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"This 'next Nelly' idea that's so far-fetched. Especially in little old St. Louis, for the next Nelly? C'mon! Nelly's an icon," says Waiel Yaghnam, known as Wally, a co-owner of the production company Basement Beats, which produced several tracks on Country Grammar.
"But," adds Yaghnam, "that's the effect of Nelly."
Over the course of the decade a handful of acts like Chingy, Murphy Lee and J-Kwon have managed to emerge from the pace-setter's very long shadow, but many up-and-coming rappers say they still struggle with what they see as the country's expectation that anything coming out of St. Louis will have Nelly's sound.
"They expect everything to be 'herre' and 'therre,'" says Ebony Eyez, a petite Parkway Central High School graduate dressed in a three-quarter-length leather coat. "It's to the point where if you don't have 'herre' and 'therre' and 'yerre' in your rap people will be like: 'You from St. Louis?' I'm guilty of it too. I'm constantly having to go back and put those words in my rap, because it's important that people know I'm from St. Louis."
Younger artists might look to model their careers after Nelly, but given the industry's transitional nature, they can learn plenty from Ebony Eyez and her brief tenure as a "signed" artist.
When she inked a deal with the Trackboyz production duo, who'd worked with Nelly and J-Kwon, Ebony Eyez was one of the city's hottest talents.
"She's a dope MC," says Jayson Bridges, known as Koko, a co-owner and producer at Basement Beats who says he often saw her perform at clubs around town. "I heard her single like 8 million times."
The Trackboyz proceeded to shop her music around to the labels, and Capitol Records bit.
That's typical of the way deals in St. Louis are structured these days: The artist has a contract with the production company; the production company has a contract with the record label. In other words, the artist doesn't have a deal with the label; the production company does.
"That affects you a lot, because it's a middleman speaking for you: I have to hear from them what the label said, and the label has to hear from them what I said," says Ebony Eyez, who has since been released from her contract with the Trackboyz. "In my case it turned out I wasn't even really on Capitol's radar."
Nonetheless, in the early days of the contract her single, "In Ya Face," got a lot of radio spins locally. The Trackboyz had released the song, a club banger about boy-toy empowerment, just to get her name out. But the song took off.
"It was just catching on so fast: They threw my song out, and a few months later we were doing the video. It blew my mind," Ebony Eyez recalls. "I thought it was on and poppin' from there."
Then came word that Capitol wanted to release an album.
"It was too soon. We didn't have time to get me into the magazines or out traveling to get known," says Ebony Eyez, adding that she fought to have the album's release delayed in order to allow time to build a buzz. "Once the Trackboyz turned the album in, it was out of my hands. I tried to fight it, but Capitol was like, 'We're going with it. If you don't want to do any shows or interviews, that's on you. It's going to hurt you.'"
"In Ya Face" peaked at No. 82 on Billboard's Hot R&B Chart. Capitol followed it up with "Take Me Back," a down-tempo R&B number that didn't grab much attention. In the end, the album, 7 Day Cycle, sold modestly, peaking at No. 137 on the Billboard 200.
Not long afterward Ebony Eyez severed ties with the Trackboyz and, by extension, Capitol. She's now working with several different producers on a second album she hopes to release in 2008.
"What happened to the days of artist development?" she asks. "You get a few spins on the radio, and the labels are like, 'Here, we'll give you a deal.'"
A lot of those deals are one-way options for the label, she adds, and artist advances are humble at best.
"People aren't getting advances," she asserts. "I could be wrong, but with young black men and women you know when somebody's got some money in they pocket: from the cars they drive and the clothes they wearing. But I know people are staying in the same place. They're driving the same old car.
"But they're signed. The labels are selling dreams around here."
Last July Lawrence Franks Jr. made waves when he became the first artist to ink a deal with the new Jive Records/Hitz Committee imprint from the Zomba Label Group, a division of Sony BMG Entertainment.
What was most interesting about Franks' deal is not its reported worth ($2.5 million), but rather that the rapper, known as Baby Huey, broke with the recent St. Louis trend and signed directly with Jive.
"With Huey's deal it was Huey and his aunt [and manager Angela Richardson] storming the Bastille and then getting a deal directly with the company. It's old-fashioned in that sense," says attorney McAuliffe, who helped finalize the contract. "When artists get their deals through production companies, they don't have privity of contract. So they don't have access to timetables, release schedules, budgets anything. So those artists are really only going to find out what the production company, or middleman, is going to tell them."