Lil Jon had an inkling that participating in “The Celebrity Apprentice” would include exhausting days of filming and tense boardroom interactions with blowhard host Donald Trump.
But he wasn’t prepared for 5 a.m. wake-up calls and the mental fatigue that comes from 13-hour days of brainstorming and executing tasks while dealing with a squad of erratic personalities (Gary Busey, anyone?).
He also wasn’t anticipating a shift in his fan base, which, until the show, consisted primarily of music fans attuned to hearing Lil Jon’s distinctive rasp in dozens of club hits or watching him DJ.
“I can’t walk through the airport now without a lot of older women — grandmas! — saying, ‘You did a great job on the show.’ Older white women are coming up to me and telling me they’re rooting for me. It’s amazing,” Lil Jon said earlier this week from Los Angeles International Airport, while waiting for a flight to Las Vegas.
Though Atlanta native Lil Jon — born Jonathan Smith — was ousted last week by Trump, he is proud to have reached the final four on the show, along with Meat Loaf and the two contestants now battling for “apprentice” supremacy — country singer John Rich and actress Marlee Matlin.
Lil Jon, 40, agreed to be on NBC’s reality production partially to bring attention to United Methodist Children’s Home, his charity of choice, but also, as he said during last week’s episode, to “dispel the negative stereotypes of rappers.”
Indeed, there initially might have been some pigeonholing going on with the guy known for hits “Get Low” with the Ying Yang Twins, “Snap Yo Fingers” and his contribution to Usher’s 2004 smash, “Yeah,” which Lil Jon also co-wrote and produced.
He thinks the reason he’s suddenly beloved by a new demographic is because viewers got to see the person behind his omnipresent sunglasses.
“It’s all me on TV. Before, I guess, people didn’t get to see that I’m smart and funny,” Lil Jon said.
The Douglass High School grad, who currently holds a DJ residency at club Surrender at the Wynn Las Vegas casino, won both “Celebrity Apprentice” tasks on which he served as project manager, leading with an easygoing manner and always dressing sharply.
He raised $80,000 for the children’s home, but he also learned something about himself.
“The whole experience showed me how tough I am and what I’m really made of,” Lil Jon said. “The show pushes your limits. I say making an album is mentally grueling, but you can control that process to an extent. You can’t really get up during the show and say, ‘I don’t want to do the task today.’”
Aside from proving that a guy with dreadlocks and a grill can also possess a brain and business acumen, Lil Jon, along with the cowboy hat-sporting Rich, became the show’s odd couple — musical oil and water that somehow blended harmoniously.
But, as the duo is now revealing, they’ve been friends for about five years and purposely pretended to be strangers for tactical reasons.
“It was my idea to act like we didn’t know each other so we could have each other’s backs. You don’t know people’s agendas,” Lil Jon said, adding that, naturally, he believes his compadre will be crowned this season’s “Celebrity Apprentice” on Sunday’s live finale.
“He’s my boy!” Lil Jon enthused, but also noted his respect for Matlin’s fundraising accomplishments on the show.
Now that his image has been tweaked from rowdy Southern rapper to a business entrepreneur christened with Trump legitimacy, Lil Jon intends to extend his brand.
He has a VH1 show in the works and said he’s eager to jump into voice work for animated movies and cartoons.
He’s also providing gentle professional assistance to his son, Nathan, a 13-year-old actor/model/DJ.
Lil Jon and his family spend most of the year in California so Nathan — also known as DJ Young Slade and, when acting, Slade Smith — can pursue his ambitions, but Atlanta will always be home.
“I’m gonna travel, but I’m never gonna leave Atlanta,” he said. “There’s no place like it.”
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