Jermaine Dupri achieved enormous commercial success before the age of twenty as a songwriter and producer for the teen rap group Kris Kross. He went on to found the So So Def record label in 1992, and the Grammy Award–winner has since become known as one of the top music producers in the country for pop, rhythm and blues (R&B), and rap acts.
Jermaine Dupri Mauldin was born on September 23, 1972, in Asheville, North Carolina, to Tina and Michael Mauldin. He grew up in the College Park community of Atlanta. Dupri was introduced to the music business at an early age by his father, a concert promoter and manager of rap and R&B groups. His career as a performer began at age twelve, when he started a three-year stint as a breakdancer with the New York–based rap group Whodini at the annual New York City Fresh Festival. Through Whodini he became associated with a female singing duo called Silk Tymes Leather, for whom he produced an album in 1989.
Dupri’s career as a songwriter and producer moved to the fast track when he created a teen sensation called Kris Kross. The duo, consisting of Chris Kelly and Chris Smith (both eleven at the time of their discovery at a local mall) was almost completely crafted by Dupri, who taught the teens how to rap, wrote their material, and created their signature image based on clothing worn backward. Dupri’s father managed the duo and brought them to Columbia Records, who signed the act to their Ruffhouse imprint. Their 1992 album Totally Krossed Out (with the hit single “Jump”) would eventually sell more than 7 million copies.
Dupri established So So Def Records in Atlanta in 1992 as a joint venture with Columbia Records, with his father in the position of chief operating officer. The first act signed to the label was the female quartet Xscape, whose first album Hummin’ Comin’ at’ Cha (1993), sold more than a million copies. The Chicago-based female rapper Da Brat was the next artist to appear on the label. Her debut, Funkdafied (1994), made her the first solo female rapper to sell more than a million copies of an album. In 1995 So So Def released another album by Xscape, followed by Da Brat’s next effort, Anuthatantrum, in 1996. In 1997 Dupri produced R&B vocalist Usher’s second album, My Way, for LaFace Records, which sold more than 7 million copies and produced two number-one singles.
In 1998 Dupri debuted as a solo artist, releasing the rap album Jermaine Dupri Presents Life in 1472. In the same year he introduced the Atlanta-based male R&B quartet Jagged Edge, whose three albums for So So Def would each sell in excess of a million copies. The teen rapper Lil’ Bow Wow debuted on the label in 2000.
In 1999 Dupri branched out into managing athletes with a new company, So So Def Sports. Two years later So So Def and Columbia renewed their ten-year agreement, but relations between the companies soon soured, and in 2002 Dupri moved his label to Arista Records in New York, where the following year he also accepted a position as senior vice president. In 2005 Dupri became the president of Virgin Records’ Urban Music Division, and the So So Def label was folded into Virgin.
In the years that followed, So So Def Records moved from one distribution deal to the next, often maintaining partnerships for only a few years at a time. There remained at least two constants amid such regular change, however. Dupri remained at the helm, and the label continued to call Atlanta home.
In the 2010s, Dupri partnered with Queen Latifah to produce and co-host “The Rap Game,” a reality television series that aired on Lifetime. Dupri was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and in 2018, he became the second hip-hop artist to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.