While June 2014 feels like a million years ago, it was only six summers back that Barack Obama was well into his second term, Kanye and Kim were newlyweds, the World Cup was buzzing down in Brazil and a silly, entirely undeniable dance track was tearing through clubs around the globe while also making dance music history.
The No. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart on June 11, 2014, “Turn Down For What” was the scion of then up-and-coming French producer DJ Snake and hip-hop icon Lil Jon. The track was brought to life when Snake reached out to Lil Jon, asking him to add vocals over his dizzy, hyphy production. (This vocal would be replacing a Redman sample Snake had previously inserted.)
Lil Jon said okay, holing up in his Atlanta studio to write the lyrics — an homage to parties, late nights, shots, shots, more shots and not actually turning down for anything at all. When it was finished, the duo knew that they had made something special.
“We didn’t know how big of a record it was,” Lil Jon told Billboard in 2019, “but we both knew this s–t was a smash.”
In fact it would become not just a smash, but the first dance/hip-hop crossover of the EDM era, which was fully fist-pumping in 2014. EDM was still the hot new musical genre, and its stars — Skrillex, Calvin Harris, Deadmau5, Avicii and the like — were bringing the music to festivals, to the scene’s emerging hub in Las Vegas and to a new generation of dance fans while making piles of money in the process.
But “Turn Down For What” was a bit different, gaining popularity in open-format clubs before blowing up in the dance scene. This was because Lil Jon had sent out the track to every single DJ on his email list so they could play it in open-format clubs. He wanted to create momentum, and the move worked.
“DJs made this record a hit,” Lil Jon told Billboard, “and that’s because the energy of the song was perfect for any open format DJ set. Before it was big EDM DJs playing it at festivals, it was open-format DJs banging it.”
“Turn Down For What” ultimately spent ten weeks at No. 1, and 25 weeks total, on Hot Dance/Electronic Songs. It became the first major hit for DJ Snake, who would go on to have record-breaking success through his 2015 Major Lazer collaboration “Lean On” (which for a time was Spotify’s most-streamed song of all time) and subsequent mega-hits like “Let Me Love You” (with Justin Bieber) and “Taki Taki” with Cardi B, Selena Gomez and Ozuna. All three of these songs have surpassed 1 billion streams on Spotify.
But before any of that, there was Snake and Lil Jon’s earworm that worked equally as well at festival sets for tens of thousands of fans as it did in clubland.
“It was a cross-genre type thing, with hip-hop drums, EDM synths and me just catering to everybody,” Lil Jon said 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.”
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic and global protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, this summer (understandably) feels vastly less light-hearted than the one six years ago — but for those with three minutes to blast “Turn Down For What,” the track still hits just the same.