Still Raging After All These Years: Lil Jon on His EDM Rebirth and Burning the Confederate Flag
The rapper, record producer, and DJ isn’t who you think he is.
There are two Lil Jon’s. I meet the first one on a Friday night at Surrender Nightclub—a sprawling hybrid of dance club and poolside lounge at the Wynn’s Encore Resort in Las Vegas. The venue is a kaleidoscope of color, its modish revelers lit up in red, blue, and purple hues. Lil Jon emerges behind the decks, sporting his trademark baseball cap, shades, and glistening grill. He raises his hand up to the sky and screams, “GET YO FUCKIN’ HANDS UP!” at the top of his lungs, signaling a volley of confetti cannons, a mobile platform snaking through the crowd stacked with half-naked dancers, and his crowd of loyal acolytes raising their glasses in the air. A relentless, pounding beat sets in. Every so often, Lil Jon will interrupt the hysteria by yelling party commands into the microphone and waving his hands about like a man possessed.
The second Lil Jon made himself known an hour earlier inside his hotel suite. Unlike the first incarnation, he’s soft-spoken and mild-mannered—reticent even—and is so shy he can’t even make eye contact with me until a rapport’s been established midway through our interview. When he does, you see that he has kind eyes, one of which is a tad lazy. This is the Lil Jon that most don’t get to see—what is referred to in Swingers parlance as “the guy behind the guy behind the guy.”
“Mr. Wynn has a standard of excellence for all his properties, and I feel very blessed to be DJing in his clubs,” says Lil Jon of his years-long residency at the Wynn's fleet of nightclubs, including XS and Tryst. “There’s no better place to DJ at in the city than right here, and at this point it feels like home, back at the crib.”
He pauses. “Vegas people come with the attitude that they’re gonna go hard and party. I’ve partied in Ibiza and all over the world, and I think Vegas is the best party. People just turn up and anything goes.”
Lil Jon is, at 43, no spring chicken. The Atlanta native formed the crunk rap group Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz in 1997, and the trio released several hit rap records including a collaboration with the Ying Yang Twins, “Get Low.” During the mid-aughts, Lil Jon produced a number of hit records that graced nightclub speakers, including Usher’s “Yeah!”, Petey Pablo’s “Freak-a-Leek,” and Trick Daddy’s “Let’s Go.” He eventually segued to dance music, releasing the 2009 hit single “Shots” with LMFAO, and last year’s collaboration with DJ Snake, “Turn Down for What,” which went on to sell 3.5 million copies in 2014 alone.
When asked how he’s managed to stay relevant for 15 years, the man formerly known as Jonathan Smith takes a long pause. “I’ve done a good job of not putting myself in a box, being able to transform, and not being scared to try new things,” he says. “I’ve been blessed. Every few years, I’ll connect with somebody and put out a record with somebody that keeps me relevant. It’s also about working really hard. People think I go out there and just say anything, but I really take time and think about what is going to make people go crazy, what really fits with this beat, and so on and so forth.”
One place audiences got to see Lil Jon: Businessman in action was on NBC’s reality competition series Celebrity Apprentice, where he featured on the 11th and 13th seasons. “When I did Apprentice, they got to see the work ethic, and see that rappers aren’t just these guys smoking blunts all the time and acting ignorant,” says Lil Jon. “I can sit in the boardroom and battle it out, step up and be a project manager, take risks, and put my ideas alongside anybody’s.”
Now Celebrity Apprentice was, of course, created and hosted by the creatively coiffed real estate magnate Donald Trump—that is, before NBC severed ties with him over racist comments he made about Mexican immigrants—who is now running for President of the United States. When I mention Trump (and his recent comments about Mexicans), Lil Jon rolls his eyes and shakes his head repeatedly in disbelief. “We’re not talking about that,” he says, chuckling. “We ain’t even going to get into that! That’s a whooooooole other thing.”
Entitled assholes aside, Lil Jon’s transition from hip-hop to dance music didn’t happen overnight. He says he put in the work, going to festival after festival and observing the world’s top DJs to see what they brought to the tables, talking their ears off after shows. He’s adamant that he wasn’t trying to be a “poseur”—a word he repeats several times throughout our chat—explaining that he began his career as a dancehall DJ in the early ‘90s before playing garage and Frankie Knuckles-type house.
“I’ve actually been DJing house music longer than a lot of these EDM DJs,” he says matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t just being a poseur. I studied the community intently, and what attracted me was the energy. Nobody was fightin’, and everybody just wanted to have a good time and party—and that’s really what I’m about. When people hear my name, they’re gonna go because they know they’re gonna have a good time and party.”
“A lot of people are still lookin’ at me as Lil Jon in 2004 and 2005 and not accepting where I am now,” he continues. “I see comments on the Internet that are like, ‘Oh, this muthafucka DJ’s now?’ and I have to check people sometimes, and tell them if they knew their history they’d know I’ve been DJing on vinyl since 1990 and 1991.”
He also observed the rap landscape and saw that the southern fried crunk he’d came up with was starting to lose its flavor in the eyes of the public, and is quite philosophical in describing how hip-hop is no country for old men.
“I guess it was just fun. Hip-hop started to lose its fun factor,” he says. “With hip-hop, the music stays young, so the older you get, the harder it is for older cats to make current-sounding shit. They try, but they rarely connect. And once you get older in hip-hop, people start to say, ‘Ah, you’re old!’ whereas in dance music, they don’t give a fuck how old you are, they just want to party. Look at Benny Benassi! He’s old.” Back in 2001, Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz released their third studio album, Put Yo Hood Up. Its album cover famously featured Lil Jon front and center with a Confederate battle flag draped over his shoulders, with two additional Confederate battle flags burning in the background.
Following the tragic events of Charleston that left nine black churchgoers murdered at the hands of a white supremacist, the national conversation has shifted to the Confederate flag, with South Carolina on Wednesday voting to finally remove it from its statehouse grounds. But for years, rappers have been reappropriating this symbol of hate and division as a means to subvert its power.
“Kanye [West] said exactly what I said in an interview way back in the day, which is: What infuriates someone more than taking something sacred like that and putting it on your black skin?” says Lil Jon of sporting (and torching) the Confederate flag. “If you’re a racist and a black dude puts a Confederate flag on, you’re going to be like, ‘FUCK!’ So you’re taking that power away from them by using it. We burned the flag on the album cover and in the music video.”
He then smiles, revealing his shiny grill. “I may have even been the first.”