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"When we first started out back in the day," adds Ali, "getting different equipment here and there, Spud was just studying, studying, studying to where we look up and, OK, he got that one. Move on to the next one."
You know the type: the quiet guy who talks little, but put him in front of a musical instrument and magical, fluent language flows out effortlessly. That's the sound of a Spud track: smooth, melodic, dense and rolling with a deep thunder-beat, perfectly suited for both a late-night cruise and a sweaty club.
The group's break arrived in '97 when DJ Kut started playing the St. Lunatics single "Gimme What You Got" on radio station The Beat; suddenly, the sound of this city was airing next to Biggie, Tupac and the Wu-Tang Clan, and the cut didn't sound out of place; it didn't sound local, didn't sound minor league, didn't sound like a North County basement track. "Everybody in the city had a feeling," says Ali. "Everybody was like, 'Yo, you know they from St. Louis? That's from St. Louis!' It was one of the best songs on the radio at the time. 'Whoa, who they? Where they from? They from St. Louis!' Everybody was showing us love: 'Ain't you one of the Lunatics?' It was crazy, and Spud was like a big, big, big attraction." Why? "The girls," he says with a laugh. "Him and Nelly had like a battle -- it was friendly, it wasn't personal -- but as far as the girls, the girls in the audience were like, 'Nelly, yeah! Spud, yeah!' They just had it going like that."
Soon enough the word started spreading to the labels. With the success in Atlanta of the Organized Noise camp and in New Orleans of the Cash Money and No Limit camps, the gaze of the industry was starting to focus on the No Coast, and the major-label scouts were looking for that Midwest flavor.
The St. Lunatics started to make their mark after a visit to Atlanta, where they passed out some tapes of their music, one of which ended up in the hands of someone with influence. The buzz was starting in the early part of 1999. A jittery sort of excitement started to consume the city; finally, somebody was showing them how it's done St. Louis-style.
But the members of the group were still working their day jobs. The money was just up the way, so close you could see it, but it hadn't arrived yet. They had a tiny hit on a radio station in a city not known as a hip-hop hotspot. It wasn't much, but it was something, just enough of a taste to send the mind reeling at the possibilities. Just enough to make a man's head get a little fuzzy, to start thinking down the line at the potential. Just enough to assess the current situation and find it lacking.
Nelly was working at the post office. Ali was cutting hair at a barbershop. Murphy Lee was at Office Max. Kyjuan was out at Lambert. And Spud was at McDonald's. "That's all you knew him from," says Murphy. "Anytime we was at the park, anytime we was around, he had on a McDonald's tie with the button-up shirt. That's what you knew Spud from, flat-out: McDonald's. All his life that's what he'd been -- that and rapping."
McDonald's or rap star? Friday night he's onstage and the girls are gazing. Saturday night the same girls are at the counter asking him to Super Size it for them. What self-respecting rap star's gonna accept that? Spud made a play, and the play set the stage. "I had quit McDonald's, it had been like three or four years, and it was like, doing this rap, I think my ego was getting in the way. I'm thinking, 'All right, we got this buzz on this song. We're this hot rap group in St. Louis, and you come in McDonald's, you can find one of the rappers -- he's working there.' No. You couldn't catch me there. I needed -- I was trying to get the fast money then. We're discussing deals with this company and that company, it's looking good because we're having meetings with major labels, but every time you turn around it's like, no, no, no. So I'm steady, I'm like, no, this ain't working. I'm trying to get money right now to tide me over just in case somebody does pop up. And both of them popped up at the same time. My situation and the yes with the record company."
"We were just about to start to really see something, production money-wise, you know?" says Lunatics road manager and longtime friend Yella. "We were right there. We were feeling good, you know what I'm saying? And then for this to happen, we were like, 'What? What is going on?' It was right at the edge. We were right there."
Boom. The word appears in conversations with Spud, his family and the Lunatics, as if "the incident" were a blind-side punch, something that happened toCity Spud rather than Spud making a conscious decision to get involved in a double-cross. It was as though he'd been hit by a car or struck by lightning.