Bad Rap

Nelly and the St. Lunatics are riding high, but their brother City Spud isn't riding with them. "I'm human. I made a mistake," he says from prison.

Lavell Webb sits in front of a television at the Boonville Correctional Facility, watching a videotape, surrounded by a few prison officials, a couple of visitors and an armed guard. He is the center of attention as the lawmen form a half-circle around him, their eyes alternately watching the television and stealing glances at Webb's reaction to what he's viewing. He shifts in his chair every so often, reclining, legs stretched one moment, leaning into the TV the next. The room is large and drab, crammed with a dozen chess-and-checkerboard tables and chairs, a few vending machines and a metal detector at the door.

The video shows an interview with St. Louis rap group the St. Lunatics from '98, when Webb, a.k.a. City Spud, was one of them in person, not just in spirit, back before there was any need for the free Lunatics -- Ali, Kyjuan, Murphy Lee and, of course, Nelly -- to name their debut full-length CD Free City in honor of their incarcerated brother. Back when his jumpsuit was flashy orange camouflage, not prison gray; back when he was making music and rhyming about making money, not paying the price for doing what others brag about in their rhymes.

The video interview was three years ago, and the St. Lunatics were nobodies. They didn't have a hit record. Nelly wasn't rap's It boy. There were no screaming teens, no gold Humvees, not even a record contract. They weren't making money, at least not much. All they had was a regional hit, "Gimme What You Got." And City Spud was free.

The St. Lunatics minus City Spud: Nelly, Murphy Lee, Ali, Kyjuan, along with hype-man Slo-Down. Naming Free City in honor of City Spud, says Ali, "was to just scream his name out for him. We ain't going to let you die at all. We got you and we trying to get you out of there."
Jennifer Silverberg
The St. Lunatics minus City Spud: Nelly, Murphy Lee, Ali, Kyjuan, along with hype-man Slo-Down. Naming Free City in honor of City Spud, says Ali, "was to just scream his name out for him. We ain't going to let you die at all. We got you and we trying to get you out of there."

All five in the video are dressed in colorful fatigues, playing stars and getting the word out about all things Lou. Ali, Kyjuan and Murphy Lee sit on stools in the back; in front, Nelly and City Spud flank the interviewer. Spud's seated in the worst possible spot. The interviewer's angled away from him, so Spud's left out of the conversation, staring at the man's back. Spud's a quiet guy in the first place, and despite the presence of his friends, he looks all alone on that stage. He attempts to jump in a few times, but without a mic his utterances are ignored. Boonville Prison officials want to play the tape over the prison's closed-circuit television system; everyone at Boonville knows who City Spud is, and they seem to like him. Prison officials want to showcase his achievements. They seem proud of him.

Ever unassuming and a bit uncomfortable with the attention he's getting in this room, Spud wavers, mumbles, unsure whether he wants his fellow inmates to see it. He doesn't really shine on the video; he just sits to the side. When the group performs one of their songs later in the show, he seems confident and assured. But it doesn't matter who he is in here. He could be the King of England and it wouldn't change the reality: He's not leaving anytime soon.

He decides against airing the St. Lunatics interview.

"Right now, I'm not Spud," he says later. "Coming here made me -- I had to go back to being Lavell. Spud's supposed to be out on tour with Destiny's Child right now. When I got here, I just had to put that away for the time being. Not away to the point where I'm not writing and I just don't want to do music. But I have to deal with this here. I do get emotional sometimes. Videos popping up, and I can just see myself on the video, but missing family and friends and just missing freedom, period."

Lavell Webb's in a messed-up situation; he's a founding member of the St. Lunatics, whose debut went platinum last month, but he's not up onstage with them. He's not in Nelly's "Ride Wit Me" video, though he's on the recording -- that's him rhyming "Now that I'm a fly guy, and I fly high/Niggaz wanna know why, why I fly by." He created the music for four songs on Nelly's multiplatinum Country Grammar album, along with one on Free City, and is receiving producer's royalties for them. But those tracks were laid before he landed in the clink. He was sent here in November 1999; Nelly and the Lunatics hit the national charts six months later. And all City Spud can do is track the Billboard charts that the mother of fellow Lunatic producer Jason (J.E.) Epperson sends him every week. Fan mail trickles in. His family visits him, though Nelly and the other St. Lunatics don't. His royalty checks are fattening his bank account, but he can't touch it and can't spend it on anything anyway.

Sitting at the chessboard table later, out of earshot of the prison officials who are milling around, City Spud gets reflective. "I'm in this situation because I made a wrong decision," he says, "not because I was listening to rap or because I'm a rapper and I'm trying to be real to the world or whatever. But because I'm human. I made a mistake. I basically got caught up with the wrong person at the wrong time doing the wrong thing. It wasn't no rap. It was because I ain't perfect."ike countless county kids both white and black, Lavell Webb started selling some pot, a reasonably low-risk proposition in the world of get-cash-quick schemes. It was the spring of '99, and he had quit his job at a North County McDonald's -- what self-respecting rap star would want to be caught in McDonald's fatigues? -- and needed some sort of income. On tax day '99, in Breckenridge Hills, he was to sell $1,500 worth of marijuana. It was supposed to be easy; the customer was to beep Spud as a signal that he was off work and ready to hook up. No big deal. Spud was carless, though, and the guy he solicited to drive him came up with a devious scheme: Turn a nice little profit into a virtual windfall by keeping the dope and snatching the dough. That was supposed to be easy, too. The partner would do the dirty work and keep a grand; Spud would stay in the car, get $500 and keep the pot.

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