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?

The 2000 release sold more than nine million copies. Since then, the St. Lunatics have dropped Free City, which also went platinum; founding member Ali has released his solo debut, Heavy Starch; and Nelly has put out Nellyville, which has sold more than five million copies to date -- making it the second-best-selling album of 2002. Although his picture doesn't appear on any of the CD booklets after Country Grammar, Epperson wrote the bulk of the music for all these records, too.

He's now 24 years old, and thanks to his co-writing and production credits, he's a rich man. He may lack the star power of the Neptunes, Timbaland and Dr. Dre, but Jay E's one of the most successful hip-hop producers in the world.

Of course, Nelly is the one who makes the little girls sob and shriek, the one whose pretty mug graces the covers of Vibe and Source, Billboard and Teen People, the one on the late-night talk shows. Epperson might get a one-page interview in EQ or one of the other geeky tech mags, but even the most famous hip-hop producers don't usually get famous famous. In fact, when Epperson and Hermann met three years ago, at a bar on Laclede's Landing, she had no idea who he was. "I saw him walk in, and I thought he looked like a singer I like; that's what made me attracted to him," she recalls. "Even when he told me he was Nelly's producer, I still didn't know what a producer was."

"I love that kind of stuff": Local sax legend Oliver Sain recorded with Epperson for Murphy Lee's new record.
Jennifer Silverberg
"I love that kind of stuff": Local sax legend Oliver Sain recorded with Epperson for Murphy Lee's new record.
The St. Lunatics, minus City Spud: Nelly, Murphy Lee, Ali, Kyjuan and hype-man Slo-Down
Jennifer Silverberg
The St. Lunatics, minus City Spud: Nelly, Murphy Lee, Ali, Kyjuan and hype-man Slo-Down

In that respect, Hermann wasn't unusual. Music fans schooled in other genres tend to underestimate the importance of hip-hop producers, who, as opposed to their knob-twisting counterparts, also create the music, the textures, the sounds, the structure of the songs. In rock & roll terms, it's like being the entire band. With their freaky, irresistible beats, the Neptunes -- arguably the hottest production team in contemporary pop -- can invest the likes of Britney and Justin with instant street cred.

Whether it's a consequence of file-sharing, the poor economy or general cluelessness, the record industry is experiencing a massive slump, its bloated carcass propped up by the sales of just a handful of artists. Because Nelly is one of them, his main producer and songwriting partner is riding high. And with baby-faced Murphy Lee set to release his first solo joint this summer, Epperson's keeping busy. His contract ensures that he'll produce no fewer than eight songs on each St. Lunatics-associated album as long as the group continues to record for its label, the behemoth Universal. Regardless, his royalty checks from Country Grammar and Nellyville alone should be enough to see him through his retirement years.

How did a working-class white kid from St. Charles County, a high-school dropout whose previous work experience is highlighted by stints at a Jack in the Box and a Citgo, end up a multiplatinum millionaire? Luck, of course, is part of the equation -- the same freak luck that turned a former drug dealer from University City into one of the biggest crossover successes rap music has ever known. But it's also a result of drive, instinct and a genuine gift for making bright, bouncy beats. Epperson's ears are his fortune, and so far they've never let him down.

Epperson's mom answers her cell phone with the salutation "Hello, Jay E Inc." Not long ago, Epperson asked Ronda Thoele to quit her job at an insurance company. "I'm working for him full-time now," she says, "whatever he needs me to do." This might mean anything from paying the bills to babysitting Jaysha, running errands or cooking meat loaf for the crew after a marathon recording session.

Before Epperson can even remember, his dad moved out. His mother remarried and had two more children; for about ten years, until her second marriage dissolved, they all lived as a family in a small house in St. Charles. Thoele's eldest child was a music lover from the beginning. "I remember driving to Florida and him listening to [DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's] Parents Just Don't Understand the whole way there and the whole way back," she recalls with a soft chuckle. "He was probably seven or so. We always had music on wherever we were at" -- mostly country and classic rock, she says. "I've got pictures of him spinning records on his little Fisher-Price phonograph when he was two or three."

At age fourteen, Epperson started DJing for real. "I was in a really white school," he says, "but there was a little group of us that really liked it, and we came up together, like, friends vibing off records and stuff like that." Not long after that, when Thoele's second marriage ended, she moved the kids to Overland, closer to her job. Rather than transfer from St. Charles West High School, Epperson dropped out. "He was going through a lot," Thoele says. "It was hard on Jason -- changing schools, moving away from all of his friends."

Recalls Epperson: "Of course, she wanted me to go. Finally she was, like, 'Well, as long as you get a job, you're cool.' So I got me a little job at some Mexican restaurant. I was a dishwasher there, and then I moved up in the world and started working at Jack in the Box. Then I started doing gas-station jobs because it was the easiest: Just stand there, take people's money and clean up once in a while."

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