Back in the early 2000s, everyone wanted to be from Atlanta — no matter if you came from the streets of Harlem or if you grew up in the California sunshine.
From the unique fashion (exaggerated tall tees, snapbacks, throwback jerseys and an aggressive amount of bling) to the slang (Shawty, Bando, Guala, etc.), the southern city possessed a swagger that was funneled through a series of classic hip-hop bangers. Outkast already had the streets on lock with their progressive approach to the genre, a then-rising Ludacris found success with punchy comedic charm, and T.I. was preparing to take his crown as the Trap King. But in 2003, the Atlanta rap scene ushered in another exciting era in music — which began with YoungBloodZ‘s 2003 single, “Damn!”
The ATL duo, comprised of J-Bo and Sean P, previously released their debut album Against da Grain in 1999. It gained recognition in their hometown, yet didn’t fully capture the mainstream audience. In came “Damn!” — the second single from their sophomore effort Drankin’ Patnaz, which (along with Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz’ “Get Low”) was arguably responsible for the mainstream rise of crunk music. Produced by Lil Jon himself, the rowdy, synthesized “Throw them bows” anthem peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the YoungBloodZ’s only top 10 single on the chart.
15 years later, “Damn!” has proven to still have legs, with Australian pop favorite Betty Who recently sampling the famous “Don’t start no shit, there won’t be no shit” lyric in “Free to Fly” from her 2017 album The Valley. “That’s awesome, you can’t ask for more,” Sean P tells Billboard about the singer’s unlikely rendition. “When people are still sampling your records it shows the impact, and that’s all YoungBloodz want to be — an impact on this ground.”
The success of “Damn!” led to even more hits for YoungBloodZ, with the guys later appearing on Nivea’s “Okay,” Sammie’s “You Should Be My Girl,” Cherish’s “Do It, To It” and Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers.” “The phone just kept ringing, and they just wanted Sean Paul to come rap on this and rap on that,” Sean P continues. “I was loving it because I was doing what I like to do… I felt like I was the voice of the city at that time. And everybody knew that too, but I didn’t take it in an arrogant way. I just always wanted to put this shit on the map, and represent back home.”
In honor of the 15th anniversary of “Damn!” Billboard asked Sean P about the song’s origin, what it meant for his hometown and the current iteration of Atlanta hip-hop. Check out the interview below.
So tell me the story of how the song was born.
We were recording our album Drankin’ Patnaz, and towards the end of recording we started listening through the album, and we didn’t feel like it had any singles yet. So I made a call to J.D. — y’know, Jermaine Dupri — to see if we could get back in the studio and do a couple more things. And I definitely wanted to work with Lil Jon — he was definitely putting in work at the time. We were all in the studio just vibing, and Lil Jon laid the track down.
Instantly, man, we knew it was the one. You could tell by the energy in the room. Myself and [Atlanta rapper] Bohagon were sitting and chatting around, and [the hook] “If you don’t give a damn, we don’t give a fuck” came out. And everybody was like, “Shit, that’s it right there. No more thinking!”
How did the Lil Jon connection come about?
We met back in the day when we were doing our first deal [with LaFace Records]. Actually, Vince Phillips — who was part of BME Recordings, which was also connected to Lil Jon — was our lawyer. So we were all kind of on the same block. And that’s how we got to know Lil Jon. We’re like family.
And his “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit” line essentially became a motto.
That’s the vibe of YoungBloodZ and the Attic Crew, y’know what I’m saying? Our crew has individuals who come from all over Atlanta, and we just have fun. We run around in the streets, having a good time at the club, drinking good, acting a fool. That was just our attitude: “If you don’t give a damn, we don’t give a FUCK.”
I think that attitude embodied the overall confidence that people in Atlanta have.
We gotta be cocky down here, just growing up. ‘Cuz hell, ain’t nobody else was letting us in. We mean what we do and we stand on it. Atlanta, Georgia — look at how many years later we started breaking into the music industry, you know? And we still here.
For me, “Damn!” was music’s first introduction to crunk.
I do agree with that in a way. Even though I’d say YoungBloodZ weren’t crunk artists…it was just the energy. We never called it “crunk” — we would get crunk! But I think “Damn!” put us in that category. And I especially feel it was the start of Lil Jon’s career and ours.
The video definitely took the song to the next level.
See, we come from Atlanta for real. If you look at Atlanta now and you ask the people that you see if they’re from there, they’d probably say “nah.” We were from the streets of Atlanta originally. So everybody in the video, they move around with us, they know us and they’ve been in the streets with us. All the energy that you see, that was all natural energy. Those were real people from Atlanta, not just people moving in. You had Jagged Edge, Jermaine Dupri, everybody from the east side to the north side. We walked those grounds for real.
Being from New York, we had popular dances like the Harlem Shake. But the “Damn!” video introduced me to the A-Town Stomp.
Atlanta is known for signature dances. We have a good time at the club, y’know what I mean? They’ve been backing up that ass, doing the Bankhead Bounce — all kinds of stuff. Atlanta has a history of dance moves and it’s pretty much the same now, I feel. Everyone is still kicking it and having a good time to the music.
What was your reaction when the song officially became a hit?
It was a hit to us already, just with the way we were moving in the industry and the energy we felt from people at our shows. We saw everybody acting a fool to it. But as far as radio and everything else, at that time we didn’t really understand what it really meant. But visibly seeing people’s reaction, that basically confirmed everything. We were thankful, but we didn’t know what we were thankful for until later on down the line. Coming out of Atlanta, Georgia back then and to have a record reach that high, that’s when [you know] you really showed up.
You released your debut album Against the Grain back in 1999 and it took a few years to get this hit. Was there a sense of relief?
It was a good feeling, because we were getting played everywhere — everybody recognized us. We were like a household name. Our first [song] release was “Shakem’ Off,” which was good in the streets of Atlanta — it probably didn’t go nowhere else. “U-Way” was another one, and then “85” with Big Boi from Outkast. Those were all good records, and then we started getting bigger and bigger with the Outkast record. That started getting noticed a lot. Then we came back with the Lil Jon record, and it just took us to another level. I guess the label just got behind it more, just seeing the potential of the group from the last album and the success of Lil Jon.
I think if you put “Damn!” on in the club right now, people are still gonna rock to it.
And they do! Man, it’s crazy that it’s still going. That’s the most beautiful part about it. It’s timeless, it’s a classic. And not many people who have hits today can say that in 15-16 years later that they’re songs will still be getting some plays. It’s definitely a blessing.
What do you have to say to the people who thought YoungbloodZ would just be a one-hit wonder?
Check out those three albums and listen for themselves. A lot of people who think that don’t actually know the business. A hit song only comes from big promotion from people behind you. Just because your song wasn’t a hit doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great song — it just means [the label] was interested in something else at the time.
Do you miss the crunk era? There were so many dope acts.
I do miss that era, but the good thing about it is that I can enjoy it every week because we all tour together! [Laughs.] We just got off the Tom Joyner Foundation Fantastic Voyage cruise. Our set was the “Kings of Crunk” and we had Bone Crusher, Trillville, Ying Yang Twins and Eastside Boyz. So we’re still living it. [Crunk] was the breakthrough of southern music, I feel. Everybody wanted to come to our city to chill and see how cool it was — but they wanted to hate on it at the same time. So I think we gave them a reason to be cool and get on down with the team.
Of course the rap scene in Atlanta has changed with this new generation. We now have Migos, Young Thug, 21 Savage…
I like the business side of it. I like that they’re doing numbers and have easy access to the internet world. They have it figured out more. I just [ask] everybody — from the old to the young — to make sure we’re getting out the right message to these people. Because there’s a lot of people listening, so let’s not lead them in the wrong direction. Personally, I love seeing YFN Lucci and them youngbloods doing their thing. Migos, I salute them guys. They’re definitely hustling and working hard and representing the city. Everybody from the city right now, we love them to death, and we’re behind them 100 percent.