The veteran hip-hop producer discusses how tech in the studio and the club have altered the music industry and his career.
When Grammy Award winner Jermaine Dupri built his first studio, he installed a $100,000 48-track mixer that recorded on digital tape. Soon after, his friends advised him to replace the system with one using recording and editing software Pro Tools.
He resisted until fellow hip-hop artist Sean “Diddy” Combs left his studio during a recording session.
“[He] couldn’t wait for the tape to rewind,” Dupri recalled. “It was driving him crazy.”
Dupri, 42, now embraces new technology while keeping some tried-and-true tools alive. As a professional mixer of music, he uses technology to borrow from the past and create something fresh.
His passion for music and playing with sound started when he discovered kid rappers Kris Kross at age 17.
He recently won the Founders Award of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, a prestigious honor previously bestowed upon his “biggest influence,” Quincy Jones.
Studio Tech, ‘90s to Now
Shortly before 1 a.m. on a Friday in June, Dupri was riding an IO Hawk transporter and checking calls on his Apple Watch. As he prepared to DJ a late-night set at the Wynn’s Encore Beach Club, he reflected on how technology has helped shape his career.
When Dupri produced “Jump” on a four-track recorder at his mother’s house, mixing “scratches, and samples, and loops, and beats, and 808s…like a big pot of gumbo,” one of his biggest limitations was the amount of memory.
“I was sampling so many different things,” he recalled, “textures that I felt like we had to have in that song.” But Dupri said the MPC60 could handle only samples “like 2.8 seconds of a beat.”
He needed longer samples and to track each clip separately. Dupri wasn’t able to assemble the song until he brought everything to a professional studio.
According to recording expert Gannon Kashiwa, who helped develop Pro Tools and now works for studio hardware maker Universal Audio, most artists use powerful specialized hardware and software to record, mix and edit.
Pro Tools, which Digidesign (now Avid Technology) launched in 1991, “could run on a NuBus Mac and give you up to 16 channels of [input/output] and waveform-based editing for less than $15,000,” Kashiwa said.
Kashiwa said those who create electronic dance music usually choose Apple’s Logic, Ableton Live, Steinberg Cubase and other programs that feature great tools for creating loop-based music. “People doing music that is primarily recorded and mixed will tend toward Pro Tools, Steinberg Nuendo, [and] Cockos Reaper.”
Hashtags and Instant Feedback
Dupri’s latest single, “WYA (Where you At),” recorded with Pro Tools, mixes decades-old sounds with a contemporary style and message.
Durpi said he was “messing with vinyl again,” listening to old rap records with rapper Bow Wow and some other artists, when they established a beat that “sounds like now.” Then they started singing the words behind a popular social media hashtag: “where you at?”
The song “perfectly fits what’s going on — everybody uses #whereyouat,” Dupri said. “It just seemed like it was perfect for us, going into the summer.
“Then I just started working more and more on the track to make sure that it sounded sonically like something that I wanted the world to pay attention to now.”
Dupri says social media “is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to music.”
Record companies used to assemble focus groups to gauge whether consumers would buy an album. Today, with instant feedback from people posting to his Instagram account, YouTube channel and Global 14 blog, “it’s like the focus group is right in front of us,” Dupri said.
“You get to see immediately what the taste is,” Dupri said. “You put a beat up, [and] their reaction is immediate. Some people love it, some people don’t. Some people want more.”
Getting the Beat Right
In developing “WYA (Where You At),” Dupri borrowed beats from floppy disks he plugged into his tried-and-true MPC60II, a 1991 update to the MPC60 drum machine.
“I still have my beats, my sounds, on my floppies,” said Dupri, aware that using them dates him in the eyes of younger producers.
“They still have them out there,” he joked.
Many producers today like “to put a whole bunch of sounds on a computer, and then just run through sounds,” Dupri said, noting this method is different from his process.
“When I hear the music, I automatically know what sound I want. So I’m going to go sample that kick from this old record, and I’m going to put it in the drum machine.”
As he does in the recording studio, Dupri likes to mix sounds and tech old and new on the DJ stage.
His setup: Technic SL-1200 turntables and a Pioneer mixer — mainstays of old-school rappers for the ways they “let you sync songs and beats and do crazy crossfades and effects,” Kashiwa said — connected to a MacBook running Serato DJ software, which enable Dupri to play gigabytes of music rather than just a heavy crate full of vinyl.
Dupri has noticed the evolution. He said he used to think that computers couldn’t create the sounds that he hears in his head.
“As technology moves forward,” he laughed, “I’m starting to hear these machines do things that I usually hear.”
Top photo: Jermaine Dupri DJs at the Wynn’s Encore Beach Club in Las Vegas.