The undisputed king of crunk, Lil Jon became an iconic figure as he spearheaded the Dirty South crunk movement that arose in the Atlanta area around the turn of the century.
Loud, belligerent, and larger than life, the charismatic rapper and his shouted catch phrases became synonymous with the over-the-top party mindset of a certain era. Equally important as a solo performer, guest collaborator, and celebrity personality, Lil Jon's emphatic yells and husky rhymes were the magical element that drove tracks like his own “Get Low,” Usher’s “Yeah!” and DJ Snake’s EDM anthem “Turn Down for What?” to their blockbuster chart status.
Born Jonathan Smith on January 27, 1971 in Atlanta, Georgia, Lil Jon was DJ'ing and working in a skate shop in his teenage years. After finishing high school, he continued to host local parties and DJ in area clubs. After meeting Jermaine Dupri in a club while DJ'ing, he began working as an A&R agent for Dupri's So So Def label. While working for the label from 1993 to 2000, Lil Jon began making a name for himself as a producer with a knack for club remixes. Before long he formed his own group, Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz, comprised of himself, Big Sam, and Lil Bo.
Essentially a means of showcasing his production talent, Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz signed to Mirror Image Records, an Atlanta-based label distributed by Ichiban Records. In 1997, the label released single "Who U Wit?" as well as the full-length Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album. A second single, "Shawty Freak a Lil Sumtin'," followed in 1998. The regional success of "Who U Wit?" brought with it plenty of outside production opportunities for Lil Jon, and so it wasn't until 2000 that he returned with another East Side Boyz album, We Still Crunk, this one released independently by BME Recordings. A contract with TVT Records followed, as did the group's label debut, 2001’s Put Yo Hood Up, which boasted some previously released material (e.g., "Who U Wit?", ''I Like Dem Girlz"), as well as "Bia' Bia'," the first Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz's single to get national airplay, thanks in part to the song's fiery guest features from Ludacris and Too Short.
Led by the single "I Don't Give a @#&%," 2002 album Kings of Crunk capitalized on Lil Jon's breakthrough, spawning the Top Five hit "Get Low." Featuring the Ying Yang Twins, "Get Low" was a club phenomenon throughout 2003; Part II, a CD/DVD EP released toward the end of the year, featured dancehall and merengue remixes of the song, along with additional material. Lil Jon's production style became ubiquitous on urban radio thereafter, as "Salt Shaker" (a production for the Ying Yang Twins), "Goodies" (Ciara), "Yeah!" (Usher), "Freek-a-Leek" (Petey Pablo), "Shorty Wanna Ride" (Young Buck), "Damn!" (YoungBloodZ), "Let's Go" (Trick Daddy), "Culo" (Pitbull), "Head Bussa" (Lil Scrappy), "Neva Eva" (Trillville), and "Shake That Monkey" (Too Short) all garnered significant airplay in 2003-2004. By this point, the celebrity of Lil Jon was such that comedian Dave Chappelle was memorably satirizing him (especially his signature "yeaaah!" and "whaaat!?" expressions) on a couple episodes of The Chappelle Show.
Toward the end of 2004, "What U Gon' Do," a Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz single featuring Lil Scrappy, preceded the release of Crunk Juice, a star-studded album featuring guest features on nearly every song. "Friends & Lovers," featuring Usher and Ludacris, became the most successful single, reaching the Top Three of the Billboard 100. In the wake of Crunk Juice, Lil Jon put his solo career on hold while his label went through bankruptcy hearings. He continued to produce hits for others, including "I'm a King" (T.I., 2005), "Touch" (Amerie, 2005), "Girlfight" (Brooke Valentine, 2005), "Okay" (Nivea, 2005), "Presidential" (YoungBloodZ, 2006), "U and Dat" (E-40, 2006), "Gangsta Gangsta" (Lil Scrappy, 2006), and "Dime/Tell Me" (Pitbull, 2006), among others. In 2010, his solo career was back in the forefront with the release of that year's Crunk Rock. A year later he competed on the reality television show Celebrity Apprentice, losing to country music star John Rich, while 2014 saw him mash crunk with trap and electro on the quintuple-platinum "Turn Down for What," his Top Five dance hit and collaborative single with DJ Snake. Extending his presence in both the hip-hop and electronic worlds, he continued to release singles, including "My Cutie Pie" with T-Pain, Problem, and Snoop Dogg, "Live the Night" with W&W and Hardwell, "Take It Off" with Yandel and Becky G, and a collaboration with Steve Aoki, "Supernova (Interstellar)." Echoing the spirit of "Turn Down for What," he issued the raucous "In the Pit" with Skellism and Terror Bass in 2017. As fans waited for a new album, Lil Jon kept a steady stream of new material flowing, with the Offset and 2 Chainz assisted “Alive” and the characteristically ridiculous “All I Really Want for Christmas” (a Christmas single featuring a cameo from the mascot for Kool-Aid) in 2018. The next year he appeared with Shaquille O’Neal on the dubstep ringer “Bang” by NGHTMRE, and Lil Jon also offered his own singles “Ain’t No Tellin’” (featuring Mac Dre) and “Taco Tuesday.” ~ Jason Birchmeier & Fred Thomas