Make ‘em say crunk

The etymological significance of coded language — or why some words just sound good in hip-hop

“But remembering the early civility they brought upon these Countreys, and forgetting long past mischiefs; we mercifully preserve their bones, and pisse not upon their ashes.”

-- Sir Thomas Browne, Urn Buriall, 17th cent.

Modern English, like much of recent Southern hip-hop, derives its spunk and vibrancy from the tension of opposing elements. In language, as in Dirty South rap, the elegant and the rank shack-up and co-depend. Hip-hop is that way because, most agree, that’s basically how life is — more so for some than others. But in the case of our often confounding, unnecessarily complex and lovably mutt-like English, blame it on the Battle of Hastings. You know, the one back in the ’60s — the year 1066 to be exact.

When the Normans from France beat the Saxons on their home turf and settled in as rulers of England, they brought with them an ornate, flowing Romance language, multi-syllabic in all its Latinate glory. Meanwhile, the short, sharp, blunt-speak of the Germanic-derived Old English — a name later adopted by gangsta rap’s choice beverage — had served the conquered Saxons just fine for at least 500 years (giving Modern English useful words like mad, fight and puff, as well as fuck, shit and thousands of others). But as the Normans and the Saxons mixed and mingled over the first half of the last millennium, Latin-based words — such as incensed, quarrel and inhale, as well as intercourse, defecate and thousands more — entered the local tongue, integrating so much Franco frou-frou that English, as we speak it today, became a new language entirely.

While the Normans and Saxons have long since settled their beef, class differentiation between the usage of dominant and marginalized peoples have survived in our vocabulary. Just compare two words that once meant the same thing: The French word for those buildings we live in has transmuted to English as the haughty, sloping mansion, while Germans gave us the simple, utilitarian house (and the hip-hop slang crib, you’ll note, is Old English as well). But the clash of Latin- and Germanic-rooted words also informs the way we receive meaning in much less conspicuous and more important ways.

While our Latin-derived vocabulary still tends to be the province of more formal speech and privileged classes, the terse eloquence of Germanic/Old English-derived words spark the language of the underdog. More than their meanings, the mere sounds of many Germanic words carry an unpolished, almost subversive, edge that lends nicely to hip-hop. And that explains, for the most part, why you don’t hear in-your-face street-rappers claiming that they fail to comprehend the significance of a certain situation, but you might hear them say they just don’t give a fuck.

And that, of course, brings us to that late, late adaptation of old Germanic English: crunk. The arbiters of hip colloquy no doubt deem the term to be oh-so late-20th century, heaping it on the compost pile of perishable verbiage. It’s still useful, though, and it warrants redress.

An Atlanta hip-hop idiom that seeped its way into national slang, crunk — or commonly, get crunk — roughly decodes as the state of being elevated in spirit or enthusiasm; that is, of being cranked up (drug connotations notwithstanding). While its root, crank, is itself a fine example of Old-English severity, crunk goes it one better by mutating from a weak verb (one with suffix added, as in dance/danced) to a strong verb (with an internal vowel change, as in swim/swum). That the new word now rhymes with drunk doesn’t hurt either, making crunk not only severe and strong, but earning a bacchanalian shade as well. All in all, it’s a truly marvelous specimen of the visceral impact a Germanic-rooted word can have in our modern language: Just say it to yourself a few times — it’s downright nasty.

Though the term undoubtedly germinated among influential insiders long before it reached most of our ears, crunk first entered the national hip-hop discourse around 1998, when it appeared in the chorus of OutKast’s breakthrough pop hit, “Rosa Parks” (“We the type of people make the club get crunk”). The rest would be linguistic history, except that OutKast are by no means the beginning nor the end of crunk.

Of course, OutKast can easily claim some degree of crunkdom. In fact, they have a certain knack at adding new glory to already punchy Germanic words — turning ineffable stink into planetary Stankonia. Still, their degree of crunkness is less than pure. They are, after all, the group that souped-up a Latinate root (music) to create something called Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. There’s something much more refined and studied about OutKast that tempers their crunkness. They’re part crunk, sure, but they’re at least as much cultivated and classical.

For a slab of 100 percent undiluted crunk — perhaps too crunk to be healthy — consider Decatur’s Lil Jon & the EastSide Boyz. With their 1996 independent debut, Who U Wit, Get Crunk: Da Album, the former club DJ/So So Def A&R man and his two backing boyz actually had “Rosa Parks” beat to market by two years. With the recent release of a third album, Put Yo Hood Up — essentially a redo of last year’s We Still Crunk!!! with new singles added — the shit is so crunk it would be a stretch to even call it rap. Lil Jon’s grunts and chants are so terse, so inarticulately fractured, the sense of flow and subtle cadence that rappers typically employ is completely absent.

Just check the current hit, “Bia’ Bia’.” Jon accentuates his hook — that is, the word bitch — by stretching it into two syllables (as in, bee-atch), but then deems the entire word not sufficiently pithy to fully realize its crunkness. Hence, the truncated bee-ah. The music follows suit: It’s raw, thoroughly unsubtle and highly repetitive. It’s also aggressive, almost violent; meant for the dance floor but as tailored for the mosh pit as pure hip-hop gets. It’s a sound that Lil Jon — rarely photographed without a snarl — reflects perfectly in his visage.

This is party music, to be sure, but it’s crunked up to dangerous levels. “You don’t want to fuck wit’ me/’Cause my nigga’s in the club wit’ heat,” Jon barks on the title track. It’s as if he’s having so much fucking fun at this party, the adrenaline rush alone could inspire him to just pop a cap in someone’s ass.

True to Lil Jon’s background overseeing So So Def’s Bass All-Stars compilations, Put Yo Hood Up is essentially rooted in the sounds and culture of Southern bass music. But for all the chanting, rumbling sub-bass and tinny drum-machine beats, the stuff is slowed down and roughened up enough to be barely recognizable as bass music. In fact, the record has a lot more in common with another Southern hip-hop sound, that of Master P’s New Orleans franchise. P, after all, is the guy who out-crunked them all with “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!,” a track that hinges on a sound so guttural and viscerally expressive in true Old-English form, it could have been uttered by Grendl himself.

The 404 Soldiers, Lil Jon’s fellow Atlanta crunksters, have even more in common with Master P. Like P’s No Limit label, the duo of C Dawg and Big Lee conjures military imagery. It’s not so much because, say, they support the priorities of the Bush administration, but rather because it suits the music’s marching cadences and tough-guy veneer — grunts, in either case. With the help of Shawty Redd — who produced another local bootstepping anthem, Drama’s “Left Right Left” — 404 Soldiers unleash their major-label debut later this month, Walk Like a Soldier, on Epic.

If you’ve been anywhere near hip-hop radio of late you’ve no doubt heard the record’s title track and leadoff single. “Walk Like a Soldier” isn’t nearly as transgressive as Lil Jon’s offerings (soldier, after all, is Latinate), but a fiery voice yelping, “Walk like a solider, talk like a soldier” clearly puts it in the same ‘hood. Other tracks, including “Banging Dat Ass” and “Fuck A Hoe” (hoe being, like crunk, a condensing of an already terse Germanic term) further convey crunkness.

But, to the betterment of their music if not their crunkdom, the 404 Soldiers never get as densely oppressive as Lil Jon. In fact, toward the end of Walk Like a Soldier, the tone shifts considerable. First, “Moma Don’t Cry” features a mournful female voice soaring over a chorus (“Mama don’t cry/Dry your eye/Your son is still alive”) that sounds far more honest than most of the other “mama songs” that have become a tiresome hip-hop cliché. Then with the finale, “We Do,” things get positively breezy, as the 404 Soldiers join R&B crooner Ginuwine for what could certainly become a pop hit. And popular, of course, is about as Latin-derived as it gets — the antithesis of what’s essentially crunk.

A third local release, arriving in late September via Universal and Sounds of Atlanta Records, deviates even further from a strict diet of Germanic monosyllables, but in some ways gets even closer to the essence of what it means to be crunk. Keep it Country, from Augusta native Miracle, marks a startling transformation from the rapper’s self-titled debut, which yielded the rap hit “Bounce.”

Where Miracle offered standard Dirty South fare — bass beats, screamed raps and blunted chants — Country opens right off with a heavy electric-blues guitar riff. And as the title track kicks in — launched without build-up by a funky guitar jerk and spare, throaty vocal hook — the singular musical reference is unmistakable. Youngsters may hear bits of New Orleans rapper Mystikal, but most of us would quickly recognize the track — and pretty much the entire CD — as a flat-out imitation of Miracle’s fellow Augustan, James Brown.

In fact, Miracle claims that, as a kid, he’d watch Brown practice and help carry his equipment, and some of Miracle’s friends are presumptuous enough to have labeled the rapper the “Grandson of Soul.” Hardly. But nevertheless, it would be an understatement to observe that the Godfather’s influence looms heavily on Country.

And, issues of originality aside, what could be more crunk than that? Way before Lil Jon got us all crunk — before Master P made ‘em say ungh — James Brown was mad-spitting out the hit me!s and yaaow!s. It’s all part of the continuity in black music, and more broadly, part of the aggravated verse of the marginalized. And yo, it goes back a millennium to the very foundations of our language.??