Jermaine Dupri commemorates 50 years of hip-hop at Essence Festival of Culture

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Known as a rapper, super producer and music mogul, Jermaine Dupri is astonished that 30 years have passed since he founded his label, So So Def.

That milestone comes as Dupri leads a celebration of 50 years of hip-hop on Saturday at the Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans.

Missy Elliott, the first woman in hip-hop to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, will headline the night inside the Superdome, but Dupri is curating a center stage segment that lets everyone know “The South Got Something To Say.”

“Atlanta’s dominance in rap is an unheard of force,” Dupri said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And I think we have to recognize that.”

Dupri, for the first time, brings together a group of artists — Big Boi, T.I., Ludacris, Gucci Mane and Lil Jon — all on one stage.

“I’m just trying to represent my city the best way that I feel I can,” Dupri said when asked what festival fans can expect. “It’s about the unity, having this much power on stage together at one time, man! We all have had shows together but not as one unit. This is almost like the super friends coming together. Be excited. We have like an hour of nonstop hits coming.”

Dupri notes that the festival usually skewed its concert series talent toward an older hip-hop demographic through artists whose shows were considered “clean.”

“I remember performing there a few years back and we were told we cursed too much on the show, that we had too much profanity for the audience. That was the last time Frankie Beverly and Maze performed so you can imagine the audience was in the 40- to 70-year-old demographic,” he said. “This is the first time Essence is showcasing hip-hop at this level. I asked them if they are prepared for us to do a real, uncensored show and they said they’re ready. I hope you all are too.”

Dupri said he plans to reflect the genre’s lifestyle as well as the music during this one-night-only experience.

“I’ve asked Karl Kani to dress me for this event so I can feel as nostalgic as possible. I want to make sure I have all the elements or at least try to capture all of them, including the fashion, the dances, the emcees, the DJs and be a true B-Boy,” he said.

Dupri said he understands why people are still questioning whether hip-hop is here to stay.

“I think people have always felt that hip-hop was lesser than the music that came before, like R&B and rock. I think a lot of times when hip hop artists don’t take the performance aspect as serious as they should I can see why. That’s what creates that conversation. That’s why I’m taking this show as serious as possible,” he said. “Hip-hop comes with so many different layers. You’ve got Pharrell as men’s creative director for Louis Vuitton, Future as creative director for Lanvin. That’s indicative of what hip hop does and how it infects the human race and the places we live in. It’s hard to think it would ever go away. It’s a lifestyle that will continue to keep growing.

“Once I was infected with this as a kid, you realize it’s not going anywhere. I started in 1984, an era of music that was addictive as I could ever imagine crack was.”

Dupri described the longevity of his career as “amazing.”

“It’s almost unbelievable,” he said. “I remember thinking back then whether I would even last a year. When Kris Kross came out, I asked myself how long would this group be around. When So So Def celebrated 25 years, it felt like we were celebrating 100. To get past that, that 25th, is just amazing.”

Dupri said he’s proud of the work he’s done and the artists he’s been able to find and mentor along the way, including Da Brat and Bow Wow and more recently, Latto and J.I The Prince — products of his talent competition show, “The Rap Game.”

“When I see how far these artists are and those that came from my show, I wonder do people realize how far ahead of the game I am,” he said. “This is a very competitive space we live in. True statement. The world met this girl (Latto) on a TV show and we chose her as the first winner. Does that mean JD knew or saw something way before the rest of the world? Yes. Now, we have nothing to do with her success to date, but she’s still a branch from the JD tree, from me keeping my ear to the streets and being able to spot talent.”

“The majority of artists I find, usually are someone no one wants to sign at the time. This was not something I wanted to do at first,” he added. “But God put me here to work with younger talent and artists and create a space to see them win. All it does when I see their success is it feels like a graduation to me. I’m proud to see that.”