For hard-core hip-hop heads and regular patrons of urban clubs throughout the South and West, Jonathan "Lil' Jon" Smith is not a newcomer. The Atlanta producer, promoter and rapper (if that's what you want to call it) has been developing a style of simplistic but undeniably enjoyable hip-hop he calls "crunk" since the early '90s. As his embrace of the slang term suggests, "crunk" music was designed as a dance soundtrack for intoxicated club-hoppers who needed to get their groove on while sipping on Cristal and Hennessey or dusting their noses.
"Crunk," in the form Lil' Jon envisions (the free-floating term has been casually lifted by other Southern rappers), isn't G-Funk. It doesn't have the sophistication. Nor is it supposed to be as audacious as Miami bass music. Lil' Jon doesn't want his listeners to be overwhelmed by too many beats per minute. The resulting combo, then, is easily made and sounds do-it-yourself cheap. Most of Jon's crunk songs, performed as Lil' Jon & the Eastside Boyz, have over the years featured minimal keyboard patterns over slow drum claps and little else. Mostly, his songs emphasize his hyper, possessed screams and chants. It's up to him and his accompanying rappers to hype up the party with all the foul-mouthed and sex-minded phrases they can muster. Crunk wasn't created as pop music, even if it was ridiculously hummable.
But now, with the kingdoms of New York and Los Angeles mass-producing uninspired, same-sounding crap, crunk is pop music, and Lil' Jon is suddenly the new king of the hip-hop world's "Dirty South." Southern rappers across the region have caught on to Jon's sound and are employing him now as a producer-for-hire. And radio ears in need of a good, fun fix are listening. Two weeks ago, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz's 2002 album Kings of Crunk, featuring a photo of Jon flashing his platinum-capped teeth, wearing loud shades and holding a regal chalice in his left hand, was certified platinum. Several Lil' Jon productions, meanwhile, continue to creep up Billboard's singles chart.
As a cross-section of recent Lil' Jon compositions shows, the mystery of his appeal isn't all that hard to solve:
Lil' Jon & the Eastside Boyz featuring the Yin Yang Twins, "Get Low": Perhaps it's fitting. Crunk erupts into the mainstream with a song that sounds like it was made an hour before the club doors opened. Lil' Jon made his reputation and paid his bills for years with songs like "Get Low." The song is five and a half minutes of monosyllabic rhyming. "Get low, get low/To the window/To the wall/Till the sweat drops down my balls/And all these bitches crawl," Jon directs on the catchy-as-hell hook. If we're all blessed with one gift at birth, this is his. He inherited an uncanny ability to keep pumping out juvenile cadences for pop songs.
For his breakthrough, Jon cranks his drums more than usual and rubs conflicting keyboard parts together. A bass-heavy synth sets a dark foundation; a perky four-note violin sequence darts like a hummingbird. The beat is a genuine eye-opener, a knee shaker, which may explain all the inspired and amusing mantras that dominate the song. It reads like a boot camp manual for horny clubland homies -- "Sock it to me, sock it to me one more time," "Back it up," "Stop, ho, and wiggle with it," "Work something, baby," "Bend over to the front, touch your toes, ride that ass up and down and get low!" The rappers shout their instructions with such conviction, it all sounds perfectly fulfilling.
Jon also invites TVT labelmates the Yin Yang Twins to drop a few verses here and there, which is too bad. On a song like this, no one remembers the mumbles about dirty dances in between all the high-energy chorus-line material.
Yin Yang Twins featuring Lil' Jon & the Eastside Boyz, "Salt Shaker": Interestingly enough, the Yin Yang Twins -- two amped-up braided dudes also from Atlanta -- fare much better when their in-house producer Beat-In-Azz copies Lil' Jon's crunkness, down to the most minor of details. With its frenetic clap-drum beat, sparse bass line and echoing chime, it could all form the basis of a weird lawsuit -- "Naw, man, my four notes go like this!" Fortunately, Beat-In-Azz and the Twins are deferential and invite Jon to lend his scream the way only he can -- "Shake it like a salt shaker!" Guess what this song is about.
Youngbloodz, "Damn!": On this rising hit by two Georgia buddies with the gumption to name their album Drankin' Patnaz, Jon shows his, um, range. In his crunk canon, the music here is a drama beat.
Youngbloodz definitely want to get their crunk on, but they also have to maintain a thug pose for the masses. Hence, a violin motif amid the snap-crack snare sounds lifted from the dénouement of an episode of Quincy, M.E. , a subtle G-Funk chime loop creeps in and out, and Jon's distinctive growl warns the haters, "Don't start no shit/There won't be no shit!" That's all the threatening vibe rappers Sean Paul and J Bo to fuel their swagger, to do their "8-Ball nigga sippin'" and cut down enemies talking all their "big black shit." "If you don't give a damn/We don't give a fuck," them patnaz shout on the hook, which Jon punctuates with a grunting "Hey!" It's about the most divisive clubbing anthem imaginable, something smooth enough to keep the folks dancing but rough enough for those seven guys who always seem to misbehave by the end of the night.
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Nappy Roots, "What Cha Gonna Do?": It hasn't hit the pop charts yet. But with its bouncy horn-keyboard line, droning old-school chorus and step-show bridge ("To the left, yeah, stomp with it!"), it's destined to head that way -- a curiously crunked-out Lil' Jon production for a Kentucky troupe that spends most of its time debunking the crunk.
A sextet from Bowling Green, Nappy Roots draws heavily from its poor rural origins. On last year's debut album, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, and their new Wooden Leather, the group equates the word "nappy" with purity and realism. If you let your hair grow out, wear overalls and consider the consequences of your behavior, you're "nappy." And if you sample RFK announcing King's death and prefer front-porch blues, vintage soul and even George Clinton acid-freakouts, that's "nappy," too.
Yet, as the lyrics to the new album reveal, these guys also like to smoke weed by the Costa Rican shipload, and over and over again they see themselves as a single entity. Lil' Jon, then, can appeal to them on a visceral, soul-to-soul level (the Tao of Crunk?). The potheads really wanna stomp with all that knowledge and non-pretentious patter. Jon's distilled energy gives them plenty of incentive, however nonsensically. "All that chronic got them niggas scrappin' often/We gonna keep it nappy/Slumpy, slumpy conky, jonky," rhymes Skinny Deville.
Who can argue with that logic?