Nelly's ex-producer, Jay E, reflects on his road to success

Jun 30, 2010 at 4:00 am

Believe it or not, an entire decade has passed since Nelly's landmark album Country Grammar exposed St. Louis slang to the rest of the world. While Nelly's sing-songy raps and catchy hooks were integral to the phenomenal success of the album (Grammar sold more than 10 million copies worldwide), producer Jason "Jay E" Epperson also played a major role in shaping the album's distinctive sound. Jay E composed and produced the lion's share of the album's tracks, including the singles "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)," "Ride Wit Me" and "Batter Up."

Jay's work on CG earned him two ASCAP awards and recognition from Billboard as one of music's top producers in 2000. His working relationship with Nelly and the St. Lunatics remained a prosperous one for years to come, yielding hits like "Midwest Swing," "Pimp Juice" and "Boughetto."

Eventually Jason found himself at odds with the direction hip-hop music was taking, and decided to part ways with Basement Beats (the Grammy-winning production company he helped to create) in order to return to his roots as a DJ. Having come full-circle over the past fifteen years, Jay E spoke with the RFT about his past experiences and the lessons he's learned and offered some advice to the current generation of aspiring producers.

Calvin Cox: First off, how did you manage to hook up with the St. Lunatics on the ground floor?

Jay E: Back then I was working at a recording studio in Saints [skating rink]. So the Lunatics walk in for a session with another producer — they didn't really care for his beats all that much, but they were trying to "get on." I ended up giving Ali a CD with my beats, and he was into it. One thing led to another, and we started working together on the regular.

So, musically speaking, you hit it off right away?

The Lunatics were a group I could really see eye-to eye with. They had their own style, when at the time everyone was making gangsta rap. Most of the production had a lot of whiny, [Dr.] Dre-like sounds and synths. The East Coast, sample-based stuff I liked was kind of frowned upon. Because you've got to pay out money for the samples, and you had guys like Puffy who were getting a lot of flak at the time.

What was the vibe like working on the St. Lunatics' 1998 self-titled EP?

When they signed with D2, we probably worked on 50 or 100 songs. First, the "Gimme What U Got" single came out, and we were all happy with the way it went down. The song really caught on, and we picked seven or eight songs we had already done to put out on the EP. D2 didn't push the EP as hard as the first single, and they didn't really shop it to any of the labels. It kind of seemed like they gave up on us after the EP dropped. We weren't happy with the situation over there, and they weren't happy with us. Eventually I guess they got sick of it and ripped out the studio without telling anybody.

They just packed up and left without a word?

I went up to the studio one day, and it was empty! They just took all the equipment out. I mean, we were in a contract with them, but we couldn't work. It was a real ignorant way for them to do business, just to avoid a confrontation.

That must have been quite a blow, especially coming off the success of the first single. How did you bounce back from that?

Basically I went back home with the little bit of gear I had bought over the years. Wally [Yaghnam] of Basement Beats helped me out at the time. He got a drum machine, I got a keyboard, and we put them together and started making music again. Around this time, the 'Tics had hooked up with Ma$e's manager at Jermaine Dupri's birthday party in Atlanta. When they started going around to the major labels, everybody turned us down except Universal. They liked our music, but they wanted a Nelly album, not a Lunatics album. Nelly didn't want to break apart at the time, but it was one of those things where if we didn't do it their way, it wasn't going to get done.

Did you have any idea that it would take off the way it did?

Nah, not at all. At the time I was really young, and I was only focused on making music. I didn't know anything about the business side of things. It was like I had tunnel vision. All I cared about was trying to outdo my last beat. The love of the art form kept me very grounded.

After such a successful run, what fueled your decision to leave Basement Beats in 2005?

I believe you should do things for love and not for money. Business-wise, was [leaving] the best thing for me to do? Probably not, but I'm happy where I'm at now. I got tired of watching where hip-hop was going, and right now there's no inspiration for me to get back into it. I'm more comfortable DJing; it makes me happy, and life is short.

How would you describe yourself as a DJ?

I look at it as more of a performance art rather than just playing records. You can hire anybody to play songs that are hot on the radio. I'm sort of a DJ's DJ. I like to put on songs that people forgot about, or that they wouldn't expect to hear. Even when I do the Top 40 spots, I put my own brand on it.

Where would you like to see your career go in the future?

When I DJ, I mix in a lot of video edits with the audio. I'm hoping to follow that path into editing or even directing a movie. I'm ready for the next step, something different than what I'm used to doing.

You say you didn't like where hip-hop was going. What do you think needs to change?

I don't want to sound like the grumpy old producer complaining about how music is, but I don't like how everything's in one lane now. The labels aren't taking chances like they did with us anymore. They're going with whatever's already selling. There's not enough variety to balance it out.

What advice would you give to the current generation of producers and rappers looking to make it to where you've been?

I'd always heard things like, "One day you're up, one day you're down" and "Hold on to your money," but you really have to live by those things. It kills me how some rappers think they're some kind of god and spend all their money on cars and jewelry. The next day they could be bankrupt.

I think more people should stay independent. Since anyone can use the Internet for distribution, you don't really need the major labels anymore. At the same time, you have to be smart about it. Don't think you can do it all yourself. If you put 100 percent into one thing, it might work. But if you put 50 percent into rapping and 50 percent into running a label, the odds are against you. I also think that as an artist, you need to keep asking yourself, "What makes me different?"