How Hip-Hop Legend Jermaine Dupri Writes His Own Rules

JDSELFIE

In the world of hip-hop mogul Jermaine Dupri, building excitement for new music means creating his own rules for using social media to engage with fans.

Dupri, Mariah Carey’s manager and co-producer, has been a lightning rod for criticism from frustrated Carey fans who have wanted more information about her career moves (especially the status of her new album) than they have received. But instead of appeasing fans with social, Dupri acts like a boxer, sometimes quietly absorbing the blows, and other times trading stiff jabs and upper cuts as he did recently when engaging with impatient fans on Twitter. The way he sees it, frustrated fans are good business because they build anticipation for music.

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“If you’re going to be a music executive in the digital era, you need to try different approaches for running a business with social media,” he reveals in an interview with me. “Conventional wisdom says you give fans everything they want when they want it, like all the artwork and information about a new album long before release day. Fans today are buying the promotion that leads up to the music, not necessarily the music. But giving away too much to fans can actually ruin the game plan for someone like Mariah Carey, who is very protective of her music, her brand, and her mystique.”

Applying social finesse is one of the rules that Dupri lives by as he reinvents the role of the music executive in the digital era. Music industry honchos who first made their marks in the analog era, as Dupri did, have famously struggled to embrace digital (hello, Napster). Not so with Dupri. In the 1990s, he exploded on to the music world by breaking successful acts such as Kris Kross and Da Brat before becoming CEO of So So Def Recordings.

The 1990s were a long time ago, though. Then, artists could make millions by dropping CDs like manna from heaven into the hands of hungry fans. Digital downloading was not a threat. No one had ever heard of social media. But unlike many of his peers, Dupri has made the leap into the digital era by making digital — especially social media — the epicenter of a career in which he plays many roles, including CEO, czar of his own social media community Global 14, a popular DJ, and manager of a certain diva who has sold 200 million records.

Here are Jermaine Dupri’s rules for reinventing himself as a digital executive:

1. Build a Home Base

Dupri creates a flurry of activity on social every day, on sites ranging from Facebook to YouTube. One moment he’s tweeting information about a club appearance with Fabolous. The next he’s posting an Instagram of himself with Pharrell backstage at Coachella or a YouTube video about a moment with Mariah Carey and her fans.

“I create my own social whirlwind,” he says.

But he’s not creating a whirlwind of random activity. For Dupri, all social media roads lead to his home base, Global 14.

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Dupri created Global 14 in 2011, in order to build a community of fans with like-minded interests ranging from sports to hip-hop. At the time, a music executive creating his own website raised some eyebrows, especially since Global 14 replaced Dupri’s So So Def Recordings site as a gateway to his personal brand. But other artists soon followed suit, most famously Lady Gaga with her Little Monsters community. And according to Booz & Company, nearly half of the world’s top 100 brands host their own communities. Global 14 now has roughly 46,000 members (including me) and is the center of Dupri’s universe.

“Facebook and Twitter are great for creating a following, and Google+ is all about increasing visibility,” he says. “But on other social media sites, you play by someone else’s rules. On Global 14, I can develop deeper relationships with a real community on my own terms.”

Global 14 is where all of Dupri’s roles coalesce. As music producer and CEO of So So Def, he relies on Global 14 to monitor up-and-coming musicians such as Vanessa Elisha and get feedback on the music industry from a 46,000-strong focus group. He finds new beats and ideas that inspire his life as a DJ. He talks with Global 14 members about lessons he’s learned managing Mariah Carey. And Global 14 is also a diary of his life on the road no matter what he’s doing.

“The Global 14 community gives me honest and constructive feedback on how I’m doing as a manager, producer, and executive,” he says. “It’s not the biggest site in the world, but I don’t want to be another Facebook. I care more about the quality of the community I’m building than its size.”

Meantime, on sites like Facebook and Google+ (both of which I manage with Dupri), he shares a taste of the action on Global 14 along with content about his own life. That way, he gives fans the best of both worlds: interaction with his own brand and Global 14’s.

2. Be a Content Hustler

At a time when pundits and consultants (like me) are urging brands to act as publishers, Dupri has mastered the art of content creation and curation through social. He is an especially skillful visual storyteller. He has taken selfies to a new level through the use of artful renditions on Instagram. He takes fans into his recording studio to share a visual diary about the making of Mariah Carey’s music. He shares the quieter moments of his life as an executive. With one photostream, you can quickly appreciate the different dimensions of his life.

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“The key to creating great content is to share a natural extension of your life,” he says. “I don’t overreach. My video series, “Living the Life,” is exactly that: a look inside the world I experience. A lot of people in my community won’t ever have the experience of traveling to places like Australia, so I take my travels home to them with my videos, photos, and comments.”

A passion for sharing content through digital has also informed the way he manages Mariah Carey’s career. For instance, Dupri orchestrated the release of Carey’s song “You’re Mine (Eternal)” through a special Facebook listening party with Mariah Carey on November 11, 2013. She not only relied on Facebook as a distribution platform for her most valuable content, she also borrowed a page from Dupri’s playbook and shared insights with fans about the making of the song.

Later, Dupri discussed on Global 14 his experience releasing the song on Facebook and the lessons he learned, such as the challenge of sticking to a plan even when others questioned it, or dealing with blowback from fans who did not understand why the song was being released on Facebook (where Carey has millions of followers and could engage with fans more easily on her own wall) rather than Vevo. “Staying focused is a must,” he says.

And his comments are authentically his — warts, typos, and all.

Finally, he’s a content curator and moderator sparking conversations about race, politics, and culture, as he did when Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012.

“Creating conversations is one way I build a community,” he says. “And if you’re a high-profile executive, that’s exactly what you should be doing because you are in a position to get total strangers to start talking with each other about issues like race. I know I’ve made a difference when I spark a conversation that continues without me.”

3. Apply Social Finesse

Dupri plays different roles on social media ranging from manager to CEO, and he adapts his social media habits to those roles, not the other way around. When he’s producing new artists, he’s more like a mentor, using Instagram and Global 14 to post moments in the studio and information about new music. But as Mariah Carey’s manager, he needs to hold back sometimes.

“Fans are hungry for as much news as they can get about the release details for Mariah Carey’s new album or single,” he says. “It can be frustrating for them when they don’t get all the information they want, especially when they see me on social media all the time freely talking about all other aspects of my life. But Mariah Carey releases information on her own terms, and as a manager I need to do what the artist wants me to do. If you fail to respect the wishes of the artist, you won’t last very long as a manager.”

Indeed, as Carey herself told Billboard, “I have to be the one that announces this, especially the title.” She eventually did so on April 30, when she released the name (Me. I am Mariah . . . The Elusive Chanteuse) and cover art on her own terms.

Leading up to April 30, the pent-up demand for news about Carey, along with the delay of her new music, intensified the level of frustration, as well as the Internet chatter — not all of it positive, but chatter nonetheless.

“The more that fans complain about not hearing enough about Mariah Carey, the more they create their own promotion for the music,” he says. “The fans create attention, urgency, and some kind of craziness. I use social media to fuel that sense of urgency, which means sometimes I will stir the pot with my comments, and other times I will remain quiet and let fans fill the silence.”

He even allows himself to smile when the pressure gets intense. When Mariah Carey Twitterfan @AussieJess wrote a testy critique of Dupri’s managerial skills, celebrity blogs had a field day — and so did Dupri, who clearly had a laugh by posting the article himself on Global 14. But he also pushed back when he felt the time was right to stoke a conversation, as demonstrated by the give-and-take he had with impatient fans on Twitter.

“The so-called rules of social media say that if a fan tweets you, you’re supposed to respond,” he says. “But there’s a difference between being responsive and allowing yourself to be baited. If I had caved into pressure and released the name of Mariah Carey’s new album just because people on Twitter were complaining, then guess what? The conversation about the album would have ended before Mariah Carey was ready to start one of her own.”

Being a target for criticism about Mariah Carey hasn’t exactly hurt Dupri’s visibility, either. Since becoming Carey’s manager, Dupri has seen an increase in his Facebook Likes: from 63,000 (6 October 2013) to 248,000 (30 April 2014).

As Dupri can attest, conversation in the digital era has currency.

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