Remaining Jermaine

Last year he knocked back 18 number one records and one Grammy. Sign of the apocalypse, now, or the start of a new age? Hmmm….
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Everything about Jermaine Dupri’s first impression screams newness. On a December day at Los Angeles’ Atlantis Studios, he’s reinvigorating, er, overseeing new music from his girlfriend Janet Jackson. His wireless device hums and rings incessantly with updates and queries and shows next-to-no physical wear.

Those diamonds that twinkle in the ears of pop’s most bankable producer are the size of M&Ms — peanut, not plain — and his Bathing Ape T-shirt and sneakers are casual finery unlike much you’ve previously seen. When JD takes off his gleaming watch, its backside description reports it’s the third of three ever made. “Everybody ain’t got this,” Dupri informs. Even his haircut is a millimeter away from baby-smooth.

Yet when it comes to making records, the 33-year-old producer-songwriter-rapper may well be the hit-making game’s biggest throwback. Consider the flash of pride shown when Dupri points out the most crucial piece of equipment in a studio tricked out with state-of-the-art hardware.

“This is an MPC 62. This ain’t even a 3000,” he says with a sly pride. “Every hit record — Usher, Mariah Carey — comes off this old machine. This is how I make my records.”

A reference to JD’s music is a reference to the prevailing taste in contemporary pop. Last year Jermaine Dupri made 18 number one records and earned the Grammy for R&B Album of the Year. His music making may have reached mythic status with the ever-selling, acclaim magnet that is his work on Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi. And of course you have to count his club hits, whose value is measured more in street credibility than awards or chart figures. Nevermind the Atlanta native’s own platinum recording career or the 2005 ASCAP Golden Note Award. CEO of the So So Def label and newly installed president of Virgin Records, he’s about as successful as a flagrant rule-breaker is ever going to be.

And he throws this in your face.

“The way I sample, I sample mono, too. I don’t sample in stereo. I know everybody does that clean, I don’t do that,” Dupri said. “I don’t know, I just got the way I work. I sample straight from the sample plug into the headphone jack, outta everything.”

The very notion of such in-studio behavior might make a lot of traditionally trained engineers convulse. It certainly had that effect on this producer’s primary engineer, John Horesco. When he first began working with Dupri a few years ago, learning to tolerate unorthodox recording tactics was a prime part of Horesco’s learning curve.

“I like to track everything dry, but I don’t have that opportunity because of what’s integral to his sound. At first it was tough,” says his engineer. “He likes things dirty and a little distorted. So we [engineers] have to keep a hands-off approach. I learned a lot, in terms of listening.”

A boy wonder whose breakthrough hit, “Jump,” by the duo Kris Kross, came when he was 19 years old, Dupri was a kid who lived and breathed found sounds, cataloguing aspects of his favorite vinyl, which he kept in a crate not at all different from the one next to him at Atlantis. “I used to have a room like this,” he said, gesturing across the 8x12 ‘B’ studio. Across the hall, production legends Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are putting together tracks for Janet Jackson, in a setting more traditionally associated with big-ticket albums. “My bedroom was about the same size. It looked just like this, equipment everywhere, speakers everywhere. The bed wasn’t even a factor in my life.

“What I would do is, every breakbeat that would be in my crate, I would sample every sound. That would be my goal, to have every sound for my MPC. To have all the snares, to have all the kicks. I don’t know why. I thought I was gonna use ’em, but [mostly] I was just trying to study how to make my sound better. In the beginning I was just trying to figure out how people got their records to sound the way they sounded.”

The son of a drummer, Dupri obsessed over the sounds of early-to-mid-1980s percussive sounds popularized by Jam and Lewis in their hits with the S.O.S. Band, Human League, and, yes, Janet Jackson. Early Rick Rubin was another producer whose drum sounds he tried to emulate.

“I was always, always into old records, and all the old records had 808. LL Cool J, Run DMC,” he said. “When you put an 808 on a record it just takes a record further in the ‘hood than the average record would possibly be. It’s just the 808 is like language to the ’hood. If I hear the 808 knockin’ from the beginning, I’m more keen to listen to it. I don’t know why. It’s just that 808 kick.”

The 808 sound, which has floated in and out of vogue within the hip-hop idiom, is now dominant, particularly through the influence of reggaeton and southern crunk styles. Back when Dupri was struggling to make his sound coalesce, he would struggle to convey the era’s studio technicians the importance of keeping and developing such elements.

“That’s what made me become a producer. I used to go to other producers and try to tell them, ‘this is my little idea.’ And they couldn’t ever get it. When I started telling them what I wanted, they started telling me what they thought I should have. I started getting frustrated, like, ‘man, this ain’t the way my record’s supposed to sound.’”

Old to the New

“When I was a kid I had more like a 505, and moved up to an Ensoniq EPS. I made the Silk Times Leather (It Ain’t Where Ya From, It’s Where Ya At, 1990) with an EPS. I got more money to the point where I could buy the MPC 60, the first one. That’s what I made the Kris Kross (Totally Crossed Out, 1992) record with.”

If the Kris Kross album got Dupri on the map, it was his work on 1994’s Funkdafied, by Da Brat, that elevated him to a star producer status. Its title song sampled The Isley Brothers’ “Between The Sheets” (turntables are the foundation of Dupri’s process) and he works primarily on Technics 1200s but also has limited edition black 1210s — and single-handedly reinstated the 808 sound, for a time.

That was one hundred hit records ago though, and his approach to technology has hardly changed, with the exception of the SE-1 with a Probus patch that replaced two bass modules he used to stack for a signature keyboard sound. And while JD is no longer burning up boards the way he was as a kid, he’s still running his music through that old MPC; and he owns every model made. In the cramped Atlantis studio, he plays a handful of MPC kick sounds on the 4000 model. The producer has a verbal take on the nuance of each thump unleashed by his tap on the machine’s pad.

“I always reference the sound of records. I don’t reference the actual things that are going on. We’re talking about working on this Janet record with Jimmy and Terry. The way their beats used to sound, on S.O.S. band and Human League and all that shit? When I talk to them I tell them that’s how Janet’s record needs to sound.

“I would say Jimmy Jam is more musical, as a keyboardist, than I am. But when it comes to drum machines and beats and this, that, and the third, I don’t believe he’s on the same level I am. Right now we’re in a world where the beat drives what’s going on in music. So, sonically, I’m trying to make him understand: ‘Go back to where them beats were.’ That’s when the beat was the most important thing: when y’all was making those older records. That’s what we, as younger producers, are trying to make our records sound like: their old records.”

Plays Well with Others

As an executive producer, Dupri’s job is to collaborate with other producers, as well as engineers, songwriters and artists. JD insists the failure to master this part of the process is the reason for a market flooded with unfocused projects.

“It’s like painting your house. You’ve got to know what you’re doing in the room downstairs to paint the other rooms upstairs,” he said. If you’re painting your own house, you’re supposed to know what colors you just used downstairs. When Jimmy’s working, it’s my job to go listen to what they’re doing and if they set the tone for the record, it’s my job to come in here and make my records sound close — not directly [matching] but close enough to where you don’t lose the focus. Like, ‘Oh, this is all one thread.’”

“When I do Usher records, usually I’m the spearhead to what’s going on with his records. Like, I did ‘Confessions’ first, ‘Confessions Pt. II,’ ‘Let it Burn’. All those records were done in the same period of time. So, when LA [Reid] started playing it for anybody else he wanted to be a producer on the record, he’d play these songs as if to say, ‘[This] is where we started.’”

This balancing act might seem like child’s play in comparison to dealing with one of the epic divas of our time, Mariah Carey. Dupri prefers to work in his “bulletproof” studio at home in Atlanta, where his favorite session musicians are available to finish songs quickly. (JD says such a need is rare though: “Nelly’s record Grillz? One night. It’s over with. I don’t go back and touch it. I don’t even listen to it. It is what it is when I do it, and that’s it.”) Carey is hell-bent to work with her favorite producer, so she’ll make the flight in from New York. But she’s bound to be late, on a tight time table, and demanding perfection.

“When I’m doing Mariah records, we’re on the worst schedule in America. She might [be scheduled] to come to the studio at 10:30 at night and she won’t get to Atlanta until 1 o’clock in the morning. And she’ll have to leave 6 a.m. And we have to finish the record in that gap right there. That We Belong Together record? We literally did the whole, entire record in four hours. And I had to sing half of the end of the song because she wouldn’t get on the plane without me finishing the lyric. I was just telling her, I don’t want to sing it. But she wouldn’t leave. So I go do the part; it was 5:30 in the morning.

“Whatever the demo sounds like, that’s what we’re trying to make the record sound like. So, if I sing the hook, whoever comes in and sings it has got to sing it as terrible as I have.”

His contributions to The Emancipation of Mimi are distinct from Dupri’s past work with Mariah in that he’s finally put his favorite production element — the 808 kick drum — all over one of her projects. (I’d be like, “Okay, if I do a record for Mariah, I gotta tone the 808 down a little bit, because of her audience.”) Part of the producer’s evolution toward more street-sounding pop records has been his collaboration with Lil Jon. Another blazing-hot production star, Lil Jon started as an A&R man at So So Def. In the late 1990s, Dupri began allowing him to re-mix club versions of hit singles. Lil Jon’s first was Usher’s “Let it Burn”.

“He started making beats that sounded straight 808 — 808 snare, 808 hi-hat, clap, everything. And he was like, ‘I’m gonna make this my sound. I’m not gonna deal with a whole bunch of sounds.’ It is simple, but nobody else was doing it. He liked the way his records sounded, and one record led to another, and the 808 just got popular again.”

Lil Jon is a beatmaker in the classic sense; he previews them for performers and producers, then collects a healthy payday. His mentor doesn’t indulge this part of the hip-hop game so much, but does employ a crew of such producers, including Kanye West’s mentor No I.D., Nitty (Boyz in the Hood, 8-Ball), Young Juvvy (Dem Franchise Boyz), and L-Rock, who has been called “the sound of Lil Jon.” These producers come in at a defined part of JD’s process and function in a space somewhere between featured artist and session musician.

It’s a pretty big operation for the self-described Last of the Mohicans of low-tech studio approaches. Dupri is quick to wave a floppy disk in a visitor’s face and brag about his aversion to zip drives. It seems a point of pride that he can confidently say there’s no point in fixing his process if it isn’t broke. None of this is to be confused with hubris.

“I don’t ever feel like I have my style locked down,” he said. “I know what I do. I know what I like, but I’m always questioning the way my records sound.”