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A Rational Conversation: Lil Jon's History Of Turning Up

Lil' Jon performing in Hollywood in March.
Chelsea Lauren
Lil' Jon performing in Hollywood in March.

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writerEric Duckerin which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

DJ Snake and Lil Jon'scollaboration "Turn Down for What" has spent several weeks at the top of Billboard's Dance/Electronic Digital Songs chart and is challenging the supremacy on some of the genre's other charts. It's also a rising force on the Hot 100 pop chart, a sign of the increasing popularity of the so-called EDM movement. Lil Jon may be best known as the king of crunk, the sonically inventive and stripped-down Southern sound that assaulted the hip-hop world last decade, but "Turn Down for What" isn't his first time working with a dance music producer. Previous team-ups include "U Don't Like Me" with Diplo and a turn on "Turbulence" by Steve Aoki and Laidback Luke.

Ducker instant messaged with Jubilee — a DJ, producer and writer based in Brooklyn who grew up in Miami — about Lil Jon's history with dance music. They also discuss the relationship between hip-hop and dance music, and what these two worlds borrow from each other, both creatively and culturally.

How does "Turn Down For What" fit in among Lil Jon's history with dance music?

This has been going on for years. He's been with us for a minute. A few years ago my roommate Vivian, aka Star Eyes, and I were on this Canada tour, listening to this Rod Lee tape on these long drives and there were all these Lil Jon samples and, obviously, a Bmore beat. Then we got to this weird sports bar and they are playing LMFAO's "Shots" on TV, which is the actual Lil Jon over a Bmore beat.

He was sampled so much by dance music artists that him actually being on dance music songs was inevitable.

Then he wound up getting really into dubstep. He would just show up to all these parties and get on the mic.

Was that Diplo song the first dubstep track he did?

I believe so. At the Mad Decent party during Winter Music Conference in 2009we were all backstage and then Lil Jon showed up.This was before Mad Decent was somassive. I remember I was (again) with Star Eyes and we were extremely drunk. I was like, "We have to get a photo with Lil Jon." So, being the smooth operator that I was, I was like, "Hey Lil Jon, I am a dubstep DJ and a big fan." (We were pretty much playing dubstep at the time.) I was like, "We really want a photo and we are sooooo glad you are doing dubstep tunes now." And he said, "Well, you can thank Diplo. I owe it all to him."

When he was popping up on dubstep tracks and getting on the mic, was it any good? What was the reaction?

Who is gonna be mad at Lil Jon on a track? Ever. I think this was before Skrillex even existed, so people were just kinda like, "This is crazy."

That brings up a good point: Are these songs he's on objectively good, or is it just the novelty and excitement of Lil Jon's involvement?

It's both. Obviously there's excitement, and Lil Jon is a great producer. All of his tunes are great, they are party tunes, so him being on a party EDM track isn't very far off.

Right now I think "Turn Down For What" is pretty good and not that embarrassing, which these collaborations can often be, but I'm curious how it will age.

I think it's great. "Turning up" is the modern "get crunk." None of this stuff is aging well at this point. The attention span of any dance music fan is insane, but I feel like Lil Jon has gotten to the place where he will always be around, which is pretty cool.

At Ultra in 2012, he was just on stage the whole time — with Afrojack, with Steve Aoki, with whoever. He was almost like the MC of the night, and he was probably just there because he loves it.

I heard he has . Have you ever seen him DJ or gotten any reports on what he's like?

I have never seen him DJ but I did hear, and I heard this a long time ago, that he would usually just play a record then run in front of the decks and be Lil Jon. I am not sure if that's true, but I believe he was always DJing.

Also Paris Hilton has a residency in Vegas, so that's not saying much, DJ-wise.

Lil Jon hasn't done any of the massive EDM festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival or Ultra as a DJ yet though, right?

Not that I know of. I think that if he was trying to be a big DJ, he would have done it.

You're touring Europe right now, have you been hearing "Turn Down for What" over there?

No, not at all.

Is that surprising or not surprising? DJ Snake is French and has cred, but is the big EDM stuff in the United States considered crass over there?

It's not surprising. That's a festival song or a peak-time headlining act would play it. I haven't been to a giant thing here, mostly venues with 400 or 500 people. And in Berlin I definitely won't hear it. Europe doesn't really get the whole EDM thing. Some of it makes it here, but it is absolutely nothing like the U.S.A. There's some trap and some dubstep acts here for sure, but I feel like its a whole different system.

I've heard this mentioned, but since I'm not a producer or a musician, maybe you can explain this more to me: I've talked to people who said in passing that, sonically, crunk is just slowed down techno. If that's the case, what are the shared elements/traits?

There's a lot of similar synth lines in crunk to dance music. I wouldn't say it's slowed down techno, but, yes, it's electronic music for sure, with similar snares and synths. And a good instrumental would be a cool dance tune for sure. Like if you listen to "What U Gon' Do" by Lil Jon and you imagine it without the vocals and maybe a bit sped up, that's club music.


But no one really made the connection, except nerds. There was less Internet [when crunk was big]. Girl Unit's "Wut" was a game-changer.

Game-changer in terms of people really connecting the dots?

He made the first song where you were like, "Whoa, this sounds like J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League." But the first person to do something never really gets the credit they deserve.

Are the similarities between crunk and techno coincidental, or do you think Lil Jon was intentionally pulling inspiration from that music?

Both are mainly produced digitally, or maybe Lil Jon was a secret raver. But he started in 1997, so really, listening to rave music was totally different then than it is now. However, he is from Atlanta, and Atlanta had all those dance hits, like "My Boo" by Ghost Town DJs, so I think it just makes sense. Like if you listen to Ciara, who is also from Atlanta, the production on her records sound very "electro."

Ciara's single "Body Party" is bordering on a "My Boo" cover, and Lil Jon was a .

Exactly!!! And they were listening to weird techno bass for their cars.

There's the whole Kraftwerk-Afrika Bambaata-Detroit Techno-Miami Bass-Bay Area Weird Hip-Hop continuum. It all makes sense.

I am from Miami, and that is where all of my influence comes from, so I'm sure there were clubs in Atlanta with everything like that mixed in with rap. That is my assumption.

Slight detour, but can you clarify the relationship between rap music's trap and dance music's trap?

In rap there's all these Atlanta guys like Young Jeezy and Pill. And then there's 70 BPM EDM with a drop — that I personally can't deal with because I am too old, even though I can deal with Young Jeezy any day. It's really just the SoundCloudification of dance music and the latest trend. When moombahton got invented, everyone slowed songs down to 109 BPM and made a "moombahton track." Now I play a game on YouTube, where if you can think of a song, there's a trap version of it.

So how many sonic similarities are there between 70 BPM EDM with a drop and slow tempo rap music from Atlanta that's often told from the perspective of someone who sells drugs.

Some high hats and the BPM, but really, not much. There's a synth line here and there, but it's not a secret that people are annoyed that white kids sitting in their parents cushy basements are making "trap" when they don't even know what a trap is. Here and there the two actually meet. I think Heroes and Villains from Atlanta do a good job of playing both trap musics and making it all fit.

"Trap" has just turned into a meme. Kids don't want to dance anymore, they want to "turn up" and "rage," so EDM trap is just super party style music.

Are you noticing instances of more "legit" exchanges between dance music and hip-hop in either direction?

At the end of the day, producers are producers, and beats are beautiful whether they are rap beats or dance beats. Look at the Kanye album — he went fishing for dance producers and put together this massive collective and Hudson Mohawke has become a go-to for him.

I will say that as a person who has been into dance music from day one, all the ravers always loved Lil Jon.

In terms of his own productions and songs, or in terms of how he was sampled and incorporated into dance music?

Everything about him.

Do you think ecstasy has any role in Lil Jon's interest in this world? Not necessarily him doing it, but him wanting to make music for people who are on it. When he did My Ghetto Report Card, the hyphy E-40 album from a few years ago, that drug was already a part of that rap scene.

Rap finding molly is definitely changing s---, and yeah, hyphy and ecstasy are friends. I don't know if they wanted to make music for people on it, but they were probably doing it, which was probably inspiring. Hyphy is a local regional music genre for people who go to the club, just like Atlanta bass is.

Also, Lil Jon partnered with Zumba Fitness to create a nightclub tour titled "Zumba Nightclub Series."

That is amazing.

Pitbull did a giant zumba tour, too. Pitbull and Lil Jon are just these dudes that sample stuff and work with people and become a part of the weirdest s---. They are just on it with trends, I guess.

For Pitbull and Lil Jon it makes sense to me for them to be getting into dance music, both in terms of their histories and where they're at in their careers, but does it seem strange for Waka Flocka to be making an EDM album and doing Euro festivals.

Yes. But all that Lex Luger stuff was a big influence on trap EDM. And Flocka loves molly, soooo ... I mean, I love him with all my heart, but just do rap, man. But I feel like he genuinely likes EDM, so that's why he's doing it. It makes perfect sense to me that he would come out and rap over Flosstradamus. Steve Aoki is already throwing cake and whatever he does, so why not rap to a bunch of kids that go buck wild and want a cake in their face.

What are the next frontiers, both for Lil Jon and rappers interested in dance music? What do you think we're going to see this year?

It's reallyhard to say because trends come out of nowhere and then blow up so fast. Hopefully Lil Jon will be here forever.

I think the Kanye album was a real game-changer. He had to look hard to find some of those people to work with. He is doing his research. Drake likes good music — he worked with Jamie xx and Sampha.

It will split ways. Some people will be like Kanye and Drake and find producers that they are really keen on and choose themselves. A lot of others will just have some manager say, "Do this with this EDM dude, that's the new cool thing."

And it will sound forced and bad. So I think there will be a lot of great and a lot of really bad.

That's the circle of life.

Yes, it sure is.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Ducker