Black Market Enterprises, nestled within an industrial park in East Atlanta, is bustling. Street reps stream in and out of the office to pick up boxes filled with promo CDs for K-Rab & BHI's "Do It, Do It (Poole Palace)" and E-40's "Tell Me When to Go." And when two of BME's co-owners, Rob Mac and Vince Phillips, sit down for a discussion, their BlackBerry pagers vibrate so incessantly that you can hear little humming sounds scattered across the resulting interview tape. In fact, Rob Mac can't sit still, and quickly excuses himself so he can return to work.
This is a busy time for BME Records, the label that launched Jonathan "Lil Jon" Smith and made crunk music a cultural touchstone as reflective of the early 21st-century youth culture as white T-shirts and customized cars. The brawling, hard-hop sound helped make BME one of Atlanta's hottest labels and a potential rival to established giants like So So Def. Now BME's trying to make up for an unproductive 2005, which its owners spent fighting over money and with its distributors, TVT Records and Warner Music Group.
Last fall, the label issued Lil Jon's single "Snap Yo Fingers," its first record in nearly a year. But Atlanta's music scene had changed. Industry experts opined that crunk was passé. Snap music is the new ATL movement, they say, and its rhythmic and percussive beats attract women turned off by the violent, ultra-macho swagger of crunk. Phillips, however, believes snap music's emergence was indirectly helped by BME's prolonged absence on the scene. He notes the rise of Young Jeezy, Maceo, Gucci Mane, D4L and Dem Franchize Boyz. "They're lucky," he says, addressing no artist in particular. "They should be glad that we did it."
"Snap Yo Fingers," Lil Jon's single with E-40 and Sean Paul from Youngbloodz, currently sits in the Billboard Top 10. Ostensibly, Lil Jon appropriates the snap music sound by producing a track with a spare keyboard melody and minimal bass. But with his raspy voice animating the track, "Snap Yo Fingers" could never be anything but crunk.
"There's a lot of haters out there that try to write you off and say crunk music is over with," says Lil Jon in a separate phone interview. Nowadays, he often wears a black T-shirt with the words, "Crunk ain't dead."
Phillips calls snap music "the evolution of crunk music." But he and Lil Jon also believe that crunk is more than just a sound: It's a lifestyle and vibe unique to the urban South. "You can't deny the way the music makes you move and react," says Lil Jon. "We live and we die to get crunk. Even though everybody plays snap records in the club, you'll hear somebody say, 'I'm going to the club, I'm gonna get crunk tonight.'"
For all of its successes, BME is still known as the house Lil Jon built. He co-owns the label with Phillips, Rob Mac and Dewayne "Emperor" Searcy, who is also Radio One's national mix-show coordinator and a Hot 107.9 (WHTA-FM) personality. Phillips and Rob Mac handle the label's day-to-day activities; Lil Jon works as the label's A&R and creative force; and Emperor Searcy serves as a liaison to radio. "We don't really have titles. We all collectively make the decisions," says Lil Jon.
Now in their mid-30s, the quartet of friends met at Southwest Middle School (now called Jean Childs Young Middle School). They threw parties together in high school, and then formally created Black Market Promotions in the early '90s. Their careers span the evolution of crunk: Lil Jon's residency spinning Rhythm & Quad (or mixing sped-up R&B a capella vocals over bass records) at the now-closed Phoenix nightclub; and his subsequent A&R job at So So Def packaging underrated compilations like So So Def Bass Allstars Vol. 1. Along the way, Black Market Promotions/Enterprises helped manage his burgeoning DJ and music production career.
"Jon decided, 'You know what, I can do chants myself over these loud [bass] beats,'" says Searcy. So BME released Get Crunk, Who U Wit, which featured Lil Jon and his rap partners the East Side Boyz (Wyndell "Lil' Bo" Neal and Sammie "Big Sam" Norris). Initially, the label worked with indie distributors Southern Music Distribution (1997's Get Crunk, Who U Wit) and Ichiban Records (2000's We Still Crunk). After those albums and several popular singles ("Who U Wit" and "I Like Dem Girlz"), several major labels approached BME with business offers.
But BME doubted the major record companies could properly introduce an idiosyncratically Southern trend like crunk to the rest of the country. At the time, several artists (OutKast, Goodie Mob, Master P, Juvenile) began to break out of the region, only to encounter a national audience who didn't appreciate Southern rap culture and eagerly dismissed them as one-hit wonders. Phillips says those artists were often misunderstood because the majors didn't properly market them.
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