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In June 2000 Nelly placed St. Louis squarely on the hip-hop map with the release of Country Grammar, an album that rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard chart and went on to sell more than 8 million copies. Following in Nelly's wake, a steady stream of homegrown artists have gone on to establish St. Louis as the hottest breeding ground for hip-hop music in the nation -- and through it all, Jane Higgins has made sure that the beat goes on.
As publicist for Nelly, Murphy Lee, the St. Lunatics and the Trackboyz, Higgins is the most plugged-in maestro of hype in the St. Louis hip-hop community, the spokeswoman for the biggest music story to hit this town since Chuck Berry duck-walked across the stage in the 1950s -- not bad for a 51-year-old white woman who never much cared for rap prior to becoming one of its most ardent promoters.
So just how does a girl raised in rural Wisconsin come to represent the music of urban black America? The formula includes a bit of serendipity -- and a whole lot of bad luck, including a bitter divorce followed by the brutal murder of her ex-husband.
With her blonde hair, blue eyes, pale Irish skin and diminutive five-foot-two-inch frame, Higgins is the physical opposite of the men she represents -- and that's before she opens her mouth. Where her clients speak in a soft, nonchalant mumble of street-slang, she speaks with all the clarity and poise of a soccer mom who's promised to take the entire team to Dairy Queen after the game. As she fields call after call on her cell phone, Higgins' delightful squeal greets everything and everyone with words like so great, fantastic, cool, the best, wonderful, perfect!
"She's probably the bubbliest person I ever met, but at the same time you don't want to cross her," says Wendy Day, founder of the Nashville-based advocacy group Rap Coalition and a woman who has worked with such artists as Eminem and Master P. "Jane's a power-hitter, and people know that if they write something bad about one of her clients, she's not going to hesitate to pick up the phone and call them on it."
It's her lollipop-sweet veneer and steel resolve that make Higgins a hit with her clients.
"Jane is beautiful. She'll bend over backwards to help you, whether it's getting you tickets to a sold-out concert or handling the media. She's always there," enthuses Corey Edwards, a.k.a. Slo Down, the St. Lunatics member best known for wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask in concert.
Higgins recently helped Edwards spin some potentially negative press when the wedding planner for his April ceremony went to the Post-Dispatch with what she thought would be a humdinger of a story. She claimed Edwards had refused to pay her for throwing a lovely wedding. The story that appeared in Deb Peterson's column, however, told a different story: It slammed the wedding planner for ruining the ceremony. Of course, it didn't hurt that Higgins was one of the first people Peterson contacted for the story.
"I told Deb that I wouldn't have paid either," says Higgins. "The wedding was a total disaster. The planner didn't show up on time. Everyone waited for two hours without food or drink. It was miserable."
But not all of Higgins' spins shows up in the box score. Yomi Martin, president of hip-hop clothing line Vokal, credits Higgins with landing him favorable coverage on BET (Black Entertainment Television), VH1 and MTV. But his most indelible Higgins experience came at the Galleria last year. Martin was trying on shirts at Brooks Brothers when a sales associate accused him of trying to steal a pair of cufflinks.
"Jane happened to be in the mall at the same time and gave me a call," Martin recalls. "When I told her what was happening she showed up and went crazy on the salesman. Now when I go to Brooks Brothers they treat me like a king."
Jane Higgins' clout in the hip-hop industry is a phenomenon, according to Wendy Washington, head of press for Universal Records' Motown division, which holds the rights to the work of Nelly, Murphy Lee and the rest of the St. Lunatics. While artists from second-tier cities such as St. Louis generally move to Los Angeles or New York following commercial success, the Lunatics remained in St. Louis. Without a local publicist working in St. Louis, Universal has relied on Higgins to represent some of the record label's top talent.
"Because [the Lunatics] are so committed to St. Louis, it's important to have someone who can work the local and regional press, and Higgins has been instrumental in doing that," Washington says.
So when Universal held listening parties in New York and Los Angeles for Murphy Lee's 2003 release, Murphy's Law, Lee turned to Higgins to coordinate the party in St. Louis. Hundreds of guests got a sneak listen prior to the album's release, and the listening party generated several positive local articles -- all of which contributed to the album going platinum this year with more than one million sales.