Published Oct 01, 2003The encroachment of white artists has led observers to argue that African-Americans will eventually leave hip-hop behind as in the case of jazz and rock music. Surely, this is an over-simplification, for as history shows, genres are never simply abandoned; rather, new musical styles sprout from existing ones, almost imperceptibly.
Such is the case with crunk music, a new-ish offshoot born in the swamps and boardrooms of the New South. With their shout-along choruses and synthetic bass and drum backing, crunk artists revel in their own artlessness, crafting coarse call-and-response anthems with one goal in mind: to get bodies moving. While hip-hop has long obeyed this corporeal imperative, crunk rappers like the Ying Yang Twins take this notion to its extreme, churning out tracks with no regard for lyrical and instrumental sophistication.
Crunk, then, is the South's reaction to hip-hop's increasingly poeticised vocal delivery. While the rise of pale-skinned stars like Eminem and Aesop Rock was predicated on their verbal virtuosity, crunk rappers are like anti-musical everymen, carousers who would rather party hard than practice their scales. As punk was to progressive rock, so crunk is to literate rap.
Chief among the new jacks are Lil' Jon & the Eastside Boyz, who first popularised the form on 1996's Who U Wit, Get Crunk: Da Album. Toting a gold-lined wine goblet and sporting diamond-studded teeth, Jon's persona is that of a renaissance pimp; as a vocalist, his delivery is fractured and terse, devoid of the subtle cadences typically employed by MCs.
With songs like "I Don't Give A @#&%" (downloadable at www.liljononline.com), Jon makes an appeal to workaday stiffs, positioning himself as the common man's answer to big-time cats like P. Diddy. In this regard, crunk can be seen as the latest manifestation of Southern black disaffection. This theory was recently confirmed by David Banner, whose Mississippi might just be the crunk album of the year.
"You've got to realise that [the determination of] which rappers will get hyped is made within a 15-block radius in Manhattan," explains Banner. "That's a lot of power among a small group of people. We're here to change that."
In keeping with this theme, a recent cover of The Source depicted Jon, Banner and Bone Crusher gleefully ripping a Confederate flag to shreds. For all its heavy-handedness, the symbolism of that photo is significant, for the magazine widely regarded as rap's leading authority is finally affirming the ability of Southern artists to succeed on their own terms, without the approval of the industry's white overseers.
While few crunk artists are overtly political, nor are they mere hedonists. Jon, for example, is a calculating businessman, a battle-tested club DJ and a former A&R rep for a midsize label. Given his background in the industry, the Georgian well understands the importance of hooks, as attested to by his songs, which often sound like one sustained chorus. In these days of Anticon-style rap obtuseness, the immediacy of Jon's recent swamp-dwelling anthem "Get Low" is positively invigorating.
Tactically, too, Jon has reoriented the hit-making focus away from the radio and toward the dance floor. "We don't even worry about radio, initially," he says. "We go straight to the club first, because we know if we light the clubs up, we're going to get the radio eventually."
If Jon is crunk's Moses, then Bone Crusher is its Sampson, a nappy-haired hulk whose "Never Scared" has launched him into the national consciousness. With his scabrous voice and graceless bearing, Bone Crusher's brand of music is downright scary, a welcome antidote to the playboy posturing of Chingy, the rapper whose "Right Thurr" is to crunk what Nickleback's "How You Remind Me" was to grunge.
As Nas and others enlist the aid of crunk producers like Jon, the movement's co-option into the hip-hop community will surely rankle the hardcore heads who revile crunk for its crudity. Given the resistance of hip-hop aficionados and the bald-faced greed of torchbearers like Jon, crunk is unlikely to sustain itself over the long term. But in defying rap's received notions of virtuosity, this movement may emulate its punk predecessor in one important respect: foreshadowing the reinvention of a form too much in the thrall of its own genius.