Cover Story: All Hail the King Crunk

Lil Jon heralds a new Southern music movement

It ain’t easy being the king of crunk. Folks are always looking at you to get crazy at the drop of a hat, to serve as pied piper of the moving party centered wherever you happen to be, to grit your teeth like a wildman and bare your gleaming platinum-and-diamond-covered fronts each time a camera gets pointed your way.

Lil Jon, however, has perfected the art of crunkery. Even if he wasn’t the guy who all-but-invented crunk music, hip-hop’s Southern-fried flavor of the year — even if he wasn’t the writer, producer, motivator, guest vocalist or primary artist behind every crunk hit in 2003 — he’d still have earned his royal title.

One could argue whether Michael Jackson really is the King of Pop, or if Sting is the King of Pain. But no one will beg to differ if you call Jon the King of Crunk.

“My definition of crunk is Lil Jon,” says Kaine of Ying Yang Twins, one of the string of Atlanta acts that rode the crunk train up the pop charts this year.

“Lil Jon paved the way for these records to break,” says Jon’s former So So Def boss Jermaine Dupri, whose label put out releases by lesser crunkateers Bone Crusher (a Lil Jon disciple) and Youngbloodz (whose hit, “Damn!” was co-written by and features Lil Jon).

Crunk, for anyone who hasn’t kept up on recent pop trends, is a hip-hop sub-genre emanating from the clubs of Atlanta. It’s music designed specifically to get the testosterone boiling — high energy, headbanger hip-hop, better suited for the mosh pit than the V.I.P. area. Its m.o. mainly revolves around cheap beats and impossibly booming bass, catchy call-and-response chants and ferocious roars.

It’s been simmering on a regional level for years, since Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz debuted in ‘96 with “Who U Wit?,” the song that brought the down-South slang “crunk” into hip-hop currency. But crunk, as a genre, went through the roof starting this spring, with a string of national hits: First came Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared” and David Banner’s “Like a Pimp,” followed by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz’s “Get Low” (featuring Ying Yang Twins) and “Damn!,” both of which remain in the top five pop singles. And last week at The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards in Miami, crunk got a powerful bit of national recognition when Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz was named group of the year (see sidebar).

“Crunk is street music, it has a different energy from any other kind of rap out there right now,” Jon says. “It makes you want to wild out, throw some bows. Crunk is a lifestyle in Atlanta, it’s how we grow up. You can be going to the mall on a Saturday and see six motherfuckers in an old-school Chevy, bouncing up and down, swerving. That’s being crunk. Everything about young kids’ culture in Atlanta is about crunk.”

It ain’t easy staying crunk, but Jon’s able to muster crunkitude even under the most inauspicious conditions. For instance, last August in L.A. he headlined an all-day radio festival — his first-ever West Coast show — at the very un-crunk Universal Amphitheater. Jon and his entourage (including East Side Boyz Lil Bo and Big Sam; protege Lil Scrappy; rapper Krayzie Bone; celebrity pimp Bishop Don “Magic” Juan and his lady friend) arrived armed with studded goblets and a liquor bottle or two per person, for use as crunk accessories as much as for intoxication.

But the guards at the backstage security gate wouldn’t let that much alcohol through, so they had to leave most of the bottles behind. Jon took it in stride, but later, after a couple hours spent inside a walk-in closet-sized dressing room, Jon got a little stir crazy. The wait threatened to kill the crunk buzz Jon had cultivated.

So he busted out of the room and led his posse through the backstage hallways in a quest to get to the bottom of the excruciating delay. He found the production office and pushed his way in to find a group of producers, tech crew and radio station flunkies hanging out.

“Damn, give us a TV or something, we’re getting bored back there!” Jon ranted. “Why you discriminating against a player?”

He was pissed, but in person, he’s nowhere near as intimidating as he looks snarling out from his album covers. Soon, he was kibbitzing with the production staff, teasing and flirting and charming his way to becoming the favorite act they had to deal with all day. Soon enough, he apologized for his outburst. “I was just getting frustrated,” he said.

Such is the king of crunk’s duality. Jon is ready and willing to play the warrior in tireless pursuit of a crazy-ass party, but behind those shades he’s always wearing, behind his leonine dreads and beard, he’s by all accounts a pretty sweet guy. And he’s all about business.

Jon’s brother Willie Smith, a doctor currently doing his residency at Emory, says, “Seeing him on stage and in the videos is totally night and day from what he is as plain old Jonathan Smith. He’s much more quiet, laidback, reserved, no where near as loud.”

“When you go out, he’s wild as hell, you gotta keep your eye on him,” says Rob McDowell, Jon’s friend since middle school and one of his business partners at BME. “But if he was crunk all the time, either he’d pass the fuck out or be in prison. So he’s blessed that he has some sort of medium in there.”

Recently, after a rare day off watching DVDs with his fiancee and 5-year-old son in their south DeKalb home, Jon is back at work on a remix for T.I., another of Atlanta’s new breed of rap stars (crunk by association if not quite by sound). Purposefully marching into T.I.’s Grand Hustle office, Jon quietly and quickly sizes up the studio and hands out orders like he’s a surgeon about to do an emergency operation.

“OK, we’ll set up in here,” Jon says to one engineer, before turning to an assistant. “We’re going to need a couple sixes of beer, and a couple dozen chicken wings.”

He’s in non-crunk mode now — the same guy, but barely recognizable from his stage persona. He’s not even wearing his dark shades. And who would’ve guessed? The king of crunk has himself some big puppy-dog eyes.

“I’m amazed,” he says of the success he’s seen this year, and the changes it has brought his life. “No sleep, always working. When you get a little bit of something jumping off, you gotta get it while you can. So anything that comes up I’m trying to do.”

In addition to his appearances on all of the records by his aforementioned crunk disciples, Jon shows up on new records by OutKast, Murphy Lee and Nappy Roots, as well as recent releases by Trick Daddy, Too $hort and E-40. BME has two simultaneous label deals — one with TVT Records, to put out Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz, female artists Chyna Whyte and Oobie and a Crunk Christmas CD; one with Warner Bros., for forthcoming releases by Lil Scrappy, Trillville and Bo Hagon. He’s finishing up a DVD called Too Crunk For TV, a sort of “Jackass”/”Girls Gone Wild” hybrid ‘n da hood. He’s appearing as host on a series of porn videos, the first coming out next month. He’s also looking at scripts to launch an acting career, while exploring the possibility of doing an adult animated series, “The Adventures of Lil Jon.”

Still, says the former party promoter, DJ and A&R man, he never intended on being a pop star when he took the East Side Boyz into the studio to record “Who U Wit?” “I just really want to focus on my producing, but the artist part takes up more time than anything. You’ve got to do shows, record the album, do interviews. The average producer can sit in his house and just do beats.”

As for the fame, his crunk side clearly thrives on it but his milder half can take it or leave it. “People always knew me from DJing, but in the last year it’s been fucking my head up. Not being able to walk through certain clubs without being bumrushed. And to go to different cities where you never could get a record played and people running up to you and screaming. Stuff could eventually make your head big, but I got people around me keeping me grounded. My business partners are people who’ve been in my life since sixth grade.”

The future king of crunk, Jonathan Smith, grew up in a middle-class Southeast Atlanta neighborhood. He was the oldest of five kids born to a Lockheed engineer father and a mother in the Army Reserves.

“He was very quiet, he liked to read a lot,” recalls his mother, Carrie Smith-Williams. “And he was just a high achiever. He’d finish his work and the teacher kept giving him more work. One day I had to go to school because Jon refused to do any more work. He said, ‘I already have an A. If they’re going to give me an F, I’ll still pass.’ I thought he was going to do computer science, or engineering, or something like that.”

At Southwest Middle School, Jon befriended Rob “Mac” McDowell, Vince “VP” Phillips and Dwayne “Emperor” Searcy, his partners in BME. Jon was particularly tight with Rob, and in their early teens the two immersed themselves in skateboarding. They used to trek up to Piedmont Park to work at Skate Escape, and they got into the music as well. “Agent Orange, all that,” says McDowell. “We were definitely into the slamdancing, just the aggression of it, the anarchy.”

Although Jon went off to a magnet school (Frederick Douglas High) to study computers, the four remained close. Jon’s youngest brother, Chris Smith, recalls Jon’s earliest DJing endeavors with Emperor Searcy, best known these days as a Hot 107.9 radio personality. “When Jon was like 15, 16, he and Searcy used to have house parties every weekend. He used to call them ‘Old Eng and Chicken Wing’ parties.”

By the time he graduated high school, Jon was also DJing at former downtown club The Phoenix and developing a big enough following, particularly for spinning reggae, that the friends founded BME to manage his business. BME soon branched out to do talent shows and manage other artists. Around the same time, Jermaine Dupri approached Jon about doing A&R and street promotions for his fledgling label, So So Def.

Jon’s biggest success at the label was putting together the So So Def Bass All-Stars series, seminal compilations that captured the bass music scene that once dominated Southern hip-hop. But in 1996, as the first All-Stars record was on its way to selling more than a half-million copies, Jon was already heading somewhere else musically.

“When bass started to fade out, me and Searcy were DJing at the 559,” Jon says. “We saw the crowd go from where they’d want to hear bass the entire night, to where they’d want to hear Master P, Mystikal, 8Ball & MJG. The rowdy shit was what got the club off the chain. And I was thinking, damn, ain’t no records just specifically made to get you crunk. 8Ball and them just made a hot song, they didn’t expect to necessarily make you get crunk in the club. We said, ‘We’re going to do a song that’s goal is to make people crunk.’”

Lil Bo, a friend of Jon’s before he became one of the East Side Boyz, recalls, “One night in the club, everyone was chanting, ‘Who you wit?’ just feeling good. We’d hang with like 30 of us, find us a corner, be the rowdy crowd in the club. So Lil Jon told us we’re going to do a song, ‘Who U Wit?’ It was just like, ‘OK, we’ll do a song and that’ll be it.’ And a couple weeks later they came back and said, ‘We want you guys to do an album.’ So we did an album, and here we are today.”

Given the king of crunk’s background, it’s not hard to put the pieces together. It’s possible to see how combining the raw energy of punk, the melodic chanting of dancehall reggae and the low-end thump of bass music could create a new sound that, circa 2003, would capture the attention of hip-hop fans nationwide. And without the highly motivated, hard-working Jonathan Smith behind his wolfman mask, Lil Jon would never have gotten the chance to howl.

Put all the right elements together at the right time — musical vision, business sense, larger-than-life personality — and you have yourself a natural leader with his own musical movement.

Back at Universal Amphitheater for that radio festival, Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz finally did get on stage and showed the West Coast what a dirty South movement feels like. The crowd went wild. Then, as a triumphant Lil Jon left the amphitheater for a waiting stretch Explorer limousine, a couple of the guards stopped him once again at the gate. They’d kept an eye on all the liquor Jon’s entourage had left behind at the start of the night. And there it was, waiting for them.

“Hey, way to look out for a player,” Jon said, pulling from his back pocket a $20 bill for each of the guards. And like that, the king of crunk had left the building.