Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Before “Turn Down For What” was an international hit, it was just an unsigned track being hustled to open format nightclub DJs by its co-creator, Lil Jon.
The venerable rapper and ‘00s crunk kingpin had gotten involved with the song in 2013, when a then-largely-unknown French producer named DJ Snake got in touch, requesting Lil Jon lay vocals over Snake’s sinewy beat. (This vocal would be replacing a Redman sample Snake had previously inserted.)
Up to the challenge, the artist born Jonathan Smith sequestered himself in his Atlanta studio and got to work writing lyrics, quickly coming up with the song’s titular query, a phrase he would ultimately repeat 15 times on the track. The writing process then became a bit more philosophically challenging.
“I had to ask myself,” Lil Jon says, “’what are we actually turning down for?’”
As it turned out, the answer would be nothing. “Fire up that loud, another round of shots,” he wrote over the next few hours, sealing the song’s hyphy, hard-partying sentiment — an ideal match to the track’s dizzyingly escalating synths and massive drop. With the lyrics complete, Lil Jon passed the track back to DJ Snake.
“We didn’t know how big of a record it was,” he says, “but we both knew this s–t was a smash.”
What neither artist could have predicted is that “Turn Down For What” would become a worldwide phenomenon and the first major hip-hop/EDM crossover, with the song bringing a hip-hop swagger and sensibility (along with one of the genre’s most recognizable voices) into the burgeoning EDM scene. The song blew up in and well beyond both genres, ultimately becoming cultural shorthand for the cartoonishness of the EDM moment itself when it was spoofed on Saturday Night Live’s 2013 EDM parody short “When Will the Bass Drop?” (“Get turned up to death!” Lil Jon exclaims in the clip.)
But before all of that happened, people had to hear the song, with Lil Jon taking on the A&R role by blasting it to all the club DJs on his email list. (“Like, everybody,” he says.) Over in France, Snake was spooked by the move, which he believed was going to affect the song’s chances of getting signed. “Snake was like ‘What the f–k, don’t do that,” Lil Jon recalls.
But the move worked, gaining the track “a whole s–tload” of momentum in clubland. “DJs made this record a hit, and that’s because the energy of the song was perfect for any open format DJ set,” Lil Jon says. “Before it was big EDM DJs playing it at festivals, it was open-format DJs banging it.”
This hype led to a bidding war between Interscope and Columbia, with the latter label signing the song. The track spent 37 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 4, and became a go-to party starter not just for hip-hop heads or the swelling number of EDM fans, but mainstream audiences who heard it on the radio, at sporting events and in commercials, movie trailers and late night television bits.
Even Michelle Obama got on board, using the track in a 2014 Vine video for a healthy eating campaign. (“Turnip for what?” the then First Lady asked while clutching the said veggie.) This ubiquity was compounded by a video directed by filmmaking duo Daniels, in which an absurdly libidinous protagonist sparks an entirely turned up house party after humping his way through the floors of an apartment building. The clip was silly, memorable and a mainstream sensation, going viral upon release and racking up a current 913 million streams on YouTube.
“It was a cross-genre type thing, with hip-hop drums, EDM synths and me just catering to everybody,” Lil Jon says of the song’s genre-spanning composition. “I think that’s why the record was so big. It created good energy for people to party or just get crazy, from little kids to grandparents.”