Lil Jon Has Always Been Cooler Than All of Us

By Camille Cannon

The average DJ starts his set behind the booth. Lil Jon is different. The 44-year-old rapper/producer’s catalog comprises some of the biggest pop, hip-hop and dance records of the last two decades—from co-producing “My Boo” (which is charting again 20 years after its release date thanks to the #RunningManChallenge) to popularizing Crunk music with his Eastside Boyz and collaborating with the biggest names in EDM. So it’s only fitting that he does a little bit of everything at his AboutLastNight party at Hakkasan, scheduled for June 26. The energetic emcee will start the party from your table, spray Champagne with you and surprise you with dancers. He might preview his upcoming singles with Becky G and Yandel, or Hardwell and W&W. But he will definitely stop the music during “Get Low” if you do not know where the windows and walls are. Oh, and he also loves tea.

Rapper Too $hort recently said when you produce, you have a “magic ingredient that makes you move no matter the tempo.” What do you think that is?

I produce music differently than the average person. I try to use different sounds. I have a particular kind of ear, a particular kind of energy that I put into the track. My spirit is in each piece, as well as when I do my vocals on tracks. My spiritual energy is captured on the track also. That just makes people wanna party and get crazy when they hear my voice. I believe that’s why God put me here—to help people forget about their problems, loosen up and have a good time. So that’s what I do.

How did you develop your ear for music?

I was skateboarding in the early ’80s. At this time, black people weren’t really skating; it just wasn’t cool in my neighborhood. I was around so many different kids, so many different races, and it opened my ears up to different things. If I’m skating over at this guy’s house, he might be playing Black Flag. If I’m skating over here, he might be playing the Ramones. If I’m skating over there, he might be playing Steel Pulse. Just being around different cultures, it opened my eyes and my ears up to the world. Now, I feel like you could drop me out of an airplane anywhere and I could fit in, hang out and chill with anybody, anywhere. I believe it all kind of stemmed from skateboarding, just listening to all different kinds of music. I grew up on soul music, bass music, hip-hop, some reggae and disco. My uncle was a DJ and he lived with us for a while, so I was always exposed to vinyl records all over the place, all the time. I soaked that up, and then being around all these different types of people, it definitely broadened my palate.

People like to say you’ve been embracing EDM just these last few years, but what was Usher’s “Yeah!” (2004) if not a dance track?

I remember being in the strip club one time and there was some techno music playing, and I was like, “Wow, that’s the exact same synth that I used on ‘Yeah!’” When I go through sounds in the studio, I’m not like, “Oh, that’s a techno sound,” or “That’s a blah blah blah,” I’m just like, “That sounds cool.” I was just using cool sounds. I wasn’t really trying to use a dance sound. I just know that that synth sounded good over the 808 that I had. [Before “Yeah!”] nobody had sung on any beats like that. Usher was finished with his album. He didn’t even really have to record it. He [did] and it turned out to be one of the biggest songs of the decade, just by trying something different. That’s what I’m about.

How do you like to relax?

I sleep a lot. I juice a lot. When I’m home, me and my family sit on the couch and watch movies. I drink a lot of teas, too—green teas and rooibos. I’m a tea fanatic. I collect teas when I go around the world. I try to stay healthy as much as possible because of this crazy lifestyle.

I’ve been trying to switch from coffee to tea, but when I still need that extra energy boost, I listen to your collaboration with DJ Snake, “Turn Down for What,” about four times.

Aww, damn. [Laughs.] Yeah, the tea is much better for you. It helps to cleanse you out. You just gotta make sure you still drink a lot of water because I go to a homeopathic doctor sometimes and at one point he was telling me that I was drinking too much tea and I was getting myself too dehydrated. I wasn’t also drinking water; I would just drink the tea to cleanse, not realizing that you gotta still take in that water. A lot of water will definitely help you to stay healthy as well. I try to drink at least two liters of water a day. All that stuff is just really good for your body and your mind.

I’m taking notes right now.

[Laughs.] Do the tea, but make sure you still drink a couple of bottles of water.

I heard that you’re starting your AboutLastNight sets from clubgoers’ tables.

I’m very interactive with the crowd in my sets, but we’re taking that to another level. When I got with Hakkasan Group, we sat down and had some brainstorming sessions. We have great energy, but how can we take it to another level? I had never really done that with any club before, and it was amazing for me because it showed that they understood the talent that I have for making people party and making people get crazy. With the AboutLastNight party, if we have some high-rollers, I might just pop up at their table and have some drinks with them. When it’s time for me to start my set, I just jump up and tell the DJ “Stop the music,” and we start the party from right there in the audience. Then I go to the DJ booth and start my set. We have the dancers choreographed, we have a special menu for high-rolling customers if they wanna come and have a drink with me or spray Champagne—there’s an option for them to do that. It’s something that’s never really been done before. We’re just trying to up the ante.

You’ve said that you like to switch up your sets from one gig to the next. But is there a song or two you always like to play?

Whenever I play “Shots,” that’s when it’s like, “OK, it’s time to party.” When people hear that song, that’s when they let loose. They’re like, “All right, let’s have a shot. Let’s have another one.” Also, “Get Low,” because it’s fun to see if people know where the window is and where the walls are. If you’ve come to any of my sets, you know I will stop the music if somebody does not know where the walls are or where the window is. I will stop the music and make everybody get on the same page and everybody’s gonna know where the windows and walls are by the time they leave the club. 

How do you find inspiration for your songs, new ways to articulate the party experience?

For me, it starts with the beats. Certain beats, they pull different things out of you. “Turn Down for What”—when I was sent that track, [DJ Snake] had a different vocal sample on that and I told him to send me the instrumental because I thought the beat was bigger than the vocal sample. The first thing that I heard in my head, when I put the microphones on was, “Turn down for what.” For “Prison Riot” with Flosstradmus, when I got in the studio, the energy was just crazy, and I wanted to make a mosh pit song, but everybody has done mosh pit already. So what can I do? What’s the craziest-looking mosh pit you could ever see? I think I was just looking on the internet and I came across a prison riot and I was like, “That looks insane!” And I just incorporated that into my track. Whatever the beat pulls out of me, I just try to take that to another level. That’s what it is.

I’ve read that you don’t like to listen to your own music on the radio or during another DJ’s set. Why is that?

Sometimes, when an artist goes in the club, [the DJ] wants to play like 30 of your records all back-to-back. I’m not the vain guy who wants to just hear myself and push my chest out. To me, it’s like, “Keep doing the party. Keep the party off the hook.” I wanna enjoy the party. I don’t wanna hear my music all night. I want you to play your normal set—don’t just try to impress me. I’m cool. I’m chillin’. I’m just enjoying the vibe. Once I do the song and it’s out, I don’t really have to hear it over and over again. My job is done. If people wanna hear it, that’s great though, I’m not mad at that at all. If someone plays my song and I see people going nuts, then I say, “OK, that’s cool. I did a good job.” But I don’t really like to hear 30 of my songs back-to-back. I like the DJ to just do yo’ thing.

You worked for So So Def Recordings in the ’90s. What was your involvement with “My Boo”?

It’s amazing. The song is 20 years old this month. That was my first project on So So Def. I was involved from the beginning to the end, all the way down to naming the song, calling it “My Boo.” I kind of remember us not knowing what to call the song and I was like, “Just call it ‘My Boo.’” I was involved in pretty much every aspect. I introduced the writer and co-producer, Carlton Mahone Jr., to the other producer, to the guy that is Ghost Town DJs, Rodney Terry. I put those two together, came up with the concept of basically taking a slow song and putting it on a fast beat. At the time in Atlanta, we would take, say, a Keith Sweat song and put it over a bass track; it’s basically double time. That was really popular on the mixtape, so we took that concept and made a song out of it. We’re blessed to have something that can come back 20 years later and chart again. It charted higher now than it did back in the day, and it was a smash back in the day. I play it in my sets now, and it’s crazy that I can put that in my sets and play it for a new generation of people that had no idea how hot it was back in the day. That was my first project as A&R, executive producer, and I basically co-produced the song with the other two guys.

It’s funny how people are always surprised when they find out I did something like that track. DJ Khaled just used “Blow Da Whistle” from Too $hort for that new DJ Khaled and Drake song—I produced that. Some people don’t realize how long I’ve been in the industry and how much stuff I’ve really done. It’s cool because I’m not the guy that’s demanding props. I just wanna keep making music. God gave me a talent; I’m going to keep using my talent to make music for as long as I can. I don’t have to just get all of the props all of the time. It’s funny, though, when people find out and they’re like, “Wow, you did that?” Yep!

There seems to be so much stress in the entertainment industry regarding “staying relevant,” but you make it look easy. What approach do you take?

You have to keep your ear to the pulse of what’s going on. Times change. We’re in a technological age. People get information so quickly now. Everything changes up even quicker. Music trends change faster; people have access to your music all over the world. You just gotta try to keep your ear to the streets and understand where things are going, and at the same time not be afraid to try something else. I go off the energy I feel from the tracks and the music. That’s what keeps me knowing what’s good and what’s bad. The vibe of the track or whatever it is. And I guess I’m just blessed. [Laughs.] I don’t know of many artists who have been around so long and are still putting out music that’s still charting.

Anything else you’re working on?

I’ve got two big projects that are about to drop. One is my next big single coming out next month with Becky G and Yandel, called “Take It Off.” It’s produced by Play-N-Skillz and myself. It’s kind of a Spanglish record, because I’m doing English, Becky’s doing English, then Yandel is doing Spanish on the track. It’s a really crazy, high-energy club record. Also, I just I did one with Hardwell and W&W called “Live Tonight” that should be coming out in about a month. I believe it’s going to be a really big song in the EDM world.

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