Not sure if you noticed, but Jermaine Dupri took down his billboard. The famous "Afroman" sign, which announced Atlanta as the home of his So So Def imprint, was unceremoniously removed more than a year ago after a decade plus at the I-75/I-85 connector. Dupri notes that it was an expensive ad, but contends its demise was mainly symbolic. "I felt like, it's a new era in music," he says. "A new era in life."
After nearly two decades partnering with various major labels to develop some of urban music's best-selling artists (not to mention going platinum himself), Dupri took his label independent last year. Ditching the deluxe working environments he'd long been accustomed to, he moved So So Def into his Southside Studios near Buckhead, and commenced operations with a skeleton staff. "Everything has been micro'd," he says. "It's a totally different business than it was three to four years ago. I don't really have but, like, three people that work for me."
He's abolished his street team (Twitter is today's street team, he contends) and does his own blogging. It may not be very glamorous, but Dupri says it's worth it. For one thing, he's finally able to get back to doing what he does best — turning nobodies into stars. Dupri once set the industry standard by developing acts like Kris Kross, Da Brat and Lil Bow Wow; not only did he write and produce many of these young platinum rappers' hits, he signed them, outfitted them, and crafted their images. "I create artists from scratch," he says.
But that's not how things are done anymore. Instead of molding unknowns and putting massive promotional campaigns behind them, major labels are more likely to sign artists with an already-established regional fan base. It's a cost-cutting measure that has made the traditional role of Artist & Repertoire all but obsolete. "Now, if you're an A&R in New York, it's like, let's go to Atlanta and listen to what's hot on the radio," Dupri says.
Shuffling between companies like Arista, Virgin, and Island Records over the years, he became increasingly frustrated with his working environments, and was dropped as Island's president of urban music in early 2009. He contends they fell out largely because the label wouldn't release music from So So Def's artists. In fact, much of Island's top brass didn't even so much as listen to Dondria, a Sachse, Texas-bred crooner he discovered and championed, he says. "Many of them never even went to YouTube to understand her, or pay attention to what attracted me to her," he continues, adding that So So Def artist/songwriter Johnta Austin was similarly ignored while his music sat on the shelf, going stale.
"Everybody I know is signed. I'm like, 'When is your record coming out?' They have no idea. There are probably more artists signed with no record out, than people with a record out," Dupri says. "The companies are not created anymore for people that are visionaries."
Now that he's gone independent, he can release his artists' music on a timely basis. Dondria - who was recently added to the Trey Songz/Monica fall tour schedule - will release her debut, Dondria vs. Phatfffat, August 17, he says, and works from Austin, Detroit singer Brandon Hines, and Atlanta (by way of Dayton, Ohio) rapper Jola will follow.
Dupri's rift with Island was also reportedly sparked by low sales from his longtime girlfriend Janet Jackson, whose 2008 album Discipline - which he executive produced - failed to go gold. Her subsequent concert tour was aborted early, and she parted ways with Island shortly before he did. Dupri declines comment on the situation ("I can't really talk about that"), and seems to deny that the pair have broken up, despite numerous reports to the contrary last year. "That's an assumption," he says.
He also made waves in a recent Vibe interview, in which he dubbed Usher "disrespectful" for not asking him to executive produce his albums after the success of Confessions, and expressed disappointment that none of his songs made Mariah Carey's last CD. Dupri contends the statements were blown out of proportion: "I can't control people's lives, I don't even really care. The artist will do what the artist wants." Though he's currently working on Carey's next album, Dupri says he's "more focused on creating new artists with So So Def than established artists."
Just getting warmed up, he also offers his thoughts on changes in Atlanta hip-hop in recent years. Everyone nowadays thinks they have what it takes to be in the industry, he gripes. Even worse, the city's strip clubs are no longer reliable testing grounds for new music. "That's been destroyed with payola," he says. "Now [a DJ] will play his man's new song, or a record somebody paying him to play."
But make no mistake, Dupri's not throwing his hands up in despair. After all, the godfather of Atlanta pop-rap, a former teen break-dancer who was taught to rap by MC Shy-D, is still in his mid-30s. The taste of music fans will continue to change, but one suspects that his role as a tastemaker will not.