Almost 20 years ago, Jermaine Dupri hosted a marquee-name birthday party at the newly minted Philips Arena.
On Sunday, he’ll return to the same venue for its public debut after a $192 million transformation and a naming rights switch to State Farm Arena.
If anyone deserves such a grandiose soiree, it’s Dupri, the 46-year-old Atlanta producer-rapper-songwriter who is renowned for his work with everyone from Usher to Mariah Carey to Ludacris to Aretha Franklin and whose fingerprints have touched hundreds of hits.
It’s a long way from his days entering talent shows at North Clayton and Riverdale high schools to discovering “Jump” breakthrough act Kris Kross in 1991 to being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in May as only the second hip-hop artist (next to Jay-Z) to receive the honor.
Sunday’s inaugural show isn’t only tied to Dupri’s local roots, though. As Steve Koonin, CEO of the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena, said earlier this week during a walk-through of the glossy venue, “We wanted to open with an Atlanta act, but we also wanted to open with a concert for a different test of the building.”
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The event will also celebrate the 25th anniversary of Dupri’s record label, So So Def, with a parade of performances from some of the imprint’s most familiar names — Xscape, Anthony Hamilton, Jagged Edge, Da Brat, Bow Wow, Bone Crusher, Youngbloodz, Dem Franchize Boyz and J-Kwon.
When we sat down with Dupri in August at his Southside Studios to discuss the milestone of the label, the “So So Def 25th Cultural Curren$y” musical soiree was slated as an 11-date tour to begin in D.C. last Sunday and run through November.
But last week, all of the dates aside from Atlanta were quietly canceled amid rumblings of soft ticket sales; Dupri offered an explanation in a video posted to Twitter on Monday, in which he professed to being unhappy with the way the show sounded in rehearsals.
“I can’t imagine what y’all would have said if we’d put this show out and it wasn’t what y’all wanted it to be,” he said, adding that because the hometown date is so special to him, “I felt like I needed to put a little more into the show.”
So the Atlanta concert — which is selling well — will mark the only (at least for now) commemoration of Dupri’s signature achievement, which does provide a distinction.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation with the candid and thoughtful Dupri.
On how it feels to have a major celebration concert 25 years after creating So So Def:
“In one word, accomplished. But in multiple words, I would say that it took a lot of work, it took a lot of pain and a lot of belief. The pain that when I started doing what I’m doing … people didn’t think Atlanta was cool to live in. Being a part of creating that cool is painful at some times, but if you have the belief, I just look back at the pain and the belief and think man, I coulda left and went to L.A. and I wouldn’t have this. I probably would have the same 25 years, but I think it’s more impactful that the people of this city feel like I carried them with me or they carried me with them. I feel we all moved together to get to his space.”
On how this show will be different than the 20th anniversary concert in 2013:
“I did the 20th anniversary at the Fox and people where like, ‘Why are you doing it at the Fox? Why aren’t you doing it at Philips?’ And I was like, I don’t know if you guys know what the Fox Theatre means to me, but when I drive down Peachtree and I see my name on the Fox Theatre marquee, that’s it! I live in Atlanta. I’ve driven down that street many times and gone to many shows at that place and thought wouldn’t it be cool to have a show here one day? And then we did it. … This will be probably the last and the only time you’ll see all 10 of us do this. Not because we don’t like each other, but you only get one 25th anniversary. Next year, the 26th anniversary doesn’t sound right, 27th doesn’t sound right. The 25th anniversary is a special thing.”
On the meaning of the concert’s title:
“To me, the only thing that people care about more than anything in our culture, besides material things, is money. So what’s as important to the culture as money? Music. But what music? I can’t tell you, you have to tell me. So when people start telling me, ‘So So Def was the soundtrack to my life,’ they feel like it’s more important than just Jermaine Dupri and a label. Xscape to me is like having a million dollars in this pocket, Jagged Edge is like another million — it’s currency to me. I feel like people need to understand how much these artists mean to individuals who bought the music.”
On the format of the concert:
“It’s one show. Like a play — once it starts, it doesn’t stop. Artist after artist, songs battling songs, songs mixing (together). I’m gonna do a love section — you have to do that with Xscape and Jagged Edge and Anthony Hamilton — where the music is gonna merge from one song to the next in a way that people aren’t really gonna catch it and thread itself and make this one thing. This is gonna sound like, if you close your eyes, that you’re listening to a mixtape that’s curated by Jermaine Dupri.
“I want people to understand that this probably is the only tour that you could go to that the first 10 to 15 songs have all been No. 1 records and this is not a No. 1s tour. No artist on tour right now can say that. People will probably be like, you’re cheating, you’ve got 10 artists (laughs)! But if you think about it in that mindset, the first 10 to 15 records that will be performed at this show, there’s no way people in the crowd are (gonna be) like, ‘I don’t know this song.’ That’s the excitement I want to see from the crowd.”
On what it felt like to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame:
“Once again, that one word, accomplished. I’m the type of guy that’s thought most of this out. When I signed Xscape, I told them I was going to sign them before I even had a deal. That’s me thinking. You start making records and songs and you think Grammys, but the Songwriters Hall of Fame was something that was never in my peripheral, anything. When Jay got inducted last year, I realized how big it was and that’s when I took a closer look like, what? He’s the only hip- hop artist to be inducted? A lot of people look at this like they were looking down on rap. That’s not the requirement to get in. You have to put in 20 years of writing to even get on a ballot. What that did to me is show the world how much work I’ve done and how much work I’ve been doing against the work that other people have NOT done. I don’t want to sound super cocky, but that’s what it is. You gotta put the work in. In rap, I don’t think it’s been but one artist that had that long of career besides Jay Z, it was LL Cool J and myself. I’m sure LL will go in, and I think Eminem makes it this year, it’s been 20 years. I never felt bad if I didn’t make it …all I ever wanted to do is be a producer mentioned in the same light as these other producers. So when I found out Babyface got in last year, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got in last year and they just got in, a year before me? I was just lost, like wow. It’s all good.”
So So Def 25th Cultural Curren$y Show
With Jermaine Dupri, Xscape, Anthony Hamilton, Jagged Edge, Da Brat, Bow Wow, Bone Crusher, Youngbloodz, Dem Franchize Boyz and J-Kwon. 7 p.m. Sunday. $59-$203.61. State Farm Arena, 1 Philips Drive, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com.