The St. Lunatics Fringe

Producer Jason "Jay E" Epperson crafts the beats that make Nelly fans swoon. So how come you've never heard of him?

On a chilly afternoon in late winter, Jason "Jay E" Epperson; his girlfriend, Johnna Hermann; and their year-old daughter, Jaysha Marie, are getting ready for a ride in Epperson's chromed-out black Escalade. Epperson picks up the toddler, kisses her noisily and opens his mouth wide so she can insert her pacifier. "How big is Jaysha?" he coos. She grins hugely, puts her tiny hands above her head.

"She's so cool," he says. "Before you have a kid, you never would believe that you'd love something that much."

He transfers the baby to Hermann, who carefully straps her into the Cadillac and climbs in next to the car seat. Epperson pops Monsters, Inc. into the DVD player so Jaysha can watch on one of the monitors, but by the time he pulls onto the highway, the baby is snoring gently.

Jennifer Silverberg
A consummate record geek, Epperson proudly displays some of his favorite album art in the hallway that leads to his basement studio.
Jennifer Silverberg
A consummate record geek, Epperson proudly displays some of his favorite album art in the hallway that leads to his basement studio.

Epperson and his family live in a new brick two-story house surrounded by other single-family houses, all variations on the same vaguely Colonial architectural theme. Everything in this quiet St. Peters subdivision -- the houses, the SUVs and minivans, the scrawny saplings, the walkways -- is so new it looks raw, like a planned community that's still in the planning stages. As Epperson drives away from his home, where he's lived for the past year-and-a-half, and into his old neighborhoods in St. Charles and Overland, he slows to point out scrappy working-class bungalows and sad-looking apartment complexes, the drainage ditch he and his buddies used to tag with graffiti, the gas stations where he worked after dropping out of high school eight years ago.

He and Hermann recently returned from New York City. Epperson spent about two weeks there, putting the final touches on Murphy Lee's first solo album, then taking Hermann and his mom to the Grammys. As the primary producer of Nellyville, Nelly's multiplatinum sophomore CD, Epperson might have brought home one of the coveted statuettes, had Nelly won for Rap Album of the Year. Though Eminem and his producer Dr. Dre (one of Epperson's idols) took that prize, Nelly did win Grammys for the first two singles from Nellyville: "Hot in Herre," produced by the Neptunes, and the Kelly Rowland collaboration "Dilemma," produced by BAM and Ryan Bowser. But if Epperson's concerned or angry because his songs are on the back burner -- "Pimp Juice" and "Splurge" have only recently begun to get airplay -- he doesn't let on. "Maybe next year's Grammys," he says casually.

"I see some producers getting, like, two-page articles, and they only sold maybe, at most, two million," he says. "And then, when my name comes up, it's just barely there -- like, 'producer of [Nelly's first CD] Country Grammar,' that's it. But I don't have a publicist, neither, and I'm kind of low-key. I'm not really out there like Nelly and them are out there."

Not that he's averse to working with other acts. He was really excited a while back when there was talk of him producing a cut on a solo album by Raekwon (of Wu-Tang Clan fame), but he got some bad advice about how much money to ask for. "I kicked myself in the ass," he admits. "I should've done it just to be doing it, for free almost. I didn't need the money. Everybody was, like, 'Well, you're a platinum producer, you need to go in there and ask 80 grand.' I was, like, 'I ain't charging this dude 80 grand -- I grew up listening to the Wu-Tang Clan!' I was, like, 'I'll charge him 30.'"

That was still too much, he fears: Raekwon's people never called back.

As he continues the tour of his old stomping grounds, his phone and pager keep ringing, but he doesn't pick up. Finally, about a half-hour into the ride, he apologizes: "I really have to get this. It's Universal, and they keep calling."

He listens for a few seconds, and suddenly he's beaming. "Me and the Neptunes are gonna hook up!" he says. "I've been waiting for this so long. That's just so tight."

He makes a quick call to Kevin Law, Universal Records' A&R guy. "I'll do whatever they want," he tells Law emphatically. "I don't want to scare 'em away, like with that Raekwon shit, everyone telling me what to ask. I don't want a lot, maybe ten or twenty a track. I could do whatever they want. Why don't they come down here to the Lou? Tell 'em I've got a studio they can work at, and we're all good."

He pauses for a second, listening to the voice at the other end. "I don't have no manager," he says. "I'm my own manager."

On the inside back cover of Nelly's debut, a single white face appears in a crowd of twenty black ones, sporting a goofy grin. Unless you happen to be tight with Nelly's crew, there's no way you'd know that the dark-haired kid with the goatee is Jason "Jay E" Epperson, the man who wrote the music for and produced the bulk of the album, including the giant hits "Country Grammar (Hot ...)," "Ride Wit Me" and "E.I."

Next Page »