It’s always a pleasure to speak to people who have truly impacted R&B over the last 30 years. Jermaine Dupri is someone who has crafted numerous classic songs, created R&B stars through his label So So Def and still pushes the genre forward with his brilliant artistry. He recently put together a mega collaboration called “Change” which features everyone in R&B from Eric Bellinger to Wanya from Boyz II Men. We spoke to JD about the new record as well as projects that he has coming out with Usher as well as Anthony Hamilton. We also touched on the history of some of his So So Def artists including Dondria, Jagged Edge and Xscape.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You just released the new record “Change”. We love that this song features R&B artists from multiple generations. Talk about putting this song together.
Jermaine Dupri: I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done. With this type of record, I had the opportunity to reach out to artists that I haven’t worked with that I like. New artists like Eric Bellinger and Jac Ross. I also got Gospel artists I’ve worked with, but you haven’t heard the music like Smokie Norful. It’s just a crazy collaboration. In the days of old, people would be going crazy over this collaboration because these people haven’t made records together and they’re just crossing genres. When I did this, I was thinking about “We Are The World”. That was the template of what I was trying to do. I wanted to create a song with that type of impact, but “We Are The World” didn’t have new artists on there. Being a guy that’s always brought new artists and gave people new artists, that’s what I wanted to do.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Johnta Austin and Bryan-MIchael Cox are involved with this record and you’ve collaborated with them for a long time now. At what point in your career did you realize that people like Johnta Austin, Bryan-Michael Cox and Manuel Seal would be able to help enhance what you had going on? You’re a one man band and can do everything yourself.
Jermaine Dupri: They all have something that I don’t have. I just had a meeting with Manuel yesterday and he’s just a different type of animal. Most of the time when I create with these guys, I start the idea and then they start hearing what they would hear as part of the idea. I believe anyone needs that. If you have a big idea, it’s hard to get there by yourself. You can do it, but you can also get there with a crew of people and get there in a way that you didn’t think you would. A lot of the stuff Manuel did on Usher’s “My Way” album, I don’t think I would have suggested a lot of it. A lot of that stuff, he was just playing and I was like “Let’s use that!”. It’s the same thing with Bryan. With Johnta, his writing and what he thinks about when he writes, it’s always going to be different than mine. We just think on a different page. All of this just comes from a space of really understanding what producers are supposed to do.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You and Bryan-Michael Cox delivered a number one single on Urban AC for Usher this year with “Don’t Waste My Time”. What did the success of that song mean to you?
Jermaine Dupri: It meant a lot because it was Usher’s first number one record in eight years. It got him back on people’s radar and he just got another number one with “Bad Habits”. I didn’t know that he hadn’t had a number one record on Urban AC in eight years. A number one is a number one. I don’t care what chart it’s on, it’s a number one record. To put Usher back in that space after so long, it felt really good and rewarding. We did our job and let’s finish it now.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I know the new Usher album is pretty much done. Talk about putting the whole thing together.
Jermaine Dupri: I’m not sure if we’re finished yet. *Laughs* There’s so much that has happened in between. I know he has Las Vegas residency so he has to be finished soon. I’m not sure if we’re actually finished with the record yet.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about the “Believe” record that you and Usher played a snippet of a few months back.
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah, the “Believe” record is pretty close to a perfect R&B song. It’s pretty close to a perfect Usher record and that’s why so many people talk about it. It feels like what everybody wants. It feels like right now and back then. It’s a song that’s timeless.
YouKnowIGotSoul: To us R&B lovers, we look at you as the bridge to people like Usher and Mariah. You’ve always paid attention to what the fans want to hear. Do you look at that as a responsibility on your end?
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah because the artists don’t do that. They get caught up in wanting to be artistic and what they want to do compared to what they already did. I’m always looking at what’s going to make the people champion what the artist is doing as opposed to getting on the internet and seeing people saying stuff like “I didn’t want that”. That’s what the fans do now. They basically write a review on Twitter that tells other people not to buy something because it’s wack. You want that first reaction on Twitter to be “Have you heard this? It’s amazing”. I’ve always paid attention to that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Usher spent the last decade recording different styles of music like EDM and Trap. What kind of conversations did you have with him to get back to this point with the new album?
Jermaine Dupri: I don’t pay attention to other comments unless they’re my records. I see what people are saying about the artists, but I can’t judge when Usher is going where he’s going if I’m not producing it. I know when I’m ready to go into the studio with these artists, I’m paying attention to what’s going on around them at the time. If I post and I’m saying “We’re in the studio” and then people comment and say that they want another “Confessions” or whatever they’re saying, I pay attention to that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Take me back to Mariah Carey’s “Daydream” album because you were one of the first to get her on an Urban sounding record with “Long Ago”. How did you get her to make records like that? At that time she was labeled as a Pop artists.
Jermaine Dupri: It’s crazy because I never really think about that song and I never really think about me being that person to bring Mariah to that world. What I do know is that when I did “Long Ago”, I wanted to do a song that felt like me. “Long Ago” feels like a track that would have been on Xscape’s first album. That’s the reason why we started working together. Mariah liked what I did with Xscpe and that’s why we started working together. I was basically trying to go in that space and Mariah gravitated towards that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We spoke to Brian from Jagged Edge a few months back and he told us that he’s proud that Jagged Edge has been able to create a signature sound for themselves. You could have easily just gave them records that you’ve written, but it seems like you allowed them to be creative throughout their career. Talk about your approach when working with Jagged Edge.
Jermaine Dupri: I’m glad we’re talking about this. Jagged Edge and I have an interesting relationship because of that. They think that I’m not giving them my all and I’m giving my all to other artists. I tell them all the time that I respect them in a different type of way. Brian and Brandon are two guys that come to the table with a lot and they do have a sound that I noticed in the beginning. I fell in love with that sounc. I can make music for them, but I want them to continue writing on top of it. I can’t have the same roll out for every artist and I don’t think people understand that. I try to find my comfort zone in everything that I work with. With Jagged Edge, they give me a different type of work mode to be in. When I go in the studio, I know if I make the best track I can possibly make, they’ll write the best song that they can make. So I just go in there to make the best track instead of trying to think of things for them to talk about. The only song that I actually gave them an idea about was “Let’s Get Married”. Other than that, everything Jagged Edge did was their writing and minds. They get frustrated with me because they feel I don’t work with them the same way I work with Usher. I tell them that they’re different and I love working with them. We have an interesting relationship though because I don’t write songs for them.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We’ve been revisiting Jagged Edge’s debut album and it’s interesting because it took them a little longer to take off compared to their peers Dru Hill and 112. Talk about your approach on that debut album.
Jermaine Dupri: It didn’t take that long. It took us going to “I Gotta Be” as opposed to uptempo records. Sometimes I miss, it is what it is. I don’t think I nailed it with the uptempo records. I think I nailed it with the ballads especially on the first album. It’s what people wanted to gravitate to. I tell people all the time, that was my first male group. I didn’t know exactly what to do. It was just like Usher’s “My Way” album, that was the first time I ever produced with a male artist. I’m shooting from the hip and I don’t know if I’m making the right decisions. With Jagged Edge’s first album, I was thinking we should have come out with an uptempo but the fans told me that “I Gotta Be” was the song and sound. Once they showed that to me, I was on that same page.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Dondria recently said that she’s been an independent artist her whole life and a lot of people were shocked because they thought So So Def was always partnered with a major label. How do you push her as an artist in 2020?
Jermaine Dupri: As a vocal talent, I don’t know how many artists that are like Dondria. Her talent is real too. It’s not an autotune type of situation, she can truly sing. The interesting thing about what she said on Twitter is that “You’re The One” was independent. We did an amazing job with it being independent. It was my first independent project that I had ever put out. I was really trying to go as mainstream as I could. I was spending my own money on everything. I don’t talk about it, but a lot of people don’t pay attention to what I was doing. It frustrated me because I thought people would talk more about me taking this step in an independent direction and what I did with it. She was very successful with that song independently. I’ve never heard anyone talking about that achievement. People just assumed that it was on a major. If people stop assuming, they would understand what her journey is like. I signed her to Island when I was there, but when I left that situation, I wanted to leave with Dondria because I felt like they didn’t understand her. I found her on YouTube and I don’t think they respected that type of artist when I found her. I was determined to break her based on what I had found. I found the outlets and the ways to do it, but people didn’t pay attention to it. It was definitely an independent project
YouKnowIGotSoul: We’re still waiting on the songs that you did with Dondria. Is that still coming out?
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah, we’re coming out with a record. I think it’s going to be a Jermaine Dupri and Dondria record as opposed to it being her project. I just want to make sure she blows up. She deserves to be one of the most talked about R&B artists and it’s important I make that happen.
YouKnowIGotSoul: It’s been a challenge for 90’s artists to adapt to the R&B in 2020. What should they do to still make an impact on the genre at this point in their careers?
Jermaine Dupri: I’m not sure if artists from 90’s will work in 2020. That’s too far back. If you’re talking about artists from 2007 then maybe, but let’s use Xscape for example because I think they’re making a new record. For a group like Xscape, they have to focus on vocals. That’s one thing that will never get old with them. Most older artists, that’s what you have to focus on. The one thing never gets old about R&B is if you’re an R&B singer and you can really sing. That’s the one thing that never gets old. Musically you just have to go with what you like now but make sure you put your vocals into it if you’re an incredible vocalist from that era. When I put Wanya on “Change”, that didn’t make that song sound old. It made people say “Oh man, they got Wayna on here!”. You have to do that type of production. The production has to sound like it needs that artist. “Change” needed Wayna to do that at the end and Wayne got it done.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We spoke to Rodney Jerkins a few months back and he fears that listeners are getting too used to the vocal effects like autotune on the vocals. Do you see that being a problem in the future?
Jermaine Dupri: Me and Anthony Hamilton are making an album. It’s going to be a Jermaine Dupri and Anthony Hamilton record. I’m saying that because basically that’s what I want to make sure people start paying attention to. The difference between people singing and people with digitalized vocals. It’s important that that’s done, and Anthony is a singing singer! The records that we make are going to be great songs but at the same time he will be singing. If you love that type of singing, and you love singers, then you’ll start understanding the difference. You have more artists doing autotune sounding records than you have artists really singing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: When we spoke to Jagged Edge about their use of autotune in recent years, they told us that they do it because that’s what the kids love.
Jermaine Dupri: I don’t believe that’s what the kids like. That’s what they like from certain artists. The kids like what they’ve heard. Once people heard Wanya on “Change”, they started remembering how amazing he was with the Boyz II Men records. You have to remind people and I feel like this is what this Anthony Hamilton and Jermaine Dupri record will be.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You also posted a snippet of a record you did with Monica for her new album. Can you talk about the song?
Jermaine Dupri: I don’t know if it’s making the record. I keep hearing her say that she’s going to put the album out. I haven’t mixed the song yet, so it might not make it. *Laughs*