To those acquainted with the Atlanta crunk scene of the 1990s, Lil Jon shines out like a star on its Walk of Fame: like the gold and diamonds adoring his trademark grill, it blinds you with its brightness. Like many subcultures, crunk has been left behind in the annals of the nineties. Crunk may have died, but Lil Jon’s career has evolved with the times and continued to be extremely successful. From his early days and hits with Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz through to his work with Usher and his international hit ‘Turn Down for What’, Lil Jon continues to be a musical tour de force. He has not only survived, he has thrived.
One plausible explanation for Lil Jon’s longevity in the business is his versatility. He is certainly no stranger to sticking his fingers in a few pies at the same time. Whether it be musically, or in an entrepreneurial capacity (see his two series on the American Apprentice), his interests and talents are diverse. Looking back, his approach to the game has always been the same. His signing to So So Def Records in 1993 forged the beginning of a career that continues to flourish with no end in sight. But despite jumping between DJ sets and his original productions, his journey to success has not always progressed as smoothly as one would perceive from looking at his large back catalogue of A-list collaborators. In his eyes, he has always been the outsider in the industry.
“Throughout my career I’ve been the underdog. I’ve used all that negative energy to fuel myself and show them that I was going to do better, to be successful. The first single I did, I remember taking it to the radio station and the DJ laughing at me for having no rap on it and for having a monotone sound. They were just dissing my beat. But I knew it was a hit. I made it for the club. This one DJ said, ‘Imma play this song five times a night.’ And he played in the hottest club in Atlanta at the time. And sure enough, his repeated playing in this one club made it a hit in Atlanta. My advice is always to use that negativity to work harder and to do the best job you can do. Make the haters your motivators. I’ve been using that as my motivation for my whole career.”
â€¨Whatever motivates him, there is no denying that the business in which Lil Jon operates in has evolved dramatically. Gone are the days when you had to hire studios, pay for tape and then find some way to get your music heard beyond a mixtape given to friends. However, Lil Jon remarks that such a development has both positives and negatives. Although the freeing of recording space and internet distribution has allowed budding musicians to be heard anywhere and by anyone, he remarks suchâ€¨a move has resulted in a form of oversaturation of the business. But what continues to thrive is the Atlanta scene in which Lil Jon grew up and partook. Although now, over 20 years down the line, it perplexes him at points.
“Atlanta’s artists are always so differentâ€¨from anywhere else. Some of the stuff is good. But as I’m getting older, I can’t digest some of it if I’m honest. But we’ve always made catchy records. Although even if you don’t like it, you still find yourself tapping your feet to a lot of the stuff: you know the lyrics, you know the chorus. But I think for me it’s that I’m older. This is a different generation creating this music. Some of it is cool, but some of it I don’t know what the hell is going on. Although the scene is still important, I think trap is turning into the real party music now, which is pretty cool; that a hybrid of EDM and southern hip-hop has turned into its own thing now. Trap has the energy in the EDM world right now. I thought that EDM had got too commercialised for a second. Then trap came and it was fresh and new and different. I think that’s my favourite stuff right now.”
But in the changing music scene, how does someone who started his career in a completely different musical environment continue to remain on trend? To Lil Jon, the answer comes in the form of constantly remaining open to new forms of inspiration. He may have been raised on funk by his mother at her house parties, but his mind has remained constantly open to new creative sources. “From the disco, to the funk, to the soul. Everything I’ve listened to has influenced me. That’s why I feel I can jump around so much with what I do.
“I’m going to keep going with the flow, going wherever it takes me. I’m doing all types of stuff. For example, I’m doing some Arabic fusion stuff right now. I’ve been in Morocco, Beirut – all over. And those influences have been hitting me. That’s how artists are. When some influences hit you, you take it. When you can work on it, you work on it and try and make something special. I’m just going to keep doing all types of stuff and see what happens.”
One facet of the industry which has been a constant source of controversy is its treatment ofâ€¨women. Rap videos haveâ€¨never shied away fromâ€¨their sexualised depictionsâ€¨of scantily clad women gyrating on camera. Lil Jon’s latestâ€¨music video for the track ‘Bendâ€¨Ova’ continues to propagate said “tradition” as women of all shapes and sizes dance as he raps, “Wiggle that ass like it’s shaped like a jello.” But as a co-director to most of his videos, Lil Jon argues that it is the media, and not the rap game, which has problems with depicting women in such a manner.
“I think it’s just the media. I mean nowadays, women like to express themselves, they like to show off their bodies. They work hard in the gym, they want to wear that sexy dress like Beyoncé, or the other girls did at the Met Gala. They’re showing off what they want to show off.
“It’s funny, I saw a meme and it says ‘This is a picture from the AVN [Adult Video News] Awards, the porn awards, and this is a picture from the Met Gala. And all of the girls were naked at the Met Gala. So it just shows you, you know, they know what they’re doing. This is how they make a living. They know their bodies, what their body looks like. They know that people will buy this stuff if they show a little bit more skin, that’ll keep people talking. I mean look at Kim Kardashian. They probably sold a lot of magazines or whatever.”
Talk of magazines brings us onto Lil Jon’s view of corporate America. To him, the “corporate” is a world to be treated with great care and caution, only entered into when absolutely necessary.
“I guess corporate is what you call corporate. Sometimes it’s too strict, by the book. I don’t really hate ‘corporate’ America. It’s just not for me all of the time. If you’re doing something in a major way, say if I sign a television deal, I’m going to have to deal with a corporate company. I guess what I was really talking about when I said I hated corporate America is in the sense of the record company business. Being independent, being free is a better way to go than being on a major label. Because a major label wouldn’t understand me. And also major labels don’t give time for artists to develop. Artist development is just gone. They want to a song out and for people to react and if they don’t, then they just move onto the next song and the next artist. Being independent and out of that corporate environment works better for me and a lot of other artists as we can move around the way we want. We don’t get caught up in all that scheduling and this corporate way of rolling stuff out.”
As well as his solo work on such independent labels, Lil Jon specialises in drawing big names to work with him. Next on his hit list? None other than Jay-Z and Kanye West. But after so long in the game, what is that Lil Jon looks for in a collaborator? Someone doesn’t get so successful by plucking names out of thin air and hoping they share the same vibe as his own music.
“Kanye just has this certain kind of energy and his flow is just crazy. He’s also a producer, so it’d be cool to make and maybe even produce a track with him. And Jay-Z is just… damn. His lyrical style is amazing and he just kills it on every track, not matter what kind of track it is. I just think creatively we could come together and just do something really good.”
In his constant evolution, the wheels of Lil Jon’s well-trained and well-oiled music machine show no signs of stopping. His passion for music and his love of all things new suggest Lil Jon may continue producing, rapping and directing until the very end.
“Well, I look at it as God giving me this voice and this talent. And I should use it until I can’t use it no more. I mean I look at people like James Brown, who was performing until he couldn’t perform no more. I want to keep using my voice as long as I can talk. I think God put me here for the specific reason of helping people to forget about their problems for a while, to let loose and enjoy their lives a little. So that’s what my music is about. I don’t regret anything.
“This book has already been written. If something really bad happens, you pull out of it. You learn. And you keep moving forward.”