Lil Jon: Say Yeah
The King of Crunk tells DX why he returned to his deejay roots these last few quiet years, working with Rick Rubin, and how he, Ice Cube and Game made a record that channels a Death Row classic.
Thanks to his over-the-top persona, signature sound, unmistakable catch phrases, plus a little help from the Chappelle Show, Lil Jon has become a pop culture Icon. This is an achieved feat not hard to believe once you get past the mono-syllabic yells and become familiar with the gifted producer, shrewd businessman, and humble family man. After breaking into the game with his signature bass-heavy, synth-driven beats in the late '90s, Lil Jon became the “go to” guy for the first half of the decade. The former So So Def deejay worked on, produced and was featured on numerous chart-topping Hip Hop and R&B records, most notable of the bunch being the song of the decade, “Yeah!” But even icons aren’t immune to the ills of the music industry.
In 2008 his long time home, TVT records, folded and left their flagship star in limbo. After going back to his deejay roots during a several year hiatus, Lil Jon re-emerged with his latest offering, Crunk Rock; an eclectic mix of Hip Hop, Crunk, Pop, Euro, and Rock sounds meant to showcase the many musical sides of Lil Jon. But for those that think Lil Jon has abandoned the movement that made him famous, he wants everyone to know crunk still ain't dead, in his music or otherwise.
HipHopDX: You were something of a cash cow for TVT Records, but after the label folded even you were left in limbo. What did you do to still stay in the mix of things and keep the checks coming in?
Lil Jon: I started touring internationally. I started deejaying in Japan, Germany, just started getting on the road. I just started building my deejay career back up. I was a big deejay [for So So Def] in the '90s. Like, I was the hottest DJ in Atlanta back then, so I just started to revitalize that. Right now, my shit is crazy. I just came back from Canada deejaying, before that [Las] Vegas, so that’s what I been doing.
Deejaying and performing overseas just opens your mind up to other shit. It really helped to recharge my batteries 'cause I was kind of burned out. I was producing for all the artists on my label, having the label, being an artist myself…all that shit just weighs you down. And after a while, you just need a break - a mental break and a physical break. So getting back in the clubs was great because it helped to replenish me and give me a new energy. By the time Universal [Republica] came in, I was mentally ready to get back in the studio.
DX: Was the transition to Universal a difficult one?
Lil Jon: Universal picked me up after The Orchard let me do my thing. And I basically got right into the studio and got working. I’m finally done and finally ready to give this shit to the world. I think everybody will appreciate it 'cause it’s definitely not just your regular Rap album.
DX: Now the album is called Crunk Rock. What is it that people should expect when listening to this project?
Lil Jon: It’s something different. Going into the album, I wanted to give people every kind of Lil Jon they know. I have so many different kinds of fans. From the hardcore, hood muthfuckas, to the Pop muthafuckas, to grandmothers. There’s a record on there for every Lil Jon fan.
The album is called Crunk Rock. I started off working with Rock artists and Rock producers. As I progressed, and once I got to take that break, then came back and started working on new songs, it started to turn more into [a representation] of the lifestyle we live. We live a “Crunk Rock” lifestyle. We party like Rock stars, we get super crunk in anything we do, we’re living for the day, we live life to the fullest and all of the songs on the album are basically what we’re talking about. That’s the lifestyle and that’s why I still have the title I have to the album because that’s just what we do. Well, even with the Pitbull record, "The Anthem" was a worldwide hit. That started to open up my eyes, well both of our eyes, to that fact that there’s a whole fucking world out there. Then [Pitbull and I] did "Krazy," which was another sample of an Electro record. Even when DJ Chuckee did the remix to “Sexy Bitch,” and put me on it that really was the capper. I was like "Wow, there’s really a whole other world out there."
DX: You mentioned earlier that your time traveling as a deejay helped open your mind musically. Is that the reason you’ve been branching off more into the realm of Pop or Club music as of late?
Lil Jon: House music, Dance music, and Electro is big all around the world. I know a lot of these deejays and they’re on the road five to seven days a week, traveling the world doing shows for anywhere from $2,000 to $50,000 and they don’t even have songs on commercial radio. So it’s a whole other world out there that people just have no idea that it exists. All that stuff just makes you want to open up your mind musically and start experimenting.
DX: So how do you reach out to the Pop fans but still satisfy the fans that listen to less LMFAO and more Ying Yang Twins?
Lil Jon: On [Crunk Rock], I give people what they know me for, we start off with the hardcore Crunk shit and end off on the super Pop tip and touch everything in between as you go through the album. It’s the people. People like different kinds of records. Some fans that listen to LMFAO also like “Snap Yo Fingers” but they wouldn’t know a “I Don’t Give A Fuck.” It just seems to work out where they like it. Like me and LMFAO collaborated and we sounded good together. We didn’t compromise each other, we sounded good on our own and still fit good together. At the end of the day, it’s about the music. If they like the music, they’ll like you. I’m a deejay so the way I put everything together on the album makes sense. It’s a slow transition from one extreme to the other. Every thing fits in its own place and I think people will really appreciate it.
DX: You’ve collaborated with Rick Rubin in the past. It seems like he’d be ideal for a Rock/Hip Hop fusion project such as this.
Lil Jon: Rick [Rubin] hit me up a couple weeks ago just out of the blue 'cause Owen Wilson is a good friend of his, and Owen Wilson was in Atlanta. So Rick linked me and Owen Wilson up so we could kick it. Rick is just a good dude man. It was great working with him in the studio 'cause I really just sat back and let him produce me. He’s produced everybody from Neil Diamond to Run-DMC. I just sat back and listened and shit was just dope. He’s a dope producer and a good friend. Actually, I met him and Chris Rock at the same time. Chris Rock is a good dude and a good friend too. Rick is just dope man. I think I really do need to hook up with him again and do some more shit. But the main thing was to get who I could get and get the record done then I’d be able to go do some other shit.
DX: As an artist and producer I’m sure you have tons of unreleased material. One in particular is the “Angry Black Man On An Elevator” track you did with Rhymefest. How’d that collaboration come about and how do you feel when you put your heart into something that never gets released?
Lil Jon: Me and [Rhymefest] put our hearts into that record man. We’d never met each other before doing that record. Like if you watch the video he has on the Internet, that’s exactly how shit went. We never met, both didn’t know what to expect. He came to my house and we just sat down and talked, and built, and felt each other's spirit and after that that’s the song we came up with. He’s revolutionary, and he’s Hip Hop. I’m Hip Hop too, 'cause I grew up on [Big Daddy] Kane, Public Enemy, [A] Tribe [Called Quest], De La Soul, Nice & Smooth. We’re both two intelligent black men that can get together and do some shit. That was one of the funnest songs to do cause of how it developed. It went just how it did on the video. It just came together slowly and we were like “Wow. This is powerful.” Like it really felt like some Public Enemy shit. But sometimes you put your heart into something and the record company just doesn’t translate it out to the masses in the right way. You live and you learn and you keep moving and keep pushing and hope it doesn’t happen like that with the next one.
DX: You’ve described this project as you giving people all the different sides of Jon. Can you name some of the songs and the personalities they exemplify?
Lil Jon: You got “Throw It Up Part 2” with me, Pastor Troy, and Waka Flocka [Flame], which is the old Crunk and the new Crunk together. You got “Hey” with me and 3OH!3 which is Pop Jon. Crunk 2010, crunk on its grown, elevated level is “Out of Your Mind.” That song can go to the ‘hood club and the crossover club 'cause it’s all about the energy and tempo that makes you want to wild out. Me and Ying Yang Twins got a record called “Ride Da D,” and that’s the Jon for the strip club. And you got a Crunk Rock record with me, Game, Ice Cube and this black Punk band for Jacksonville, Florida called Whole Wheat Bread called “Killaz.” That’s some straight gangster shit. It’s like [Dr. Dre and Ice Cube's 1994 hit] “Natural Born Killers,” but on crack, with a live band. And you got International Jon with songs like Machuka, Lil Jon and Pitbull on “Work it Out,” and the joint with me and Steve Aoki, which is a huge radio record called “Oh What a Night.” Then you got Jon “smooth for the ladies” with “Ms. Chocolate” featuring R.Kelly and Mario.
DX: Looking at the synth-heavy sound that is the standard in today’s R&B tracks, do you feel like you should get some credit given that you laid out the blueprint for that format back when you did “Yeah!” with Usher?
Lil Jon: I was doing that before anybody. I was the first to use “dance sounds” on Hip Hop beats and R&B shit. I was doing that before, we did “Yeah” way before [Justin Timberlake and Timbaland's] “SexyBack.” Being from the south, we’re always not going to be given as much props but it makes me happy to see people dancing to the shit. To hear songs and hear people say that it sounds like me it kind of makes me feel good to know I influenced some producers. At the end of the day, it’s all about having a good time and partying. That makes me feel good to go in a club and see them going crazy to shit I’ve done. Shit I got a Grammy, “Yeah” was song of the decade…a lot of cats can’t say they had the song of the decade. A lot of cats ain’t got Grammy’s. Shit, we got MTV awards, BET Awards, American Music awards, Billboard Awards…all that shit is on the mantel-piece. Image awards, NAACP awards…I just been blessed man.
DX: So what is it that you feel separates you from other producers?
Lil Jon: I’m different from a lot of producers in that I’ve been able to go across genres and help build them. Most producers do one thing or a couple things. Like some just do good Hip Hop. Or some do both Hip Hop and R&B shit. How many can go to R&B then go do a Dance record, then go out west and do [E-40's] “Tell Me When to Go” and [Too Short's] “Blow The Whistle” and help the movement of [the Bay area] pick back up. Like not just [I was not just] doing records, but [helping] build genres. I helped them build Hyphy, I did Crunk music, I helped with the Reggaeton sound when it came to the states. When Daddy Yankee had his record with me, N.O.R.E., Pitbull…even if you look at the cats doing dance sounding records now me and Pit did that with “The Anthem.” We can even go further back. I did [Usher's] “My Boo.” If you listen to Justin Bieber, it sounds like “My Boo.” It has the same vibe. I’ve been doing stuff for a long time and all this stuff was like the late '90s early 2000s.
DX: You’ve built a brand for yourself with your over-the-top persona. Does it ever carry over into your personal life?
Lil Jon: The only problem is when I’m having quality time with my family. Sometimes people recognize me and they come up and start doing the “Yeah!” and all that shit. Some people are cool and just ask for an autograph or they’ll say, “I see you’re with your family, but I just wanted to give you some respect,” or whatever. It’s cool but sometimes when you’re with your family it can get crazy. I mean, I know my persona is crazy but it seems like soon as I come around people want to get crazy. Other than that it’s all good. I appreciate everybody who shows me love any and everywhere I go. If I’m in an airport early in the morning, crusty eyed and breath stinking, if you want a picture I’ll take that picture. I appreciate every fan. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we’re at and I appreciate every one of them.
DX: You recently tweeted about the deejay at your 12 year old's birthday party playing [Jeremih's] “Birthday Sex.” Did the experience make you take a second look at your own music and where it may be played?
Lil Jon: It was funny. Like it was fucked up, but it was funny. Like dude didn’t do it on purpose, he just wasn’t paying attention. If you’re used to deejaying for adults, you have your sets that you go through and he just wasn’t paying attention and I was like, “Yo nigga, you playing ‘Birthday Sex’ what are you doing?” But before that he played my song “Outta Your Mind,” and you never really realize how much your music is not for kids at all until you’re around other kids and their parents. Like I play my shit in front of my son because he knows he’s not supposed to say that shit. He knows what’s up. But other parents might not play shit like that around their kids. So dude played “Outta Your Mind” and I was like “wow I’m cursing a lot on this fucking song.” But I didn’t make it for kids. But it’s funny 'cause it made me look at my own shit like, “Damn, I curse a lot.” But I make records for adults; it’s definitely not for kids.