All Hail the King Crunk 

Lil Jon heralds a new Southern music movement

It ain't easy being the king of crunk. Folks are always looking at you to get crazy at the drop of a hat, to serve as pied piper of the moving party centered wherever you happen to be, to grit your teeth like a wildman and bare your gleaming platinum-and-diamond-covered fronts each time a camera gets pointed your way.

Lil Jon, however, has perfected the art of crunkery. Even if he wasn't the guy who all-but-invented crunk music, hip-hop's Southern-fried flavor of the year -- even if he wasn't the writer, producer, motivator, guest vocalist or primary artist behind every crunk hit in 2003 -- he'd still have earned his royal title.

One could argue whether Michael Jackson really is the King of Pop, or if Sting is the King of Pain. But no one will beg to differ if you call Jon the King of Crunk.

"My definition of crunk is Lil Jon," says Kaine of Ying Yang Twins, one of the string of Atlanta acts that rode the crunk train up the pop charts this year.

"Lil Jon paved the way for these records to break," says Jon's former So So Def boss Jermaine Dupri, whose label put out releases by lesser crunkateers Bone Crusher (a Lil Jon disciple) and Youngbloodz (whose hit, "Damn!" was co-written by and features Lil Jon).

Crunk, for anyone who hasn't kept up on recent pop trends, is a hip-hop sub-genre emanating from the clubs of Atlanta. It's music designed specifically to get the testosterone boiling -- high energy, headbanger hip-hop, better suited for the mosh pit than the V.I.P. area. Its m.o. mainly revolves around cheap beats and impossibly booming bass, catchy call-and-response chants and ferocious roars.

It's been simmering on a regional level for years, since Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz debuted in '96 with "Who U Wit?," the song that brought the down-South slang "crunk" into hip-hop currency. But crunk, as a genre, went through the roof starting this spring, with a string of national hits: First came Bone Crusher's "Never Scared" and David Banner's "Like a Pimp," followed by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz's "Get Low" (featuring Ying Yang Twins) and "Damn!," both of which remain in the top five pop singles. And last week at The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards in Miami, crunk got a powerful bit of national recognition when Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz was named group of the year (see sidebar).

"Crunk is street music, it has a different energy from any other kind of rap out there right now," Jon says. "It makes you want to wild out, throw some bows. Crunk is a lifestyle in Atlanta, it's how we grow up. You can be going to the mall on a Saturday and see six motherfuckers in an old-school Chevy, bouncing up and down, swerving. That's being crunk. Everything about young kids' culture in Atlanta is about crunk."

It ain't easy staying crunk, but Jon's able to muster crunkitude even under the most inauspicious conditions. For instance, last August in L.A. he headlined an all-day radio festival -- his first-ever West Coast show -- at the very un-crunk Universal Amphitheater. Jon and his entourage (including East Side Boyz Lil Bo and Big Sam; protege Lil Scrappy; rapper Krayzie Bone; celebrity pimp Bishop Don "Magic" Juan and his lady friend) arrived armed with studded goblets and a liquor bottle or two per person, for use as crunk accessories as much as for intoxication.

But the guards at the backstage security gate wouldn't let that much alcohol through, so they had to leave most of the bottles behind. Jon took it in stride, but later, after a couple hours spent inside a walk-in closet-sized dressing room, Jon got a little stir crazy. The wait threatened to kill the crunk buzz Jon had cultivated.

So he busted out of the room and led his posse through the backstage hallways in a quest to get to the bottom of the excruciating delay. He found the production office and pushed his way in to find a group of producers, tech crew and radio station flunkies hanging out.

"Damn, give us a TV or something, we're getting bored back there!" Jon ranted. "Why you discriminating against a player?"

He was pissed, but in person, he's nowhere near as intimidating as he looks snarling out from his album covers. Soon, he was kibbitzing with the production staff, teasing and flirting and charming his way to becoming the favorite act they had to deal with all day. Soon enough, he apologized for his outburst. "I was just getting frustrated," he said.

Such is the king of crunk's duality. Jon is ready and willing to play the warrior in tireless pursuit of a crazy-ass party, but behind those shades he's always wearing, behind his leonine dreads and beard, he's by all accounts a pretty sweet guy. And he's all about business.

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