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Watch Out for Jermaine Dupri

July 19, 1998|Soren Baker | Soren Baker writes about hip-hop for Calendar

If you're a casual pop fan, it must seem puzzling week after week to see what appears to be an unknown rapper entering the national album sales chart in the Top 10.

In the first half of 1998 alone, there has been a series of dramatic debuts:

* DMX's "It's Dark and Hell Is Hot" entered the charts at No. 1 the week of May 24, selling an estimated 250,000 copies.

* Silkk the Shocker's "Charge It 2 Da Game" sold 245,000 copies the week of Feb. 22, landing just behind the "Titanic" soundtrack and Celine Dion's "Let's Talk About Love."

* C-Murder's "Life or Death" also entered at No. 3 the week of March 22, with sales of more than 195,000 copies.

* Big Punisher's "Capital Punishment" entered the charts at No. 5 the week of May 3, thanks to an estimated 135,000 sales.

Expect a similar chart attack from Atlanta-based producer Jermaine Dupri, whose solo album, "Life in 1472 (The Original Soundtrack)," will be released Tuesday by So So Def/Columbia Records.

The reason these artists are able to chalk up such impressive opening-week sales is that they aren't unknown at all to hip-hop fans, thanks to cleverly orchestrated introduction campaigns. DMX, C-Murder and the others had all been featured as guest vocalists on a variety of projects, from movie soundtracks to singles and album cuts by established rap stars.

Sometimes these pairings are done for creative reasons, as veteran artists and producers take advantage of the feisty attitude of hungry young performers. But often there's a more obvious marketing strategy involved, as record executives and managers look for a short cut to the top of the charts.

DMX, for instance, debuted at the top of the pop album charts after appearing on high profile singles with LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Mase and the LOX.

"For people that aren't out who want to explode, it's good for them to hook up with somebody that's out there," says MC Ren, whose new solo album, "Ruthless for Life," features appearances from Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Eightball, among others.

"It gives them attention," he says. "You've got a better chance than somebody just coming out and nobody knows who they are."

But Dupri's case is unique: He was not only the guest artist on "set-up" records, but was also the executive who was orchestrating the whole recording project.

The Atlanta-based Dupri, 25, startled industry insiders while still in his teens in 1992, when he, wrote, produced and arranged "Totally Krossed Out," the multi-platinum debut album by teen rap group Kris Kross.

Since then he has established himself as one of the hottest behind-the-scenes figures in the music world. He helped create hit tracks on million-plus-selling albums by such mainstream R&B or hip-hop artists as Dru Hill, Usher and Da Brat.

In the process, he has become a celebrity himself--not only by producing the records, but by rapping on them. That was Dupri adding vocals to such hits as Hill's "In My Bed" and Usher's "My Way."

Though Dupri's album is officially classified as a solo project, he's joined by at least one other singer or rapper--from Mariah Carey to DMX and Eightball--on each of the 15 selections.

Dupri's approach is part humility and part pop savvy. By having such big-name guests, he not only helps add to the musical flavor of the album, but also clearly helps draw potential buyers.

"I might be downplaying myself a little bit, but I really don't know how many people like me as a complete artist," says Dupri. "When I was doing my album, I wasn't thinking that everybody loves me. Me doing the record the way I did it was a safeguard so that if everybody didn't like me they'd like [the other artists on there]."

But with that safeguard comes a set of hurdles, most of them legal. Unlike Master P and Puff Daddy, whose albums feature several artists who record for their respective record labels, a number of the artists who appear on "Life" do not record for Columbia-affiliated companies. So a variety of deals had to be struck in order to secure the guests. Some were favors, while others required Dupri to produce material for the artist's upcoming project.

Dupri, whose current production schedule includes sessions with Da Brat, Monica, TLC and Usher, is a rarity among hip-hop producers in that he has no signature sound. The chameleon-like beat architect, having scored with funk, dance, bass, pop, ballad and hard-core hip-hop, amply demonstrates this wide range on the collection. Using a straightforward delivery, Dupri raps well with his diverse gathering of hip-hop icons.

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