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.

Lunatics manager Tony Davis says the group hasn't visited Spud to protect his safety: Boonville officials suggested it might not be a good idea. When inmates "start seeing the cars and jewelry," he says, "when people really start seeing it, that's when the jealousy comes out. Even though we sold 2 or 3 million albums before we started purchasing cars and jewelry, it's just like -- when they were just seeing them on TV and hearing about it, it was all good. But when you start seeing them roll around the streets in Benzes and Hummers and all the jewelry, that's when people started spreading rumors. And that's what the jail was saying. If people can start seeing his picture, it might just click in their head: This is really who that is."

Davis acknowledges, though, that talk of City Spud's situation is kept to a minimum: "With Nelly's success, we always tried to avoid the question or stay away from it."

So they shout to him in other, more discreet ways. They named their album for him. They call to him on the record. They talk to him on the phone. They're showing him love; it's just not face-to-face. Plus, Spud's a quiet, humble guy. Says Ali: "You know how he is. He's always like, 'I'm cool.' But we're like, 'Spud, what you need? You got money in your account, we got money, what you need?' Whatever, whatever. [City says,] 'Nah, I'm happy. Just keep doing it.'

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."

"The whole fact of like using Free City like that," continues Ali, "was to just scream his name out for him, like, 'Yo, we know how he feels because we all cried -- we went all this way together and then boom. We ain't going to let you die at all. We got you and we trying to get you out of there, and we gonna just shout your name.'"


Their devotion isn't surprising. The St. Lunatics, all out of high school and working day jobs, formed in 1993. Consisting of Nelly, Ali, Kyjuan, Murphy Lee and City Spud, the five decided to make a go of it in their spare time while they were working elsewhere: A couple were doing the college thing, others were making money in the service industry. In the rap world of the early '90s, St. Louis was nowheresville. The East Coast's reign was on the wane -- Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions and Big Daddy Kane were played out -- and the West Coast gangsta rap of NWA and their offshoots (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E) and Snoop Doggy Dog were selling like crazy. The rap scene seemed to leap from the left coast to the right coast in a single bound, completely hopping over the Midwest talent as it made its way to LA. If you were making hip-hop in the Lou in the mid-'90s you may as well have been in Anchorage; no one from the industry was searching St. Louis, or any other city in the middle of America, for the next big thing. No one heard a sound.

The St. Lunatics matured inside this abyss. They approached the business with discipline and determination. Temptation was out there -- how do you pay the bills as a North Side teenager? Work in fast food? Become a professional athlete? Play the drug game? At least one member of the crew has admitted in song to dabbling with the latter: "I opened up shop at 13," rhymes Nelly on Country Grammar as he lists a string of substances available at his store. But the short-term gain of the drug trade doesn't fly for long if you've got half a brain. The Lunatics, says Ali, decided that they'd better keep straight if they wanted to win in the music industry. "That was something that we talked about. We cleared that up from day one when we started the Lunatics in '93. We sat down like a firm or some type of corporation at a young age and was like, 'Yo, we gonna start a group, we gonna be focused, we gonna do it like this.' It was all crazy at the beginning how we used to do it: If you're late, you do pushups and all kind of stuff. We're not doing this because we're not risking going to jail, because if we go to jail, it's like this-and-that. That was a firm thing with us."

Around the same time, City Spud was transferring his expertise on the drums to learning beat production in the studio. While the others were honing their rhyme skills, Spud and J.E. were working the beats. Spud "was mostly getting into production first," says Murphy Lee, "so rapping wasn't it. It was like, 'I can produce.' It was easy for him to write a rap, so easy to write a whole song, a whole album as well as that. He was trying to expand his stuff, so he was on the production big. Spud was in the studio -- studio man -- studio and Spud, studio and Spud."

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