By Rebecca Haithcoat
October 19, 2018 at 11:24 AM EDT
Credit: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage

In the midst of the gray sky ballads, dead-eyed delivery, and ratty flannels that characterized much of the music in the 1990s, So So Def’s roster popped like Technicolored cartoons. With witty one-liners and rainbow-colored clothes, artists like Kris Kross, mouthy Chicago rapper Da Brat, and a girl group from Texas fronted by a honey-voiced teen named Beyoncé Knowles made a big splash.

Twenty-five years later, So So Def’s influence can still be felt in pop princesses’ sultry deliveries and the jiggy bounce imbuing even crossover country joints. At the opening night of Jermaine Dupri & So So Def: 25 Years of Elevating Culture, a new exhibit at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, producer and label founder Jermaine Dupri reflected on how he’s managed to stay relevant in a genre that prizes youth above all.

“I’ve never subscribed to that narrative. I have a foot ahead of people before they even actually start talking about it,” he says, smoothing down his gray plaid three-piece suit, gold rings and watch glinting. “I just look at it like, be in the conversation as long as you can be in the conversation.”

So far, that’s precisely the reputation he’s built. From Lil Bow Wow to Destiny’s Child to Jay-Z, Dupri has crafted platinum records for some of music’s most legendary acts, and in the process, become one himself. Ahead, Dupri chats about his legacy, his upbringing, and the challenges he’s faced along the way.

Do you still feel like there are goals left to accomplish? Or do you feel like you can just relax?
No, in this world that we live in now, when you reach certain heights in your career, people expect you to do more. So actually, I’m thinking, okay, I got to work. The narrative doesn’t show a person like me, period. When I was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, I realized I have to change the narrative of having a record company — and then you don’t hear about it no more. That’s not my goal. My goal is forever.

What were you like when you were a kid?
I went to art school. I could really, really draw. I thought I was going to be an artist. I was so into drawings and then I started DJing and rapping. All arts. It takes time to become good at anything. So I will spend time trying to develop myself.

Has there ever been a song that you thought would not come together and then did?
Artist wise? Da Brat. I struggled with making a lot of records to get to where we got to. I couldn’t find it for nothing in the world. I thought I had it, but it wasn’t that. I couldn’t find it. It was taking me longer than it had ever taken me to find where I need to be.

Was it frustrating?
Yeah, very, because I would play records that I thought were it and I could tell that I wasn’t getting that same reaction and I wasn’t giving myself the same reaction. I just wanted it to happen so bad. So I could tell that it was a fake reaction. I was trying to make it happen, but I also knew that she was coming into female rap, which was extremely hard to sell. I said, “I don’t even know what’s going to happen. Female rappers don’t go platinum.” I had it in my mind that it wasn’t going to work.

Really? What was the moment it changed in your head?
[Pause] It never changed. [Laughs] Never changed. I never felt like, oh, okay, this, here we go. I never felt like that. I felt like I got to a space where I understood her more. So in the studio I felt more comfortable, but I still felt like I don’t know how I’m going to get people to like you.

Do you have a favorite child — an album or even just song you worked on?
I think my first time working with Usher on the My Way album. Usher was going to get dropped. He was at a position in his life where they didn’t know what to do with him. They had started working on his second album and the two people working with him didn’t come with what [the label] felt they needed. So I was the last resort. And I ain’t know that going into it. If I would’ve known, I probably wouldn’t have [said yes]. You ain’t putting that pressure on me! For me to be able to save a person’s career and then turn a person’s career completely around and create the music that we’ve created — that’s a serious accomplishment.

Jermaine Dupri & So So Def: 25 Years of Elevating Culture runs through Jan. 2019

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