No one ever criticized Jermaine Dupri for his lack of ambition. “At the end of the day,” he says, “I want to mean as much to Atlanta as Martin Luther King did. I want them to really love me for doing things for the city and bringing entertainment to the city, and changing the city—bringing all kinds of stuff to the city.”
To that end, Dupri remains committed to his hometown, even as he has long ventured out into the larger music world. That includes keeping his own So So Def label based in Atlanta, even as he takes on executive positions at larger New York-based record companies. Or giving the world the hit song “Welcome to Atlanta,” which is as close as the city has come to having a “New York, New York”-style civic anthem. Or getting involved as curator of Music Midtown’s urban stage this year, to ensure that top-level talent and a local sensibility governed the festival’s hip-hop and R&B bookings.
But just as interesting as Dupri’s in-town ventures are his moves in the mostly New York-based record industry. Consider: Dupri was once vice president of urban music at Arista Records—L.A. Reid’s number two guy. Now that Reid left the company and Arista folded, Dupri has ended up as president of urban music for Virgin Records, a label run by former hit-making producer Matt Serletic. And in his role at Virgin, Dupri will be working closely with Virgin subsidiary Purple Ribbon, the new label founded by OutKast’s Big Boi.
That Dupri, Reid, Serletic and Big Boi are all Atlantans is certainly an indication of the clout that locals have achieved in the national music industry. But even more surprising is that, despite appearances, Atlanta-bred music executives are not all corralled into a tight-knit club of mutual support. In fact, besides Dupri’s relationship to Reid—who Dupri considers a mentor—his current business relationships with the other Atlantans are strictly coincidental. He jokes that being hired to work for Matt Serletic—a producer best known for his work with Collective Soul and Matchbox 20 before taking on his job as chairman and CEO of Virgin—“should have been” a matter of two backslapping Atlantans getting together. But, in fact, Serletic and Dupri didn’t know each other while coming up. Rather, Dupri came to Virgin via another executive, COO Larry Mestel, who had worked with Dupri in his previous job, when Mestel was COO at Arista.
Still, Dupri likes what Serletic has to offer. Like Dupri, Serletic got his start on the creative side and is still young enough to appreciate new sounds and new ideas. “I wanted a situation like I got at Virgin,” he says. “The reason why the music industry is suffering these days is because the older guys aren’t paying attention to what the young guys want to do. I needed to be in a system where I could bring all that new energy and teach people, and they would be open for teaching. And Matt Serletic is a younger dude, and he’s got a lot to learn about urban music, but he’s still got that young mentality as well, and he could teach me a thing or two about the rock side.”
As for his current business relationship with Big Boi, that, too, was set up by Virgin COO Mestel—before Dupri arrived at Virign. While Dupri has known Big Boi—who, as half of OutKast, counts as one of the biggest music stars ever to emerge from Atlanta—for years, their professional involvement with each other has been limited. Dupri recalls first meeting Big Boi and his partner Andre 3000 back before they ever got a record deal. “I knew him as a guy that Rico [Wade, OutKast’s first producer] used to bring around and be like, ‘Yeah, this is going to be my next rap group.’”
Now that he’s settling in at Virgin, Dupri is looking forward to putting his own imprint on the label, which has never been particularly strong in the area of urban music. First up, Virgin and So So Def—Jermaine’s long-standing label, which is now an imprint of Virgin—will release a compilation: Young, Fly and Flashy, Vol. 1. The collection features artists Dupri discovered (Bow Wow), Southern acts he likes (Bun B, Pastor Troy), unsigned acts he hopes to help and a pair of his latest So So Def signings: Atlanta rapper Young Capone and Savannah’s MC T. Waters. Young, Fly and Flashy also includes a JD solo track, which he hopes to release as the album’s first single. The success of that track, he says, may serve to re-ignite his now-dormant third solo album, which was tentatively called Green Light before being put on ice last year.
Dupri is also serving as executive producer on the forthcoming album by his significant other, Janet Jackson. She’s been recording with Virgin for more than a decade now, which made Dupri’s hiring all the more natural. “They were like, ‘Well, if he’s going to help her get her record together, he should just be over here,’” Dupri says.
In addition, as Virgin Records Urban President, Dupri will be helping ensure Big Boi’s success with Purple Ribbon, which already counts local stars Sleepy Brown and Bubba Sparxxx among its roster. “Big Boi is a new entrepreneur who’s hungry and trying to get in the record business, and he’s got a lot of ideas,” Dupri says. “And he comes from one of the biggest rap groups of our times—the biggest rap group of all times since Run DMC—so I think it’s a very positive deal.”
With all he’s got on his plate getting Virgin Records Urban rolling, it’s hard to believe he still had time to be involved with Music Midtown. But, he says, his roll was more about overseeing than doing the legwork. Besides, he’s willing to put in some overtime in the name of local music. “I just wanted to be part of it because it’s Atlanta,” Dupri says. “As much as I can get into things like this, I’m trying. I know I can bring a different flavor. They approached me, and from that point, it’s been me picking artists and deciding who I want to be on my stage. I just made a wish list of everybody I wanted, and if there are artists on the list who are my friends, I put in a call to them.”
After two decades in the music business, the 32-year-old Dupri can count quite a few friends in the business, extending far beyond Atlanta. But, as much as possible, he continues to keep local music at the forefront. And that, as much as anything, has created success for Atlanta music-makers.
“The thing about Atlanta, it’s not hype- driven,” Dupri says. “So going out ain’t really that important. We’re just making music, we weren’t ever caught up in being celebrities. I believe that if you make good records, the celebrity comes along with it. So we were all in our city making records.”
Photography by Sean Cokes