Having restrictions placed on his music by promoters is old news for Lil Jon. "A lot of my music's been banned," he says matter-of-factly. "I did the crunk movement, and it's the same feeling now as the crunk era -- that got people too crazy, too f---ing wild, fighting and all kinds of shit. My whole career has been: I make music for the club to go crazy."
Judging from Lil Jon's impressive résumé, this is a good way to build a long-lasting career. He debuted 20 years ago, leading the Atlanta hip-hop group Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz. In addition to scoring his own hits -- "Get Low," "Lovers & Friends," "Snap Yo Fingers" -- and leading crunk, an obstreperous strand of Southern hip-hop, into the upper echelons of the pop charts, Lil Jon produced smash after smash for other artists. The most famous of these is Usher's "Yeah!" (No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100), but you'll also find Jon's touch on Ciara's "Goodies" (No. 1), Baby Bash's "Cyclone" (No. 7) and E-40's "Tell Me When to Go" (No. 35).
His records have an unshakability that tends to bring them bounding back into pop consciousness long after most singles have fallen out of favor. Jon helped craft Ghost Town DJ's' "My Boo" (No. 27), which became a bigger hit in 2016 than it did after its 1996 release thanks to a viral dance challenge. This wasn't his first experience with virality, either: "Turn Down for What" (No. 4), still one of the most effective modern fusions of arena-sized electronic music and hip-hop, went mega-viral in 2014.
With this highly combustible back catalog, it's easy to imagine Lil Jon is unmoved by most other producers' beats. This is not the case. When he first heard Skellism's "In the Pit" instrumental -- he linked with the pair last year at EDC Las Vegas -- he remembers being blown away. "It's the hardest f---ing beat I've heard," Jon asserts. "I haven't heard anybody with a beat that hard."
Skellism, the L.A.-based duo of Sergio Garcia and Francisco Romo, pass much of the credit for the vigor of "In the Pit" back to Jon. At first, says Garcia, "It was just a normal trap song. He's the one who made it into a moshing anthem." Jon laid down his vocals, brusque commands that sound like they were shot from a howitzer, with Skellism in the studio, so the producers got to watch the man -- whose music they'd grown up on -- at work.
It took Jon less than 15 minutes to finish his part, which he reckons is a good sign. "Most artists will tell you: Their best work, some of the biggest shit that they recorded, they do it in 10 minutes," Jon declares. "I did 'Tell Me When to Go' in 10 minutes, and that's a classic."
Once "In the Pit" was in the can, Jon and Skellism distributed the track to a few DJs, who started to unleash it during their sets. The single set off a mosh pit while The Chainsmokers were DJing, and DJ Snake and Jauz used it to close out a night in April. Live rips of the song quickly spread online, so listeners now show up to Skellism and Lil Jon shows waiting hungrily for "In the Pit." "We can't play it in the middle of sets anymore, because half the people end up getting kicked out by security," Romo says.
The record also found its way to Neil Jacobson, president of Geffen Records, who signed the song. "Watch out for Lil Jon," Jacobson tells Billboard. "Every few months or few years, the guy drops another smash on the world."
In his view, listeners are especially well-primed for Jon's next hit. "I think the world has gone chill," he says. "Which is fine, but I'm really looking at anything aggressive, angry, loud." And Jon's latest single fits squarely in this category. "We have happy music," the rapper allows. "This is the opposite of the happy shit: hard as f---."
The club-wrecking reputation of "In the Pit" is early proof of concept. "Literally promoters are telling DJs, 'Do not play ["In the Pit"], I don't want that bullshit,'" Jacobson says. "That makes me so happy -- that's when you know you're on to something."