After plowing at his craft for seven years, rapper Nelly has finally reached stardom for himself as well as his group, the St. Lunatics. His first release was praised for its originality and it was a commercial success. Nelly has also played an integral part in getting his hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, on the rap game’s stratosphere. While New York City and its East Coast style, and the West Coast flavor of rappers such as Snoop Dogg, dominated the scene, Nelly is joining a growing list of artists without a New York-Los Angeles connection. Nelly’s voice has a Midwest twang, but he does not hide it with any false East Coast bravado or fake tone of voice; rather, he appears proud of his St. Louis accent, that’s part Southern and part city.
Cornell Haynes, Jr., was born in Texas, but his father was in the Air Force and moved the family to Spain. They eventually landed in St. Louis, Missouri, which Nelly calls home. “St. Louis is real, it’s the rawest of the raw,” Nelly said, on his website, nelly.net. “It’s so small that everybody knows each other. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with it.” As the family’s youngest child, Nelly had a penchant for hanging with the older crowd and getting into trouble. It also caused him to become transient within his family, as his mother moved him around to live with several different relatives in hopes of changing his focus. “I went to eight different schools as a child; four of them I was kicked out of,” Nelly told Rolling Stones Magazine. “I was a bad little [f———, ] always fighting. I was never in one place too long, living with my mom, my dad, my grandparents, my mom’s friends, my daddy’s friends.”
The lure of the street had its ugly hooks on Nelly, but before drugs and gangs could take him under, his mother moved the family to University City, Missouri, a suburb outside of St. Louis. It was there that Nelly learned that life was more than hanging out and getting involved in mischievous activity, as he became more constructive with his time. Nelly began playing organized baseball and becoming good enough to attend training camps for the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates. On nelly.net, he stated, “I really thought that I’d be playing ball right now.” But, at the same time that he excelled at baseball, Nelly was developing his rap skills. At age 15, in 1993, the same year that the family left St. Louis, Nelly and his high school friends, Kyjuan, Ali, Murphy Lee, Jason, and Nelly’s brother, City Spud, formed the St. Lunatics.
By 1996 the St. Lunatics had self-produced a song, “Gimmie What Ya Want,” which was a smash hit
Born Cornell Haynes, Jr., around 1978 in Texas.
Career: Rapper. Part of group, St. Lunatics; had regional hit, “Gimme What Ya Want,7 1996; released solo album, Country Grammar, 2000; released St. Lunatics album, Free City, 2001.
Awards: Source Awards, Best New Artist of the Year, Best Album of the Year, 2001.
locally and regionally. According to Nelly.net, “Gimmie What Ya Want” reached its peak by selling 7,000 units regionally and achieved No. 1 on St. Louis’ top hip-hop station, FM 103. However, there was no immediate follow up to the St. Lunatics’ success and it did not result in a national record deal, which was ultimately the group’s goal. They made a bold move: the St. Lunatics sent Nelly out to seek a record deal. The gamble paid off, as Universal Records signed him to a deal and by 2000 Nelly had hit the scene. The debut album, Country Grammar was a mixture of melodic unique beats and simple lyrics that are easy to follow. The title song, “Country Grammar,” featured a hook that was as catchy as a nursery rhyme. The refrain, “I’m goin’ down, down baby …” became etched in the minds of many rap fanatics who had no idea that St. Louis existed in the rap world. “We’ll have kids running up and down the block all day, playing ghetto games,” Nelly told Rolling Stone. “We can’t afford all the high-priced games, so we make up our own games and our own chants; ‘down, down baby’ is just a chant from one of those games.” As the nation heard more of the album, it became more impressed by Nelly, whose path seemed to mimic that of Master P, a New Orleans-based rapper, hitting the rap world with something that it had not heard before. The album was a multi-platinum success.
In the second single on the debut album “E.I.,” Nelly began to introduce the rap audience and the nation to a whole new set of St. Louis slang. “E.I. means ‘Yes! Bring it on!’” he explained at nelly.net. On the song, “Country Grammar,” Nelly used the term, ‘mo.’ He explained the meaning to Rolling Stone. “In St. Louis we call our friends ‘mo, ’ like ‘That’s my mo’. And we call our girls ‘moette.’ While many people from urban metropolises call St. Louis ‘country’ or ‘bama.’” Nelly has made it a city to be proud of.
Country Grammar propelled Nelly into the spotlight, as he was recognized at the Source Hip-Hop Music Awards. For his efforts, Nelly won both the Best New Artist of the Year and the Best Album of the Year. He performed at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. His career also reached a new pinnacle when he performed with Britney Spears and Aerosmith at the Super Bowl in January of 2001. Nelly also planned to launch his own apparel line, becoming the latest rap artist to do so. The new label, titled Vokal, stands for “very organized kids always learning,” his manager told the St. Louis Business Journal.
Though he’s experienced success as a solo artist and hopes to duplicate that as an entrepreneur, Nelly has not forgotten where it all started with the St. Lunatics. “I don’t necessarily feel like a solo artist,” he stated at nelly.net. “I’m just a key in the door for the rest of the St. Lunatics … So it’s St. Lunatics for life.” The group released its album, Free City in 2001.
Country Grammar, Universal Records, 2000.
(With St. Lunatics)
“Gimme What Ya Want,” (single) 1996.
Free City, St. Lunatics, Universal Records, 2001.
Billboard, March 18, 2000.
Entertainment Weekly, December 22, 2000.
Interview, October 2000.
St. Louis Business Journal, August 24, 2001.
All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com
Official Nelly website, www.nelly.net
Rolling Stone Online, www.rollingstone.com
“Yeah, when I make it, I’m gonna get this big … charm to hang around my neck!” Nelly told Rolling Stone about what he used to promise himself when he was hustling for money in his home town of St. Louis, Missouri. Living his prediction when he conducted the interview, the rapper born Cornell Haynes, Jr., wore a “NELLY” charm around his neck. Beginning with the single “Country Grammar (Hot …),” Nelly became successful beyond his wildest dreams. His first album, Country Grammar, sold more than eight million copies, turning him into an MTV hero.
The album’s success was no fluke. Another irresistible summer-singer chorus—“Take off all your clothes!”—turned Nelly’s follow-up single, “Hot in Herre,” into a smash. The 2002 CD from which it came, Nellyville, included a guest appearance by Nelly’s pal (and ‘N Sync heartthrob) Justin Timberlake. The album sold three million copies in its first six months, and vied with Eminem and Bruce Springsteen for the top of the pop charts.
The son of divorced parents, Haynes was born on his father’s Air Force base in Texas and lived with a succession of St. Louis relatives beginning at age seven. During high school, he moved back in with his mother, still hustling to make extra money: in addition to working at McDonald’s, he told the New York Times, slyly, “I was doing whatever else I was doing.” Haynes turned out to have many talents—he was a star high school baseball player, attracting scouts from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves. (Critics would later remark on Nelly’s matter-of-fact athlete’s approach to fame and art.)
But sports weren’t in Nelly’s future. He discovered his interest in rap in 1993, forming the St. Lunatics with like-minded hip-hop fans Kyjuan, City Spud, Murphy Lee, and Jason. Within three years, they had nailed down a management contract, gone into the studio and recorded a 12-inch single, “Gimme What You Want.” It became regionally popular, leading to interest from Universal Records. Nelly was the obvious solo star, but the St. Lunatics wound up with a record deal and a hit CD, Free City.
Nelly’s style is far from that of gangsta rappers like Chuck D. of Public Enemy. Nelly’s raps are filled with simple catchphrases like “don’t forget where you came from,” his funk isn’t terribly complex, and his songwriting rarely strays from gangs-and-babes hip-hop themes. Veteran rapper KRS-One is among Nelly’s most vocal critics, ripping him for “going pop,” according to the New York Times. (To which Nelly responded, in verse: “You the first old man should get a rapper’s pension/No hits since the cordless mic invention.”)
Nelly elaborated to the New York Times in 2002: “It’s all hip-hop, but you got people trying to divide it, saying what is and what’s not. You going to walk into a roomful
Born Cornell Haynes, Jr. on November 2, 1979, in Dallas, TX.
Signed with Universal Records, 1999; released debut album Country Grammar, 2000; released follow-up, Nellyville, 2002.
Awards: Source Awards, Album of the Year, New Artist of the Year, 2001; Teen Choice Awards for Choice Single, Choice Hook Up, Choice Song of the Summer, 2002; American Music Awards, Fans’ Choice Award, 2003.
of kids and tell them they wrong?” Timberlake, quoted in the same article, doesn’t see Nelly as a rapper at all. “I personally consider him a blues singer, you know—even though everybody thinks he’s a rapper—because he’s got a really good voice.”
Nelly’s style is also simple and catchy, returning hip-hop to its early days of bragging, rhyming, and partying. Nelly himself is the same way: He’s still a proud member of the St. Lunatics, and he regularly wears a Band-Aid on his left cheek in case an old friend, convicted robber Lavell “City Spud” Webb, might see it. The Band-Aid, Nelly told USA Today, came from an incident involving a basketball game and an opponent’s watch. “Before I knew it,” Nelly said, “I had 9-and 10-year-old kids running up to me with four and five Band-Aids on their faces. It was crazy.”
Nelly has been known to play the prima donna, showing up hours late for interviews or, in the case of one early supporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not at all. Nonetheless, a major career blueprint seems to be “don’t forget where you came from”—he poses in front of the St. Louis arch on the cover of Country Grammar, wears flashy St. Louis Rams chains, and puts out songs called “St. Louie.” He added the extra “r” to “Hot in Herre” to mimic St. Louis pronunciation. “Nelly has reduced his life story to a geographical fact,” the New York Times’ Kelefa Sanneh sniffed in 2002. “He comes from St. Louis.”
Nelly, an unmarried father of two, runs a St. Louis-based charity, 4sho4kids, to help those with drug addictions and developmental disabilities. In addition, the St. Lunatics participate in a St. Louis school-attendance program. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told USA Today a year after Missouri’s governor gave him the key to St. Louis for his birthday.
Nelly is also a savvy businessman who, like many rappers, has no problem with the concept of making money. He’s up front about his tax shelters and jewelry purchases and often drapes himself in clothing from his own line, Vokal. ‘Where I’m from, this Rolex could take care of the whole block for a year,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000. “It’s crazy like that, but this is something you work for”
In late 2002 he starred in his first movie, Snipes, a low-budget action film about a rapper-hustler who makes it big. “Fortunately, enough people have been like, ‘You did a good job. You did OK, ’” Nelly said of his performance. “I was like, ‘Whew. Thanks.’ Basically all I was trying to do was not stink up the joint.” Later in the same 2002 interview, when USA Today’s Kelly Carter jokingly brought up Will “Fresh Prince” Smith, another actor who crossed over into movies, Nelly became excited. “Hopefully, yeah. If I can get $20 million a movie or better, I wouldn’t knock it,” he said. “I definitely look up to people like Will Smith, who was able to come from a hip-hop background and achieve bigger and better.”
Country Grammar, Universal, 2000.
Nellyville, Universal, 2002.
Chicago Sun-Times, December 7, 2000.
New York Times, June 23, 2002.
Rolling Stone, September 14, 2000; October 6, 2000; December, 14, 2000.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 30, 2000; December 10, 2000; June 27, 2002.
USA Today, September 29, 2000; September 3, 2002.
Village Voice, August 22, 2000.
“American Music Awards Nominee List: Favorite Artist—Rap/ Hip-Hop,” http://abc.abcnews.go.com/primetime/specials/ama/bios/nelly.html (October 7, 2002).
“Nelly,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 7, 2002).
Nelly Official Website, http://www.nelly.net (October 7, 2002).
Born: Cornell Haynes, Jr.; Austin, Texas, 2 November 1978
Best-selling album since 1990: Country Grammar (2000)
Hit songs since 1990: "Country Grammar," "Hot in Herre"
New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta have long been the key cities of the hip-hop world, but with the surprise success of his 2000 major-label debut, Country Grammar, the St. Louis rapper Nelly put the Midwest on the map. With a colorful crew of fellow rappers called the St. Lunatics, the photogenic Air Force brat added St. Louis to the rap map by unleashing a string of sing-songy, instantly accessible party anthems such as "Hot in Herre" and "Country Grammar." Like the Wu-Tang Clan a decade earlier, the solo success of Nelly was intended as a stepping-stone for the solo careers of his mates in the St. Lunatics.
Cornell Haynes, Jr., the youngest son of an Air Force sergeant, was born in Texas in 1978 and raised in Spain before landing in St. Louis, Missouri, where his parents divorced when he was eight. The young Cornell bounced between eight different schools and almost as many homes as a child; fearing her son was being led astray by older friends, Nelly's mother moved the family to the suburban University City, Missouri.
At fifteen Nelly formed the group the St. Lunatics with his brother, City Spudd, and his high school friends Kyjuan, Ali, Murphy Lee, and Jason. In 1996, the group had a regional hit with the self-produced song, "Gimmie What Ya Want," which sold more than 7,000 copies, but the release failed to elicit any offers from record labels. Meanwhile, Nelly continued to pursue his parallel passion, baseball, playing shortstop in the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Association and attending training camps for the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Hoping to repeat the success of New York's nine-member Wu-Tang Clan—a hard-core rap collective that debuted with a group album and later launched more than half a dozen successful solo careers—the group pushed the handsome, charismatic Nelly to the fore, hoping to secure a solo deal that would allow him to bring his cohorts along. The ploy was a success: Nelly was signed by Universal Records in 2000 and released his debut album, Country Grammar, that year.
The album, which debuted in the Billboard top five, produced one of the biggest hits of the year in the title track, which featured a sly funk bass line and nursery rhyme chorus ("I'm going down, down baby, yo' street in a Range Rover / Street sweeper baby, cocked ready to let it go / Shimmy shimmy cocoa what? Listen to it pound"). A combination of St. Louis boosterism, party lyrics, and bluster, the song not only put St. Louis on the rap map, but it also made Nelly a star. Although initially thought of as a novelty act, Nelly's debut sold more than 8 million copies.
A Tribute to a Jailed Friend Becomes a Fashion Statement
Not only did Nelly bring a distinctive Midwestern twang to the rap game, he also brought an album's worth of insider slang, some of which became common parlance thanks to hits such as "E.I."—which introduced the title phrase, translated as "Bring it on!"—and "mo," St. Louis slang for a friend. With City Spudd (a.k.a. Lavell Webb) serving a ten-year sentence for robbery, Nelly paid tribute to his incarcerated St. Lunatic by always wearing a Band-Aid under his left eye, a bizarre fashion accouterment that became part of the rapper's signature look, as did backward baseball jerseys.
Nelly swept up the Best New Artist and Album of the Year trophies at the 2000 Source magazine awards. He performed beside Britney Spears, the Rolling Stones, and *NSYNC at the January 2001 Super Bowl, and he joined Destiny's Child and Eve on an MTV-sponsored summer tour. In 2001 Nelly launched his Vokal clothing line and participated in the debut album from the St. Lunatics, Free City. The rapper had a hit with the boast-heavy track, "#1," from the Training Day soundtrack, released in September 2001, and had a co-starring role in the film Snipes.
Though the St. Lunatics' album did not reach the level of success of Nelly's debut, Nelly proved he was not a one-hit wonder by beginning 2002 with another hit, a remix of *NSYNC's "Girlfriend." The first single from his second solo album, Nellyville, proved that the St. Louis rapper was no fluke. Again employing his penchant for slurring consonants and spelling words his own way, "Hot in Herre" became another ubiquitous summer anthem, blaring nonstop from pop, hip-hop, and R&B radio. The Neptunes-produced party song, which encouraged the shedding of clothing, was another pop-rap confection with an intensely catchy chorus and smooth, confident rapping from Nelly. The number one album sold some 5 million copies.
With a sitcom in development and more movie roles on the horizon, Nelly closed out 2002 by spinning out yet another big hit, "Dilemma," a love ballad featuring the Destiny's Child member Kelly Rowland singing the R&B chorus. When radio programmers began playing it, the track turned into a smash hit, forcing Rowland to move up the release of her first solo album to capitalize on the song's success.
Nelly became a superstar with his smooth flow and sing-along choruses, leading some to criticize the rapper for his pop-leaning tastes. Nevertheless, the allure of his songs was undeniable, as was his impressive feat of shining the world's attention on a city that turned into a hip-hop gateway.
Country Grammar (Universal, 2000); Nellyville (Universal, 2002); With the St. Lunatics: Free City (Universal, 2001).