Jermaine Dupri talks origins of Atlanta hip-hop with Jalen Rose


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Jermaine Dupri’s father was a record executive, so he was raised around hip-hop, going to shows while in his single digits. But he started his own career as a 12-year-old dancer with Whodini, the group behind “Freaks Come Out at Night.”

“[I was] just thinking I was going to open up for a show that was coming to Atlanta,” the hitmaker told me on this week’s “Renaissance Man.” “I never knew what I was walking into. Eventually I just walked myself into hip-hop … I got an opportunity to live in this world from ’84, ’85 and ’86 and being on tour. Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow and all these people. I was only 12. So that was pretty amazing.”

Once inside the walls, he absorbed it all, likening himself to the robot in the wacky 1986 movie “Short Circuit” who could read volumes of books in seconds.

“I would say that I kind of looked like the robot Johnny 5, if anybody knows what that is. He is just reading the books and is soaking up all of this knowledge. That’s pretty much what I looked like … I was just running around, going everywhere I could possibly to get this information. And, you know, I was taught how to DJ by [late Run-DMC DJ] Jam Master Jay … I actually was there the first night that Def Jam introduced LL Cool J.”

With hip-hop turning 50 this year, one cannot dispute Atlanta’s role in the art form and culture. Jermaine noted that when he was growing up, the city wasn’t the musical hub it is today. Of course we can thank people like LA Reid and Babyface. But Jermaine was there first, molding that ATL sound as a teenage producer.

He discovered pre-teen early-’90s rap sensation Kris Kross, writing and producing their megahits “Jump” and “Warm It Up.” That made it impossible to ignore him and spurred him to create his own label.

“The first group I signed was Xscape. People looked at me like I was crazy because I had an R&B group that I wanted to put out first, as opposed to a rap group, based on what they saw with Kris Kross. And I knew at that point I wanted to make sure people knew that I was more versatile.”

Mission accomplished. He went on to work with Usher, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, Monica and Nas, to name a few. In 2002, he released “Welcome to Atlanta” and featured Ludacris. That was not only another trophy on his rap-career mantel, but also an exclamation point on Atlanta’s status as the nexus of Southern hip-hop.

However, Jermaine is an ambassador for all things Atlanta, not just music. He promotes the city’s exports, especially Pinky Cole, the colorful CEO of popular restaurant chain Slutty Vegan.

“I’ve been vegan for 19 years, and I came out to tell her how inspired I am by watching her take her company from being a food truck to a $100 million company at this point. And she said, ‘Jermaine, I want to tell you one thing. One night you called me to the studio. We had shut down and everybody was tired. And you called me: “Pinky, I need you to come to the studio. Snoop is here.”’” She rallied her workers and brought food to the studio.

Jermaine Dupri performs during the 2022 Soul Train Awards.
Jermaine Dupri performs during the 2022 Soul Train Awards.
Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic

“Snoop tasted it and she got a video of Snoop eating the Slutty Vegan burger. And she said after that video that Snoop did, her business skyrocketed,” Jermaine told me, adding that he also got into the plant-based grub space, founding ice cream company JD’s Vegan. Naturally, his favorite flavor is the “Welcome to Atlanta, Peach Cobbler.”

And keeping with his hometown theme, he said we can expect a special episode of “Verzuz”: He plans to take on Bad Boy Entertainment honcho Diddy.

“The people want it. You know, New York has been wanting to go against Atlanta. Atlanta, they want to go against New York. It’s [like the] rivalry with the Hawks and the Knicks.”

And to enter the music battle with such an impressive catalog of songs he’s written, I had to ask for his Top 5. He didn’t hesitate to answer. His list: “Money Ain’t a Thang” with Jay-Z, Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna,” his opus “Welcome to Atlanta” and two hits from Mariah Carey: “Always Be My Baby” and “We Belong Together.”

“I’m going to say ‘We Belong Together’ because people say it was the greatest comeback in music history, for Mariah to come back the way that she did. I don’t actually think that. But I go off of what people say, and I feel like … that song in itself was the song of the decade. I don’t ever think that I’ll have a song of the decade again.”

But when it comes to Jermaine, you can never say never.

Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive-produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.

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