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The Return of Lil Jon and Why It’s No Surprise

Lil Jon
Larry Marano, Getty Images

It makes sense that Lil Jon is back on top. At the height of his popularity in 2003, you couldn’t escape him — between ‘Get Low,’ ‘Damn,’ ‘Salt Shaker’ and ‘Neva Eva,’ he was everywhere. He continued his run of smash hits until 2006, when he did ‘Snap Yo Fingers’ with E-40 and Sean P. Suddenly, the treasure chest seemed to be devoid of any more magic. His time was apparently up.

But the key to survival isn’t strength, it’s adaptability, and Jon donned chameleon skin like the ever-prescient DJ that he started as in Atlanta. In 2009, he quietly released ‘Give It All U Got,’ full of synthy dance intimations about where his music was headed. He never hid the fact that his work was a soundtrack for the club, but it felt like it was changing vehicles — from pop rap to pure EDM.

Fast forward five years, and Lil Jon is conquering the charts once more. His latest phenomenon, ‘Turn Down For What,’ is a collaboration with DJ Snake, a French artist. Combined with the mind-bending video, it’s become one of the hottest songs in the world. It’s among the top 25 most globally played songs on Spotify with over 52 million plays, and it’s been No. 1 on the Dance/Electronic Digital Songs Billboard chart for 13 consecutive weeks.

Watch Lil Jon & DJ Snake’s ‘Turn Down For What’ Video

We should have seen this coming back in 2009, when Diplo posted a picture with Lil Jon on his blog. By that time, Lil Jon’s parade of hits had stalled, while his role as a hit single picker-upper was being boosted by artists like Pitbull and LMFAO. When his stash of personal chart-toppers ran out, his energy on records seemed to double, and that energy has led to his reemergence on pop airwaves — specifically through EDM.

Really, his new sound might have been evident in 2004, when Usher brought Jon onboard to assist with what would become the biggest song of both of their careers, ‘Yeah!’ Despite being produced by Lil Jon and featuring Ludacris, ‘Yeah!’ was a dance record at its core, and it precipitated Usher’s full-on migration into EDM with songs like ‘OMG’ in 2010 and ‘Climax’ in 2012. In our phone conversation, Jon is clear about his importance to today’s musical trends.  “It’s crazy that I was putting EDM sounds on commercial records and hip-hop records eight years ago, and now that’s what twerk and trap is,” he tells The Boombox.

When you talk to Lil Jon on the phone, you’re not sure if it’s actually him. He’s known to be the one yelling, either one word at a time or in short bursts of phrases. Dave Chappelle famously satirized the man’s economic ability to excite, but on a Monday evening he’s calm, still recovering from his weekend activities. You have to take his word for it — this is, in fact, Lil Jon speaking, not screaming.

As a recent piece on NPR pointed out, “turning up” is just “getting crunk,” 10 years later. “Crunk” as a word was being used in the south long before Lil Jon showed up, but he’s still not shy to state his impact on the music industry. “Before Lil Jon and The Eastside Boyz, nobody ever said, ‘I’m a crunk artist. I make crunk music.’ We made [crunk] a genre of music,” Jon states. The entertainer and crew used to get crunk to 8Ball & MJG, No Limit and Three 6 Mafia, but no artists were making that kind of music in Atlanta, so he and The Eastside Boyz decided to make ‘Who U Wit’ in 1997. Four years later, they would do ‘Bia Bia,’ followed by ‘I Don’t Give A F—’ a year later.

Watch Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz’s ‘Bia’ Bia” Video

His approach to music became theatrical with songs that thrived off pure adrenaline instead of any focus on lyricism. Many listeners, especially snooty ones on the East Coast, turned their nose up at the music; iconic rap writer Greg Tate even called Jon “a minstrel-poseur genius” in the Village Voice. In an interview from the same year (2004), Lil Jon had this to say: “We call [crunk music] black rock and roll, or black punk-rock music, because of the energy … Every aspect of it is about the club, so I don’t really care about the person who’s listening on an iPod … My music is designed to make a club go insane when it goes on.” Ten years later, some still haven’t caught on.

That unbridled energy has remained a constant throughout Lil Jon’s career. In fact, it’s made him stand out in the crowd as both a distinguished artist and a certified influencer; It’s hard to imagine Waka Flocka Flame’s popularity without Lil Jon’s success. The more you think about it, the more it seems that post-millennium southern rap in its entirety owes its lineage to Lil Jon. You can draw a line from his approach to instrumentation — lush with 808s and zippy synthesizers — to the work Shawty Redd did on ‘Thug Motivation 101,’ Young Jeezy’s defining album. That sound eventually blossomed into the busy production style of Lex Luger, and has now come full circle with the minimalism of West Coast producers like DJ Mustard and IAmSu. Jon doesn’t miss a beat. “If I never did Too $hort ‘Blow the Whistle’ or any of the E-40 tracks, I don’t think there would be Mustard right now,” he admits.

Yet between now and the time when he was hugely famous, it feels like Lil Jon has been missing from pop culture at large. When asked what he’s been doing, his answer has a hint of defiance. “I actually had a hit every year, but they just weren’t commercial hits. They were in the EDM world,” Jon shares. Even as he’s released songs with Steve Aoki, Alvaro & Mercer and other major EDM players, he doesn’t feel detached from rap music today. “Even though ‘Turn Down For What’ is considered an EDM song, it’s really a rap song,” he says. “It’s a hard ass, 808-driven, 100 BPM track. It’s just got synthesizers on it. It’s exactly what I did with ‘Yeah!’ It’s just a different time.”

You don’t become as successful as Lil Jon without knowing why. How has he stayed relevant for more than a decade? He sums it up without delusion. “My music is party music. If you can make people party, you can always have an audience for that,” Jon reveals. In the past 15 years, pop culture has swung from rap toward EDM for it’s leading sound, and Jon is set to pop up wherever there’s a party. He just jumped on a song with David Guetta and he’s been talking with Avicii about doing work. Tiesto is also a hopeful collaborator. His latest single, ‘Bend Ova,’ is an attempt at reengaging rap fans, packaged with a feature from Tyga. All of this on the back of a song by a French DJ that originally came out in December 2013. Jon isn’t about to turn down for anything.

As the conversation winds down, there’s one last burning question: how does he feel about the condescension towards his music (and southern rap as a whole) over the past 10 to 15 years? First he laughs, but what he says next is a deeply resonant sentiment in an increasingly decrepit environment. “There’s so much s— going on in the world. War, people dying from all kinda s—. It’s just a f—ed up place we’re in. People want to have fun and forget about the bad things that are happening in their life and in the world. When you have a record like ‘Turn Down For What,’ it’s a release. You can just go somewhere else. Everyone needs that.”

Listen to Lil Jon’s ‘Bend Ova’ Feat. Tyga

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