By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
The scene on the North Side, near the intersection of Euclid and Labadie, last Wednesday was amazing: There was St. Louis rapper Nelly, on the threshold of stardom, making a video for his totally hot first single, "Country Grammar," while 1,000 or so of his friends and supporters surrounded and encouraged him. They applauded, waved their hands in the air and rapped along: "Shimmy shimmy coco pop/Listen to it, uh!/Light it up and take a puff/Pass it to me now!"
Last week the single exploded onto the national Billboard hip-hop chart, jumping from No. 47 to No. 4 in its second week; on Billboard's more prominent R&B/hip-hop chart, which sets the agenda for urban radio nationwide, it was the "Hotshot Debut," kicking its way onto the chart at No. 55 in its first week.
This movement, along with an incredibly positive buzz from the industry, prompted Universal Records, Nelly's label, to nudge the gathering momentum along with a video.
Wearing his standard St. Louis Cardinals hat and jersey, Nelly paces back and forth in front of the camera, rhyming along with the song while, directly behind him, foxy ladies in painted-on shorts flash their skin and strut their stuff for the cameras. It is, in the words of one crew member, "a standard cookie-cutter rap video": booty, cars and beats, brought to you by a director known for this kind of video ("He's the white guy in the black T-shirt who looks like he doesn't know what he's doing," laughs the crew member. "But I'm not bitter.").
In fact, the crew member doesn't need to point out the director: He's the cocky stereotype with hip shades walking around with a furrowed brow, looking as if he's trying to make La Dolce Vida. You can pick him and the other members of the dozen or so crew members pretty easily: They're the hipster white guys in a crowd of predominantly black fans.
Inside the makeshift dressing rooms/dining room/common area during a break in shooting, the models are busy touching up makeup, the crew is eating lunch and Nelly, the St. Lunatics and Philadelphia's Ram Squad (themselves poised to release a debut on Universal and in town to make a cameo appearance in the video), sit around the table, relaxing and greeting the plethora of well-wishers.
Out in the crowd, which fills a neighborhood block, the scene is alive, a block party. The smell of pot is everywhere; the smoke creates a visible fog and gives everyone a contact high (except for the angry lady, standing in her frontyard screaming at the crowd to stay out of her flower bed, who could use a puff). The cops flank the street, direct traffic and keep tabs. They don't seem to care about all the blunts being passed; they're more concerned with the open beer bottles. The girls in the crowd are busy criticizing the dancers ("C'mon, dance! She's barely moving! I could do that! She needs to shake it more!"). The guys, though, seem to like the way the hotties dance, which leaves little to the imagination (except, maybe, how good some of them would look clothed), and as the women parade from the nearby community center/dressing room onto the set, all eyes are fixed on them.
As Nelly and the other members of the St. Lunatics return to the set, the crowd hoots and claps. Nelly, the center of attention always, is graceful and smiling. This is his moment -- one of many to come, it seems -- and he's in charge. When one crowd member flashes a gang sign during a take, Nelly chides him, and the signing stops. By the end of the year, Nelly and the Lunatics could be the biggest musical success story this city has seen in a long time. Though the video for "Country Grammar" doesn't seem destined to win any MTV Awards -- at least judging from today's shoot -- it's primed to do its job. Nelly's debut full-length, also titled Country Grammar, gets its official release on May 21.
Send local tapes, tips, discs and detritus to "Radar Station," c/oThe Riverfront Times, 6358 Delmar Blvd., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63130; or Radarstation@rftstl.com.