It’s a new year, new hustle for Jermaine Dupri; the storied So So Def music mogul who has been crafting platinum hits well into his fourth decade of activity.
At the close of last year, it was announced that Dupri, 43, had created another winning idea alongside the executive production expertise of Queen Latifah and her Flavor Unit contemporary Shakim Compere to unveil The Rap Game on Lifetime Network. The premise is as a competitive as musical reality shows can get with particular caveats.
Each contestant is an aspiring rapper who still hasn’t graduated high school. There is Lil’ Niqo, 15, from San Diego, CA; Lil’ Poopy, 12, from Brockton, MA; Miss Mulatto, 16, from Atlanta, GA; Supa Peach, 12, also from Atlanta, GA; and Young Lyric, 15, representing Houston, TX.
With JD’s past success with similar acts such as [Lil] Bow Wow and Kris Kross (not to mention introducing the game’s first platinum solo female rapper in Da Brat), the recipe for success seems imminent but the veteran producer recently stopped by the DX Headquarters to elaborate on the methodology that isn’t always set in stone.
Jermaine Dupri Explains Why The Rap Game Is A Winner
HipHopDX: The Rap Game is a competition reality show that is unique on many levels. Not only do you have the young artists battling it out for the top spot, it’s not weekly elimination based, either.
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah, the kids were chosen. They didn’t have to go through an audition; I actually looked at them on the Internet. We basically tried to mesh the worlds of what’s actually happening in real life on kids going on Twitter and YouTube and doing all of this stuff. And somebody actually finding them. Because most of the time, these kids are just putting stuff up on YouTube and nobody actually cares. And then they get caught up in the numbers and hype and the “likes” and they believe they’re bigger than they actually are. So we wanted to take that and bring back into this world and just see what the mindset of people that’s living [over here] can deal with the people that’s actually in the real music business.
DX: So when scouting them, it was a combination of their social media numbers, talent and actual potential?
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah with scouting you had to go with who’s buzzing and who has the potential to make people [watch TV]. As well as fans! All five of these kids have people who know these kids. You’ll see people point them out like, “Oh, I know such and such…I used to watch them on such and such.” So just a group of kids who have a fanbase already.
DX: Nowadays, we’re seeing a lot of different publications and entities taking on a Hip Hop culture angle and what’s interesting is this show is actually on Lifetime. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hip Hop-based show on Lifetime.
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah, that’s one that’s interesting because everybody always say that. Like, “Yo, how you got a show on Lifetime?” Why wouldn’t I do a show somewhere else where it would be open? I think that’s the thing about Hip Hop purity. Hip Hop has always been something that opens the door in different spaces and that’s what this is. An example of what Hip Hop has always taught me to do.
DX: So with The Rap Game, you’re looking for the next big star…
Jermaine Dupri: Well, for me. For So So Def. I mean, y’know, we say “The Next Big Star,” but I guess it’s just for me [Laughs].
DX: Everyone is well aware that you have had success with child stars and kid rappers. What is it about a younger artist that you can see potential in opposed to a younger artist who’s actually still an adult? Like take Fetty Wap or K Camp. They’re fairly young but they’re still adults.
Jermaine Dupri: Well I can do it with any artist. I just feel like people in Hip Hop contradict themselves so much. Everyone wants to talk about “I’m young this” and “I’m young that” but O.K. But you’re not! “You’re old this, you’re old that.” I’m just saying. We’re in a place where everyone is always screaming “young,” but when someone starts to produce young artists, everyone wants to scream, “Why you wasting your time with all these young kids?”
Right now where Hip Hop is, there’s all these dances that’s coming from high school. You got Silento who had one of the biggest records of the year. Then you got the iHeartMemphis kid. You got all these records that’s really high school-driven records that nobody is doing these dances at Compound ATL or Liv where I would be at. Nobody in Liv is even doing these dances. This stuff is all young. It’s for what’s actually happening. I’m beating on what’s really going on. Not based upon what people are talking about. What’s really going on is all this energy that’s happening in high schools.
DX: In the show, we get to see you put a lot of that into play. You’re actually doing some coaching. You had to tell one of the female rappers, “You’re 15, you’re not pulling up to the club.”
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah, they definitely have their minds tangled around what’s actually being said in rap opposed to living a life that’s actually being said. First of all they have to understand, nobody really cares about kid rappers. Let’s be honest. For the most part, nobody cares about kid rappers and I have to make people like kid rappers. Like with Bow Wow, I had to make people like him. He was likable but at the same time, I was out there catching the bullets and what people were saying. Kris Kross, they just had a hit record so it just happened to not being that type of situation.
DX: A few of them!
Jermaine Dupri: Well, yeah but “Jump” was like a bulletproof record to the point where it was like, “Either you like us or don’t.” Your kids like us so you getting ready to put your pants on backwards.
Why The Youth Works Better
Jermaine Dupri: When you have kids, you have to be 100% real to the situation or they already going to get dogged out off the rip. Right now, it’s already like Lil Poopy: they killing him on all kinds of levels. About his hair, about him wanting to be like Bow Wow, his laziness–about everything! But if he comes out with a hot record, then it combats that. And he’s talking about stuff that’s really in his life, then it combats that as well. So you can’t be talking about going to the club. That’s unrealistic. You won’t even get in the club by the way. You might stand outside the club but you’re not going to get in.
DX: As the kid grows up, how do you steer the ship and still give them creative freedom?
Jermaine Dupri: I mean, you gotta continue to keep talking to them. That’s the thing. It’s just like parenting. If you have a kid who lives at your house, they’re going to keep growing up and you have to be able to talk through them at each age. You have to progress with that age. Even when the kid’s a rapper and I know they wanna do certain things, I have to kind of let some of the rein go and let them do it but at the same time, tell that we still have fans [over here] that you have to pay attention so you can’t go completely crazy. If you got a bunch of parents buying tickets to your concert, then you can’t be in your music video smoking weed. If that’s what you want to be doing at 15, then cool but you can’t do that on TV and videos and you can’t talk about it. We’re going to kill ourselves.
I had a kid artist before who was from Chicago that could play piano and he braids and we were doing a showcase and I wanted him to wear a tank top. I wanted him to be like D’Angelo. Like a little D’Angelo piano player–and he was hard. And girls liked him. But he couldn’t get over putting on a tank top. And he cried! Right before the showcase. And people were like, “Jermaine, you’re making him nervous.” And I’m, “Yo! I’m trying to give him an image.” I’m trying to make sure he look like “something” besides just a regular kid going out there. And right then and there I saw that he really couldn’t take the pressure of turning into something.
Because most of these kids don’t think about that. If you watched last week’s episode featuring the stylist, it shows that these kids just think about waking up and rapping. But there’s a lot to this game than that. Especially as a kid.
DX: What about that breaking point when the kid actually becomes an adult; when they turn 18-19 and their fanbase might have moved on. How does the artist go from there?
Jermaine Dupri: I haven’t had those yet [Laughs].
DX: We shall see.
Jermaine Dupri: Well I remember when I found Da Brat, she was 19 and by the time she turned 21, everyone was growing with her. And Bow Wow, his fans continued to keep growing with him. It was like they grew up with him. The majority of artists that I put out–what it is we pay attention to the fans. They’re the ones who make us.
DX: So how many episodes can we expect from The Rap Game this season?
Jermaine Dupri: We’re on episode four so you can expect four more.
DX: And at the end the winner will get signed to So So Def to become the next Bow Wow–or the next them?
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah, the next something. I’m real excited about it. I don’t think people understand. It’s been fourteen years since Bow Wow actually came out. It’s been that long since it’s been a kid artist. So that market, to me, is thirsty and there’s kids out here listening to records that shouldn’t be listening to. And parents probably need an artist that kids can listen to.
DX: And that’s a good point. At this point in time, is there a difference between a child rapper and regular rapper? Kids these days are rapping about blunts and bitches.
Jermaine Dupri: But they shouldn’t be. Realistically. Once again, there’s so much going in these high schools that’s not going on in these clubs that we–me and you–we go to, that they could be rapping about. They think they should be rapping about that stuff so they can get our attention. The way I market kid artists is [we] don’t even matter! Like, the kids matter. Then you can get adults. But the adults are the ones that are going to dog you out in the first place. So I don’t care about no adults talking about this show. I want the kids to pay attention to this because that’s their main audience.
DX: Interesting. Now do you have a point where you draw the line because when you have a kid artist, it might get a little bubbly; might get a little teeny bopper and with this being Hip Hop…
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah, I’m not going to let it be teeny bopper. I’m going to take it as close to the edge of whatever it should be as possible. Like I said without the profanity and whatever else it is that you do. Because people pay attention to the sound more than they pay attention to lyrics. Especially today. So the sound of the record will definitely be sonically the same as everything else that’s out there.
DX: Even though there’s only one winner, the exposure from the show can’t hurt these kids.
Jermaine Dupri: Oh nah. All of these kids are going to blow up off of this. They’re all doing separate interviews because they’re all from different cities. I think [Young Lyric] was in the paper last week in Houston and she did the radio station; The Beat and all of that. Nico though, he’s stuck in San Diego. We probably got to bring him out a bit because ain’t that much Hip Hop going on in San Diego like that but for the most part, they’re all going to blossom from the show.
DX: Are noticing growth in the artists as the show’s progresses? Because you have been throwing them through the ringer…
Jermaine Dupri: The more y’all watch, y’all will see. This week, the comments were crazy how people feel about Supa Peach’s attitude–there’s just a bunch of attitudes on the show. But these kids have gotten themselves on YouTube, they do it without training, there’s no instruction manual. It just upload, people start liking you and you feel like you’re a star. And you got to break into that. They actually feel, “Why do I need a Jermaine Dupri? I’m big; I’m poppin’ on YouTube. I got 20,000 views…”
So fucking what! But they don’t really understand that yet.
DX: In a manner of speaking, this show is like an educational tool for kids who might not be on the show right now.
Jermaine Dupri: Yeah I’ve said this before but this is the first time I believe this generation prior to this gets to see artist development on TV. I remember Usher’s 8701 album photo shoot was horrible! It was tragic! If that photo shoot would have came out, that album probably wouldn’t have worked.
DX: Did they put him in a dress or something?
Jermaine Dupri: It was just wasn’t right. For the time and where he was at and who people thought he was, it just didn’t match. And that’s the process that I’m showing you. That’s what we have to do behind-the-scenes. We have to get these artists right. There is just certain things that’s detrimental to the project.
What The Future Holds For The Record Industry
DX: The artist who wins the contest will be the flagship artist on So So Def? Who else is signed to the label?
Jermaine Dupri: Well I’m basically for the focus of what it is, I’m starting over. It gets to the point where you want to keep the labels as fresh as everything else. You don’t want to get caught up…I one of these people that hate people constantly talking to me about old shit. I’m constantly trying to do something new and make sure my company stays on a new cutting edge.
DX: You still get stopped in the streets about “Money Ain’t a Thang?”
Jermaine Dupri: Man…likes it’s the only record I ever made [Laughs]. And then it switches it up when I go to the Vegas and it’s “Welcome to Atlanta!” And I’m like, “Do you know how many other records I’ve made?” So I try to keep it fresh.
DX: Well, what about that? Your albums Life in 1472 and Instructions are pretty dope product. Rock-solid. What made you fall back and take such an executive role to where you stopped rapping? Especially when you’re still being approached.
Jermaine Dupri: I mean, I’m a producer first. I make music. And usually I write songs that don’t usually fit me. I’ll sit and write a song and be like, “This doesn’t sound like I should say this.” And then I just make records for me that’s just fun. All of that Life in 1472 was like a mixtape before they had mixtapes right now. That’s what it was for me. Just me going to the studio, making songs that I could ride around in my car and listen to myself like, “Oh, I got some music that don’t nobody else got.” Brat was actually the one who kept pushing me [to create an album]. But I just do it as a writing exercise.
DX: And we’re talking about rebuilding So So Def. Where the whole record label game is currently, would you be interested in having a big roster or having a smaller core or artists?
Jermaine Dupri: Ultimately, the focal point is just to put out music. When I created So So Def, Russell Simmons had Def Jam and I tried to pattern a lot of things that I did after what he was doing. And now with the iTunes and the way the music business is, that type of company shouldn’t exist anymore. You should be more moving in the ways that’s happening right now.
DX: So you guys are looking to put new models in the company from this point on?
Jermaine Dupri: Well this is a new model! This is the first time I ever had a platform this big. I’m putting out an artist based on a TV show! If I find a hit record on this artist or whoever wins, they should big.
DX: How many seasons do you think you can do The Rap Game? Especially if this pops off.
Jermaine Dupri: If Lifetime is really, really wit’ it, we can do Rap Game for 10 years. There’s so many ways that you can do this. There’s all these white rappers that’s out here now. This thing can go to Europe!
DX: So basically Rap Game doesn’t necessarily have to be kid rappers?
Jermaine Dupri: Well I think it should stay young, though. I believe that when you get an older rapper, it would probably even be even worse. They are so much more locked into their way of living and what they want to do, for someone to tell them they should do it different, they really don’t want to hear it.
But now, my Twitter and Instagram is going crazy with kids talking about, “Yo, I should be on The Rap Game. Those kids you got, they SUCK, blah, blah blah.” So there’s definitely seasons involving this now. But I think the parents play a big role. Like what we’re dealing with in the Poopy situation and his father not being on the show. A lot of people got to look at this and pay attention to what’s actually going on. There’s a lot of stuff that’s very educational where people can learn. Like [Poopy] says he’s from a bad city and his godfather is more of his guardian right now. That drives you to understand why some of his records prior to this show sound like they sound.
It’s just a bunch of things that you have to pay attention to when you watch this show.
Jermaine Dupri’s The Rap Game airs on Fridays on Lifetime at 10pm/9c. Tune in and set your DVRs for this week’s episode.