can do an album in two weeks, it’s got to be easy.’ But it’s just because once I start writing something I’m really into it just goes like that. That’s how I vibe.

“That’s what it is with this rapping thing. Raps are like nursery rhymes, like Dr. Seuss, every kid used to know Dr. Seuss or ABC’s because it’s something they’re into. They learn it quick. That’s the way rap is to us. We learn it so fast that it don’t take no time. It don’t take long to learn the craft. It looks so easy because we know the craft.”

Dupri says some of rap music’s harsher critic are listening closer and becoming more accepting of the genre. “A lot of producers are coming around now, but back in the early days when rap was first coming out, they felt like it was hip hop be bop and just a couple of words. But if you are a real listener of music, period, you shouldn’t be so shallow. You should listen to all rap just to find out what’s really going on.”

Jermaine says his ultimate goal with his music is just to tell the truth, and he admires other songwriters who do the same, even if the truth isn’t always something people want to hear. “Rap music is the type of music where we get to express ourselves,” Dupri explains. “Everybody’s human. Everybody has curses in their life. If I have a group and there’s part of their song where they are vibin’ and G*d damn might come out, you’ve got to be real. You can’t hold back on your feelings. If you feel it in your heart, there’s nothing wrong that.

“I can’t really say if I would ever write something like that because I write what I vibe. I’m a writer… just like in poetry, all poems can’t be like flowers and the sun. All my music won’t be like Kriss Kross. I write to what the group is. If I had a real underground rap group and they say they want to be underground, I know how to write that.”

Dupri admits he often listens to some of rap’s more controversial acts like Ice Cube and NWA. “I listen to those artists and they are speaking their mind,” Jermaine says. “I can’t really fault them ‘cause they say they’re telling us how they live. That’s their life… A lot of things they do say are true, like getting stopped by the police, that happens. Like with me, Kriss Kross hit two years ago and I was eighteen and I got a chance to buy a couple cars. I got me a Beemer (BMW). I looked so young and I got stopped so many times by the police thinkin’ I was a dope dealer… So some of those things they are sayin’, I can relate. A lot of people can relate. I listen to that and if they are real about what they are talkin’ about, if all this is real, then I ain’t got no problem with it. I can overlook the profanity.”

In addition to the explicitness of the lyrics, another controversial issue surrounding the rap community is sampling, taking parts of old hits and incorporating them in new rap tunes. “At first when I did Silk Tymes Leather, you could sample anything you wanted to,” he recalls. “Rap wasn’t that big and wasn’t making as much money as it is now. Now if you sample an old record the publishers are coming after you. You got to pay for the samples or get sued. If it’s a big, big sample they’ll take your whole record off the shelf.

“If you want to do an old track its best to get musicians in the studio to replay and do it like that. Now my lawyers are saying, you have money, you can say whatever. Some samples I don’t want to get a live band to come in, so I just sample it and have to pay like $5,000 for the sample and not really worry about it. There are certain things you have to do. If you’re gonna sample nowadays, you have to pay for it.”

Dupri says the sampling issue was sparked by Rick James claiming that some of his hits had been sampled and used on MC Hammer’s record. “Once he did it, a lot of older artists realized ‘we can get paid off these little rappers, let’s start raising hell and see how much money we can make.’ EMI, Jobete, all the old publishing companies =, they’ve just got old music and know we’re going for it. They set traps now for the younger rappers that are coming up, puttin’ out CDs of all the old music so you ain’t got to go look for it no more. They know you’re gonna sample and they’re gonna take your money. It’s a game. They’re settin’ traps for all the young rappers coming up that ain’t hip to the sampling issue and how all this stuff works.”

Dupri says he feels older music is the best music and rap music’s roots lie in borrowing from those established hits. “That’s a tradition in rap,” he says. “Before rap artists started making records, kids used to go to the park and rap over people’s records, funky instrumentals or whatever. That’s where rap DJs were coming from, rapping over old records. That’s how it started. Then people would sample them and make their own records.”

Though some people question rap music’s longevity in the marketplace, Dupri doesn’t see its popularity diminishing. “Rap is music for everybody,” he says. “I think at first a lot of people were looking at it and thinking it was about things they couldn’t relate to. But it’s not just Black people’s problems. A lot of white people have the same problems.”

Jermaine says he writes from inspiration without thought as to whether the song will be a big hit. “I don’t really think of none of my songs as hits,” he explains. “They sound good. That’s all I can say. After that I turn them in, if people like them that’s cool. Then I go on to the next song… All I live for making records is to sell 2,500 records. If I can sell 2,5000 hundred records, I’m cool. Now 250,000 records, I’m straight, as long as the record gets heard. That’s what’s important.”

When asked to give advice to aspiring songwriters and producers, Jermaine says, “Don’t stop. Get you a good manager that can help you and talk to people and talk your material up. Don’t worry about the business side, just worry about your material and getting it done the best way you can and make it sound as good as possible. Let them worry about the business and then you should be straight.”

Dupri has a 48-track studio in his house and music is a constant companion. He says doing both rap and R&B projects helps keep him from getting burned out. “I slow down and do remixes,” he says. “I try not to burn myself out.”

Dupri is a talented writer/producer/arranger and has dabbled successfully in the artist arena as well. Of his many talents, he admits songwriting is his main love. “Coming up with ideas and seeing if people are into that, that’s the part I like. The producing and arranging is a little harder cause you’ve got to get them to do it how you hear it like that. But writing, that’s when you’re off on your own, in your own world, and you can just go for it. Write what you want to write and feel it how you want to feel it.”

Kriss Kross
Deborah Evans Price
<i>Dupri & Kriss Kross Drop ‘Da Bomb'</i>
Rap/Pop
1993

One of the chief talents of a good producer is being able to spot raw talent. When Jermaine Dupri saw two young in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall, how did he know they had the potential to be a platinum selling act?

“I was interested in their look more than anything,” Dupri recalls of his initial impression of Chris Smith and Chris and Kelly. “At first they were going to be dancers for Silk Tymes Leather (the first group Dupri produced for Geffen Records) ‘cause they were getting ready to come out with their new album, but that got held up, so I just started working with Chris and Chris.”

The result was <i>Totally Krossed Out</i>, the act’s debut album that has sold over four million copies to date. They won two American Music Awards (Favorite New R&B Artist and Favorite New Rap Artist) and the Yes You Can Award for young entertainers from Jack the Rapper. They have just released their sophomore effort <i>Da Bomb</i>.

“I think people will be surprised with the new Kriss Kross album,” Dupri says. “I think a lot of people expected me to try to make another “Jump.” But that song was a vibe song. That song just came out one night and I don’t have no more of them in my body. Nothing else has come out like that. But this album came out pretty cool. I think this album is better than the last album.”
The songs on the album explore a diverse landscape from the “old school meets new school” approach of “And It Don’t Stop,” which pays tribute to Run DMC, to “Sound of My Hood,” which paints a poignant picture of the suburban landscape. “A Lot To Live For” offers a positive message for young people.

“There are so many kids that are doing nothing with their lives,” Chris Kelly says. “We just want to tell people there’s a lot to live for.”

Thom Turner
<i>Home Recording Studio: Consider Building Your Own</i>
Various
1993

Which would you prefer – plain ole apple pie, or apple pie with ice cream melting into the spicy, juicy apples and flaky crust?

If you prefer the latter, so might your publisher, and if you can’t figure out the connection between plain apple pie à la mode and your publisher, read on.

Many songwriters pitch new tunes to their publishers on a work tape. This may be fine for some straight-ahead country songs, but what if the song is more pop or needs a production hook to bring it to life?

To add life to that song, you should consider building your own home recording studio. Then you can add the flavor of ice cream to that piece of pie before you serve it to the publisher, who might just need to hear more than just a guitar/vocal demo tape.

A home studio can begin with the following: a guitar, a piano, a four-track recorder, mic and stand, and a pair of headphones. Extra mics and electronic accessories can be added one at a time as your need or interests develop.

Any four-track recorder will enable you to make a demo at home that may be more listenable for the music publisher. There are many excellent four-track machines as near as your favorite music store, and most of the time a knowledgeable salesperson will give you a hands-on demonstration about the basics of how the machine works.

In a nutshell, four track recorders are like having four recorders at the same time, but they are in one box. Most machines will record two tracks simultaneously. For example, if you can play an instrument and sing at the same time, you can plug your instrument into a channel and your mic into another channel, turn on the machine, and record both at the same time.

The first step in doing this is to plug in your instrument and mic, then put on the pause button and sing a few bars of the song, which you’ll hear through your headphones. Adjust the balance of volume on the instrument and your vocal to your taste. Now, release the pause button and when the counter gets to three, begin counting off the tempo into your mic by saying one, two, three.

Now, play and sing your song as if you were performing a writers night or for friends at home. When you complete the song, rewind the tape, push the play button and listen to what you have recorded. If satisfied, rewind the tape, plug your instrument into another channel and when you hear the intro you recorded earlier, begin adding musical production licks to the song you hear through your headphones. Rewind the tape.

You now have recorded three tracks. Vocal rhythm and production hooks are all on your tape. Now, plug your instrument (or mic for harmony vocal on the chorus or key words and phrases) into the last channel and lay down a bass line for support of the overall recording. Rewind.

Push the play button and listen to what you have recorded. If satisfied, run two chords from the output jacks of your four track to the input jacks of your regular recorder so everything you have recorded will be transferred to your regular recorder.

This tape is the one you will pitch to your publisher. Now mark the tape in four-track “master tape.” Include the date of creation, co-writers names and song title, and keep this in case you need copies later.

You now have a demo with production hooks and a studio that’s open twenty-four hours a day, with no appointment necessary. Also, you may know someone who wants to pay you to demo their songs. It’s a great way to pay for your investment in the accessories I mentioned earlier, like extra mics, analog delays, metronomes, etc.

But most of all it’s a way to sweeten up your own demo and maybe your publisher at the same time.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Gerry House: Nashville DJ Doubles As Hit Songwriter

Twila Paris: Creating Musical Garments