So So Def Recordings is synonymous with its founder, Jermaine Dupri. It's the name of his publishing company, and he uses it on everything he touches, whether it's an actual So So Def record like Xscape's "Just Kickin' It" or just a freelance production gig like Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together." Much like Diddy's Bad Boy Records, his brand represents a specific milieu in contemporary urban music history. The two labels are not only led by ambitious CEOs as hungry for the spotlight as their equally young charges, but both men also produced their best work in the 1990s, before egos and the increasing blandness of urban pop made them irrelevant.
Nearly all of So So Def's acts hail from Dupri's Atlanta hometown, and his roster reflects the tumultuousness of that city's black music scene. There was the post-En Vogue girl-group renaissance that led to Xscape, who recorded several great examples of teen-girl longing including "Just Kickin' It," "Understanding," "Do You Want To" and the Jones Girls cover "Who Can I Run To?" There was the second wave of booty bass in the mid-1990s, which led then-fledgling producer Jonathan "Lil Jon" Smith to create his So So Def Bass All Stars series; Volume One featured the Ghost Town DJs cult classic "My Boo." So So Def's biggest group to date, Jagged Edge, marked a turn-of-the-century revival in male vocal R&B groups, nearly all of whom were modeled after Jodeci. And Dem Franchize Boyz, perhaps the label's final signing to have any commercial impact, came from the Bankhead neighborhood and the brief yet influential "snap" music fad, leading to the hits "White Tee" and "Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It."
Thanks to Dupri's varied business interests -- as well as the unspoken maxim that everything has to sell gold or platinum -- So So Def's output was limited in the 1990s, and even smaller in the ensuing decade. It landed some one-hit wonders like Bone Crusher ("Never Scared"), Inoj ("Love You Down" and "Time After Time"), Rocko ("Umma Do Me") and St. Louis' J-Kwon ("Tipsy"), the latter a rare non-Atlanta performer. And the imprint seemed unsure of what to do with Da Brat, a talented hardcore rapper who made hits like 1994's "Funkdafied" until her aggressively butch persona fell out of vogue. As the label remodeled her into a Lil Kim-styled thug mistress for desperately sexual numbers like 2000's "That's What I'm Looking For," she personified the urban music industry's lack of creative imagination and its inability to evolve beyond stereotypes.
But unlike, say Irv Gotti's irrepressibly mediocre Murder Inc catalog, it is possible to assemble a banging So So Def playlist. (I write that knowing full well that I will have to make a Murder Inc. playlist someday.) Dupri's "Welcome to Atlanta" is one of hip-hop's great civic pride anthems, and Bow Wow's debut single, "Bounce With Me," is a refreshing blast of teen-pop energy.
Finally, although Kris Kross were not a So So Def act, it's impossible to commemorate the label without mentioning them. Dupri discovered Chris Kelly and Chris Smith in an Atlanta mall, and he molded the preteens, wrote their raps and produced their songs. The resulting international success of "Jump" and Totally Krossed Out led to So So Def Records' founding in 1993. Twenty years on, the label remains an entry point into modern urban pop.