Crunked Up

Beneath his deranged exterior, Lil Jon is a man with a plan.

Jonathan Smith, aka Lil Jon, can recognize an opportunity when he sees one.

Consider his reaction to a routine by skit-master Dave Chappelle, whose self-named program, Chappelle's Show, has become a breakout hit on Comedy Central. During one episode, Chappelle portrayed Lil Jon as a de facto lunatic whose vocabulary pretty much consists of three verbal ejaculations: "WHUUUUUT?" "YEEEAAAHHH!" and "OKAAAAAY!" Some performers might have been offended by such a characterization, but not Lil Jon. He happily embraced the persona during an MTV appearance, and even lampooned himself on a subsequent edition of Chappelle's Show, imitating the host imitating him.

"We were going back and forth -- 'WHUUUUUT?' 'YEEEAAAHHH!' ';OKAAAAAY!' -- and then Oprah called on the three-way to tell Dave Chappelle's Lil Jon she was pregnant," recalls Lil Jon, who turns out to be completely comfortable with polysyllables. "It was hilarious. I loved it."

Crunk and disorderly: Lil Bo (from left), Lil Jon and Big 
Sam are Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz.
Crunk and disorderly: Lil Bo (from left), Lil Jon and Big Sam are Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz.


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He's not exaggerating his enthusiasm. In lieu of a regular voice-mail message, Lil Jon's cell phone greets callers with a snippet of Chappelle -- an indication of his gratitude to the comic. Along with Usher, who teams with him on the appropriately titled "Yeah!" -- a song that's arguably 2004's biggest blockbuster -- Lil Jon credits Chappelle with making him safe for the mainstream.

"If you look at me, you might think I'm just some crazy black guy," he acknowledges. "But that made people think of me differently. You know what I'm saying? Him and Usher made me less offensive to suburban America. Not so abrasive."

It helps that the music Lil Jon makes with Big Sam and Lil Bo, collectively known as the East Side Boyz, matches up with his amusingly bizarro reputation. Kings of Crunk, his 2002 release, earned mostly mediocre reviews from publications beyond the hip-hop underground, with plenty of analysts dismissing it as relentlessly over the top. They were right in a way -- but what such clueless scribes didn't realize is that the extreme lunacy of Kings cuts like "Get Low" and "I Don't Give a Fuck" is precisely what makes them so much fun.

"There's no other form of hip-hop that has as much energy as crunk music does," Lil Jon says. "It's not designed for the lyrics. It's designed to make you get to a state of mind where you're about to go insane -- but just before you go insane. That's why the records that I've been doing lately have been so successful. So I don't care what the critics think about me as long as the people out there, my fans, like it."

Lil Jon's background doesn't read like a typical street story. He and his four siblings grew up in a nice Atlanta neighborhood (his father's an engineer, his mother's in the Army Reserves), and his grades were good enough to get him into a magnet school. He seemed destined for a career in computers when hip-hop caught his fancy -- particularly the kind that was more geared toward motorizing booties than tickling brains. The word "crunk" had not yet come into common usage back then, but Lil Jon says the term accurately describes what was happening.

"Crunk is not just a style; it's a way of life," he declares. "That's how people live in the South. People live to go to the club on the weekend, get rowdy, wild out, get crunk. And we've been getting crunk in the South forever. We were getting crunk to 2 Live Crew back in the day. I mean, we were getting crunk to Eric B. and Rakim."

Before long, Lil Jon became a DJ, and after winning a residency at a club called the Phoenix, he came to the attention of Jermaine Dupri, a performer and producer who'd recently formed his own label, dubbed So So Def. Dupri asked him to perform A&R functions for the company, and as Lil Jon scoured the area for talent, he was naturally drawn to acts specializing in the party-oriented jams that caused crowds at the Phoenix to freak. In 1996, he assembled the best of what he discovered on So So Def Bass All-Stars, a thoroughly enjoyable compilation that was crunk before crunk was cool. The collection sold well enough to inspire two sequels, issued in 1997 and 1998.

Although the third All-Stars volume features a number credited to the Ying Yang Twins, who turn up on "Get Low," Lil Jon was unable to launch other spotlighted artists to bona fide stardom. The reasons had a lot to do with the corporate structure under which So So Def operated.

"We were doing bass music, and the parent company, Columbia, didn't understand what bass music was," he maintains. "But that's normal major-label stuff. You know, major labels don't get it sometimes. The people there go by the industry-standard way of doing stuff. Myself, I don't give a fuck about the industry standard. I'd be like, 'Damn, this major label, they don't know what the fuck they're doing.'"

As a result, Lil Jon went the independent route after deciding to make albums of his own. His 1996 debut, Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album, came out under the auspices of Mirror Image, while a 2000 followup, We Still Crunk, was a product of BME Enterprises, a firm formed by Lil Jon and some of his pals during his DJ days. But he didn't reach the mass public until hooking up with another indie, TVT. The imprint, which first made its bones peddling a series of albums under the heading Television's Greatest Hits (hence its handle), was an unlikely place for Lil Jon to land, because it had little experience with hip-hop. But execs made 2001's Put Yo Hood Up a priority, and they let Lil Jon take the lead on many of the marketing strategies. "I had done the independent thing, and I knew the major-label side, too, so I saw all the angles," he says.

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