Q&A: Lil Jon Talks Crunk Rock, Pitbull, and Fine Wine With New Times

Categories: Q&A
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No one gets to the top of the pop charts by being a complete idiot. Well, of course it happens for some folks once or twice. But besides a knack for hooks, it takes some serious sharp thinking to stay there. So don't make the mistake of thinking the rapper/producer/all-around svengali Lil Jon is a clown or a buffoon. His entertainment persona is definitely larger than life; even your parents can probably identify his trademark one-syllable yells. 

But the real man seems to be behind the blinding grills and chains, behind the bejeweled chalices, behind the creatively shocking lyrical allusions to sex. Look past all that, and there's a shrewd businessman and songwriter who's able to sniff out the changing winds of pop and swirl them into his own singular entertainment hurricane. 

Enter Crunk Rock, Lil Jon's eighth studio album, due out this November. After years of label trouble, delays, and a touch of admitted creative burnout, the record -- still, at this point, unfinished -- represents the first real work of a new, Lil Jon-birthed musical hybrid some three or four years in the making. (Remember the song "Snap Yo Fingers," inescapable in 2006? That was originally intended as a lead Crunk Rock single). It promises a revival of crunk, combined with a wild stylistic ride across a surreal spread of guest contributions by everyone 3OH!3, to Jacksonville punk rock act Whole Wheat Bread, to, even, David Guetta and Laidback Luke. 

Jon was in town last week to film a video for the album's new lead single, "Give It All U Got," produced by Red One and featuring singer Kee on the hook. New Times met with him in an unmarked studio at the top level of the Setai on South Beach. That day he was sporting an "I'm in Miami Bitch" shirt, understated Vans, and absolutely no extraneous jewelry. (I did catch the reflection of some serious diamonds on his teeth, though). 

In real life, he is almost unrecognizable; if you passed him on the street, you'd think, maybe, he was a guy who just looked like Lil Jon. And his speaking voice? Calm, smooth, deliberate, articulate. Sorry if it's disappointing, but not once did he exclaim "What?" "Okay!" or "Yeahhh!" At the Setai, he gave New Times the run-down on everything from his friendship with Pitbull to his new line of fine wines -- and, of course, the full details on the long-awaited Crunk Rock. Read the full Q&A after the jump.

New Times: Do you actually work in this studio, or are you just using it to do your interviews today?

Lil Jon: I did a bunch of records here. I worked here for like three weeks, and I'm doing some vocals tonight.

For what?

For the album! For Crunk Rock!

Oh, so it's not done?

No! We're not done. We're close, but we're not done. I've pretty much got all of the songs I want to use, but it's a matter now of getting the features done, all of that stuff.

There's a release date set for November 24. Is that still happening?

Yes.

So what day do you actually have it turned in?

I don't know. (Laughs) I'm just going to work until it's finished and then, you know....

When did you first get the idea for "crunk rock?"

Well, it was just a logical step because people would compare crunk music to rock music because of the energy. The mosh-pit, just, you know, high energy. So I thought, "I should just call it crunk rock."

So what year was it that you first got that phrase in your head?

I don't know. (Laughs) Probably '05. And then, so, we started working on it. And working on it over the years, "crunk rock" has started to mean more than just rock. It means a lifestyle, a certain attitude. The crunk rock attitude!

What's the crunk rock attitude?

You live, you party, you just have a good time with whatever you're doing, like a rock star!

How is a crunk rock attitude different from just a crunk attitude?

A crunk attitude you're just rowdy, rahhhhh! You're just crunk. But you add the crunk rock to it, and it gives you some edge. I've been saying "crunk rock life," like it's a lifestyle you lead. You just party.... 'Cause you can get crunk, but you don't necessarily have to party. But crunk rock is like, drinking out of the bottle, pouring liquor in chicks' mouths, being rowdy, just like some real partying to another level. That's what the crunk rock lifestyle is.

So, that fits with the LMFAO shirt you're wearing right now.

Well, these are my homeboys -- and the shirt just matched my vans! (Laughs) And ironically, they're in town! And that's a good segue to something on the album, because you know we did a song for their album, "Shots," which is a club anthem. So we did another record for my album which is called "Out of Your Mind." It's basically like, you go in the club, you just get so amped up, you get out of your mind, you get nuts, you get crazy!

All of the records on the album are about having fun. You have standard Lil Jon crunk stuff, and I've got a bunch of songs for the ladies --

For the ladies like they're slower, or what?

You know, we're talking about that stuff that ladies -- like, one song is about kissing. Ladies like to kiss.

That seems like kind of a departure for you.

No. Because everybody likes to have sex, right? And you have to be romantic sometimes. You can't be like, rahhhhhhh, rowdy, when you're with your significant other. I mean, I got every facet of me. You've got to look at "Lovers and Friends," which was the biggest song on my last album, and that was a slow song, basically. Nobody had really done a record like that, a slow tempo rap song, since, like, "I Need Love" by LL Cool J. So that was a song for the ladies. I always try to give all of my fans something special for them.

So we got all of those kinds of records, plus I've got tracks by David Guetta, DJ Chuckie. I've got tracks from Laidback Luke.

So how many songs are going to be on this record?

I'm thinking 20.

How did you meet David Guetta and Laidback Luke?

Well, I met DJ Chuckie, and then I did some vocals for him, and I got on the "Sexy Bitch" remix for David Guetta. So through the "Sexy Bitch remix" I met Guetta. So I hit Guetta and said, "Yo, I need some joints for the album," and he sent me some. And Laidback Luke, I just met through some other people who I was telling how much I liked his stuff. We connected through e-mail.

You're here in Miami filming a video for "Give It All U Got," which is a single from your new album, but is produced by Red One. How does it break down on the album with how many tracks you produced versus how many tracks other people produced?

It doesn't really matter, this time, I didn't care. I wanted to come fresh and new and different from the way I always come. So if I had to go get a track from Red One or Dr. Luke or Drummer Boy, or whoever, it didn't really matter, because I fill in the gaps, and I'm gonna do songs, too. It just helped me to get a fresh energy. And it took some of the pressure off me, because most of the albums I've done, I do all of the stuff. So that's a lot of pressure to produce, write, do A&R, and do my label too, basically. So this took off pressure so I could just go in the studio and be an artist. But pretty much, I still co-produced all the songs on the album.

How do you keep yourself from wanting to re-do everything, since you do so much production usually?

Well, the producers all gave me a lot of respect, and they would ask me for input. When we would start, I would just sit back and let people do their thing, because you have to feel people out, and they have to feel you out. But as we'd get going, I'd say "Let's do it like this," or "Let's do it like that," or "Yo, change that melody," or "That's a good melody." Whatever the hell. So it worked out really well with all the producers, because they just gave me a lot of respect for all the stuff I'd done on my own. They wanted me to give them input, actually.

So for about how many tracks on the record did you actually make the beats?

Maybe about six.

Do you have the final track listing done yet?

Of course not! (Laughs) Because I don't have all the features done. I picked al the beats, but I don't have the features done.

So what features are you waiting on?

I can't tell you that! (Laughs) I can tell you some of the ones that are done. We've got 3OH!3, Soulja Boy, Ice Cube, the Game, Ying-Yang Twins, looks like Akon is on a song. I got a bunch of other ones, but I can't tell you about them.

I was going to ask you about 3OH!3, because they've mentioned in interviews that they were working with you.

Yeah, well what happened is that me and Dr. Luke are real cool, and I was telling him that I wanted to do some stuff with them, and he produced some stuff on their last record. So we decided to do it all together, and we got in the studio all together.

How did you first hear about them?

I knew about them before they even got signed, because someone told me, "These kids are really fans of your stuff, check them out, because some of their stuff really sounds like you."

Did you feel like they were serious about it, or did you feel like they were being kind of ironic about it?

No, they are really like that. That's how they are; that's them. I hung out with them on the Warped Tour, and they are from Colorado, and that's their thing. I was talking to Sean, and Sean was telling me how he had been rapping since high school, and just different stories about him rapping for so long. So that showed me that he was like, really trying to be a rapper, not to be on some play-play stuff. That's really their flavor; that's their own thing. And people love them.

I jumped onstage with them at the Warped Tour in New York, and just to see the people going nuts for them before they came on.... The kids in the audience were singing every line to every song, and it was amazing. You don't really see kids going nuts like that, jumping up and down, really going nuts. And when I came out, they were shocked, and then they gave me hella love too. It was crazy. So those guys are real. They're real dudes.

So what's your label situation now?

I'm signed to Universal. TVT folded, and I got off TVT and signed with Universal. I've been signed with them for about a year, so I've been working since last November, basically, on the album.

Was it held up for so long because you were still working on it, or was it because of the label problems, and waiting to get release from your old contract?

All of that. Starting up on the album, I was burned out. I had been doing so much stuff nonstop. I got signed to TVT in 2000. And at the same time I was doing tracks for other people, running the label, putting out my own artists -- and that's a lot of stuff to be going through for four years straight, and topping the charts and all of that.

So instead of going into the studio, I really needed a break. So I started working, and then after a while me and TVT fell out anyways, so I put the record on hold, because we weren't talking. Then I started DJing and shit, and like a year later, they folded. Then I got off the label, and got on Universal, a better place -- and now we're about to put the record out in November.

Did you meet Pitbull because of TVT, or separately?

No, I met him in Miami, just hanging out. We became cool, and I put him on an interlude on my album, because I noticed that when I'd come down here a lot of Cuban cats would show me a lot of love. So I just wanted to kind of show love back, and show that I fuck with 'em real tough.

And Pit had a song playing on the radio out here; I forget the song but it was in his real early days. And I ran into him on the beach and told him to come to the studio and jump on some shit, because I really liked that song. So he came and just jumped on the album, and then that was it. We've been down ever since.

Have you been working on any new material with them?

Yeah, he's on the new album, and then a track or two on his Spanish album that he's doing.

Why do you think you two have been able to stay such good friends in an industry full of so much backstabbing?

Because we're real! (Laughs) We both are real people, and that's like family to me! He met me before I really blew all the way up, and we were cool, know what I'm saying? And I always believed in his talent, and stuck right there with him. That's a lot, to believe in each other like that. That's family to me, for real! I don't think we'll ever fall out, because we know each other well enough to say, "I know Jon," or "I know Pit, and he wouldn't do that to me," if hearsay ever comes around. And we know ho to just get on the phone and talk to each other, talk out whatever the problem is.

I read an interview he just gave where he said that it was always going to be that you're Batman, and he's Robin.

(Laughs) I guess, I mean, that's my homey! I guess because I've been in the game a little longer, that's why I'm Batman. I don't know. But I'm proud of Robin, though. Robin is doing his damn thing. "Calle Ocho" was on the top 10 iTunes chart, and on the top of charts in some 15 or 20 countries, something crazy like that. And for it to go from us fighting Steve Gottlieb for stuff, to him having a top 10 in all those countries was like -- that just touched me in the heart.

I always believed in the guy, and I always knew he could make it commercially. It just shows that if you keep working hard and doing your thing, it'll happen for you. That's a lesson for anybody out there trying to make it. Keep doing it, you know?

Going back to Crunk Rock, "Snap Ya Fingers" and "Act a Fool" were originally intended as singles for the record. They're not still going to be on the album, are they?

Nah, they're not. I got too many damn new songs, and people bought "Snap Yo Fingers" and "Act a Fool" already. Something like two million for "Snap Yo Fingers?" And we're on a new label now, and those are old TVT records.

How much of the old stuff is still going to make it onto the final product?

There are a couple songs from when I first started, but, people aren't going to know the difference! It's all going to be new to them. So when they get the album, I think they're just gonna love everything they hear. But I definitely took it to another level over the last year.

Did you end up working with Whole Wheat Bread at all on this album, like you said in some old interviews?

Yeah, we did a lot of songs together. They're on one song right now that's on the album. I met them off MySpace. They hit me a couple times but I never really checked them out, and then some other people and me were talking about them. So I decided to check them out, and they had done "I Don't Give a Fuck," one of my songs, live. And they also did "Never Scared," and I thought it was cool, because they're from the south, and they're redoing crunk songs in a punk way, and it was kind of dope. So I called them up, and we got in the studio and jammed out and did a bunch of shit.

What other projects do you have going on besides this record?

I just got done doing something with Snoop called "1800," it's really hot. We've got the wines -- Little Jonathan. We've got Crunk energy drink, we've just dropped two new flavors: citrus and grape.

Wines?

Yeah, Little Jonathan Winery. We've got Cab, Merlot, Chardonnay.... They're California wines, in different regions. We're getting them around in stores, but it's a process. Right now people are mainly getting them from the Internet.

What made you want to get into being a vintner?

It kind of happened by accident. We were doing some parties at the X-Games, and we had all beer and liquor, and decided we should have some wine for people who didn't want to drink that. So one of my partners, his dad was doing wines. So he said he would make us some private label stuff for the party. Then we decided that it would probably be cool if we did it for real, so we just did it after that, and it worked. We won some medals in California wine competitions. So people are enjoying it, seeing it's not like, Boone Farms, it's not a joke. It's real.

Anything else you want to mention?

Twitter! Twitter.com/liljizzel. I Twitter quite a bit, and try to send out some funny stories.

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