Although crunk is no longer the trendiest form of hip-hop, Jonathan Smith – better known as Lil Jon, the self-proclaimed king of crunk – continues to flourish anyway. As a producer, he’s still churning out radio-dominating hits such as Baby Bash’s ubiquitous “Cyclone” while expanding his empire beyond the music. He even heads his own sports management firm, whose clients include skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, star of the hit MTV reality series Life of Ryan. But at the time of the following interview with Westword, conducted for an August 2004 profile, his profile was considerably higher. Indeed, Lil Jon was at his height of his popularity thanks to a slew of club smashes and hilarious imitations of him as delivered by comedian Dave Chappelle.
The Q&A below kicks off with a discussion of Lil Jon’s voicemail message at the time, which featured a Chappelle skit in lieu of tedious instructions about what to do after the beep. From there, he moves on to talk about making hits with profanities in the title; the connection between crunk and punk rock; the history of his style, complete with shout-outs to 2 Live Crew and Eric B. and Rakim; his past as an A&R man; the advantages independent labels have over the majors; and a brief commercial for crunk energy juice and the Lil Jon line of designer sunglasses.
His future was so bright, he had to wear shades.
Westword (Michael Roberts): I was going to ask you about whether you liked Dave Chappelle’s impression of you, but then I got your voicemail, and there he was. Obviously, you like it.
Lil Jon:Yeah. We actually did this skit together once on the show. I came on, and the skit was Lil Jon was calling Lil Jon, and we were going back and forth – “WHUUUUUT?” “YEEEAAAHHH!” “OKAAAAAY!” And then Oprah called on three-way to tell Dave Chappelle’s Lil Jon that she was pregnant, and then Dave went back to me, and was like, “Oprah’s pregnant!” So I loved it, and I ended up going on with him, and us going back and forth.
WW: What was it like doing that with yourself – or at least his version of you?
LJ: It was hilarious, because I did him like he does me. It was hilarious.
WW: Some people would be offended by that kind of thing…
LJ: Right. Well, you’ve got to learn how to make fun of yourself – you know what I mean? So it was very interesting imitating someone imitating me, definitely. But I tried to do me like he did me.
WW: When people see you, do they try to imitate you, too?
LJ: Yeah, I’m walking through the airport, I’m walking through the street, I’m driving in my car, people just start screaming at me – “YEEEAAAHHH!”
WW: Does that get annoying sometimes?
LJ: It’s cool, but it’s like, I can’t scream at everybody. Everybody I see, that’s the first thing they think of when they see me: “WHUUUUUT?” or “YEEEAAAHHH!” But they don’t realize that everybody and their grandmother says that to me. I guess when they say that to me, they expect me to say it back to them, and I don’t say it back to them. I’m just like, “Hey, how you doin’?” And they keep doing it! Like, “YEEEAAAHHH!” And they expect me to do it, because they did it. “WHUUUUUT?” “WHUUUUUT?” But I’m so tired of that. I’m like, oh, Lord, you’re killing me.
WW: Are they surprised other people have thought about doing that?
LJ: Yes. They act like they’re the first ones. They always say, “Have you see the Dave Chappelle show?” And I’m like, “Duh. Like you’re the first one to ask me that.”
WW: Overall, though, you see it as a positive, right?
LJ: Oh, yeah. I mean, it was just dope for me that he recognized something and put me on like he did, because he catapulted me to icon status by doing that. That show’s going to be forever, and that character is forever going to be one of his biggest characters. That and the Rick James character, you know what I’m saying? He did my character more than any character he did on the show, except for, like, the Crackhead Guy. He’s done four Lil Jon skits on various shows, and that’s a lot of times. So you know, I’m just being me, and I’m just going to keep being me. I just can’t say “WHUUUUUT?” and “YEEEAAAHHH!” too much anymore. And “OKAAAAAY.” But it was dope that he recognized something like that and did it. I was like, “Wow.”
WW: Does having this image of you like that out there make you want to turn things around, change things up so that people are surprised by what you’re doing?
LJ: No, I totally disagree. Lil Jon is the wild party guy, and you see that when you see the Usher video. I’m the one who’s spraying the champagne. I’m the one screaming and hollering. I’m the wild guy and Usher’s the cool guy, the smooth guy. You know what I’m saying? But he definitely – him and Dave Chappelle – made me less offensive to suburban America. If you just look at me, you might think I’m a crazy black guy. But they made me less offensive. If you listen to our first single off the last album, off the Kings of Crunk, it was “I Don’t Give a Fuck.” You know what I’m saying? And you listen to “Get Low,” and it’s about strippers and girls shaking their ass, and so on and so forth. So Usher and Dave Chappelle definitely made me less offensive to people. Not so abrasive.
WW: Weren’t you worried about getting airplay for a song called “I Don’t Give a Fuck”?
LJ: We had a radio version of the song. At that time, Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz were coming off of – our biggest record at that time was “Bia’ Bia’.” That was the last major national hit. Then we came with the “I Don’t Give A,” but a lot of programmers didn’t get it. And the reason they didn’t get it was because crunk music really is club music. You can’t hear the song on the radio or listen to it on your CD player first. You have to go to a club and hear the music. Then you will understand the music. The video, it was basically a take off on “Smack My Bitch Up,” where the camera was you. Like you felt like you were the person walking around in the video. The point of view of the main character was the camera, so you felt like you were doing all the shit, or whatever the fuck we do in the video. You walk in the club with us. You’re wilding out in the club with us. So that showed people how to understand the song, and after we sent the video out to people, we started to get a lot of love on the song. I think it was one of our biggest records.
WW: It seems like stations have been getting more conservative after the whole Super Bowl controversy. Have you thought about softening things up to keep getting airplay?
LJ: Never. They got a little bit more cautious, and then it watered back down again. It’s all normal again. You know, it’s going to be harsh after the Janet Jackson titty shit, and then after a certain amount of time, it goes away.
WW: Do you still go to clubs as often as you used to?
LJ: Probably like three times a week. That’s where my essence is. I’m a DJ. I made records for DJs, and my records are club records, so if I don’t stay in the club and see what people are dancing to, what they’re not dancing to, how they’re dancing, what they like or whatever, I can’t make my music. I can’t do it without being in the club. You cannot do club music without being in the club. You’ve got to know what’s going on.
WW: So it’s not just for fun. It’s research.
WW: A lot of critics out there – particularly the ones who write for mainstream publications like daily newspapers – really don’t seem to get crunk. In review after review, they make it sound totally one-dimensional, like it’s only screaming and grunting. What is it that they’re not getting?
LJ: Crunk music is basically – we call it black rock and roll, or black punk-rock music, because of the energy. There’s no other form of hip-hop that has as much energy as crunk music does, and that’s why the records that I’ve been doing lately have been so successful. Because you cannot deny the energy that’s in the records. Even all the way down to Usher. Usher’s song, Petey Pablo, “Damn,” “Yeah,” “Salt Shaker,” “Get Low,” all of those records, the energy in those records, you can’t deny them. They make you move a certain way. I don’t even care what the critics say about me as long as the people out there, my fans, like it.
WW: And can dance to it?
LJ: Yeah. I focus all the way on the club. That’s why my music sounds the way it does, with the 808, heavy kicks. Every aspect of it is about the club, so I don’t really care about the person who’s listening on an iPod. I think about the clubs, and then the car, because a lot of people have good car systems. I make sure the bass is dropping for their car stereo. But I don’t really give a damn about somebody listening on an iPod. My music is designed to make a club go insane when it goes on… When we do the records, we envision ourselves being in the club, and we make the records in a way, like you say, we want to take you to the club even if you’re not in the club. You feel like you’re in the club. The chants and the way the music is bumping and shit.
WW: What do you think about the people who see crunk as trendy – a style that’s in today, but probably won’t last?
LJ: Crunk is not just a style, it’s a way of life. This is how we live in the South. We live in the South to get crunk. It’s a culture. So that’s why it will never go out of style, because this is how people live. People live to go to the club on the weekend, get rowdy, wild out, get crunk. You know what I’m saying? People live to get crunk in the South. So it’s not a fad to me, it’s not something that’s going to play out. And that’s how I live my life. I live to get crunk. When I go to the club, I get crunk in the club, you know what I’m saying? That’s a lifestyle we lead. It’s not just something we made up. It’s really a lifestyle for people.
WW: Crunk didn’t drop out of the clear blue sky. Other forms of hip-hop contributed to it. How did it develop?
LJ: We’ve been getting crunk in the South forever. There was no music called crunk music, but we were getting crunk to, say, 2 Live Crew back in the day. I mean, we were getting crunk to Eric B. and Rakim. Crunk means hyped, it means energy. It’s whatever music gets you to another state of mind, and having a lot of energy. So we’ve been getting crunk to stuff forever. But crunk music is music designed not for the lyrics. It’s basically designed to make you just get to a state of mind where you are about to go insane, but just before you go insane. Making you just lose it and have a great time and release energy. It’s kind of a release of energy too. So you get so much energy that you release all the negativity out of your body. It’s just about really having fun. Like I said, it’s basically like punk rock. Punk rock, you go to a state of mind where you release all that energy, and it’s high energy, in the mosh pits.
WW: What part do you think you played in crunk’s development?
LJ: I think I helped to bring it out to more people, people who didn’t know anything about it. I wouldn’t say I invented it, but we helped to popularize it on a national level.
WW: And with that popularity, there have been a lot of imitators coming along. Can you immediately tell the difference between the real crunk albums and the imitation ones?
LJ: The way I make music is off of a feeling, and I think some of the wannabe crunk records, the ones that don’t quite make it, don’t have that right magic to it – like that right energy, or the right feeling. Any kind of music, whether it’s slow, fast, jazz, gospel, whatever, makes you feel a certain way. And if you are lacking something, then it just doesn’t feel the same. So some of these records lack that spirit, the essence of what crunk is. Some of the records don’t have that spirit, and it doesn’t feel the same.
WW: A lot of people don’t realize that before you became well known as a performer, you’d worked for years doing A&R for So So Def. What artists did you help discover there?
LJ: When I was doing A&R, I did all the So So Bass Allstars compilations, which had “My Boo” and “Time After Time.” None of the artists ever really broke out of that. Well, two of them had deals with So So Def, but they never came out. But basically, doing those records, it showed me how to put an album together, you know what I’m saying? And what to look for. How to put a producer with an artist. How to pick musicians to come in and play on this beat or that beat. They just gave me a lot of industry knowledge about putting those records together, which I use today. Every record I do, I A&R myself, I produce myself, I manage myself, I do every aspect of it. I push myself that much farther, because I know all the aspects of the game.
WW: What were your biggest frustrations in working for a major label?
LJ: Sometimes the parent company, Columbia – at the time we were doing bass music, they didn’t understand what bass music was, and they didn’t understand some of the records we did before the records took off when they did on the pop side. But that’s normal major-label stuff. You know, major labels don’t get it sometimes. That’s why you go with an independent. An independent can move faster, and an independent doesn’t have to go by a set of guidelines. People at major labels tend to go by the industry standard way of doing stuff. Like myself, I don’t give a fuck about the industry standard. We do what we want to do. We know how to make records, and that’s how we make them. All the years of being at So So Def showed me what not to do as well, showed me a way of doing things. Like, “Damn, this major label, they don’t even know what the fuck they’re doing, like we know how to do this. We need to promote the record this way, we need to promote the record this way.” That helped me gain a lot of knowledge of what to do and what not to do.
WW: Is that why you went with an independent? Because you knew Columbia wouldn’t know what to do with you?
LJ: They had earlier tried with some groups, but they had never done a crunk artists, definitely. Crunk wasn’t even a term that people used for a style of music before we went to TVT. The reason we went to TVT was because they didn’t really have any urban artists. At the time, they only had Hurricane and they had the Eastsidaz. So they had no Southern artists, the Eastsidaz album had already dropped, so basically by the time we got there, we finished our album, we would be priority. And you know, at an independent label, you can make moves the way you want to make moves.
WW: And you knew that from personal experience, right?
LJ: Yeah, because at the same time I was at So So Def, I had an independent record out that I was doing. We put our first independent record out in ’96, so I was doing the independent thing as well as on the major-label side, so I saw all of the angles to record making.
WW: If a major came to you today and threw a lot of money at you, would you think about it? Or even at the level you’re at now, do you see independents as the way to go?
LJ: Well, me as an artist, I’m on TVT, but we have a label deal with Warner Bros. Records. We have BME recordings through Warner Bros. We have Thrillville over there, Lil’ Scrappy, who has the song “No Problems” that’s really blowing up. We have an artist, Bo Hagan signed over there, and we have BME Recordings through TVT as well, with Oobie. We’re basically on both sides of the fence, but it’s definitely harder with a major. Majors, like I said, they stick with that industry-guideline shit, and I don’t give a fuck about industry guidelines. Even with crunk music, we made the world come to us. We didn’t change our music to go to people, to conform, like somebody would do. The people came to us. We never had to change or water down our style to do what we do. Even with Usher, I did what I would normally do on a track. That’s probably one of the few R&B songs that has that much 808 in it, you know what I’m saying. We just do what we do. We just try and tighten it up and take it to another level. It just is what it is.
WW: The show you’re coming here for is at Red Rocks, a big outdoor amphitheater, and you’ll be playing in the bright sunshine. Is it harder to get the crowd going in that kind of a setting, as opposed to a sweaty club?
LJ: Well, we just go out there and do it. My background is also a DJ, so I know how to control a crowd. Sometimes with shows, I go in with the DJ aspect, where it’s like, “I’m going to take these people from here to a whole other level.” We just try to get in their minds and make them have a good time wherever we’re at.
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WW: What other projects are you working on? Any movies or TV? Are you interested in acting?
LJ: Yeah, actually, when I did Chappelle, I definitely was acting. I’m looking at some TV shows, some scripts, trying to put out our own movie. It’s coming. I’m not trying to rush anything. The most important thing is to get a new album out while I have some of this popularity.
WW: Do you have a release date yet?
LJ: The new album, Crunk Juice, will be out in November. We’ve got the Crunk energy drink that’s out in stores now. We just got two new markets, Alabama and New York. We got the Lil Jon Oakley sunglasses coming out; I’ve got my own line of sunglasses with Oakley coming out. We’ve got the Lil Jon t-shirt line coming. Working on a lot of things.