Lil Jon on His New Smash ‘Turn Down for What,’ and the Mystical Power of the Club Hit
"That's what I've been doing all my career: just getting people amped up and hyped up."
Lil Jon enters his Los Angeles home, his dog barking loudly. “It’s me — quiet,” he says, or rather yells. “It’s cool. Relax. Sit down. Go outside.” The King of Crunk pauses, and then addresses me, listening in over the phone: “Let me go fetch him some water.”
The next morning, Jon has a 7 a.m. flight to Las Vegas for a string of nightclub gigs, including several DJing residencies, thanks in part to the new surprise hit he’s got on his hands. In December, Columbia Records released “Turn Down for What,” his collaboration with French upstart DJ Snake, as an official single. An unauthorized YouTube upload had already racked up five million views, but since then, the trap-rave track become the first Top 10 hit on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart for both artists. Georgia State University’s women’s gymnastics team uses it as a walk-on anthem; Seattle Seahawks fans blasted it during last month’s Super Bowl victory parade. And the new trailer for action thriller Brick Mansions — likely to be a big hit, as it co-stars the late Paul Walker — pops off when Walker himself says, “This is gonna be a lot of fun,” and Jon’s frothing-at-the-mouth hook kicks in.
As an Atlanta DJ in the late ’90s, Jon noticed that his hometown didn’t have a rowdy club anthem like Eightball & MJG’s “Lay It Down” to call its own. “Turn Down” isn’t likely to break into the city’s three R&B and hip-hop stations, but it succeeds the way all his old crunk hits did: by transforming a Down South saying into an abrasive rallying cry to throw bottles. Even now, 17 years removed from “Who U Wit?”, to hear Lil Jon suggest that someone be quiet is still nothing short of surreal. We talked about his latest unlikely hit, a recent collaboration with Chicago DJ duo Flosstradamus, and his still-brewing new solo album, Party Animal; here are excerpts from our conversation.
What was the recording session for “Turn Down for What” like?
Snake had sent me the record in early 2013, and he got a sample of Redman saying, “It’s the countdown, bang the underground.” I was like, “Alright, I’ll do it when I get a chance.” I didn’t get to the record until July; he might have sent it to me in late 2012, early 2013. I finally got to the studio and pulled it up, because I hadn’t really listened to it. I was like, “Man, this beat is crazy. But this Redman sample — I don’t know about that. It’s a dope sample, but it doesn’t really fit with the energy of the track. [Pause.] I got an idea.” He sent me an instrumental, and the first thing that popped into my head when I put the headphones on and the beat drops was, “TURN DOWN FOR WHAT.”
I sent the record back to him and hit him up: “Yo I think we’ve got one. This record is incredible. I’m not redoing the vocals.” He was still like, “Come on, man,” and I was like, “Trust me.” I still don’t think he really grasped what “Turn Down for What” meant yet; he’s French and doesn’t understand all the slang, of course. Someone has to really show you, so I started to play the record in my sets, and every time I played it, somebody would come up to me and be like, “What the fuck is that? Let me get it.” So I gave it to a bunch of homies, and it ended up getting leaked to a major DJ website, and started to explode on the Internet. That’s when we started to get label interest.
How did you react to the leak?
“Great.” I knew that once it’s on the No. 1 DJ website, DJcity, every DJ in the country and around the world was hearing it. Snake panicked, because we didn’t have a deal closed down, so I was like, “Dude, calm down. It’ll be okay. Realistically, a DJ site — your sales are not going to come from those guys.” So I was trying to make Snake understand that DJs are the people you want to be downloading it.
What do you think of the response?
One thing I’ve learned over the years, having done so many different kinds of records and finding success with those records, is that a song’s gotta capture a moment in someone’s life. It’s basically a movement of people that like to have a good time. This song is the type of song that gets you motivated to do anything. A lot of people tweet me like, “I was almost through my workout, ‘Turn Down for What’ came on, and it made me go even harder at the gym.” I pitched the song to be used for a basketball team like the Miami Heat. It’s amazing, because that’s what I’ve been doing all my career: just getting people amped up and hyped up.
You’ve said that radio programmers didn’t quite get that crunk music was really club music. Since you’ve started doing residencies in Las Vegas, do you still have to explain yourself?
The Internet wasn’t as prevalent as it is now, so people couldn’t log on and see people were Vining about this stuff. I did a song with Too $hort called “Couldn’t Be a Better Player,” and it couldn’t be bigger in the South and Midwest in the late ’90s. I told $hort, “You gotta come to the club and see how they’re going crazy for the song,” and he was like, “Man, whatever.” He didn’t believe me. [Atlanta’s] Club 559 broke all the club records back in the day. Too $hort came, the song came on, and he just had his mouth wide open. He was amazed at how wild and crazy and crunk and turned up the people got when the song came on. People still have to go to the club to really see it and feel it, but you can get a taste of it by logging onto the Internet.
What happened in the studio with Flosstradamus?
Flosstradamus grew up with the early crunk music that I did. They’ve used my vocals in their set, as a lot of DJs do, and they have that crunk energy in their records. So I’ve always liked their beats. “That’s a fucking hard ass track, dope shit. I need to get on some of that shit.” So I just hit them up on Twitter — when I want to get connected with people, I just tweet ‘em — and they sent me some joints in either November or September. I finally just got in the studio this week and just destroyed one of the beats. Incredible, incredible, incredible shit. I think it’s going to be one of the biggest trap records ever. The energy of the track and of my voice, it’s like instant mosh pit.
What’s the status of Party Animal?
I don’t know right now what I would call it, but I did three songs this week. I actually did another record with Mak J [“Let’s Get Fucked Up”] that’s taking off in the EDM scene and should be out in March. I just want to keep doing dope records and whatever it feels like, that’s what happens. If it’s an album, it’s an album. Whether I put out six songs now, or six songs out in three months, I’m just having a good time. When you collaborate with new people, it gives you a new energy, like when you get yourself a new girlfriend. It’s exciting for that first couple of months. It’s exciting to be with these new guys who are killing their craft.