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.
"When I had recorded it," says Nelly, "I had already felt that I had won a little battle for St. Louis, just to even be signed with Universal. That album was more or less a celebration of being from St. Louis and celebrating the fact that, OK, we're here now, we're going to get a chance to make our voice heard, to let everybody hear how we're doing it."
Nelly and the crew from which he sprang, the St. Lunatics, are doing it with a unique style, one that, in the world of rap, has never been harnessed so successfully. "He's got a careful balance of singing and rapping," says Chuck Atkins, program director for The Beat (100.3 FM), the radio station that first broke the St. Lunatics, "and I think it was just time for somebody to come and do that. Nate Dogg on the West Coast was doing that, but he was singing more than he was rapping, so he didn't catch like that."
Rather than barking in rhythm, as many rappers do, or squeezing as much verbiage as possible into a measure, Nelly's style is casual and melodic; he'll do loop-the-loops with his voice, carry a melody while creating a rhyme and hum along gently. Of course, the best rappers harness all the weapons at their disposal, and many of them pepper their rapping with a dose of song-styling (the best at this was Rakim in his prime) -- it's not as if no one's ever done it before. But Nelly has a voice that's tailor-made for the style, and on Country Grammar he strikes a chord. "We're in the middle," he says of his approach, "surrounded by everybody else, basically, and everything meets us right there where we at. That's basically how we get our vibe and how we get our sound -- we take everything from all over and come up with our own."
Nelly kicks off Country Grammar with a simple declaration: "You can find me in St. Louie!" Anyone with a heart for the city can feel his love. But for many, his St. Louis isn't theirs. He continues the rhyme: "Where the gunplay ring all day. Some got jobs, some sell yea, others just drink and fuck all day." The convention-and-tourism folks can't do much with that, or with much else on the record. It's a down-and-dirty St. Louis that Nelly portrays, Redd Foxx's St. Louis, a sort of Wild, Wild Midwest. At least a pound of chronic is consumed during the course of the CD; at every turn, Nelly lights up a blunt, makes a play for a lady, pops a rival, flashes his weapon. It's not a wholesome walk through Tower Grove Park on a spring day; it's the raw stuff, and Nelly's detractors -- and there are many -- can grab a line of evidence in every verse. Other detractors, with merit, say that Nelly's rhymes are boastful cookie-cutter gangsta garbage, filled not just with misogyny and cocksure struttting but with bland misogyny and strutting.
And there's no point in defending him against these charges, no reason to supply the standard line "His reality is the result of the culture that produced him." Nelly can defend himself, if he feels like it. But he probably doesn't; he just wants to make an impact, smoke some weed, hook up with a few "fly bitches" and, most important, get paid. The brainiacs indicting him for the message are no doubt the same collegians who, in their English-comp classes, were instructed to "write what you know." Nelly's writing what he knows, and if what he knows rubs people the wrong way, or sends the "wrong" message to impressionable youth, it makes no difference.
Nelly has two sisters, one older and one younger, and two younger brothers (one of whom, who goes by the moniker City Spud, produced four tracks on Country Grammar and is currently in jail). His parents are divorced, and Nelly was shuttled among them and a few relatives during his teens when he was getting into trouble and learning the hustle. He was obviously a talented kid, though, a star shortstop at U. City High who fielded letters "out the ass" to visit minor-league camps. But, he says, "I took a year off 'cause I was doing the hustle. It was just a matter of the surroundings and not being strong enough to tell your surroundings, 'This is what I want to do.' Baseball isn't a popular sport in the 'hood. I kinda punked out on baseball, like, 'Nah, I'll get it. I'll be back.'"
He didn't come back. Instead, he hooked up with a few U. City friends in 1993 and set about learning how to rap. They recorded a few singles, shopped them around and got turned down by confused executives afraid to take a chance on the Lunatics' weird amalgam before finally catching the ear of a Universal record man. Convinced that the St. Lunatics would have a better chance if they pushed Nelly as a solo artist first, he recorded Country Grammar in 1999 and released it in August of this year. After a strong showing from the debut single, "Country Grammar (Hot Sh*t)" -- a single that's still on the Hot 100 after 23 weeks, currently at No. 8 -- the full-length debuted at No. 3, right behind Britney Spears and Eminem, and gradually pushed its way into the No. 1 position, where it remained for six weeks before L.L. Cool J.'s new album finally dropped Nelly to No. 2 last week.
It's no doubt strange territory for a 23-year-old kid from a town with few celebrities of similar stature. Were this New York or Los Angeles, there would be role models galore, people who understand celebrity, who know whom to turn to for advice and whom to trust. It has to be a little bit scary, even for someone with a tough exterior. "Well, it can be," he says, "but I've been on my own a long time, ever since I was little. But I always had that good bond with myself. A lot of people don't got that. See, my thing is, I trust myself to do the right thing. I talk to people if I feel I really need to, but I feel like, me, I've been trusting myself for this long, and I'm in a pretty good position, you know what I'm saying, and I've got good influences, as far as my friends I grew up with and their parents."
However Nelly moved from acting the hustler and working the streets to simply portraying the game with music, it's worked, and because of Nelly, a bunch of fellow St. Louisans faced with similar temptations stand a chance of getting a label deal rather than being forced to make another kind of deal. It worked, him trusting himself to do the right thing. "To straight see that that type of shit can come true," says Nelly, and you can hear the joy in his voice, "you're like, 'Yeah! Yeah! I can't believe this right now, what's really going on!' Sometimes I wake up and still think I'm late for work or something, like it was all a dream. But it's definitely here, man. And I'm just happy for St. Louis. We deserve it. We definitely deserve it. In the music industry, it's been a wonderful year. Can't nobody touch us right now. In sports, we got voted the No. 1 city in America. Then to have the No. 1 album in America coming out of St. Louis. What? Who wanna deal with us now?"