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.

"I'm just a music person, period," he continues. "I grew up in a church -- Granny making me go to church. You know how little kids hate going to church? So I had to find something to do. I started playing the drums for the choir, and it just took off from there. I was in, and then I got into band in elementary school and middle-school band, high-school band, percussion, drums."

"Lavell has always been a quiet, very creative and very musically inclined person," says step-grandfather John. "When he came here, I made him the promise that whatever he wanted to be -- besides a bum -- we would back him. He decided that he wanted to be a drummer, so we bought him drums. And he played the drums in the church a long time. Then he decided that he wanted to play the piano, so rather than buy him a whole new piano and then find out that he didn't want to play it, we bought him a keyboard. And he took that keyboard and worked miracles with it."

"It was a constant thing," adds Regina. "He stuck with it. He could do that for days and days on end."

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."

In Boonville, City Spud doesn't do much of anything for days and days on end. He plays a lot of chess and checkers and he writes. Since "Ride Wit Me" hit, he started getting more mail in a week than he had in all the time he'd spent here prior. Most of the fans show him love, tell him to keep his head up and to keep thinking about the music, which they adore.

Most of the inmates know that he's a St. Lunatic, but it's not much of an issue here. When Country Grammar exploded, and when "Ride Wit Me," which is officially attributed to "Nelly featuring City Spud," cracked the Top 5 on the Billboard singles charts, his name became more recognizable inside. But the inmates leave him alone. "There's not a difference in the way they treat me," he says. "More people are saying 'What's up, City?' now. It's cool. But it wasn't like they was treating me a certain way but then when it came out and blew up like it blew -- it wasn't like, 'Ah, we gotta treat 'em this way now.' Not with the people that I'm cool with anyway.

"I feel I'm an inspiration to some, in the sense that I'm still part of the group that broke the ice for St. Louis. A lot of the guys that are up here that got a lot of great talent are on their way home. I talk to them, let them know this-and-that. We share ideas. I just tell them what I know and how things go, because a lot of the guys just know this-and-that. But they don't know the things behind this-and-that."

As with a lot of the other inmates, a single misjudgment cost him dearly. But it also divided him from a blast of fame. Nelly and the St. Lunatics are everywhere: in the magazines, causing a ruckus in airplanes, hopping from party to party, touring with Destiny's Child, playing, making money and spending it, fucking, smoking -- doing it right -- experiencing in real life all the toys and games that as wannabes they'd long pined for. The St. Lunatics have arrived, and musicians only arrive once and shine for so long; regardless of when City Spud gets out, he will have missed the salad days of the St. Lunatics, a group that he helped form in 1992. That said, Spud will be in a better position than everyone else here when he's released: The royalty checks are rolling right in and gathering interest; by the time he's released, he'll likely realize that a gold Humvee isn't the smartest way to spend $100,000.

None of the Lunatics have visited him in the nearly two years he's been at Boonville. Both his mother and his grandparents say he has been angry at the Lunatics for not visiting him. Asked whether he wants them to, he pauses. "I really don't -- I wouldn't mind, but I'm not like, 'Come see me man -- I want to see you.' Because they're busy. They're rarely in St. Louis anyway. So if they're here, they're here for a day or two, and then they're right back out."

Even if they made the time to visit Spud, Nelly and the St. Lunatics would be discreet about it. They're walking a line right now. With fame comes unforgiving scrutiny; the audience gravitating to the Lunatics consists equally of pop and hip-hop fans, some of them teens, and parents pay close attention to the music their impressionable children choose to consume. Were they more of a thug group designed to appeal to the rough-and-tumble hip-hop crowd, the Lunatics could wear as a badge of honor the fact that one of their members is locked up. They'd be considered more "real" and more believable when rhyming about the thug life. But although the Lunatics' music contains a fair amount of cussing and smoking and lovemaking, they're not thugs and aren't interested in that angle. So they're attracting listeners who are not enamored of felonious behavior. A little partying, Lunatics-style, is OK. But a member of the group involved in a shooting crime could change the perception of the Lunatics. This sensitivity was evident in every interview with St. Lunatics members: A publicist was always on the phone line with them, ready to nix any discussion of the specifics of Spud's crime. Though the publicist insisted that she was simply fending off any information that might be used against him in appeal, it was clear that their record label would prefer this incident to remain as hush-hush as possible. Nelly isn't commenting on his friend's situation.

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