So So on the down low

Jermaine Dupri finds long-term success in staying out of focus and difficult to pin down

It’s a steamy August afternoon. Photographers, publicists and journalists have convened at Midtown nightclub Nomenclature Museum, where local hip-hop producer/artist/label head Jermaine Dupri is doing a photo shoot in preparation for the release of his second solo album, Instructions. Assistants scurry about — carting in boxes of clothing (mostly athletic gear), setting up lights, focusing cameras, getting ready for action.

Unceremoniously, almost inconspicuously, Dupri enters the club. He extends a few low-key greetings then takes his seat in the barber’s chair. No questions, no demands, no special requests. He displays none of the star-like hauteur one would expect from a man who, at 28, is the granddaddy of Atlanta’s hip-hop and R&B industry — the guy who brought us Kriss Kross, Xscape, Da Brat, Jagged Edge and others through his So So Def label, who has produced everyone from Mariah Carey to Janet Jackson to Alicia Keys, and who for the past three years has engineered his own multi-platinum solo career.

But for a star of his clout and skills, Dupri has gone about his business for the past decade with a fairly moderate, if not indiscernible, amount of hoopla. Dupri doesn’t get the celebrity treatment, not in Atlanta and not anywhere else. Even Dupri’s publicist, who of course gets paid to secure press coverage for the music mogul, admits the media isn’t exactly beating down her door to get to Dupri.

“It’s something that has baffled me since he and I started working together,” says Patti Webster of New Jersey-based W&W Public Relations. Webster, who signed on as Dupri’s publicist nearly two years ago, says that when writers request interviews with Dupri, it’s often to pick his brain about the music industry or to talk about other artists. “The challenges have been [getting] the same writers/outlets who will call to have JD included or quoted in a story about an artist he has worked with to do feature stories on JD as an artist, producer and successful businessman.”

For most of his career, which took off 10 years ago when he discovered pre-teen rappers Kriss Kross at a local mall, Dupri has been the man behind the stars rather than the star himself. Despite his presence in videos and on the recordings of So So Def artists — even despite the release of his own 1998 CD Life in 1472: The Original Soundtrack — Dupri’s success hasn’t matched up with his celebrity.

Meanwhile, Dupri’s empire continues to grow. In addition to So So Def Recordings, his ventures include: So So Def Sports, a management agency for athletes; Artistic Control Management, an entertainment management company that, in what some would call a conflict of interests, manages some of So So Def’s larger acts; Air Control/Ground Control Music Publishing; Atlanta Worldwide Tours, a concert promoter; Artistic Films, a movie production company; and the soon-to-be launched Dupri Style clothing line.

Webster suggests that part of the reason for Dupri’s lack of media exposure could be location. “New York is the media capital of the world,” she offers, “and a lot of New York-based producers are able to see and establish relationships with editors from major publications who live in the city.”

Dupri, however, has his own opinion. He says two factors account for his lack of media exposure: one, the inability of pundits to pigeonhole him and his sound, and two, his choice to place more emphasis on his artists and label than on himself.

“If I was just to pump myself at the same time I’m pumping [my artists], you can burn yourself out,” Dupri says. “A lot of people don’t think that it can get to a point where people get sick of seeing you, but it can. I think at some point people are gonna get sick of hearing me. One day.”

To keep that day from coming any time soon, Dupri says, he tries to keep moving and changing — thus engaging fans and critics in a constant game of dodge ball. “All the people that we’ve known that get a lot of press ride the same horse everyday,” he says. “I don’t do that so it’s kind of hard to pigeonhole me. When people start to talk about me, I go and do something else. But in a little while it’s gonna change because there ain’t gonna be nobody else to talk about. I’ll be that person that everybody’s talking about because diversity is the key to longevity and nobody else is diversifying.”

Dupri says diversity was a primary goal of Instructions, which will be released Oct. 30. The material, he says, is decidedly less commercial than his previous works. The video for the first single, “Ballin’ Outta Control,” features Robin Leech, who joins along while JD boasts unabashedly about his material possessions. “I’m giving everybody what I am, what I’m about,” Dupri says of Instructions, which features appearances by Jadakiss, UGK, Usher, Da Brat, Jagged Edge, Nate Dog and Backbone.

While Dupri says the album will take listeners on an unpredictable journey, it’ll also be one that makes it even more difficult to identify his sound. “I did an interview once and a guy told me I didn’t have a sound. I got a sound, but I don’t beat y’all in the head with it.”

Dupri does have a sound: It’s the sound of everyone and everything he touches, not something conjured up by his own unique vision. From Kris Kross to Lil Bow Wow, Dupri’s sound has been whatever fits the artist that he produces. While this chameleon-like approach could be perceived as a mere manipulation of the talents around him, Dupri considers it genius. “I’m like a ghost,” he says. “I’ll jump in somebody else’s body and disguise myself.”

While his knack for possessing the minds and bodies of his artists bodes well for him as a producer, there is still the matter of JD the artist: Who is he, and just as important, who wants to know? Dupri, himself, isn’t sure. “It’s hard for me to gauge my audience. I don’t even know who my fans are. But I think with this record I’m gonna find out.”

Dupri says he plans to be more visible when it comes to promoting himself and the album. “With the first record we deliberately tried to downplay me as an artist,” he says. “I didn’t even put my picture on the cover. With this record, I just fell into artist mode. I’m gon’ work it and do everything I can possibly do to get it to the same levels of success [as other So So Def projects].”

Just as Dupri kicks into hyper self-promotion mode, he slips back into the guise of entrepreneur who can’t help but keep his focus on his ventures. “But at the end of the day,” he continues, “this album really ain’t for me. It’s for the team at So So Def. I feel like if anybody’s gonna pump the name, ain’t nobody gon’ do it better than me.”

Paradoxically, Dupri has built success as much upon that which has eluded him — not knowing who his audience is or not finding a clearly identifiable sound — as on the things that he has mastered, such as his musical and business instincts. He’s been able to create without regard to the expectations of others and to craft songs that sound unique to the artists for whom they’re intended. And his relatively scant coverage by the media has spared him the labeling and redundancy that are often the by-products of overexposure.

While Dupri’s publicist works to map out strategies that will overcome her client’s natural temperament and inclinations, Dupri just keeps on doing what he does best, making the big hits and big bucks. It remains to be seen if and when it will all add up to making him a big star.