PRATHER: Usher was like “[“Burn”] is my first single.” And I was like, “Not really. I mean, it can be…” Everybody except Usher was like, Nah, it’s not exciting. He was equating it to “U Got It Bad” and “Nice & Slow” but neither of those were the lead records. The thing is, you need momentum to make those mean as much. But when this conversation was taking place there was no “Yeah!”
SEAN GARRETT (SONGWRITER): I liked the stuff Lil Jon was doing and asked my publisher to get some of his tracks. Lil Jon’s people were like, “He don’t do R&B. Lil Jon...Usher?’ It took about a month to get some tracks because they thought I was bullshitting.
JONES: Shakir [Stewart, Arista A&R consultant] came into my office and asked me if I could send a song to Usher. He gave me the CD, we played it, and as soon as it came on, it was “Yeah!.” He said, “I need you to send this to Jonetta.” I took the CD, called Jonetta and said, “I’m sending you a song. Don’t try to understand it. We just need to get it to Usher.” So she calls back, maybe a half hour later and said, OK. And I said, “I told you!”
PRATHER: One night Usher calls me down to his house. It’s a house full of people and he’s like, “Listen to this shit they just sent me.” So they played the record and everybody in the house was cracking on the record. See, Sean Garrett’s voice is so light for somebody who is so big [Laughs]. So Usher is like, “They just sent me this fake-ass Michael Jackson song.” And I’m like “Nah this is a hit. This is what you need.” At the time Lil Jon was making that pop culture turn and the Dave Chappelle skits just happened. I was like, “Just cut it.” I went through every trick I could think of. “What if you don’t cut it and they give it to someone else––I had a specific name––and you look crazy because this dude gets the biggest sound in Atlanta culture while you’re in Atlanta?”
PITTS: That nigga was not fucking with that record.
LUDACRIS (RAPPER): I remember listening to it for the first time in my house in Atlanta. It’s very rare that people send me a track and I instantly fall in love with it. Without me on it, it was [already] ridiculous. It took me no time to do my verse because when I’m that inspired, I instantly feel gratification from a record. It took me an hour or two to get everything together and I knocked it out. I knew how big it was going to be.
GARRETT: Once we finished the record, we found out that there were several mixes of the track already out there.
PRATHER: After he cut it a bunch of us were randomly at a strip club one night and the Petey Pablo song came on. “Freak-A-Leak” is the original beat to “Yeah.” Usher looks at me like, “You gave him the record?” I’m like, “Did you give him the record?” Then Petey Pablo comes on and we’re like, “They put Petey Pablo on it?” So I called Jon from the club like, “Yo.” And he’s like, “Oh shit, it was a on a beat tape.” At this point Usher’s like, “See, I told you! Fuck this shit!” I told Jon he had to go back in and fix this and he came up with the much better record. The first time we heard the [keys come in] is the first time I saw Usher actually like the song.
LUDACRIS: Originally, Usher said that he didn’t really like the record. He wanted one of those slow songs to be the first single. He thought the song was just mediocre.
COX: We were nervous about “Yeah!” for a couple reasons. 8701 had a hiccup with the record “Pop Ya Collar.” For whatever reason it didn’t work, so Arista felt like they were about to have another hiccup.
PRATHER: They put out “Pop The Collar” and it was wack as fuck, so it gave us back the reigns.
DUPRI: I was actually afraid [of “Yeah!”]. I didn’t feel like crunk was commercial enough for Usher. I didn’t want it to drive away what we already built with “U Remind Me” and “U Got It Bad.”
PITTS: I remember JD played it on his radio show right before the holidays and it didn’t get a good response. I was supposed to master the record. I guess because of the early response I was told not to master it. I got to give all the credit to Lil Jon. They was about to go left. Lil Jon did his thing and when we came back off the Christmas break that shit was on fire!
LIL JON: I definitely leaked it to radio. I gave it to select people and the rest is history. If you got a hit song and the label doesn’t necessarily agree, it will force them to believe in it.
JONES: When Jon leaked the song, L.A. went crazy. Called legal and had the stations shut the song down. And as quick as he can shut the radio stations down, five other stations jumped on it. It started to get out of control, like a wild fire. It got so bad that they didn’t have a choice [but to support it].
COX: L.A. and Jermaine were a little bit nervous but I’ll tell you the reason we know MempHitz today is because he stood his ground. He was like, this is the record. Shakir Stewart was like this is the record! And it worked. The first day that record hit the radio it was so big.
DUPRI: If you’re trying to build an R&B star and he goes and makes a record with Lil Jon it could change the scope of where he’s going. And it didn’t. It just became the thunder of new music. It could’ve brought his brand down but instead his brand lifted everything else up. Usher’s got that power.