When Rap Rock Didn't Suck: Lil Jon's Crunk Rebellion

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Lil Jon in NYC, January 2011 (Photo: Johnny Nunez/WireImage)
Brandon Soderberg WRITTEN BY
Brandon Soderberg

For the first half of the 2000s, crunk music was rap music. The production of Lil Jon -- the fight songs of Memphis' Three 6 Mafia by way of shiny, Atlanta pop-rap -- was a hybrid style technically "from Atlanta," but with roots extending across the South (some Miami Bass and a distinct, New Orleans-based Cash-Money/No Limit influence too), but it was never beholden to area code or region. Crunk was southern hip-hop malleable enough to make room for a Midwestern double-time rapper like Krayzie Bone ("I Don't Give A Fuck"), universally hard-edged enough to support lyrical New York tough guys like Styles P and Jadakiss ("Knockin' Heads Off"), or just plain fun enough to direct Usher's career away from slow jams ("Yeah").

Crunkest Hits, a compilation of some of Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz's most well-known songs, featuring "I Don't Give a Fuck," "Knockin' Heads Off," "Yeah," and eleven others, arrives in stores this week. That's less than a year after Crunk Rock, Lil Jon's much-delayed, rap-metal genre mash-up, which was actually more like a Hot Topic-infused party record. Crunkest Hits makes a much better case for the idea of "crunk" as "rock."

See, Lil Jon's always been making "crunk rock" whether he knew it or not. Except on Trick Daddy's stupidly brilliant, "Crazy Train"-sampling "Let's Go," Lil Jon rarely aped the sound of rock; instead, he matched rock's energy by using hip-hop elements. Rather than guitars, he employed in-the-red synthesizers for angry melodies. He didn't get some insane thumper on the drums, he programmed simple beats that appealed to reptile brains and punctuated them with noisy, metal-on-metal snares. As a vocalist, Lil Jon affected a scratchy, shouted call-and-response that would've worked on a hardcore punk record. In fact, he often cited Bad Brains as a key influence.

Rap this abrasive couldn't last, though, and crunk was soon absorbed back into kinder hip-hop styles. The genre had become too ubiquitous, really, thanks to the industry's slash-and-burn policy on production trends, and Lil Jon himself, who spread his persona too thin, turning crunk into a phenomenon, then into a joke, and after that, into an energy drink.

Predictably, the most easily digestible crunk songs are now the ones that are most broadly influential. Usher's "Yeah" is the template for all the fist-pumping R&B dominating the radio right now, and the Eastside Boyz's "Nothing's Free" is a precursor to the half-sincere, half-goofy synthetic slow jams of The-Dream. Crunk's current influence on hip-hop seems to be fairly minimal. No one's really looking to "What U Gon Do" for a hit right now. Okay -- one person is -- and that's Waka Flocka Flame.

Flocka's debut Flockaveli was mostly put together by a young producer named Lex Luger, whose beats are undoubtedly inspired by Lil Jon and the proto-crunk of Three 6 Mafia. Last year, Flockaveli stood out as abnormally aggressive; and as noted a few weeks ago, pretty rock-inspired too. Lil Jon contributed a beat to Flockaveli, and perhaps tellingly, "Smoke, Drank" is a wandering, simmering loop that doesn't even try to approach his own discography or Lex Luger's crunk-inspired chaos.

Crunk, it seems, was less of a game-changer than an anomalous blip in rap history that Lil Jon himself can't exactly recreate. Crunkest Hits captures that rarefied, underappreciated era when Lil Jon made the radio a pretty awesomely horrifying place. For a few years, everything was about break-shit, fuck-you-up feelings; the energy was upped exhaustively, and it will probably never happen again.

While crunk exited hip-hop pretty abruptly, its influence has become crucial in indie rock and indie-friendly strands of underground dance. Crunk radio hits were mashed-up with damn near everything by Diplo and Low Budget back when they were known as Hollertronix. Girl Talk's Night Ripper ends with a slow fade of Trillville's "Neva Eva." The gun-shot percussion on M.I.A's "Paper Planes" can be traced back to "Get Crunk." The sound of M.I.A signees Sleigh Bells is a crunk-like pairing of club-ready noise and joy-filled pop.

Unlike the clumsily derivative rap and rock combinations that still crop up far too often (Lil Wayne's Rebirth last year, and just this week, Lupe Fiasco's Lasers), crunk actually entered into a conversation with the music it mimicked and had as much of an influence on rock as it did on hip-hop. That tangible influence, on display in Crunkest Hits, not only makes the case that rap-rock doesn't have to suck, but that crunk was perhaps the most important and successful rap-rock hybrid ever.

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