Exciting news for John Prine this week: The Grammys announced that they’re giving him a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award at next year’s ceremonies. He is part of a diverse class of recipients that also includes Chicago, Roberta Flack, Isaac Hayes, Iggy Pop, Public Enemy, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The Grammys have honored Prine three times previously: He won awards for Best Contemporary Folk Album for The Missing Years (1991) and Fair and Square (2005), and he was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015.
There’s also some exciting news about my book, John Prine: In Spite of Himself. Four years after its original publication, and two years after the release of a paperback edition, Audible has released an audiobook version.Nick Sullivan, a veteran audiobook narrator and character actor who grew up in Tennessee, has done a great job turning my words into an entertaining listen.
If you’re looking for an easy last-minute holiday gift for a music-loving friend or relative, look no further!
Veteran Atlanta rapper Jermaine Dupri planned to bring his So So Def 25th Anniversary Cultural Curren$y Tour to the Greensboro Coliseum. Those plans fell through, so the story I wrote after interviewing Dupri never got published. Here it is, with reflections by Dupri about his label’s long history, his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his TV reality shows.
When Jermaine Dupri and the artists he has nurtured take the stage at the Greensboro Coliseum Oct. 25, the hits will come the same way they arrived over the past quarter century: one after another after another, in chronological order.
“The tour is designed the same way I put the music out,” Dupri said from his home base of Atlanta. “I want you to digest the concert the same way people digested the music when they bought it.”
He founded the So So Def record label when he was still a teenager. The So So Def 25th Anniversary Cultural Curren$y Tour reunites Dupri with a host of his one-time proteges: Xscape, Jagged Edge, Anthony Hamilton, Youngbloodz, Da Brat, Bow Wow, Dem Franchize Boyz, J Kwon and Bonecrusher.
“I didn’t break all of my artists off of each other, but I did break them off of one brand, that brand being So So Def,” said Dupri, who was born in Asheville in 1972 but grew up in Atlanta.
Kris Kross was another early Dupri success story: He discovered the duo in an Atlanta shopping mall in 1991 and produced their 1992 debut album, “Totally Krossed Out.” The song “Jump” topped the charts for eight weeks, the first time a rap single had such a long run at the top. The death of Chris Kelly from a drug overdose in 2013 ended the duo’s career.
The Source magazine called Dupri “One of Atlanta’s most imperative craftsmen” when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June. “Dupri shows no signs of slowing down as he continue to pen his way to the top,” according to the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s website.
His induction as only the second hip hop songwriter in that hall of fame signals a shift in American popular culture, Dupri said.
“People are acting like that’s so amazing,” he said. “It is amazing – don’t get me wrong. But it’s also time changing. It’s a time thing where I make hip hop and R&B music, and that has taken over the music business. So it’s only right for me to get inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
Besides “Jump,” Dupri has had a hand in writing No. 1 hits by Usher (“My Boo,” “Nice and Slow,” “Confessions Part II,” “Burn” and ” You Got It Bad”), Mariah Carey (“Don’t Forget About Us” and “We Belong Together”), Nelly (“Grillz”) and Monica (“The First Night”).
Other hits on Dupri’s resume include the Jay-Z collaboration “Money Ain’t a Thang,” Carey’s “Shake It Off,” Xscape’s “Just Kicking It,” Da Brat’s “Give it 2 U” and Jagged Edge’s “Where The Party At.”
Dupri has been nominated for several Grammy awards, and won in 2006 for “We Belong Together,” the Carey hit he helped write and produce. The song was a number one hit on and off for 14 weeks, giving it the second-longest run at No. 1 in the history of U.S music charts.
The Grammy Museum just opened an exhibit called “Jermaine Dupri and So So Def: 25 Years of Elevating Culture,” an overview of the label in the context of Atlanta’s music scene.
The 25th anniversary of his label has inspired Dupri to reflect on its cultural impact and the history he has been a part of. Including “Cultural Curren$y” in the name of the So So Def anniversary tour is a part of that.
“People weren’t treating artists with longevity with the respect that I felt like they should,” Dupri said. “So somebody had to start making people realize what it feels like. Artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, they feel like money to me. I feel like I couldn’t breathe without a Michael Jackson record, I couldn’t live without Prince. It becomes as important to you as currency. As opposed to dollar culture, it’s cultural currency.”
The rap mogul has put his stamp on American culture in other media, as well. He and Queen Latifah teamed up to create “The Rap Game,” a hip hop reality series on the Lifetime network now going into its fifth season. The latest season of “Growing Up Hip Hop” features Dupri and his family.
He sees a divine purpose behind his success.
“I look at my career now and I feel like God put me in these spaces to make records with these people for a reason,” Dupri said. “It created the cloth of Jermaine Dupri. I made a record with Jay-Z before Jay-Z was the Jay-Z that you guys know now. I feel like these were heaven-sent activities. I definitely believe that God implemented a lot of these things.”
Alaska just became the third state to legalize marijuana. John Prine has steadfastly maintained that “Illegal Smile,” one of the enduring classics from his 1971 debut album, was not about smoking pot, despite widespread assumptions to the contrary. “Fortunately,” he sang, “I have the key to escape reality.”
He wrote the song at home in the Chicago suburbs the year of Woodstock and Altamont, as documented on his 1988 album John Prine Live: “It was 1969, and nothing seemed to make much sense to me. I liked to laugh and when I can’t laugh I like to smile. Some people think you should have a reason to smile or they think you’re up to something, so it must be an illegal smile.”
Not everyone believes his innocent explanation for the song’s origins. When he played the song early on for an underground TV show in Chicago, the cameraman kept zooming in on a fake marijuana plant. (The tune would make it to national television a few years later as the improbable theme song for a short-lived sitcom.)
Fast forward a few decades. An aspiring singer-songwriter named Kacey Musgraves – born the year John Prine Live came out – approached Prine before his annual Christmas concert, according to a recent Rolling Stone Country article: “This little girl comes up to me with her buddy…. They wanted to take me out in the parking lot and get me high. I said, ‘Uh, gee, thanks but… no, thanks.'”
Since then, Musgraves has become a fast-rising Nashville star. Her major-label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, has earned her multiple awards, including a Grammy for Best Country Album. Unfortunately, the album didn’t include “Burn One with John Prine,” in which Musgaves sings, “my idea of heaven / Is to burn one with John Prine.”
Recently Musgraves got to do the next best thing, according to the RS Country article: perform with Prine on the annual Cayamo cruise. Here’s a fan’s video of her telling the story and singing “Burn One” as Prine looks on. “Maybe he would sit awhile,” she sings, “and render me an illegal smile.”