As a North Side teenager plotting his future, Cornell Haynes Jr. tested three options in his quest to make millions: He made tentative moves toward a pro-baseball career; he worked on his rhymes and lyrical flow in the hope of becoming a rap star; and he attempted to make it the old-fashioned North Side '90s way, selling drugs.
Two of the three games were pipe dreams. The likelihood of Nelly's making it all the way into professional baseball, despite his obvious talent, was slim. He played shortstop, just like Ozzie ("I had the back flip down and everything"). A rap star? No one from St. Louis had ever gone platinum, and without a precedent or a St. Louis sound or blind luck, the possibility was pretty far-fetched. The record labels seldom look where there's been no success in the past. The third option, the drug game, was, of course, the most dangerous, the most short-sighted and the easiest to break into. But, chances are, if he wasn't killed on his way to the top, he would end up in jail, would eventually be released a convicted felon, would have to start from scratch years later and would have blown his shot at being a baseball player or a rapper. But it was also the most obvious choice. The success is right there for you -- all you have to is play the game right. At an early age, he decided: "I opened up shop at 13/Dimes, dubs, quarter-sacks and o-z's/From hand-held, digital to triple-beam/Now my pager's an e-mail flip screen/Expanded my game off into amphetamines."
"When you're a kid," says Nelly, "you're like, 'Man, I'm gonna have me a big house when I grow up. And then to see your dreams come true, that's something. When you're a kid, you feel like you're exaggerating -- 'I want about five cars. I'm gonna get my mom a couple of cars, my dad, my grandparents, get a house.'
"My mom always worked fast-food joints all her life," he says, "two of them, sometimes, just to help support me. Imagine working McDonald's for 20 years and then getting off at McDonald's and having to go over to Dairy Queen and working that, and then a Rally's now and then. And I was always complaining about Nike and Polo signs -- I wanted the latest gear, and she didn't have the heart to tell me no, I'm just not gonna get it. My mom was the type of person that she give me whatever I wanted. That's just how she was. But if she didn't have it, she couldn't make it appear. And I always wanted that -- that's something I do for her. Anything she wants, she can have, as long as I got it, because I know she did that for me. "
As most of us know, or should know by now, Nelly, 23, ditched both the diamond and the streets, opting instead, along with a few friends who call themselves the St. Lunatics, to make money with hip-hop. As he rhymes on "Ride with Me: "It feels strange/making a living on my brain/instead of 'caine, now." But he's doing it, and he's getting paid.
Who'd have thought, this time last year, that city and suburban kids from Charlotte to Sacramento would be shouting along with their stereos, "Sunday morning, crack of dawn, and now I'm yawning, Natural Bridge and Kingshighway is where I'm rolling"? Nothing all that exciting has happened on that street corner -- maybe a few fender-benders. But Nelly dropped the lines into the first track of Country Grammar and, in the process, pushed it into 3 million (and counting) pairs of ears, turning an otherwise typical intersection into a sort of Midwestern Valhalla.
People from all parts of the globe are being flashed St. Louie points of interest in the year 2000, and not just the Arch: the Galleria, "Plaza at Chesterfield," the intersection of Euclid and Labadie, and Hanley Hills ("in a black sedan DeVille"). They're imagining secret St. Louis corners, corners that most white St. Louisans never knew existed, let alone visited. And it's been happening ever since Nelly became the foremost ambassador, during that first week of August, of all things St. Louie. More so than anyone else this year, including God-boy quarterback Kurt Warner and the perky wife (who really belong to Iowa, anyway), it's Nelly who has screamed loudest, "I'm from the Lou, and I'm proud!" On Jay Leno's show, he wore a Cardinals jersey. In his "Country Grammar" video, the No. 1 video on MTV for two weeks running in August, he juggled Rams, Blues and Cardinals jerseys. In nearly every review of his multiplatinum debut, he's referred to not as "rapper Nelly" but as "St. Louis rapper Nelly."
If you don't know of him, you're listening to too much KEZK and not enough of The Beat; you're watching too much VH1 and not enough MTV, too much Survivor and not enough Phatfarm -- because right now in the pop and hip-hop world, Nelly's at the top. And if that doesn't seem like a big deal to you, consider the only other St. Louisans to make it to the top of similar charts: Tina Turner, Fontella Bass, Chuck Berry. No one else from St. Louis has ever done it. And no other St. Louis artist has ever sold as many records as Nelly has in a mere three months: 3 million and counting. If you're looking for the St. Louisan who's bringing the city national attention in 2000, it's Nelly.