The past couple of years have seen the Dirty South elevate from a mere contender in the hip-hop rat race to the leader of the pack, dominating the clubs and the charts in the process. One of the architects responsible for this Southern renaissance is producer extraordinaire Jonathan “Lil Jon” Smith. The Atlanta native has created a slew of hits either with his own outfit, Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz (Bo and Big Sam), or by producing chart-topping hits for Usher, The YoungBloodz and Petey Pablo, to name a few.
Jon's success appears to be overnight to the casual production-credit reader, but the boardsmith has been making hits for years. He's not the inventor of crunk — a club-friendly genre of rap music heavy on aggressive, bass-heavy beats and primal, call-and-response hooks — but the success of his production has made him its greatest purveyor. “Crunk is like soul,” explains Jon, whose catchphrases, “Yeah!” “What!” and “Okay!” became part of pop culture when parodied by Dave Chappelle on Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show. “You can't sit in a club and a crunk record come on and not move,” he says. “Just like you can't listen to some Aretha Franklin and not feel that shit in your heart. Same shit.”
BEFORE THE CRUNK
As a teenager, Lil Jon DJ'd house parties, eventually graduating to the Atlanta club scene. His notoriety soon landed him on the music-industry fast track, scoring an A&R gig at Jermaine Dupri's So So Def Records as well as a radio slot on V-103 in Atlanta. Like many a hip-hop music producer, Jon's DJing facilitated his move into production. “I know what DJs want to play and how a record makes people move, the breaks and so on and so forth,” Jon says.
Initially just laying reggae vocals over rap instrumentals, Jon and then-partner Paul Lewis were the unlikely producers behind a popular remix of a record called “Tour” by dancehall reggae artist Capleton in 1994. “We did that in Atlanta, Georgia, and that was the shit in New York and Jamaica,” Jon remembers. “From there, we gained more and more knowledge, and we kept it going.”
After purchasing an Akai MPC3000 from pioneering Florida rap producer Clay D, Jon and Lewis were on their way. Three years later, Lil Jon scored his own hit with the help of the East Side Boyz. “We met through a mutual friend, Playa Poncho,” Big Sam says through his thick Atlanta twang. “He was on So So Def while Jon was doing A&R. Me and Bo used to hang with Poncho and go to the studio with him a lot. We all in the club, like, 30 or 40 deep, just in there just acting a fool. [We] started calling out this chant called ‘Who U Wit.’ Before I knew it, everybody started chanting to it. Jon pulled me to the side [and said], ‘Hey, man, we gonna do that record.’ I looked at him like, ‘Whatever, man. We ain't doin' no damn record.’”
But two days later, Lil Jon had the beat. And after Big Sam and Bo listened and approved it, about a week later, the song was finished. “Who U Wit” became such a big regional hit that a full-length album, Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album (1997) on the independent Mirror Image Records, followed. But only releasing a 12-inch had been their plan. “We weren't trying to be no artists,” Jon says. From that point on, it wasn't a question of when they were going to blow up, but when the rest of the states would realize that they already had.
“‘Who U Wit’ was a hit record in the South, so every year, every summer, we had a hit record,” Lil' Jon says bluntly. “We knew once we got with somebody who could market and promote the records on a major scale, it was just a matter of time.”
After selling thousands upon thousands of records regionally, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz signed with TVT Records in 2001. With TVT (a label built on pushing TV soundtracks) in their corner, Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz were poised to take their crunk music national. The first album from their union, Put Yo Hood Up (TVT, 2001), spawned the hit “Bia, Bia,” featuring Ludacris and Too Short, and eventually reached Gold sales status. But the late-2002 release of Kings of Crunk, again on TVT, saw Jon and company catch their stride. The first single, “I Don't Give a …,” which featured Mystikal and Krayzie Bone, quickly became a club smash only to be eclipsed by the follow-up single, “Get Low,” featuring the Ying Yang Twins. The album eventually reached double-Platinum sales. The success of “Get Low” coincided with that of The YoungBloodz, another crunk-friendly Atlanta group that snagged a major hit thanks to the Lil Jon — produced “Damn!” Intoxicating synth sounds — which Jon had recently added to his repertoire — drove the song's addictive and ruckus-spawning groove.
“I was just going through sounds, and that fucking synth sound, the famous one that's on ‘Yeah,’ I was playing with it, and that just was hittin',” says Jon, who uses the Novation A-Station, Roland XV-5080 and E-mu Proteus for his synth sounds. “Just playing with sounds, that's how I got my most famous signature sound right there. Now, everybody want that sound on whatever track [I create].”
That song, Usher's “Yeah!” found Jon reaching a career milestone: crafting a pop hit. But it almost didn't happen due to Petey Pablo's “Freek-a-Leek,” another Lil Jon creation that sounds eerily similar to Usher's dancefloor delight. “The ‘Freak-a-Leek’ beat was for Mystikal,” Jon reveals. “Mystikal didn't pick the beat, so the beat was just sitting around. So we gave it to somebody to write for Usher. I come to find out that Jive Records gave the beat to Petey Pablo, so both of them got the song at the same time. I tried to work it out so we could give Usher the shit because he's the main nigga in R&B. [But] I was going to do the beat over for Petey, so [he] could still have a hit record, too.”
Jon was unable to work things out with Jive, so, instead, he crafted another beat for Usher. Luckily, things worked out because both artists rose to the occasion, which is essential. “If you listen to the tracks that I've done, the beat is already crazy with no vocals,” Jon says with candor. “Then, you put vocals on it and take it to the next level; that's what's important.”
HUNGRY FOR BEATS
The reason that Jive had a bunch of Lil Jon beats at its disposal was due to his hectic schedule. Sitting at his record label's conference-room table, Jon's persona is the polar opposite of when he's in artist mode. He may be calm and collected, but there is a constant swirl of activity about him due to the numerous business ventures that need attention. He sponsors Crunk!!!, a successful energy drink (à la Red Bull); hosts a best-selling porno series (American Sex Series); and has his own signature line of sunglasses (Oakley Zeros). Those are just a few of the businesses that he keeps daily tabs on. The busy schedule limits his time to practice his bread-and-butter trade.
“Nah, I don't make beats every day,” Lil Jon confirms with a sigh. “With all these companies we running, I only really make beats every now and then. A label might hire me to do something, and I just go into the studio for a couple of days, make 20 beats and let them pick the best beats. I envy producers that can just go in and do beats every day. I ain't got that luxury.”
When he does make beats, he keeps his equipment basic. “I just use simple shit like an MPC3000, Triton, Proteus, Novation — that's basically it,” Jon divulges before including a key element to his sound. “And my 808 drum kits. All the rap records we grew up on back in the day was all 808 kits. In the South, we ain't never really let that shit go. It was all about the 808 toms, 808 claps.
“I just buy a lot of sound modules,” he continues. “My synthesizers is my favorite sounds. So I just buy new modules, but I don't really get to play with shit no more because I'm not stable; I'm always moving.”
BRING IN THE BIG GUNS
With his technique down to a science and the numerous hits flowing in rapid succession — from Ying Yang Twins (“Salt Shaker”) and Lil' Scrappy (“Problems”) to, most recently, Ciara's R&B hit “Goodies” — Jon, without a doubt, ably manages what little time he has. And if the 20-track Crunk Juice (TVT, 2004) is any indication, he's going to extend his 15 minutes at least a couple of more years. His hit-making track record has now afforded him the ability to get even bigger guest artists, including Ice Cube, R. Kelly and Snoop Dogg. “We did a lot of collaborations,” says the usually reserved Bo. “We did something with Rick Rubin, Pharrell, R. Kelly … just took the big names to another level.”
Despite the marquee names, Lil Jon still didn't take any shortcuts in the studio. He hired Craig Love to record guitar parts, LeMarques Jefferson for bass and L-Rock for keyboards. As for vocal recording, he wasn't afraid to lay down the law when he needed to. “If I don't really feel it, I'll tell you to go in and do it over,” Jon says about the back-and-forth he has with rappers. “It don't matter who it is. I'm trying to make a hit. When we was doing the new album, 8 Ball laid a verse down in the studio. I was like, ‘That's jammin’, but that just ain't it for me.' He went in and redid his verse, and his verse is incredible. Same shit with Nas. Nas went in and laid a verse, and we was like, ‘Nah.’ Then, I let him hear the stuff that some of the other cats did on the same song, and he got a direction for his verse.”
Besides commissioning beats from The Neptunes and Rubin, other creative high points in the album include recruiting DJ Flexx to turn his “Aww, skeet, skeet, motherfucker!” vocal call into a party-starting go-go song aptly titled “Aww Skeet Skeet.” He also enlisted Nas, T.I., Fat Joe, Bun B and Ice Cube to trade verses over grungy and relentless percussion on “Grand Finale.”
In addition to tracking songs, Jon makes sure that he is involved in the mixing process. Although he tracks on a Mackie 32•8, he switches to an SSL 9000J console to mix. “I'm part of all the mixes 'cause I learned early on, I like my records to have a certain amount of bass and kick,” Jon says. “I listened to a lot of early Bad Boy stuff. When the Bad Boy records would come on, other records couldn't compare to the way those records sounded. So I started to EQ my records a little heavier: more bass, more kick. If you listen to the ‘Lean Back’ remix I did, when that beat drops, it's so much bigger than the regular ‘Lean Back.’
“It's about how the song is mixed and then the sounds I used, you know, the 808,” he continues, again mentioning the TR-808 drum machine. Its sound can be found on “What U Gon' Do” featuring Lil' Scrappy, the new album's lead single.
“I made that one a little bit different,” Jon explains, referring to the thunderous bass of the testosterone-fueled anthem. “Usually, I take the 808 out on certain parts of the songs. But I took the 808 out all through his verse, so when it gets to the chorus, it's big. Then, we made the 808 bang a little bit harder than normal, too. That's the toast of the engineers that mix it. My boy John Frye, he mixes half of the shit most of the time. Then, we got Ray C in Miami. And that way, you get a record with different kinds of sounds, too. Those are my two guys that make it happen for me on the mixing tip.”
BY CHANCE AND FEEL
By maintaining flexibility and not remaining too steadfast to one particular sound, Jon is able to avoid drowning himself out. With the success that he's been privy to, record labels are quick to bank on his sound, though their demands can be in-advertently stifling. “Record labels always want to say, ‘Yeah, give me a “Yeah,” when ‘Yeah’ just came out of the blue,” Jon says. “That's the worst thing you can tell a producer: ‘Give me a record like this.’”
With the success of Usher's “Yeah,” Jon began producing demos of his R&B-leaning productions. “[I'm] just trying to get some of that R&B and pop money,” he admits. “So I got different writers I work with, like Sean Garrett, who wrote ‘Yeah.’”
But whatever formula or genre that he's aiming for, Jon insists that his success is based on capturing human emotions. “If it don't feel right, then it ain't right,” he says. “If I feel like it ain't bumping hard enough, turn the 808 up. Feel like the vocal ain't loud enough, turn the vocals up. It's all about the vibe. I think that's why the music moves people the way it does, 'cause I make it.” A humble hip-hop producer Lil Jon is not, but for now, the pimp cup keeps on overflowing.
CRUNK JUICE FUEL
Computer, DAW, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G4 computer
Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Digidesign Digi 001 interface
Mackie 32•8 32-channel, 8-bus console
Solid State Logic 9000J console
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth
E-mu Orbit, Proteus, Xtreme Lead-1 rackmount synths
Korg MS2000R rackmount synth
Moog Music Minimoog synth
Novation A-Station rackmount synths (2)
Roland XV-5080 rackmount synth
Waves Platinum plug-in bundle
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Akai MPC3000 sampler/workstation
Roland TR-808 drum machine
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
AKG C 12 mic
GML 8200 EQ
Lexicon 480L reverb
Manley Massive Passive EQ, Variable Mu limiter/compressor
SPL Transient Designer
Summit Audio TLA 100A Tube Leveling Amplifier
Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor/limiter, MEC 1A preamp/compressor/EQ
Mackie HR824s (2)