Rap musician, producer
While few would argue that New York City is the mecca of hip-hop culture, other areas are quickly gaining prominence. In the South, rap music has gone from being a foreign import to an organic production with its own distinct sound: crunk music. The sound, which is marked by bass-heavy beats, rebellious chants, and frenzied responses from listeners, has gone from local fare to become a national obsession. Lil' Jon told the Associated Press, "The energy from these records, that's what makes crunk so popular; that's why it's winning, because it makes you move a certain way. … Crunk music, it makes you just wanna lose your mind—just be free and wild out." In less than ten years, rapper/producer Lil' Jon has become the face of the crunk movement, and one of rap music's most prominent figures.
Born Jonathan Smith, Lil' Jon began his music career as a DJ at Club Phoenix, a popular nightclub in Atlanta, Georgia. His ability to excite crowds with the music as well as his rambunctious personality impressed many of the celebrities that visited the club. Within a few years, Lil' Jon's talents were noticed by Jermaine Dupri, who hired him as the executive vice president of A&R at So So Def Records. In that capacity, he worked as a talent scout for the label and gained an intricate understanding of the record-making process from beginning to end. During that time, Jon hosted a reggae show on V103, one of Atlanta's most popular urban radio outlets. Jon also began producing records for area artists and remixing songs for nationally recognized artists like Usher, Too Short, Xscape, and Total.
By the mid-1990s Jon had assembled childhood friends Big Sam and Lil Bo (both also DJs) to create the group Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz. The group performed at small clubs and began selling their own records. They released their first single, "Who U Wit?," in 1995 and it became an instant hit throughout the South. The group's groundbreaking sound enabled them to sell (by Jon's own account) several hundred thousand records without the help of a major record or distribution deal. Jon told Vibe, "We had a hit record every year in the South and Midwest so we always knew from day one that we knew how to make good music and music that made the clubs go crazy. So once we got on a level where it could be nationally promoted and distributed properly, we knew that you couldn't deny the music."
The beginning of the national promotion that Jon was looking for came in 2001, when he and the Eastside Boyz signed with TVT Records. The group released its second album, "Put Yo Hood Up," which provided them with considerable national exposure on the strength of the smash single "Bia' Bia'," featuring Atlanta favorites Ludacris, Too $hort, and Chyna Whyte. The album, which certified Lil' Jon's hit-making capabilities, sold more than two million copies.
Encouraged by the success of the album, Jon decided to quickly release the group's third LP, and in 2002 Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz released The Kings of Crunk. This time around, the driving song was the radio mainstay "I Don't Give A…" The album sold more than2.1 million copies and cemented the group's reputation as legitimate national artists. About the album, Jon told USA Today, "We don't consider ourselves rappers. We just get the party crunk and wild and crazy and then get the best rappers to jump on the track."
Lil' Jon's willingness to step back and assume a production role while accentuating the talents of more skilled rappers has made him attractive to artists across a variety of genres. In 2003 Jon was responsible for multiple top-ten hits on the R&B and rap music charts simultaneously, including "Salt Shaker" and "Get Low" (featuring the Ying Yang Twins), and "Damn!" (featuring YoungBloodz). By the end of the year Jon was receiving work requests from pop music's biggest stars, including Usher, for whom he made "Yeah!," one of 2004's biggest hits. He told USA Today, "The Usher song was major for me. It almost didn't make the album. But for him to do it and use my catchphrase, 'Yeah!,' just helped catapult me into the ranks of the top producers." Lil' Jon, Usher, and Ludacris shared a Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for the song in 2004.
Since the release of the mega-hit "Yeah!," artists from Ice Cube to Paris Hilton have requested Jon's skills behind the boards. While he has also been able to make hit songs for artists like Ciara ("Goodies") and Petey Pablo ("Freek-A-Leek"), Jon's growing mass appeal has prevented him from being able to honor all requests.
Jon has become more selective in honoring outside production requests, deciding to devote more of his limited time to supporting the artists on his own BME recording label, which has already produced two gold albums and expects further success with the future release of LPs from E-40, Oobie, and Chyna White. In November of 2004 Lil' Jon released Crunk Juice, a highly collaborative album featuring the talents of Rick Rubin, Timbaland, and Ludacris. In addition to music, Jon has developed his own line of Oakley sunglasses and created his own energy beverage line, appropriately labeled "Crunk Juice."
By the end of 2004, Lil' Jon had gone from rap star to burgeoning national celebrity. His new status became apparent as he received one of pop culture's most dubious honors: he became the butt of several public jokes. After appearing in the comedic routines of Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock, Jon's signature shouts ("Yeah!," "What?," "Okay!") and look (he wears long dreadlocks, gold teeth, and carries a gold chalice he calls a "pimp cup") have become as recognizable as the crunk rhythms that he creates. In spite of his often-caricatured image, Lil' Jon has proven himself to be a successful businessman, visionary, and one of hip-hop's new pioneers.
For the Record . . .
Born Jonathan Smith in Atlanta, GA; married, 2004.
Began music career as a DJ at Club Phoenix in Atlanta, GA; hosted a reggae show on Atlanta radio station V103; formed group Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz, mid-1990s; with group, released single "Who U Wit?," 1995; signed with TVT Records, 2001; released Put Yo Hood Up, which included the single "Bia' Bia'," 2001; released Kings of Crunk, 2002; released Crunk Juice, 2004; produced hits for other artists, including Usher, Ludacris, Ciara, and Petey Pablo, 2000s.
Awards: Billboard Music Awards, Hot 100 Producer of the Year, Independent Album Artist of the Year (with the East Side Boyz), Independent Album of the Year for Kings of Crunk (with the East Side Boyz), all 2004; Grammy Award, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for "Yeah!" (with Usher and Ludacris), 2004.
Addresses: Record company—TVT Records, 23 East 4th St. 3rd Fl., New York, NY 10003, website: http://www.tvtrecords.com. Website—Lil' Jon Official Website: http://www.liljononline.com.
Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album, D.M. Records, 1997.
Put Yo Hood Up, TVT Records, 2001.
Kings of Crunk, TVT Records, 2002.
Crunk Juice, TVT Records, 2004.
Associated Press, November 16, 2004.
Billboard, December 4, 2004.
USA Today, November 15, 2004.
Lil' Jon Official Website, http://www.liljononline.com (December 2, 2004).
"Lil' Jon's Crunk Juice," Vibe.com, http://www.vibe.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=510 (November 16, 2004).
—Marc L. Hill
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