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?

Like Epperson, the Lunatics signed a contract with D2. But they all were growing frustrated -- with the major-label deals that never materialized, the new singles that never got released. Epperson made the beats for "Gimme What You Got," the St. Lunatics' first single, which became a big local hit. In the late '90s, the crew approached Cudda Love, of Fo' Reel Entertainment, who got them the ear of Universal, the biggest music label in the world.

In exchange for a portion of the publishing rights, the Stiths released the Lunatics from their contract. But while the negotiations were under way, Epperson and the Lunatics were barred from the Saints studio. Russ Giraud, a local hip-hop engineer and producer, came to the rescue, agreeing to record the St. Lunatics at his home studio.

"I was the engineer on the demo. At the time it was called 'Hot Shit,' but it later became 'Country Grammar,'" Giraud remembers. "Jay E and City Spud pretty much had all the work done. The songs had been dropped before, but they had no access to it [at Saints] and had to re-create it all. I think we knocked out ten songs in two days. It was very much a cram session."

Universal liked the demo, although things didn't turn out quite the way the group expected. "I really thought -- and I think a lot of people really thought -- that Ali was gonna be the one," Epperson says. "He had a lot of lyrical talent, and he was basically, like, the brain of the whole situation. But when it came time to sign a deal, Universal really liked Nelly. It was the looks, it was the songs -- the songs were tight. A lot of people had already turned it down -- 'This ain't good enough, we never heard nothing like this before' type vibe; 'We're not gonna chance it.' But Universal chanced it, and it worked out."

City Spud, however, wasn't present to bask in the glory. In 1999, a year before the Lunatics hit the big time, Lavell Webb was convicted of robbery and assault with a deadly weapon [Randall Roberts, "Bad Rap," August 8, 2001]. The guest rapper on the hit "Ride Wit Me," the producer of four songs on Country Grammar and Epperson's closest friend among the Lunatics has been in prison ever since. Nevertheless, Epperson considers Spud a member of Basement Beats, the production company he shares with Wally Yaghnam and Jeff "Koko" Bridges. With any luck, the enterprise will still be going strong in 2008, when Webb is expected to get out.

Nowadays Epperson doesn't hang out with the Lunatics much when they're not working. When the rap crew isn't touring, they're into sports, partying, making the scene. "Used to be, they'd come in and maybe we'd make beats from scratch," Epperson says. "Lately it's just been me down here working, building up the beats, and then they'll two-way or call and ask me to send 'em a CD, tracks they haven't heard before."

But the system remains the same: "Have all of them there when they're recording, and everyone puts in their two cents. It's rare you ever see them apart. Murph has total control of the album, but it all goes in the consideration box.

"With Murph, I basically didn't use no samples," Epperson goes on. "I just did the total opposite of what I'd been doing. I always try to do something I haven't done before for each album. For this one, I got live instruments and players. He was wanting some funky '70s-type joints. I just felt more creative with live musicians. I just did that to be doing something off the wall, something that totally makes me sound different from the last album."

"Skool Boi" is based on a robotic rhythm track Epperson created on a Speak & Spell toy, but by the time the guitar, drums, trumpets, violins and harmonica have been layered over it, it sounds for all the world like a classic Hi Records side, the kind of sassy, undulating Memphis soul associated with the trumpeter Willie Mitchell, who also produced Al Green's greatest albums. It's fitting that Epperson has enlisted the legendary Oliver Sain on sax. The Lunatics have always emphasized their St. Louis heritage, and Sain's presence not only complements the feel of the record, it underscores St. Louis' legacy as a serious music town.

Around Sain, Epperson is uncharacteristically deferential. The Lunatics had never heard of him, the producer marvels. "They didn't even know who he was, for real," Epperson says with an expression somewhere between amused and appalled. "As far as sports stuff, whether the Cardinals or the Cubs won in 1963, they know and I don't. But as far as the music thing goes, I'm pretty much the one on it."

Sain, unlike most seventysomething professional musicians, doesn't turn up his nose at hip-hop. "I like it when it has good music, especially this one here, with an R&B flavor," the venerable musician says. "I love that kind of stuff."

He picks up his saxophone and plays along with the track, modeling a few tentative runs on the hook, then diverging into a solo. While Epperson and Eigner tinker with the violin and trumpet tracks -- doubling tracks, correcting the pitch, cutting and pasting -- Sain continues to practice quietly in the corner.

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