If The Party’s Where You’re At, Then Let Me Know: How Jagged Edge Crossed Over and United a Nation

Life is hard. It’s a cliché, but lord knows often it is all too true. In the ever-fading days of youth, we tend to forget what makes us human; what makes us beautiful as a species. It is our inherent ability to rise from the fruit of our faults and become greater than we thought we could be. Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance from The Shining quotes the brilliantly brief age-old elucidation into mankind’s most futile ritual- “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” If there is not joy to life, if there is no pleasure, what is our purpose? To live life without a shred of gratification would be to fail as a human being. Enter late spring, 2001. America is unaware of the perilous age that lies ahead. On the radio, one particular song was set to take over the summer. That song would be the inverse credo of that damning proverb. Perhaps we could do ourselves a favor and think back to a time when a group of young men from Atlanta and their friend from St. Louis asked the simplest of questions- “Where the Party At?”

The rhythm and blues outfit known as Jagged Edge, hailing from greater Atlanta, Georgia, had met mild levels of chart success in the late 1990s. Recently they had started to create their niche in pop music. Their soulful blend of streetwise rhythm and Sunday morning harmonies spun a series of baby-making singles. Their crossover success had yet to truly arrive as the calendar turned to a new century. Along came the ballad “Let’s Get Married.” The self-evident tune was a blatant example of the sound that would come to define Jagged Edge’s career. While their songs would often tread into somewhat graphic sexual imagery, the overarching theme of their career is relational commitment. Twins Brian and Brandon Casey, along with Kyle Norman and Richard Wingo, had found their place. But soon they would cross paths with a budding superstar who would change their career, and the pop landscape as a whole, forever.

Cornell Iral Haynes, Jr. Better known as Nelly in the rap game, Haynes was a meteoric talent climbing up the Billboard charts nearly as fast as his singles hit the airwaves. His “shot heard round the world” moment came in the 2000 banger “Country Grammar.” The playground-poetic nature of the song drilled into every ear across the land, creating a subliminal army of unaware pop-zombies spouting “down down baby, your street in a Range Rover…” from the bowels of their unconscious. Nelly was big. Nelly was about to be huge. With each single released from 2000’s Country Grammar LP, his star grew. He would appear during the Super Bowl XXXV Halftime Show in January, 2001. Soon enough, Nelly was one of the biggest stars not just in rap, but in pop music altogether. Before the Super Bowl performance, in late 2000, Nelly recorded a verse for an up-tempo track by the typically slow-burning Jagged Edge. Little did they know, their work would become much more than a crossover hit.

Intentional or not, “Where the Party At?” would come to serve as more than just a summer-destroying single

Jermaine Dupri. The architect of Kris Kross and the patriarch of So So Def Recordings, Dupri was a mid-level producer-slash-wannabe rapper on the rise with an ear for the sound of the time. He worked heavily on Jagged Edge’s third studio album Jagged Little Thrill which was appropriately set for an early-summer release, following the lead single Dupri produced. That song, of course, was “Where the Party At?” With a stroke of studio brilliance, lovelorn gospel harmonies and star presence, the song was set to be a hit as the mercury climbed. Intentional or not, “Where the Party At?” would come to serve as more than just a summer-destroying single, primed to be cast aside. It would endure as one of the great good-time songs of an era, and in itself, brought a reeling nation together.

September 11, 2001. There needs no explanation. The events of that morning sent shock-waves around the world. Emotions were stirred, and a superpower nation felt truly vulnerable for the first time. Months before, “Where the Party At?” had arrived on the R&B and hip-hop radio circuit, instantly finding success. The catchy hook, along with Caribbean-inspired instrumentation, set a vibe that would penetrate much deeper than the urban market. Pop stations soon picked up the single. A music video was released, only padding the song’s established reputation as a summer anthem. The song peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in late October of 2001. Perhaps there was a reason it took so long to reach that high. Perhaps there is something that resonated with the American people in their hour of need.

It all goes back to that proverb- “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, we felt it was inappropriate to laugh, to have fun, to enjoy life. Innocence, in a way, had gone the way of the dodo. Everything was serious. When Saturday Night Live came back on the air, it opened with a prolonged monologue in which producer Lorne Michaels asked then-New York Mayor Rudolph Juliani “well can we laugh?” It was a legitimate fear that if we did laugh or have fun, we would be able to move on, and if we could do that, perhaps we could forget. That was not to be. America had its outlets. Sports returned, then television programs. Soon we were getting back to some veil of normalcy, because we were told that if we didn’t, then the terrorists had won.

In effect, the inadvertent success of “Where the Party At?” fed into the spine of America’s spirit in that time. The song echoed not just a feel-good attitude, but signaled an unwavering way of life- the American Way. There are other representations of American culture in the wake of 9/11, but the chrome-coated phoenix dragging us back to who we were was Jagged Edge’s biggest hit.

The “party” is not necessarily just a party. It is neither a place nor an event. It is a way of life- the American Way.

Where the party at?

Girls is on the way, where the Bacardi at?

Bottles and models, talkin’ all of that

Know I can’t forget about my thugs (where the party at?)

And all my girls (where the party at?)

Off in the club (where the party at?)

If the party’s where you’re at then let me know

First off, note the all-inclusive nature of their party. This isn’t just a guys’ night out, Jagged Edge is looking for everyone to have a good time. Grab a bottle and have a good time. “Let your hair down” as some might say. Though they wouldn’t know it upon recording, the last line is what truly sets the stage for their thesis. The “party” is not necessarily just a party. It is neither a place nor an event. It is a way of life- the American Way. The euphemism of the lavish rap lifestyle is representative of the resilient nature of Americans. It’s often that feeling of “you can do it because I heard a guy say you couldn’t,” but Americans love to prove people wrong. We’re set in our ways, but at any cost we will shift to solve whatever comes our way. “If the party’s where you’re at then let me know,” is, in essence, “This is who we are, and I believe in us. Are you with me?”

There is a callback in the second verse. The line “It don’t matter what you wear, all that matters is who you’re with” is a lifted and shifted quote from Martha and the Vandellas’ smash hit “Dancing in the Street.” That rather innocent-sounding pop tune took on a much darker and militant meaning when it crossed paths with rioting protesters in the late 1960s. The “dancing” was seen as a call to arms by some, indebting African-Americans to stand up for their rights, regardless of condemnation. In the case of Jagged Edge’s usage of the line, it also has a veiled understanding. While on the surface, it merely means that what matters most is the company you keep, the times were changing. What mattered most was not just the company you kept, but the idea of one nation bonding unto our own melting pot. We were to learn more about each other, become one people united through our flaws and differences. It doesn’t matter your ethnic background, economic status or education, what matters is that we have each other. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, One.

Nelly’s verse comes in at a point where nothing else will work. The song has it a point of no return, and a rap break is the only cure to bring it home. This R&B/hip-hip combination is a tried and true formula for a pop smash. Perhaps derived from a Pythagorean fit of genius, a rap verse approximately two thirds into an R&B single just makes perfect sense. Turn on any urban-market radio station and you will find this pattern on regular rotation. It just works, and here, Nelly’s verse could not be any more relevant. His tit-for-tat wordplay is ricocheting off the guitar and synth loops. What can be easily misunderstood is if there are coherent thoughts put together at all. So often these days, a guest rap verse has zero relevance to the rest of the song. Nelly is here to party, however, and he makes it abundantly clear. His brash and somewhat arrogant lyrics stem from that rap lifestyle I mentioned before. This time, it’s an eye-opening statement of American resolve and determination. The party he so covets is the call-to-arms. In a way, Nelly is proving that he, and in turn Americans, are culturally superior. That mindset has gotten us into plenty of trouble, but in the fading summer of 2001, we did not care.

Come in as-is, doo-rags and Timbs

I’m rollin’ past his- little Jag and Benz

With the Rolls, not the one with the stem

The one with the rims

The one that seems to make more enemies than friends

Nelly even acknowledges the outlandish pride of American culture, but shoves it aside and drives on. There is no mistaking what he stands for, and as his verse concludes, we are left in the wake of a rising star who believes in understanding the truest of human desires.

Left side,  just put your hands up, throw ‘em up

Right side, now put your hands up, throw ‘em up

Everybody put your hands up, throw ‘em up

When the beat comes back around, e’rybody do it again

Finally, we reach the climax. : The banding together of the people. For a dance song, the participation call is an old-fashioned remedy for a stagnant crowd. Here, Jagged Edge is calling all Americans from sea to shining fucking sea to come together. It’s beautiful, really. Everyone is in unison, having a good time. Establishing what makes this nation great- an unyielding resolve to continue our grand social experiment in the face of utter defeat. This leads eloquently to the song’s final phrase:

And them haters ain’t hittin on, ain’t talkin’ bout us

And they look like…

If the party’s where you’re at lemme hear you say…

You can knock us down, but in the end, we will never be defeated. The only thing left to do is acquiesce and enjoy life.

“Where the Party At?” has stood the test of time. Perhaps there is something deeply rooted in our subconscious as to the message being presented. Maybe the song is just catchy. But there is a chance that for one summer, Jagged Edge, Nelly and Jermaine Dupri created a song that resonated deep into the heart of America when she needed more than ever before, a reason to believe in the fulfilling moments of life. Where the party at? Why… it’s right here, all around you, in the eyes of every man, woman and child living not just to survive, but to create a better tomorrow.

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