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Lil Jon is the king of crunk

Former record executive cranks out the tunes with the East Side Boyz.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With its irresistible hip-hop beats and shouted refrains, crunk music incites a fervor in fans that’s reminiscent of a religious experience.

“I would define crunk as more of a spirit,” explains rapper David Banner. “Have you been to a Baptist church in the South? It’s similar to that...It’s that feeling in the club that gets you through life.”

But the Southern-based church of crunk also relies on R-rated chants and drink-and-toke party themes popularized by its leader: Lil Jon, a dreadlocked, metal-toothed producer whose trademark shouts of “YEAH!!!”, “OOOO-KAAAAY!!!” and “WHAAAAATTTTT???!!!!” are saturating pop radio.

“The energy from these records, that’s what makes crunk so popular; that’s why it’s winning, because it makes you move a certain way,” says Lil Jon, sounding far more mellow than his bellowing stage shtick during an interview in the Manhattan offices of his record label. “Like when you hear Aretha Franklin sing — it touches your soul. Crunk music, it makes you just wanna lose your mind — just be free and wild out.”

And there’s plenty more wilding ahead.

New album, big guest starsOn Tuesday, Lil Jon and his cohorts, the East Side Boyz, released “Crunk Juice.” It’s the follow-up to their 2002 double-platinum “Kings of Crunk” album, which included the infectious hit “Get Low,” which crossed over from nightclubs to frathouses.

The new album, which includes guest appearances from Usher, R. Kelly, Nas, Ice Cube and others, includes the typical hollering, body-slamming anthems crunkheads crave. But Lil Jon wants to give them a little more substance — like what he bills as the first crunk song with a story, a collaboration with esteemed producer Rick Rubin. The track tells the tale of a simple man struggling to fight against the problems the world puts upon him.

The title? It would get bleeped on MTV, but let’s just say it asks to simply be left alone.

“With this album, we’ve grown as crunk artists,” boasts Lil Jon, who did most of the talking during a group interview to promote the album (his counterparts, Lil Bo and Big Sam, may have slow to respond due to the variety of self-medicating elixirs lying on the table).

“The music is, like, evolving,” he adds.

Though crunk music has been around for more than a decade, Lil Jon — a former record executive by the name of Jonathan Smith — may be most responsible for its skyrocketing popularity. Either as an artist, collaborator or producer, Lil Jon is behind many of the genre’s biggest crossover successes: “Get Low”; Petey Pablo’s deliciously dirty-minded “Freek-A-Leek”; the Ying Yang Twins shamefully catchy “Salt Shaker”; Ciara’s enticing “Goodies”; and, of course, the year’s biggest smash, Usher’s superstar-making “Yeah!”

“The thing I give Jon credit for is putting it all together and giving it a name and giving it a face,” says Banner, a longtime friend. “The spirit has always been here. He defined it.”

More than the ‘black Cousin It’He’s personified it with his court jester image and antics. His wide, metallic grin stays at full wattage as he shakes his long, dreadlocked mane and sneers his trademarked chants, which have become the catch phrases of the moment. Add the gold-and-diamond studded pimp cup he uses to imbibe onstage (and off, for that matter), and you’ve got yourself a character — and a caricature.

Dave Chappelle famously parodied him on his comedy show, and during last year’s MTV Awards, host Chris Rock joked that he resembled a “black Cousin It.”

But unlike Michael Jackson, Lil Jon doesn’t get his feelings hurt — Chris Rock makes hilarious cameos on “Crunk Juice,” and Lil Jon is grateful for the exposure Chappelle’s show has given him.

“Dave helped us to touch people that we would never touch with the music. You got 50-year-old white people coming up saying ‘YEAH!’ ‘WHAT!’ ‘O.K.!’,” says Lil Jon.

The idea that frat boys would be swaying to “Get Low,” or that R&B crooners like Usher (and even novelty wannabe singer Paris Hilton) would count on Lil Jon for the jam of the moment, demonstrates his sudden rise in the music world.

Executive beginnings
Though Lil Jon got his big start as an executive at Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Records in 1993, he soon realized that the career he wanted to guide was his own, not others. Joining with Lil Bo and Big Sam — two DJs who were old school buddies — they became the East Side Boyz, performing at tiny dives, selling their own records and supplying their crunk energy to the clubs and anyone else who wanted to get it off the streets. Eventually he left So So Def, and while he brags that the trio was selling hundreds of thousands of records, they were still an Atlanta phenomenon with roots reaching only the southern states.

After inking a deal with the New York-based TVT Records, and releasing the album “Put Yo Hood Up” in 2001, their profile started to grow. Still, it was a slow climb. The trio recalls when they couldn’t even get on stage on BET’s “106 & Park” — they were relegated to the audience.

“They hadn’t gone out and partied with us,” explains Lil Bo.

“(But) they saw how the records made people lose their minds — they had not seen that before. That’s what made everybody come around,” says Lil Jon.

The more success the group had, the more other artist started asking Lil Jon for some of that crunk juice — and his production career soared.

Banner says his skills have long been underrated.

“I don’t think people know how intelligent Lil Jon is. Lil Jon is actually a genius. People think Lil Jon goes to the studio and start hollering. There is a method to his madness,” Banner says.

Substances aren't optionalWhile he may be a skilled producer, part of the madness includes getting crunk — which usually means getting at least a little drunk. Sitting in the label offices, Lil Jon and his Boyz offer up a fragrant marijuana blunt and a Crunk Juice tonic — their new energy drink mixed with top-shelf vodka. Not exactly standard interview behavior, even in the drinking and drugging music industry.

While Lil Jon constantly refers to the unit, its clear that he’s the Beyoncé of group. Even when questions are posed to Lil Bo and Big Sam, Lil Jon somehow finds a way to answer them. And when a reporter asks to hear the new album in advance, he says, “Nobody’s got a copy — they don’t even have a copy,” he says, gesturing to the Boyz. “I’m like the only one that got a copy of the album. We don’t even want it to accidentally come out.”

Although the new album can piggyback on Lil Jon’s success, he worries that “Crunk Juice” could also fall victim to it.

“We gotta not just outdo ourselves, we gotta outdo all the records that I produced!” he says. “It’s too hard, it’s too hard making this album.”

Ah, the price of fame and celebrity. But you won’t hear Lil Jon complaining much. After all, he still has plenty more to accomplish in the world of crunk.

“I look at Timbaland, I look at the Neptunes — look how many records they sold, how many hits they got,” he says of the production powerhouses. “The little accomplishments I got ain’t (nothing), I got a long way to go. So, we’re still grinding — shaking hands, kissing babies.

“It’s gonna always be like that, because that’s where we came from.”