What Jermaine Dupri Discovered While Making The Freaknik Documentary
Devon Warren

What Jermaine Dupri Discovered While Making The Freaknik Documentary

HBCU excellence, peak 2 Live Crew parties, sexual assaults, and politics. There was a lot to learn while making this doc.

Jermaine Dupri is no commitment-phobe. Atlanta’s cultural mayor walks into New York City’s The Edition hotel wearing black dress shorts in 40-degree weather. Despite the online criticism he’s taken for his Super Bowl aesthetic—shorts, socks, and loafers—he’s committed to making this urban-prep motif a thing. Correction: He’s intent on making it his thing. 

And that’s the shift in JD. He’s no longer looking for widespread validation. Men and women lie but numbers are unapologetic truth tellers. Dupri’s first No. 1 record was Kris Kross’ “Jump, Jump” in 1992. Thirty-two years later, he’s back at the number one slot with Muni Long’s “Made for Me.” (Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay) For context, five presidents have been inaugurated during this timespan. Jermaine also helped curate Usher’s record-breaking Super Bowl Halftime show last month. More than 200 million viewers tuned in to watch the R&B medley, which included “Confessions.” The song was recently crowned the greatest R&B song of the 21st century by Rolling Stone.

This particular visit and interview isn’t music-based. It’s intended to explore Dupri’s new passion for storytelling through documentaries. Along with Uncle Luke and 21 Savage, JD has executive produced Freaknik: The Wildest Party Never Told (Hulu). Started as a picnic by students who couldn’t afford to travel home for spring break, the doc delivers the origins and economic windfall that Atlanta received from Freaknik. But it’s more than nostalgic booty shaking. The Wildest Party Never Told also explores the dark aspects of the annual gathering that included looting, sexual assault, and harassment.

Following Freaknik is the three-part doc Magic City: An American Fantasy, co-executive produced by Drake. As of this writing, the doc on the iconic strip club doesn't have a distributor but it’s sure to sell and, if you let JD tell it, open a pipeline for Southern storytelling that includes the story of a 19-year-old kid who defied the odds and spent 32 years and counting on Billboard. 

LEVEL: If you were putting together a capsule for people who existed in the year 3000, how would you define Freaknik to them?

JERMAINE DUPRI: Carefree. Just a carefree environment. A space where you weren't thinking about violence, a space where you weren't concerned with crime, period. A time when Black people really could get together and it was [very little] crime. After Freaknik, it feels like our culture or our race or whatever you want to call it started caring about too many things. People [were] driving cars, parked their cars on a block and walked for blocks, then forgot where they parked. They never was worried if somebody was going to break in the car or something like that. Now there's so many break-ins in Atlanta and all the kind of…it's just different. Carefree would definitely be the thing I would say.

I’ve heard [director] P Frank describe it that way, too. The words he used are joy and freedom.

Yeah, basically. The city wasn't scared of all of these people coming. That's one thing that you have to look at and be like, "Wow, Atlanta allowed all of these people to come into this city for years." When we started doing this documentary, I learned that Freaknik started in the '80s. I was 15, 16 years old, maybe even younger, so I wasn't part of it. I didn't know anything about the HBCUs [involvement in Freaknik]. 

Related: A Toast to HBCU Homecoming, the Epicenter of Black Success

Let’s go back to those origins and explore how this came together. Kids couldn’t afford to go home for Spring Break and out of a need to entertain themselves came one of Atlanta's biggest movements.

There's so many interesting parts about Freaknik to me because one, the kids that created it, they're not even from Atlanta. It was [created by] a DC-Metro club, a group of kids that came from DC that was going to Spelman and Clark. And they couldn't really afford to go back home for spring break catching flights and this, that, and the third, so it was just like, "Let's at least have some kind of fun for spring break. Let's throw a little picnic."

It is crazy that their picnic turned into what their picnic turned into. You got all these other [events like] Greek Fest and all these other things that's going on around the country, but those things didn't turn into this. It was something that they did, I don't know what. I can't imagine that the word freak made it that different…You know what I mean? I don't know if they were giving out free stuff, I don't know what they were doing, but word-of-mouth about this picnic turned into 250,000 Black people in Atlanta.

While the production team was doing research, did they uncover what those early parties were like?

Early parties would've probably been college campus stuff; we don't really go into that in the doc. The early parties that we talk about are what Luke was doing, his connection to coming to Atlanta and what he was doing in the clubs, because the promoters was using Freaknik to make their money in the city. Those parties, I wasn't privy to because I was too young. I couldn't go, but I heard about them. I heard [those parties] was Luke being Luke Skywalker, doing what Luke Skywalker would do. And he had the 2 Live Crew back then, so it was every bit of the 2 Live and the Luke Skywalker show. So whatever you think you've heard and whatever people know about that, that's what was happening in the Luke Skywalker parties.

Let’s talk about the economic benefits for Atlanta that came with Freaknik.

The city prospered in a way that no other cities had in that period of time, I think, and it was the Black dollar. People always talk about the Black dollar, they were spending the Black dollar. They might not have been spending the Black dollar with other Black people, but they were spending. The Black dollar was going crazy and I think the city saw what it could possibly be during Freaknik. To me, that's when Atlanta realized we could really be the city that we've always wanted to be.

Related: All Four Seasons of Atlanta, Ranked

What's your most memorable Freaknik moment?

Oh, I would say '95. I jumped on the train. I came into town and this was the first time I took the train at the airport. The train at the airport was new, so you could ride from Hartsfield Airport all the way downtown. I remember getting off the plane and saying, "Let's take the train." Everybody's like, "What?" And I'm like, "Yeah, let's get on the train and go downtown. It's Freaknik." We didn't get into cars, we got into MARTA and rode MARTA all the way downtown to the Arts Center station right there in front of the High Museum. You could walk down the street to get to Piedmont Park, and that was where the party was. That's my fondest memory of Freaknik.

What was the walking experience like?

Being on the train with all these people was crazy. For me, it was like being at Disney or something. I was like a little kid that was just amazed at all the people. I wanted to be a part of every bit of what was happening. And like I said, this was a time when nobody was thinking about robberies. It was like, "Let's get on the train. Let's walk down the street. Let's really be outside." It was a time to be alive.

What is it about “My Boo” that fits so perfect in that time period?

it's the tone. It is almost like Beats and Dr. Dre, right? You don't even have to really hear the headphones because you're such a fan of NWA and whatever he's ever produced, right? So if you see a pair of Beats, you think in your mind you already know what it sounds like. That's how I feel like “My Boo” is synonymous with Freaknik. Everybody that went to Freaknik, they heard that song. They know that song was part of this. So when you see that [documentary] trailer, you feel like, "Oh, this for real." A song that actually goes with the footage is playing if you were there. That's what it is.

It's like [Erik B and Rakim’s] “Paid In Full.” When you hear “thinking of a master plan” you see these boys riding through Harlem with these cars, it feels like if you was there, it feels like the real thing. This as authentic as it can get. Even more than Luke, that song is the soundtrack. That song got played more than anything during that Freaknik because it was the first of its type.

The doc explores the good time, the debauchery, but then there's the ugly side. Stacy Lloyd was sexually assaulted at Freaknik. You guys found her and told her story. Can you recount her story for me?

Doing this documentary, that was the first time I ever heard her story. Like I said, I was too young to pay attention to the dark side of Freaknik. I was too into the hype to pay attention to it, so in real time I didn't see it. But in doing this documentary, it educated me in a crazy way because I didn't even know that a girl, the way she describes this doesn't even sound real to what I saw in Atlanta. And then for that to happen, like I said, I'm trying to figure out what brought that element to Freaknik because from the 80s, that wasn't there.

We didn't hear about a bunch of cases. I'm sure it might've been more, but this was one that made the news. This was some situation, but I don't think there was a lot of that going on. I think you had people groping each other, and we also showed girls that was groping guys too. It wasn't just the guys doing this by themselves, girls was doing it as well. Her story is pretty crazy though, just as far as somebody jumping in the car, stealing the car, taking off in the car, and her fighting the person in the car. It's a crazy story. 

Were the 1996 Olympics the end of Freaknik?

No. The end of Freaknik was the creative control of [the event]. How do you control it? What are people supposed to do? I think that was the end. Because getting to Atlanta in a car, driving around all night, you need something to do. In any city, if you let Blacks just hang around and not have anything to do, not have a place to go and you are trying to tell them where to go, you're blocking off streets and you're making them go a certain way, you are creating that hostile environment that's getting ready to create all the other stuff that we don't need to be dealing with. And to me, that's when s*** got out of control.

Related: I Never Liked Strip Clubs, but I Finally Understand Them

You’ve also completed a Magic City documentary. Unlike Freaknik, it's an institution that seems to always be under control.

Well, [owner] Magic really lives by what he says and he stands on what he's about, so Magic City actually is the safest place in Atlanta to be, and it's the safest place for anyone. For drug dealers, state government, mayor, rapper, basketball player, whatever it is, soccer [player]. It is the safest place that anybody that goes to Atlanta can go to, and you will see all of these people in there every night. 

I say this all the time, Magic City is the only place in America where you can go stand beside a rapper, a drug dealer, a robber, a basketball player, and stripper all in one space. It's nowhere else in America where this is happening, and it is religiously happening. 

What is it about the establishment that makes everybody respect the code of conduct?

It's a place where comfort is sold. Magic pays attention to the celebrities the way you're supposed to pay attention to the celebrities, especially when they’re shouting your club out in their records and bringing the attention. Magic paid attention to what was bringing the people and catered to that, but he also made you realize that once you got in there, you was no longer [the star]. When you get in there, if you play basketball, cool. You rap, cool. The stars in this club are the girls, and I think that that makes you check your ego.