When money ain't a thang 

The score on how Jermaine Dupri got blinded by the bling-bling

"I'm the MBP, most ballin'est player/ Make my own rules, bitches call me the mayor."

When hip-hop impresario Jermaine Dupri spit that verse in last year's "Welcome to Atlanta," he proudly proclaimed his baller status. He's happy to let you know that he's making lots of money. He's calling the shots. He's the musical don of Atlanta.

But Dupri's MBP status means nothing when it comes to the IRS.

Dupri, the 29-year-old CEO and founder of So So Def Records, owes more than $2.5 million in taxes to the federal government, according to IRS documents. To Dupri, the numbers don't add up. Though he had no comment for CL, he recently told MTV News, "The numbers are wrong and the truth will soon be shown."

Maybe. But in the meantime, IRS agents raided two of Dupri's homes and seized furniture, cars and computers.

Attempts by Creative Loafing to get Dupri's side of the story were unsuccessful. So So Def directed us to his publicist, who never returned phone calls. Just like in that song where JD tells Jay-Z, "Jigga, I don't like it if it don't gleam gleam/And to hell with the price cause the money ain't a thang." Apparently, money ain't a thang worth talking to the press about either.

Paying what the IRS thinks it is owed shouldn't be a huge problem for Dupri. His publicist claims Dupri's projects have resulted in more the $750 million in sales. Income from his label, management company and production company, as well as from his own records, songwriting and production work, will keep the money flowing for a long time to come. And So So Def's recently inked deal with Arista Records, which makes JD a senior vice president of Arista, likely involved an advance sweet enough to keep the feds at bay for a while, if need be.

But what's strange about this whole tax thing is how it ever managed to get so far out of hand. After all, Dupri is no neophyte to the game of money and power. He's been a record label mogul for a decade now, and he grew up around the music industry. But if it wasn't mere ignorance and inexperience, then how did JD manage to accumulate such a hefty tax debt?

Could be JD got himself a nasty case of that affliction from which so many celebrities, athletes and everyday Americans suffer. The non-medical term is "blinded by the bling-bling." It's what happens when all you can see are status symbols -- platinum (jewelry), shiny whips (cars) and paper (dollar bills).

No doubt, in Atlanta, there's a lot of bling-bling by which to get blinded. In "Welcome," Dupri mentions a few of what he considers the city's most gleaming spots. For instance, trendy Midtown restaurant the Shark Bar, which JD says is "poppin' like a nightclub." There, you can buy the house a round of drinks for only $1,650, or rent the club for a private party for a mere $7,000 (drinks not included). Dupri is a frequent customer of the Shark Bar, where a meal for you and a handful of friends could easily cost you $500. Restaurant management says Dupri regularly entertains business clients there.

Dupri can also be found entertaining clients at the gentleman's club Magic City, which he also mentions in the song. The strippers in sparkly makeup and florescent barely-there-wear will shake it fast for $10 a table dance. Tally up a handful of them for you and your extended posse, plus tip, and it'll set you back a pretty penny.

Dupri is a regular at the club on Mondays, according to Magic City personnel. He most recently brought in Nelly, members of the Cash Money crew, P. Diddy and even his now-public girlfriend, Janet Jackson -- the lady who introduced us to the "pleasure principle." One of the girls says Dupri is a first-class tipper and buys lots of drinks in the VIP room, where Don Perignon and Moet & Chandon champagne costs $100 and $200, respectively. But if he's really balling for the night, a bottle of Cristal Champagne is his for $450.

"I'm a Benz bubble cat, leather with the wood grain/In the platinum frame screamin' it's not a game." So says Dupri, again in "Money Ain't a Thang."

True enough, Dupri has been known to shop in some of the city's most expensive car lots. And there's no luxury car mecca in Atlanta quite like 404 Motorsports, where Dupri is one of the company's star customers. When you walk into 404, with its black leather seats and club-inspired interior, you know this is where the real ballers roam. Hung on the walls are autographed jerseys from athlete clients, including Braves' centerfielder Andruw Jones and Cleveland Browns' defensive back Corey Fuller. The day I stop in, R&B singer Montell Jordan ("This is How We Do It") is there to pick up his SUV.

404 provides clients with tight whips -- Bentleys, Jaguars, Hummers -- with some models costing well over $100,000. The discerning client can also get complete interior customizations -- suede seats for an extra $1,800, a 13-inch TV for $2,000 and new leather interiors for $1,300. And some car rims might set you back $2,000 each.

A 404 sales associate shows me a portfolio of the shop's custom work. Well worth the price, he says, because "cars say something about you -- they are a status symbol."

One of the cars he shows me in the book is a beautiful, sleek Lexus SC convertible. "That's Jermaine Dupri's momma's car," he says.

Hopefully it still is, unless it's in JD's name -- then the IRS might've caught up with that one, too.

The Lexus SC 430 starts at around $62,000, but it's nowhere as expensive as some of the cars sold and customized at 404 -- like the Range Rover that set Atlanta Brave Gary Sheffield back somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000.

"I don't like to think we do anything in excess," 404 proprietor Jerome Thompson says. "[Our clients] just want to be different, most people want to be different."

But while Dupri has a special love for Mercedes, he's no prude. He also raps, "In the Ferrari or Jaguar, switchin' four lanes/With the top down screamin' out, money ain't a thang."

If he's driving a Ferrari 456M Sport Coupe, he'll lay down about $226,000 for those horses. Now, the Jaguar is quite the bargain, with a top-of-the-line Jag SKR convertible running only about $86,000. But the Bentley is Dupri's vehicle of choice, and the Bentley Azure Convertible in all its glory starts at around $350,000.

In the music industry, fast cars and fast women are the rewards of success, right? For guys like Jermaine Dupri, though, if living the high life means avoiding the IRS, it can eventually lead to bankruptcy. And it's not just a rap thing. The taxman nabbed country music star Willie Nelson. In 1990, the IRS seized his assets because he owed almost $17 million in unpaid taxes. Nelson was forced to pay 75 percent of his annual earnings to cover his tax liability. And R&B songstress Toni Braxton filed bankruptcy in 1998, owing more than $2 million to creditors such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Chanel.

Maybe Dupri's tax quagmire was due in part to an impression that his Burberry clothes and Bentleys were, in fact, tax deductible. After all, he needs these things to portray the MBP image that, in turn, leads to record sales.

But according to Marlissa Phillips, head of Atlanta accounting firm MJ Phillips, "We may have this false thought that everything is tax deductible. And that you can get out of paying taxes."

Phillips wonders if the structure of Dupri's companies could be another source of the $2.5 million in unpaid taxes. For every business entity, the rules are different. He could be applying tax strategies but not reading the fine print.

"We are informed that we can purchase luxury automobiles through a corporation, but it may not be completely deductible. There are limits," Phillips says. "[People think] you can deduct entertaining or this or that, but even entertainment is not completely deductible. There's a 50 percent limit on that."

Having survived more than a decade in the music business suggests that Dupri is certainly crafty enough to emerge from a little tax trouble relatively unscathed. If he ever gets himself blinded by the bling-bling again, hopefully he'll at least have H&R Block on the speed dial.

Who knows? Maybe Dupri will end up a little more humble about his loot, and a little wiser about the labyrinthine U.S. tax code. Or maybe the experience will inspire Dupri to write about topics of more use to his listeners. With his talent for remixing, how about a breakdown of tax laws we can all roll with?

music@creativeloafing.com

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