The legendary hip-hop producer and So So Def founder Jermaine Dupri took part in T.I.‘s latest podcast episode of ExpidiTIously (April 2) to discuss his career from the very beginning of his early years in Atlanta.
Dupri touches on the moment Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes came into his life as a solo artist from Philadelphia, who had nowhere to stay, so she used to sleep in his closet which had been transformed into a vocal booth. JD had gotten himself a reputation as ‘the dude with all the studio equipment’, which attracted a lot of up and coming artists that were often introduced to him by music mogul Ian Burke.
Lisa and Jermaine began writing songs for Kris Kross, Dupri’s latest teenage rap duo he discovered in a shopping mall, comprised of Chris Smith and Chris Kelly. “Lisa was helping me write these songs [for Kris Kross], and we wrote this song called ‘The Girl Is Mine‘, where I sampled Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney“, JD recalls. “Chris and Chris were arguing over Left Eye, and she rapped to them. This was my mindset of the single. I was like, “This is it, this is the single. Two little boys arguing over this girl. She’s grown, ya’ll little. That concept didn’t work”. The duo weren’t feeling it so the song was scrapped.
Lisa would sometimes even beg for money at the local airport. “She went to Hartsfield Airport every day and posed as one of them kids who needed money for a church to make money”, JD recalls. “She would come back to me and say, “Look at all this money that I got! I made the sign, they give me the money“. She would come back with $200, $400. She figured it out”.
Lisa expressed her creative ideas very early on as she inspired Jermaine to think outside of the box, which helped the fashion of Kris Kross. “She just wanted to make music. She could rap, I like her — mentally she could write. She was talking to me about concepts”, JD says. “I was very intrigued with the fact that she would come up with things that we should do — like, cut your eyebrows off! We had the parts in the eyebrow, and then I had three parts for like a month. I was like, what next? She would say shave the whole eyebrow off and just have one!”
“We’re in this room just trying to think of shit. That’s how the backwards jeans came about. Like, “JD, go get a nose ring, that shit is cold!“. Left Eye was the heartbeat of me trying to do things, her and my conversations and her and Chris and Chris’ conversations with her. In the end, that was the crew — Ian, Left Eye, Chris and Chris and Jermaine. We were the unstoppable team that didn’t have nothing — that was the first So So Def!”
A few days before the podcast was released, Jermaine shared an article on his Instagram (March 31) in which he declared his regrets at not taking TLC under his wings at the same time as Kris Kross. “I was only 19 years old at the time and didn’t believe in myself as a person, as someone having the bandwidth to have both artists”, he admits. “I was putting so much energy into Kris Kross, and I was only giving TLC maybe 30 to 40 percent, not even 50 percent”.
“I felt that I was spreading myself thin by trying to provide both of these groups with what they needed to become the successes that they eventually both grew to become”, he continues. “So I eliminated myself from TLC being a group that I actually introduced to the world”. In the meantime, an encounter with Pebbles at a hair salon Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins worked at led to TLC being signed to LaFace Records instead.
Although he wasn’t quite ready to sign TLC in the early 90’s, he continued to play a big role in their sound, producing on their first three studio albums, including favourites like “Switch”, “Kick Your Game”, “My Life” and “Bad By Myself“. Jermaine was also responsible for conditioning T-Boz to sing in her iconic lower register. “Tionne would sing high, and Tionne would sing low”, Lisa explained on MTV in 1995. “But when Tionne sang low, Jermaine called it scruffy and said that is dope, let that be you, your voice, what you’re known for”.
Despite Jermaine having some success with his first girl group Silk Tymes Leather (whose member Dyonna “Diamond X” Lewis went on to become DJ Dolemix for TLC in their early days), and his missing out on signing TLC led him to having luck in the third attempt at working with a girl group, when Ian Burke introduced him to Xscape, who sang at his birthday party and he vowed to sign them. They were the first act on his own label, So So Def, a joint venture with Sony and Columbia which also homed Da Brat, Jagged Edge, 3LW and Bow Wow.