No slight intended.
After failing to mention Lil Jon in our piece about early 2000s rap last week, we received an animated tweet from the king of crunk himself, reaffirming his importance in any historical discussion of the era. And you know what? He’s absolutely right.
While Lil Wayne, T.I., Young Jeezy, Outkast, Rick Ross and Gucci Mane get props as the MCs who propelled Southern rap to the mainstream, no producer did more to infiltrate the pop charts than Lil Jon. With massive TR-808 kicks, harsh electronic melodies and cavernous sound design, Lil Jon’s tracks were everything backpacker fans hated, and the X-rated content they inspired earned him more than a few side-eyes from conscious-minded listeners. Never mind them: Lil Jon’s anthems are some of rap’s most enduringly fun, and are key documents in Atlanta’s transition from just another regional hub to the center of the hip-hop universe.
For most listeners, Lil Jon materialized from thin air when Atlanta hip-hop struck big in the early 2000s, but he’d already been a radio and club fixture for nearly a decade. He followed that with a stint at the So So Def label, overseeing the Bass All-Stars compilation, and combined these formative experiences to craft a sound equal parts energetic and inviting. You could hear So So Def’s pop appeal, the uptempo bass records he’d mixed in clubs and the gruff aggression of gangsta rap filtering through from Memphis across his hits; he may not have been notable for his lyrical content, but he doubled down on hooks. Lil Jon’s true talent however, was synthesizing and updating these influences for a mass audience. Three 6 Mafia may have launched crunk, but it was Lil Jon who took it to the top of the charts.
With the formula right and all eyes on the South at the turn of the century, it added up to an incredible run of singles: you couldn’t turn on urban radio between 2003 and 2006 without hearing his catchphrases. And if label troubles and rap’s high turnover rate slowed his output, the Lil Jon sound remains evergreen, his appearance on DJ Snake’s ‘Turn Down for What’ in 2014 reminding the world just how much crunk’s rowdiness paved the way for EDM.
When exploring Lil Jon’s discography, we recommend going straight to the hits. His style lends itself to a gut-punching, physical reaction, and the crowds almost always got it right. But while he might be easy to parody, his sound was anything but one note: dig a bit deeper and you’ll find tributes to Def Jam-era New York and N.W.A.-era Los Angeles, not to mention boundary-pushing R&B that helped set the stage for the anything-goes inventiveness currently defining the genre.
Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz (feat. Ludacris, Chyna White, Too $hort & Big Kap)
Lil Jon’s first major hit still leans heavily on crunk’s original formula as perfected by Three 6 Mafia’s ‘Tear the Club Up’: loud, dark and unapologetically aggressive. By early 2001, Atlanta was already ascendant in rap thanks to Outkast’s Stankonia and Ludacris’ Word of Mouf, but despite Luda’s guest appearance here, ‘Bia’ Bia” is miles away from his brand of witty crossover material.
This track flipped the balance: instead of the hooks supporting the verses, Too $hort, Luda and a show-stealing Chyna White are just there to give clubbers breathing room before Lil Jon’s chants come back in. Forget displays of lyrical talent, hooks like “Put ‘em up (Put ‘em up)! / Stop acting like a bitch and put your hands up!” are hardwired to the human fight or flight response, aiming to cause as much mayhem as possible.
While the sound is still regional, you can already see the ambition through the choice of collaborators. In addition to Luda and West Coast legend Too $hort, Lil Jon even got NY club institution Big Kap (R.I.P.) in for a few opening shouts, although the NY love would never be exactly reciprocal.
Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz (feat. Ying Yang Twins)
If ‘Bia’ Bia” was genuinely threatening, ‘Get Low’ repackaged that aggression as a shiny, cartoonish teenage fantasy. Think Whitesnake instead of Slayer. Everything your parents hated about rap was blown up tenfold: the strippers, the jewelry, and a cacophony of drum machine hits and synth blips. Predictably, the rap cognoscenti recoiled in horror, but they just weren’t in on the joke.
Just as Cam’ron was taking rap’s player fantasies to absurd extremes, Lil Jon and The Ying Yang Twins were taking black stereotypes and throwing them right back in America’s face, laughing all the way to the bank. If anything, ‘Get Low’ is a black, millennial answer to Licensed to Ill-era Beastie Boys: rude, crude and designed to make authority figures squirm.
One person who was in on the joke? Comedian Dave Chapelle, who used ‘Get Low’ as the backing track for a series of Lil Jon-inspired sketches, including his hilarious (and mind-boggling) encounter with the genuine article.
YoungBloodZ (feat. Lil Jon)
Think quickly: which mid-2000s super-producer introduced dance music elements to hip-hop? If you said Kanye with that Daft Punk flip, you’d be wrong. While Yeezy’s sampling helped ease coastal hip-hop fans into accepting electronic sounds in 2007, Lil Jon had been drawing on house music’s blaring synth leads for years, reshaping Atlanta’s club scene in the process. This was no accidental connection either.
As he recounted in Scratch Magazine: “I went to a strip club that played nothing but house music and that synth sound was on every track. It fucked me up, so I took some shit that was straight rave/dance music and put it on hip-hop and it changed the whole shit.”
The result? Booming tracks made out of little more than an 808 pattern and those hooky, hypnotic leads, leaving plenty of room for acts like The YoungbloodZ to spit about the joys of partying.
Yin Yang Twins (feat. Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz)
A sequel in all but name to ‘Get Low’, ‘Salt Shaker’ reprises the Ying Yang/Lil Jon combination for another ode to ass shaking, complete with a firefighter-themed video. With Lil Jon’s appeal, you can’t underestimate the importance of the visuals: as the Hype Williams-led era of multi-million dollar excess died down, rappers stepped back from the huge set pieces to focus on over-the-top club fantasies. The point wasn’t to document the ultimate night out as much as it was to show you what that night out felt like: the liquor flowing, the models dancing and the music pumping.
Another key factor to Lil Jon’s success were his ad libs, proto-memes inflated to the point of ridiculousness by Chapelle’s Show. Of course, Lil Jon had the last laugh when he used one to power one of the decade’s biggest hits.
Usher (feat. Lil Jon & Ludacris)
What do you do when you’re on a hot streak and have the rap world under your thumb thanks to your signature sound? You go pop. The juggernaut that helped propel Usher’s Confessions album to diamond certification, ‘Yeah!’ was a late addition to the record, made when label exec L.A. Reid sent the singer back to the studio in search of a hit.
The result married the same synths that propelled The YoungbloodZ’s ‘Damn’ to Usher’s slicker-than-slick vocal production, helping introduce the singer’s new adult persona. Throw in a now industry-standard Luda verse and a Lil Jon vocal contribution that cut down the raunchiness in favor of monosyllabic exuberance, and you’ve got the biggest hit of the producer’s career and a song they’ll be playing on wedding dance floors 20 years from now.
Crunk & B was a terrible genre tag though.
Ciara (feat. Petey Pablo)
‘Yeah!’ opened the floodgates for more crunk-influenced R&B records and ‘Goodies’, Ciara’s breakthrough debut, was the best of the bunch. Acting as an answer record to both Usher’s hit and guest rapper Petey Pablo’s own Lil Jon produced ‘Freek-A-Leek’, the track twisted the crunk formula ever so slightly by substituting the trance synths for a whiny, G-funk inspired lead.
More importantly however, it finally gave the long-silent women of Lil Jon’s world the opportunity to speak up, and Ciara took the opportunity to stake out her independence and firmly turn down the dogs barking at her door. It was a radical debut for the 19-year-old singer, and one that predicted her ability to merge pop, hip-hop, R&B and dance music over the coming decade.
We can look back at most acts associated with Lil Jon with warmth and nostalgia, in large part because almost none of them are around anymore, but Pitbull is bigger than ever and the internet still doesn’t like him.
While there’s no defending his latter day EDM work (yet), his earliest material with Lil Jon might actually be some of the most underrated ghetto house of the past decade. It’s certainly no worse than anything M.I.A. or Diplo ever put out, and remains untainted by the damning whiff of hipster irony to boot.
We also saw Lil Jon expand his sound beyond the expected crunk palate: ‘Culo’ flipped dancehall mega hit ‘The Coolie Riddim’, while ‘Toma’’s high speed 808 hits updated the Miami bass template into what might be the first baile funk record to cross over in America. Just hold the pop-reggaeton.
Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz
‘Lovers & Friends’
Reprising the ‘Yeah!’ roster but, to everyone’s credit, not the formula, ‘Lovers & Friends’ is a pure slow jam, at least until Jon’s caffeinated muppet vocals on the back end send the whole thing spiraling into comedy territory.
Deflating the loverman seriousness of Michel Sterling’s adult contemporary original with a well-placed dose of raunchiness, it would take a brave man to throw this one on in the bedroom, or at least a partner with a generous sense of humor. In a twisted way, it’s probably the finest example of Lil Jon’s appeal though: musically excellent, a bit gross but absolutely hilarious and way too much fun given the right amount of alcohol.
E-40 (feat. Turf Talk)
‘Tell Me When to Go’
If there’s a regional rap style that deserves a full-press grime 2.0-like revival, it’s hyphy. The Bay Area’s ecstasy-fueled, slang-producing hip-hop variant never got much national traction, but Lil Jon and living legend E-40 came the closest on My Ghetto Report Card.
Reaching back to Def Jam’s massive drum machine workouts, Lil Jon’s contributions to the album were some of his most stripped back, with ‘Tell Me When to Go’ best merging the NoCal and Atlanta aesthetics through little more than booming drums and a cheeky Run-DMC sample. The track is also a rap clinic, making it a perfect entry point to Lil Jon’s production for listeners pushed away by the Ying Yang Twins’ horniness.
By late 2006, Lil Jon’s party anthems were being supplanted by Young Jeezy’s hard-nosed realism. Lil Scrappy’s Bred 2 Live Born 2 Die, co-released with G-Unit, may not have helped the Lil Jon sound make the leap to the trap era, but it remains an underrated collection of Southern gangsta rap, going a shade deeper than most coke-rap fantasists.
‘Gangsta Gangsta’ follows the Jeezy template to a fault, complete with a hook that pays homage to (read: blatantly lifts from) N.W.A., but frankly that’s exactly what the streets were asking for in 2006, and by then Lil Jon had the chops to make this stuff sound as gargantuan as the personalities rapping over it.