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?

Koenig begins scratching, his mouth slightly open, his brow furrowed. He sounds tentative at first; then he's on fire. But he's not satisfied, shaking his head apologetically at Epperson.

"Are you used to sitting down?" Epperson asks. He adjusts a chair and pushes it over. Koenig sits and scratches furiously for a minute or two while Epperson paces and Yaghnam bobs his head.

"Sounds crazy," Yaghnam says cheerfully when he stops.

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.

"You want me to do it again?" Koenig asks. They listen to the recording. "You've got to cut that out; it just sounds sloppy," Koenig says, cringing. "I messed up on parts. You can go back and structure it how you like."

Epperson flips the record over and chooses another breakbeat. Koenig tries again. "That's hot," Yaghnam pronounces.

After Koenig leaves, Epperson and Yaghnam listen to some of the beats they've assembled over the past week or so. One features a spooky waterfall sound, looped in a skittery, propulsive rhythm. "I'll probably get it to sound different," Epperson explains, "make it something you've got to listen to a couple of times to tell what it is."

In a Playboy review of the St. Lunatics' Free City, the Village Voice's Robert Christgau wrote, "This is hip-hop as pure pop funk, grabbing ears with a new groove provided primarily by the album's true star, chief producer Jason Epperson. Every time you think Epperson's exhausted his store of sounds to make beats from, he comes up with something new."

Indeed, Epperson's a voracious sampler, his appetite focused by a record geek's passion and a knack for allusive horseplay. On Free City's "Midwest Swing," he peppers the keyboard hooks with sampled cows and sheep -- a sly sonic subtext to lyrics such as "What do you think, we live on a farm?/Nigga be for real." For Nellyville's "Pimp Juice," he lifted samples from two Staple Singers songs, juxtaposing Nelly's decadent content with a spiritual context and creating a beat that's at once familiar and strange.

"Jay E is actually very diverse," Russ Giraud says. "What's out there is kind of narrow compared to what he's actually capable of doing. He's one of those people who can hear something in his head and translate it to his instruments.

"His mixing style seems to be very retro, kinda '70s-ish," Giraud continues. "His last song on Nellyville has a real '70s style, very hard-panned left to right -- that lets you know he's listening to Pink Floyd and stuff like that. And he has a good sense of song structure -- even though he might not know what he knows, there's the basics of song theory right there. I think he's gonna end up being a musician someday."

Epperson likes to make a new sound every day, no matter what kind of music he's working on at the moment. "If I do a party cut or something, it's got to be in my style so I like to do it, so it ain't just what everyone else does, sample the most familiar sound that you could possibly find," he says. "If it's uptempo, people can bob their heads to it, that's cool. You gotta pay the bills, so you can't cater to dopeheads all your life." He laughs dryly.

Like the best hip-hop producers, he knows that you don't have to stop experimenting just because you've crossed over to the mainstream.

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