I’ve written about a few rappers who use the Lil prefix by now. Last winter I explained how Justin Bieber’s recent behavior might be the fault of Young Money’s Lil Twist. Before that I asked what happened to Lil Flip, who’s sadly most known for his beef with T.I. So I had a rough idea of what this article would be like. Lil Jon had some hits, probably spent his money poorly, and is now gone from the spotlight, probably playing in a Vegas club or something.
And you know what? I was right, by the letter. The man who brought us crunk is, indeed, playing around Las Vegas. But in spirit, Lil Jon isn’t living the life of a has-been. He’s grown, and matured, and found his way to the Vegas not out of a desperate attempt to stay relevant, but because he found the place that would most accept him how he is: crunk. But before we get to Lil Jon’s transition into the EDM club scene, let’s look at his career to date.
Jonathan Smith Defines Crunk
Jonathan Mortimer Smith was born in 1971 in Atlanta, Georgia, where he spent most of his childhood. He then attended Ohio State University, and after graduation, moved back to Atlanta. He began working as a DJ and got a job with So So Def Recordings in 1993.
Shortly after, he adopted the stage name Lil Jon and formed Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz. Joining the group was Sammie “Big Sam” Borris” and Wendell “Lil Bo” Neal. The group signed to Atlanta’s Mirror Image Records, and in 1997, released their first album, distributed by Ichiban Records.
Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album with Da Eastside Boyz had two charting singles, “Who U Wit?” and “Shawty Freak a Lil’ Sumthin.” A couple years later, Lil Jon & his Boyz started BME Recordings, and released their sophomore album, We Still Crunk!. The single “I Like Those Girls” reached 55 on the R&B charts.
Not long after, Bryan Leach at TVT Records heard from his street teams that Lil Jon was an artist to watch. So, he went to a show, and was immediately impressed. Comparing Lil Jon’s stage presence to the Beastie Boys, Leach immediately tried to sign the group to TVT Records. He succeeded, and in 2001 released Put Yo Hood Up.
The first single, “Bia’ Bia,” featured a few of the bigger names in rap at that time, including Ludacris and Chyna Whyte. Peaking at 97 on the Billboard Hot 100, the song led to the album going gold shortly after Lil Jon released his fourth album. Kings of Crunk, released in early 2002, had two singles come off it. The first, “I Don’t Give A…” peaked at #50 on Billboard’s R&B charts.
The second, a collaboration between Lil Jon and Atlanta-based Ying Yang Twins, brought Lil Jon into the national spotlight. “Get Low” became a nightclub favorite, and reached, just barely, the Billboard Top 10. Kings of Crunk went double platinum by the spring of 2003, and Lil Jon started working with some big names.
Between the release of Kings of Crunk and 2004’s Crunk Juice, Lil Jon worked with Usher on “Yeah!” The single went platinum, and helped Lil Jon reach a new chunk of the rap market. So when Crunk Juice was released, the single “Lovers & Friends,” which featured Usher and Ludacris, reached #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the rap charts.
The Death of Crunk
Crunk Juice went double platinum, just like Kings of Crunk before it. Lil Jon was at the peak of his game – which isn’t to say his game improved, but simply that the music industry was ready for what Lil Jon had been selling all along. Then, The Dave Chappelle Show made Lil Jon a household name, outside of rap aficionados and clubbers with his recurring bit “A Moment In The Life of Lil Jon.”
From there, Lil Jon went from the party-monster we could all aspire to be to a parody of himself, almost overnight. Headlines went from discussing his latest recording projects to talking about his latest outfit, or his winery producing an award-winning chardonnay. (Yes, Lil Jon owns a winery. It’s called Little Jonathan Winery.) In 2007 he set a Guinness World Record with his bling, a 12 pound chain that proclaimed “Crunk Ain’t Dead.”
In his professional life, Lil Jon severed ties with both the East Side Boyz, who he’d been with for over a decade, and their label TVT. TVT was in the process of selling out to The Orchard, a hub of independent artist holdings (many of which came from bankrupt labels like TVT.) At first, Lil Jon objected to the sale, but when The Orchard released Lil Jon from any future obligations and gave him the rights to his music, he acquiesced.
Crunk Rock, Lil Jon’s sixth album, was released on June 8, 2010. The album featured work from Soulja Boy, Waka Flocka Flame, and R. Kelly, but undersold even conservative estimates. Within a year, Lil Jon was being investigated by the IRS for unpaid taxes. Perhaps looking for some advice on how to get away with declaring bankruptcy, Lil Jon appeared on the fourth season of Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, making it to the final four contestants before being cut.
What is Lil Jon Doing Now in 2018
Just because Lil Jon can’t sell an entire album of crunk anymore doesn’t mean crunk is dead – don’t sell that chain yet, Jonathan. It just means that Lil Jon’s role in the rap scene has changed. Where he once was able to pull in big names to feature on his tracks, he is now the big name brought in to give a song that special something.
Which is exactly what happened in 2011, when he released “Drink” with LMFAO. And then again in 2014 with DJ Snake and “Turn Down for What,” which debuted at #38 on Billboard’s Hot 100, eventually peaking at #4 and being 3x platinum certified. Notably, the track was ranked on the Dance/Electronic chart, not R&B or rap charts.
To those not following the artist, this may seem like the inevitable trajectory of anyone in Lil Jon’s shoes. A few (or a lot of…) big hits, developing into a trademark sound, which is then sold to anyone willing to buy it. But that isn’t the case with Lil Jon. Remember, he was a DJ in Atlanta before he ever brought together his East Side Boyz.
So when Lil Jon’s music started drifting toward more traditional club sounds, it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Lil Jon himself acknowledged in interviews that hip-hop was music by younger people, and even if you managed to produce sounds that stayed relevant, consumers would discount it simply based on the artist’s age.
He didn’t see those same problems in the dance club scene, where DJs could easily be in their 50s (Jon is now 43.) When he got an opportunity to start working at the Wynn Social clubs in Las Vegas, he took it. He began working steadily in las Vegas after his stint on Celebrity Apprentice, and has now been working there for a few years.
Lil Jon seems to have found a place to roost. By his own admission, Las Vegas is “the best party,” and to wind up anyplace less would be a tragedy for the King of Crunk. Now all that’s left is to see how his unique place in rap will hold up as he moves further into EDM.