It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since So So Def first made its mark, becoming the sound, look and lifestyle for a whole generation. It began when Atlanta was the undeniable hot spot for Hip-Hop and R&B. Jermaine Dupri was in the infancy of his career. On the heels of producing Kris Kross’ mega-smash “Jump,” he launched So So Def Recordings (a joint venture with Columbia Records), which became a home of hits for Xscape, Bow Wow, Jagged Edge, Da Brat, Dem Franchize Boyz, and Dupri, himself. The label was on the fast track, starting with its first release by R&B female group Xscape, which had a No. 1 single with “Just Kickin’ It” in 1993.
To celebrate this milestone, Dupri has put together an All-Star Anniversary Concert on February 23 at the Fox Theater, featuring his stable of past and present acts. This June, So So Def is also slated to release a 20-song greatest hits album to mark this occasion. Expect all of the label’s biggest hits to be featured, and hopefully some of the more recent signings like Leah LaBelle, Fresco Kane and Dondria.
Dupri tells Amalgamation that assembling all of these artists wasn’t really difficult at all. “None of my artists ever felt they were off So So Def; even when they are not [currently] on the label, they still feel a part of this,” he says. “Some of them don’t understand why we didn’t do this long ago. What have I been waiting on? We need to turn this into a tour.”
Was this 20-year benchmark something Dupri foresaw? “It’s interesting, I didn’t know we would be actually celebrating 20 years, but I was creating music in hopes that people would enjoy it for years to come. I wanted to create music that would be
legendary,” he says. “There was a strategic plan in place. There was a reason I picked Xscape to be the first act on So So Def. I wanted the tone of the label to be set as a [diverse] music label and not just a Hip-Hop label.”
This reunion has put acts like Kris Kross back into the news. The duo were young teenagers creating a fashion faze by wearing their clothing backwards at the time they recorded their chart-topping singles, “Jump” and “Warm it Up.” “When you make a record like ‘Jump,’ you can’t foresee it being as enduring as it became,” says Dupri. “On paper, they say Mariah Carey’s ‘We Belong Together’ [which Dupri produced] is song of the decade. I don’t feel it is necessarily bigger than ‘Jump.’ But whom am I? ‘Jump’ turns 21 this year. You hear it at basketball games. The song has been featured in movies. You hear it everywhere. I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve made a bigger record than ‘Jump’.”
Running the daily operations of So So Def, dealing with distributors, constantly having to be creative along with producing music for outside projects became the norm for Dupri these last 20 years. He’s never rested on his laurels. “This industry is always forcing me to do more,” he reflects. “For my career, it seems like people are always asking me what else am I doing. If I say we’re doing a concert with damn near 15 artists performing, and I’m days away from making it happen, a person will ask me what else am I working on. That lets you know that people don’t take into consideration how much work goes into what I do—whether its putting one artist out or releasing multiple artists. I’ve always been pushed by the public to do even more—having me feel like I was never doing enough.”
So So Def is currently distributed through Epic Records/Sony Music. But throughout the years, the label has had numerous homes, starting with Columbia, then onto Arista, Zomba, Island Def Jam and Virgin. In some cases, Dupri took on added executive duties where he oversaw entire black music divisions. “Those Columbia Records days were the best though,” he recalls. “They understood what a partnership between a record company and another record company was. They provided the necessary resources and they supported my vision. When I said there is a new female artist from Chicago by the name of DaBrat, I’m gonna be the first person to break a female artist, they ran with it. When I brought in Bow Wow, I showcased him at the Columbia Records road show. He was 12. The response was so incredible that [former Columbia Records President] Donnie Ienner said, ‘This kid needs to go on the rest of the tour.’ Ienner saw my vision for Jagged Edge, too.”
So, where does this uncanny ability to spot trends and talent come from? “What I do is study,” Dupri says. “What I talk about, I study; whatever I’m into, I study. It’s a God-given gift. If I find something wrong or missing in the landscape around me, I’ll study it to see where I fit in.”
By David A. Mitchell