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."
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.
On the strength of its single, "Bia' Bia'," Hood took off, laying the groundwork for Kings of Crunk. In his most recent disc's intro, Lil Jon bellows, "This is some hot shit 'bout to go down on this motherfucker," and he makes good on his braggadocio with a series of amphetamine chants identified by titles like "Throw It Up," "Knockin Heads Off" and "The Weedman." Guest stars such as Jadakiss, Mystikal, Krayzie Bone, Trick Daddy and Fat Joe add to the madness, as does bass-heavy production suffused with beats produced by the Roland TR-808, a vintage rhythm synthesizer referenced by OutKast's Big Boi in the hit "I Like the Way You Move."
"My music sounds the way it does, with the 808 and the heavy kicks, because I focus on the clubs," Lil Jon says. "I don't really care about a person who's listening on an iPod. I think about people in their car, because a lot of people have good car systems -- I make sure the bass is dropping for that car stereo -- and people in the club. My music is designed to make a club go insane when it goes on, and because we envision ourselves being in the club when we do the records, they make you feel like you're there with us even when you're not."
By using this formula, Lil Jon has helped create a slew of smashes, including "Damn!" by the Youngbloodz, and contributed cameos or production expertise to the efforts of OutKast, David Banner, Bravehearts, Elephant Man and many others. He's also inspired plenty of impressionists, many of whom are considerably less entertaining than Dave Chappelle. Lil Jon has no problem telling faux crunk from the real thing, but describing the distinctions is a taller order. "Any kind of music, whether it's fast, slow, jazz, gospel, whatever, makes you feel a certain way," he says. "If they're lacking something, they don't feel as good as they should, and some of these wannabe crunk records lack the spirit, the essence of what crunk is. So being copied is definitely flattering, but nobody can do it like I'm doing it.
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"I wouldn't say I invented crunk," he goes on. "I helped popularize it on a national level, but there's always been crunk. It's not a fad to me; it's not something that's going to play out. It's how I live my life. I live to get crunk."
Right now, he's living well -- and he's got a range of schemes to keep the momentum rolling. His forthcoming album, due in November, will be called Crunk Juice, in order to put consumers in mind of a new energy drink he's hyping. "We just got two new markets, Alabama and New York," he boasts. "We've also got a line of Lil Jon sunglasses by Oakley coming out, and a Lil Jon T-shirt line, too." On top of that, he inked a deal with Warner Bros. Records to develop new artists. The first fruit of this pact -- King of Crunk and BME Recording: Trillville, credited to Trillville and Lil Scrappy -- arrived in February, and the Scrappy track "No Problem" is "really blowing up," Lil Jon crows. In the meantime, he's being inundated with TV and movie scripts. According to him, "They called me about a role in a pilot, and I'll probably do that. But I don't know how involved I can be with a television show when I'm a major recording artist -- so I'll probably just do some guest roles."
He'd better be careful. After all, he's still paying for the popularity of his best part: himself. In the wake of Chappelle's Show, he says, "People start screaming 'WHUUUUUT?' and 'YEEEAAAHHH!' at me when I'm walking through the airport, when I'm walking through the street, when I'm driving my car. And they want me to do it back to them. I'll be like, 'Hey, how you doin'?' and they'll keep going 'WHUUUUUT?' And they always act like they're the first ones to ever think of doing that. They ask me, 'You ever see Dave Chappelle?' and I'll be like, 'Duh!'"
Still, Lil Jon's not complaining. "I love that he recognized me," he allows. "Sometimes when everybody and their grandmother is screaming at me, I feel like, 'Oh, Lord, you're killing me.' But he catapulted me to icon status -- and for me, that's dope."