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?

Thoele let her son set up a rudimentary studio in her basement: a mattress, a couple of turntables, a sampler and a vast collection of records. "If things didn't work out," Epperson muses, "I'd probably be at my mom's still."

But the move to Overland -- just a short bus ride away from good record stores, fellow DJs and recording studios -- turned out to be a boon for Epperson. "I was used to coming out there, but I wasn't used to living out there," he says. "It was where I wanted to be at. I used to take the bus to Delmar every other day."

When he wasn't hitting the record stores, Epperson was hanging out at Saints, the Olivette roller rink that served as the unlikely nexus of St. Louis-area hip-hop culture. If you were a St. Louisan devoted to hip-hop back in the early '90s, chances are, you knew about Saints. Picture a miniature Brill Building populated by young hopefuls, hustlers and speculators. DJs spun rap records while hundreds of African-American teenagers whirled around the rink or danced in one of the adjoining party rooms. In the back, twin brothers David and Darren Stith borrowed a few spare rooms from their older brother Andr, who owns the rink, and set up a recording studio, where they encouraged aspiring producers and rappers to lay down tracks. When they heard potential, they signed the artists to their entertainment company, D2.

Epperson and engineer Steve Eigner (left) tinker with tracks at Basement Beat, while Wally Yaghnam looks on.
Jennifer Silverberg
Epperson and engineer Steve Eigner (left) tinker with tracks at Basement Beat, while Wally Yaghnam looks on.
Epperson with his mother, Ronda Thoele; his girlfriend, Johnna Hermann; and their daughter, Jaysha Marie
Jennifer Silverberg
Epperson with his mother, Ronda Thoele; his girlfriend, Johnna Hermann; and their daughter, Jaysha Marie

The twins heard potential in Epperson "The thing that got me about Jay E," Darren Stith told the RFT last year [Saller, "The Producers," April 10, 2002], "Jay E would go into the studio and work on scratches and stuff for eight or nine hours straight. I said, 'Dude, you need to work on this sampler, start programming stuff.' So I showed him how to go through all that, thinking to myself in the back of my head, 'If I can get him to stay here eight hours and start creating songs....'"

Epperson scoffs at the Stiths' claim that they transformed him from a turntablist into a bona fide producer. "I'd sit in on everybody's session and watch how the engineers recorded, watch the producers working. Nobody really helped me," he contends. "A lot of people say they did, but nobody really helped me for real."

To this day, however, D2 gets a percentage of everything Epperson earns, owing to the deal he signed with them early on. It's not a huge percentage, but it's more than he believes is warranted. (None of the parties will say exactly how much money is involved.) "Whenever we wouldn't be arguing, it was a cool place, but you really had to fight for your freedom of music," he says. "There was a lot of people around me, and I kinda didn't want that vibe, but it was the only studio I could be at. They'd be arguing; they'd put a single out and nothing would happen for a long time -- two or three years would go by. And I wanted to do stuff that was consistent."

Epperson prefers not to talk about Saints at all. Reluctant even to speak the name of the place, he asks that it not be published. It's an unavoidable part of his story, though: Saints was where he learned how to make beats. More important, Saints was where he met the St. Lunatics.


On Martin Luther King Day, the studio in the basement of Epperson's St. Peters home is packed nearly to capacity, mostly with local musicians who'll be laying down tracks for Murphy Lee's solo record. Steve Eigner, the engineer on all the Lunatics' albums (not to mention those of just about every other big name, from Mary J. Blige to Rick Derringer), is here, too, having flown in from New York City. So is Epperson's production partner Waiel "Wally" Yaghnam.

Epperson and the Lunatics will finish recording in New York, Miami or Atlanta, at a professional studio. Vocals are trickier to capture, and given Universal's budget, they might as well do things right. But that's not for another month. Today Epperson has assembled a group of local session musicians to augment a beat he has tentatively titled "Skool Boi" -- an homage to Murphy Lee, the youngest Lunatic, whose nickname is "School Boy."

Epperson first hooked up with the St. Lunatics in 1997. At the time, the crew was led by Ali and consisted of Murphy Lee, Kyjuan, Lavell Webb (a.k.a. City Spud) and, of course, Nelly. "They were messing with some local producers, and they weren't satisfied," Epperson remembers. "Ali heard my beats and really liked them, and then he introduced me to the rest of the group. He did two songs by himself and said, 'This is the guy to work with.'"

Epperson felt especially close to Webb, who shared his interest in production. "We just became friends and started doing beats together," says Epperson. "We'd trade information on how to do stuff, which was pretty cool. Spud was kind of, like, outside, compared with the rest of the Lunatics. Different, I guess I mean. The Lunatics are all vegetarians; Spud'll eat a hamburger a day. He's more to my aspect of things -- the way I did things, he did them the same way. We started coming up together, doing, like, competitions almost. Like, 'You got a cool beat -- I'm gonna try to outdo it.' It was all in friendship, but we kept ourselves going."

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