Various Artists: Crunk Classics

[23 August 2004]

By Tim O'Neil

Southern hip-hop has always sat on the ridge of a precarious dichotomy. One the one hand, you have the pro-society musings of musically adventurous artists such as Outkast and Arrested Development. On the other, you have folks like Master P, Juvenile and Lil Jon.

The crunk sound had been percolating for a quite a while before finally conquering mainstream radio waves during the last year. The earliest song on this compilation dates back over a decade to 1993—a remix of UGK’s “Pocket Full of Stones”. On first glance it might seem startlingly dissimilar to the other tracks here. The production is pure early ‘90s gangsta lean, complete with funky bass riff and a pseudo-psychedelic guitar section. But on a closer listen, there are some very subtle signifiers here that can be seen as the bedrock of a new southern sound. Although the production itself is—typically for its era—lush and organic, full of analog samples, the percussive undercarriage is harsh and antiseptically artificial.

Soon any attempts at emulating the prevelant California-vibes were abandoned in favor of a more muscular, electro-influenced sound, similar to the booty-bass Florida sound of the 2-Live Crew and their ilk. Just a thin three years after of UGK’s “Pocket Full of Stones”, Memphis, TN’s Three 6 Mafia were already working from a fairly sophisticated crunk template on “Tear Da Club ‘97”. The use of sampling has generally been downplayed in southern hip-hop, and the evolution of the crunk sound saw an increased reliance on the type of blatantly artificial synthesizer preset sounds (horn fanfares, orchestral flourishes) that had previously been used to such great effect in 80s synthpop and early 90s hardcore.

The dominant sound in southern rap in the late ‘90s was bounce, the house sound for both Master P’s No Limit Records and the Cash Money Millionaires. Bounce shared a lot with the still-underground crunk scene, but artists such as Master P and Juvenile were routinely lambasted for what was perceived by many as the watered-down nature of their music. In essence, the pop-friendly southern rap of Ghetto D, with its verboten use of samples and the endlessly idiotic refrains, was seen as a homogenized version of a club sound that hadn’t yet made it mainstream. There’s a reference to this division in Pastor Troy’s “No More Play In GA”, which begins with a blatant swipe from Master P’s deathless “Make Em Say Ugh”.

Those who thought that rap music had reached its idiotic nadir with songs such as “Make Em Say Ugh” (to say nothing of “Make Em Say Ugh 2”) obviously had a lot to learn. I’m not going to say that the majority of crunk songs are stupid, so much as that they are extremely focused: they have been genetically engineered to make the club explode. There’s no other reason for these tracks to exist. If you’re listening to, say, Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz’ “Bia Bia 2”, you are supposed to be either drunk or getting drunk. Much like “Louie Louie” or “Blitzkrieg Bop”, this is music that exists for the express purpose of jumping up and down in a standing-room-only club with a beer in your hand.

So while it may seem harsh and alien on first exposure, it ultimately comes as no surprise that the genre has conquered the pop charts. People like to party. Usher and Britney Spears have exploited the talents of Lil Jon and the Yin-Yang Twins, respectively, while the don of progressively eclectic hip-hop, Timbaland, provides a suitably crunked-up beat for Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up”, included on this compilation from 2001.

It’s a short walk from the aggressively minimal beats of your average crunk track to the aggressively ascetic beats of your average Autechre track. The fact that the mainstream becomes more and more avant garde with every passing year is hardly a new observation, but the relentless march of progress practically ensures that the next generation of club tracks will be more minimal than Plastikman, with sparsely throbbing beats and dislocated vocals screaming out through the club speakers. Lil Jon is already about halfway there.

If I’ve one complaint with this compilation, it would be the fact that there are no liner notes to speak of, and even the publication dates for individual tracks are inconsistently noted. I realize this set was constructed with someone besides the armchair historian in mind, but it would have been considerate nonetheless.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/various-crunkclassics/