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Image: Lil Jon
Fred Prouser  /  Reuters file
Rapper Lil Jon, a former deejay and A&R man, is the undisputed King of Crunk.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/21/2004 11:38:04 AM ET 2004-05-21T15:38:04

Rapper Bonecrusher knows how to get a crowd worked up. At 300-plus, often shirtless pounds, with a thundercloud Afro and a voice capable of pulverizing concrete, his stage presence alone can set an audience’s adrenalin levels soaring.

But he wasn’t prepared for the near-hysterical reception his year-plus old hit “Neva Scared” got from German audiences during a recent overseas jaunt.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was like what hip-hop was in the beginning, with people just going out of their minds. But that’s the kind of thing you expect in Atlanta or Miami or New Orleans. I was sitting there in Germany looking at a couple of thousand white faces yelling “Never Scared! Never Scared”.

Such is the power of hip-hop’s newest dance style — crunk. Then again, ‘dance style’ might be inaccurate, since crunk tracks don’t inspire dances as much as they do near-riots. The slang term (by some accounts southern shorthand for “cranked” or “cranked up”) subs for more familiar terms like “insane” “off the hook” — as in “we got crunk at the party last night”. It can also be applied to a certain brand of dance tracks coming out of the south, distinctive for pounding low end, and frenetic chants and raps. The kind of music that, according to Miami rapper Jacki-O “gets the crowd going crazy.”

Hottest sound in hip-hop nation
Still puzzled? Well, look at crunk as hip-hop’s version of punk rock or headbanger metal, in which the right song — by artists like David Banner, Ying Yang Twins and Pastor Troy — can turn a club or concert floor into a swirling mass of bodies (as in the now classic “mosh pit”). It’s unquestionably the hottest sound in all parts of the hip-hop nation, particularly Atlanta, home to Troy, Ying Yang, Bonecrusher, the undisputed King of Crunk, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz.

“Anything you say about crunk has to start with Lil Jon,” said fellow Atlantan DJ Smurf.

Jon, a former deejay and A&R man, has been producing his own records since the early '90s, remaining largely a regional superstar until 2003, when he dropped the monster crossover hit “Get Low”. That track, with its insanely catchy “window to the wall” refrain, propelled Jon — and crunk in to the national spotlight. Jon’s signature productions — featuring booming bass, menacing synthesizer riffs and stubbornly catchy chants — have made him one of the hottest producers in hip-hop. Jon’s touch helped Usher’s “Yeah” become one of the year’s biggest smash hits. Even northern rappers, who often disdain southern dance tracks, have gotten on the bandwagon — see Busta Rhymes and Nelly's “Get Low” remixes. It’s also spawned a number of Crunk compilations: “Crunk Classics,” (in stores June 22)  “Crunk and Disorderly” and, ultimately, an entire musical movement.

While that movement seems to have sprung out of nowhere, it really hasn’t.

Ever since the early '90s, the south has provided pop’s hottest beats, from the booming bass sound of Tag Team and 69 Boyz, to the syncopated New Orleans styles of the No Limit and Cash Money imprints, to the innovative sounds of Outkast and Virginia-based super-producers Timbaland and The Neptunes.

National flavor
While Crunk is the latest in that line, it hasn’t sprung out of nowhere — you can hear traces of Miami and Memphis in the sound. Lil Jon oversaw the SoSo Def Bass Allstars compilations in the late '90s, and Memphis’ Three Six Mafia’s simplistic hooks would fit right in on a crunk track.

All these influences congealed in the Atlanta club scene, where Lil Jon drew the inspiration for songs like 2000s “Bia Bia” and the pivotal 1997 track and album “Get Crunk, Who You Wit”. Not only was that track the first to use the term “crunk” in a song title, it featured the over-the-top chants (imagine the entire 101st Airborne crammed into a vocal booth) that became a Lil Jon trademark.

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“That was the first track to have all that yelling and stuff over it,” said DJ Smurf (aka Beat-n-azz), who released his own crunk album, “Dead Crunk” in 1999. “When we first heard ('Who You Wit, Who you Wit') we were like, ‘damn!’ You see, Jon is a smart brother, and he used to be up in the clubs deejaying and doing A&R (he was was head of A&R for Jermaine Dupri’s SoSo Def from 1993-2000). And back in the day, you would go out to clubs like 559 in Atlanta, and hear someone like DJ Kizzy Rock chanting and yelling over the records. So Jon saw how the crowd got into it, just decided to make a record that sounded like what was happening at the Atlanta clubs.”

But as the sound spread beyond the Atlanta clubs, it became even more difficult to define, at least musically.

Hard to define
“You have to be careful,” said Smurf, who released “Dead Crunk” in 1999. “Crunk is such a hot term now, that everybody is jumping on it, calling themselves a crunk artists. And not all the tracks you hear from these artists are really crunk tracks. People call us (the Ying Yang Twins) crunk, and we’re not. We make party tracks, and the club gets crunk when we lay it down, but we don’t make crunk music.”  Smurf feels that a real crunk track has two things: Lots of chants, and less emphasis on rapping — the primal, no-nonsense approach laid down by Jon on “Who You Wit”.

“That was the whole point of crunk,” he said. “To just cut out everything but the beat and the chants, to cut through all the (bull) and just give the people what gets them going.”

Bonecrusher, on the other hand, sees the style evolving, and gaining fans in areas beyond the south. Or, considering his Germany experience, beyond the United States.

“Jon came first with the chanting, and then you had people like T.I and me and David Banner adding lyrical skills,” he said. “So crunk is just going to keep on going. It’s like cooking chicken. You can either cook it at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, or at 300 degrees for three hours. We’re like that stuff your mama cooks that has been simmering in the pot all day long. We have been cooking for a long time, and now we’re ready.”

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