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50 Years of Hip-Hop: The maturation of Atlanta ‘Mayor’ Jermaine Dupri

Music impresario to curate Essence Festival salute to Atlanta’s central role in genre.
Producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri in the studio in Atlanta on May 22, 2023. Dupri talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his role in Essence Festival 2023 and his career path. (Tyson A. Horne /

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

Producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri in the studio in Atlanta on May 22, 2023. Dupri talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his role in Essence Festival 2023 and his career path. (Tyson A. Horne /

In 1999, on the eve of his 27th birthday, which included a million-dollar, over-the-top, four-day party, Jermaine Dupri said he wanted to be Atlanta’s “mascot.”

Eight years earlier, as a 19-year-old wunderkind, he discovered Kris Kross. Two years later, he used that success to start his genre-defining record label, So So Def Recordings, which would launch the careers of Da Brat and Xscape, while crafting the sounds of music legends like Mariah Carey, Usher and Janet Jackson.

Today, his once-trademark braids, baggie pants and gap-tooth smile are long gone.

Replaced by a baldpate, his own clothing brand and a perfectly manicured mustache and beard hugging his still-boyish and impish face.

Producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri in the studio in Atlanta on May 22, 2023. Dupri talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his role in Essence Festival 2023 and his career path. (Tyson A. Horne /

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

He’s 50 now, and the million-dollar parties and youthful yearning to be a mascot are behind him.

The OG of Atlanta’s R&B, rap and hip-hop game now says he wants to be the mayor — even if it is unofficial.

“I’m trying to do the best, and as much as I can, for the city,” Dupri said. “Every day, I am hearing more and more people say they moved to Atlanta because of what I am doing. For the last 30 years, I have been doing mayoral work.”

Welcome to Atlanta

This weekend, Dupri will take Atlanta to New Orleans for the Essence Festival of Culture, the largest African-American culture and music event in the country.

Essence has devoted the weekend’s entire concert series to a celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Dupri has been tapped to curate part of the Saturday night concert that will focus on Atlanta’s hip-hop legacy.

“I am creating the story and I want to make sure that Atlanta comes off the way it is supposed to,” said Dupri, who also will perform Saturday. “The 50th anniversary of hip-hop only comes around one time.”

T.I. and fellow music industry figure Jermaine Dupri at a past Atlanta Hawks game. AJC FILE PHOTO / HYOSUB SHIN

Clifford Harris (known onstage as T.I.), who will be performing with Dupri, said he was the perfect choice to curate.

“He is a staple in the city. An OG waving the flag, shining a light on the city before any of us had a chance to. I always looked at him like a big brother,” said T.I., adding that perhaps Dupri’s best accomplishment was signing the R&B quartet Xscape.

T.I. is married to the group’s Tameka “Tiny” Cottle.

“His impact is undeniable and his success speaks to that. His stats are off the chart.”

Dupri originally planned to call the Essence set “Welcome to Atlanta,” after his 2002 anthem.

But he changed it to “The South Got Something to Say,” a direct nod to Andre 3000′s 1995 declaration that forcefully introduced Atlanta, and the South, as a rap and hip-hop power.

“It is only right, but at the same time, the South has always had something to say,” Dupri said. “The South has basically taken the crown of hip-hop and ran with it. So I want to do something that can’t be duplicated. An undeniable, unforgettable event.”

Along with T.I., Dupri has enlisted Atlanta hip-hop stars Big Boi, Gucci Mane, Lil Jon and Ludacris for the concert.

For Dupri, who also is celebrating the 30th anniversary of So So Def, curating the show has led to an internal debate about how to make it seamless, while dealing with “a bunch of giants.”

Instead of coming out in succession, all of the artists will appear on stage together in a big jam session.

Songwriter and producer Big Boi was one of the headliners at ONE Musicfest, performing one of his hits at Rock the Bells Stage on Sunday, October 10, 2021 in Atlanta. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Big Boi, of Outkast, who called himself “one of the most fiercest Jedis to destroy a stage,” said it was going to be a “bomb set.”

He also is bringing Sleepy Brown, of Organized Noize, who sang the hook on Big Boi’s “I Like the Way You Move,” to New Orleans to perform with him.

“It is definitely an honor to be representative of the home team,” said Big Boi, who will soon be marking the 30th anniversary of Outkast’s debut classic, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.” “A bunch of grown men are going out there on that stage.”

Child protégé with staying power

Atlanta’s rap and hip-hop community is heavily intertwined, from early pioneers like MC Shy D through current darlings like Lil Baby and Future. But even giants like Killer Mike, who first met Dupri as a fanboy at a concert at Emory University, can still be awed by the mega producer’s intergenerational cultural legacy.

The Atlanta rapper, whose real name is Michael Render and who has established himself as an activist and businessman, calls Dupri, a 12-time Grammy nominee and member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a “forefather of the culture.”

“Jermaine is one of the most important musical factors in the city,” Killer Mike said. “Does he receive the respect he deserves? Not always. Does he deserve more and should we work on respecting him more in terms of publicly saying this is our guy? Absolutely.”

Killer Mike @ Big Boi and Friends Big Night Out

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Perhaps not since Gladys Knight, who was opening for Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson when she was 13, has Atlanta seen a child protégé rise to maturity and remain relevant as Dupri.

The son of concert promoter Michael Mauldin, Dupri was at Prince’s first Atlanta concert and witnessed the landing of The Mothership by Parliament-Funkadelic.

Dupri made his public debut at the age of nine when he jumped on Diana Ross’ stage and started breakdancing behind her. By the time he was 12, the College Park native was appearing at the legendary New York City Fresh Fest as a breakdancer for the rap group Whodini.

He taught himself how to produce and soon started selling mixtapes that he was making from an old drum machine he bought from Rhythm City.

Jermaine Dupri (cq) shows off a diamond-studded cross and necklace in an AJC archival photo. (RICH ADDICKS/AJC staff)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

In 1990, his first group, Silk Tymes Leather, became the first rap group from Atlanta to sign a major record deal. At 18 years old, Dupri wrote and produced the group’s first and only album, “It Ain’t Where Ya From...It’s Where Ya At.”

While Dupri admits that the LP didn’t do well, it created a notable buzz around Atlanta, which was still trying to find its place in a hip-hop scene that was dominated by New York.

“At the time, we did not know that we were creating our own culture and space,” Dupri said about Atlanta’s early 1990s hip-hop scene, which was bubbling out of school dances, in skating rinks and local talent shows.

“It was our version of what hip-hop was to us,” Dupri said. “Atlanta wasn’t talked about, in the early 90s conversations about hip-hop, but we existed among ourselves.”

It was Kris Kross, a pair of pre-teens that Dupri famously discovered at Greenbriar Mall, that put the then-19-year-old Dupri on the map.

They weren’t rappers, but Dupri liked their look. He taught them how to rap, turned their clothes backward and produced their first album, “Totally Krossed Out,” which sold more than six million copies and featured “Jump.”

In this Atlanta Journal-Constitution photo taken Jan 21, 1995, Chris Kelly and Chris Smith of the group Kriss Kross, pose with their new cars outside Chris Kelly's home in Fayette County, Ga.

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

“I don’t think Jermaine gets enough credit for what he did with Kris Kross. When they came out, they changed everything,” Lil Jon said. “They went from being discovered at Greenbriar to going to Europe to open for Michael Jackson in like a year.”

But while he was dancing, occasionally rapping and producing hits, Dupri also was watching music moguls like Quincy Jones and Arista Records President Antonio “L.A.” Reid, J Records President Clive Davis and Def Jam President Russell Simmons, who were building lasting empires.

“I think about to this day about how much of a collector of info I was,” Dupri said. “All I wanted to do was listen to people talk and anytime someone said something that I thought was a jewel, I kept it. I wanted to create the Def Jam of Atlanta.”

In 1993, Sony Music gave Dupri $3 million to start So So Def. His first hire at the company was Lil Jon, then a local deejay, who came on to do marketing and work on the street promotions team.

But his first group was R&B quartet Xscape. Reality TV star and business mogul Kandi Burruss, a member of the group, remembers meeting Dupri for the first time when Xscape sang for him on his 19th birthday at his former home in College Park. She said Dupri’s decision for the group to have a tomboyish look, coupled with his ability to write songs about how they were growing up, contributed to their success.

Xscape’s 1993 double-platinum debut single, “Just Kickin’ It,” was built around a slang term that was popular at the time.

“Everybody says ‘just kicking it’ now, but back then, it was just like something you’d say to your homie, and he made a song around it,” Burress said. “He’d just use everyday slang and put it in a record. Now everybody does it, obviously, but he made it a thing.”

Dupri later signed Jagged Edge and Da Brat, whose debut album, “Funkdafied,” made her the first female rapper to sell more than one million copies.

Da Brat (left) performs on stage at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta with Jermaine Dupri during the So So Def All Star Anniversary Concert in February. Jonathan Phillips / Special

Dupri has released two solo albums but prefers to work with others.

Today, while modest and unassuming outside, the walls of Dupri’s $5 million, 14,000-square-foot Southside Studios are lined with the dozens of gold records he has produced.

There are plaques and life-sized photographs recognizing the artists he has worked with, like Carey, TLC, Nelly, Bow Wow, Monica, Alicia Keys, Aretha Franklin, Dem Franchize Boyz and Jackson, whom he dated for seven years.

In 2004, he produced Usher’s “Confessions,” one of the best-selling albums of that year. A year later, he resurrected Carey’s career when he produced “The Emancipation of Mimi,” including his only Grammy win, “We Belong Together,” which Billboard Magazine called “the song of the decade.”

Jermaine Dupri in 2008 outside of his famous So So Def billboard I-75-85 near University Avenue. RICH ADDICKS/STAFF

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Between all of that, Dupri’s hands have been in nearly every aspect of Atlanta hip-hop.

He was in T.I.’s first music video.

A young Outkast, he said, called So So Def daily trying to get a deal.

He famously uses Magic City to crowdsource new material.

For years, a giant yellow billboard featuring the company’s iconic “Afroman” logo and the words “Home of So So Def” hung over the I-75/I-85 connector, welcoming visitors to the city from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

“He is the one that propels the Atlanta culture to the rest of the world,” said Lil Jon, who has gone from handing out So So Def fliers, to producing Usher’s mammoth “Yeah,” to hosting his own home renovation show on HGTV.

Rapper Lil Jon (left) and producer Jermaine Dupri arrive at the Samsung GLEAM Private Dinner & Party hosted by Pharrell in Las Vegas.

Credit: Chris Carlson / Associated Press

Credit: Chris Carlson / Associated Press

‘Makes you believe that you can do anything’

On a recent Monday, instead of arriving in one of the luxury cars in his fleet, Dupri is quietly dropped off at his studio.

He unlocks the door and walks in alone.

Those early days when he had more than 40 people working there are over. Those days are in the rearview mirror — like the mascot.

ATLANTA May 22, 2023, In the studio with Atlanta producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri. Duper talks with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his headlining at Essence Fest 2023. (Tyson A. Horne /

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

Jamall “Pimpin’” Willingham, from Dem Franchize Boyz, soon shows up and the two old friends share a drink at the well-stocked bar and talk about LeBron James.

Dem Franchize Boyz met Dupri for the first time in 2004 (when the mogul was the “King of remixes,” according to Parlae, a member of the group) at a car show in Dallas to perform Dupri’s remix of their hit “White Tee.”

The following year, Dupri took the group under his wing. Although they didn’t sign an official contract with So So Def, he embraced the Bankhead collective as if they did.

Willingham recalls a moment when Dupri wanted to work on the beat that would become the group’s 2005 snap classic, “I Think They Like Me.”

“I sent him the beat, and two weeks later, he called and told us to meet him at the radio station,” Willingham said. “We get there, and I remember us being in the parking lot begging to hear the song. Then they played it, and that’s when we found out, as well as the world, that Jermaine Dupri was on the remix along with Da Brat and also Bow Wow. It was like we had a rocket in our bookbag.”

Aside from preparing for the Essence Fest, Dupri has some new music he is working on, and like every other multi-hyphenated celebrity, he has some fashion and television projects on tap — including a much-anticipated Hulu documentary on Freaknik.

“Hip-hop makes you think you can do anything. Hip-hop makes you think you can deejay. Hip-hop makes every kid in America think they can rap,” Dupri said. “The bug of hip-hop makes you believe that you can do anything.”

--Staff writer DeAsia Paige contributed to this article.