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?

On a chilly afternoon in late winter, Jason "Jay E" Epperson; his girlfriend, Johnna Hermann; and their year-old daughter, Jaysha Marie, are getting ready for a ride in Epperson's chromed-out black Escalade. Epperson picks up the toddler, kisses her noisily and opens his mouth wide so she can insert her pacifier. "How big is Jaysha?" he coos. She grins hugely, puts her tiny hands above her head.

"She's so cool," he says. "Before you have a kid, you never would believe that you'd love something that much."

He transfers the baby to Hermann, who carefully straps her into the Cadillac and climbs in next to the car seat. Epperson pops Monsters, Inc. into the DVD player so Jaysha can watch on one of the monitors, but by the time he pulls onto the highway, the baby is snoring gently.

Epperson and his family live in a new brick two-story house surrounded by other single-family houses, all variations on the same vaguely Colonial architectural theme. Everything in this quiet St. Peters subdivision -- the houses, the SUVs and minivans, the scrawny saplings, the walkways -- is so new it looks raw, like a planned community that's still in the planning stages. As Epperson drives away from his home, where he's lived for the past year-and-a-half, and into his old neighborhoods in St. Charles and Overland, he slows to point out scrappy working-class bungalows and sad-looking apartment complexes, the drainage ditch he and his buddies used to tag with graffiti, the gas stations where he worked after dropping out of high school eight years ago.

He and Hermann recently returned from New York City. Epperson spent about two weeks there, putting the final touches on Murphy Lee's first solo album, then taking Hermann and his mom to the Grammys. As the primary producer of Nellyville, Nelly's multiplatinum sophomore CD, Epperson might have brought home one of the coveted statuettes, had Nelly won for Rap Album of the Year. Though Eminem and his producer Dr. Dre (one of Epperson's idols) took that prize, Nelly did win Grammys for the first two singles from Nellyville: "Hot in Herre," produced by the Neptunes, and the Kelly Rowland collaboration "Dilemma," produced by BAM and Ryan Bowser. But if Epperson's concerned or angry because his songs are on the back burner -- "Pimp Juice" and "Splurge" have only recently begun to get airplay -- he doesn't let on. "Maybe next year's Grammys," he says casually.

"I see some producers getting, like, two-page articles, and they only sold maybe, at most, two million," he says. "And then, when my name comes up, it's just barely there -- like, 'producer of [Nelly's first CD] Country Grammar,' that's it. But I don't have a publicist, neither, and I'm kind of low-key. I'm not really out there like Nelly and them are out there."

Not that he's averse to working with other acts. He was really excited a while back when there was talk of him producing a cut on a solo album by Raekwon (of Wu-Tang Clan fame), but he got some bad advice about how much money to ask for. "I kicked myself in the ass," he admits. "I should've done it just to be doing it, for free almost. I didn't need the money. Everybody was, like, 'Well, you're a platinum producer, you need to go in there and ask 80 grand.' I was, like, 'I ain't charging this dude 80 grand -- I grew up listening to the Wu-Tang Clan!' I was, like, 'I'll charge him 30.'"

That was still too much, he fears: Raekwon's people never called back.

As he continues the tour of his old stomping grounds, his phone and pager keep ringing, but he doesn't pick up. Finally, about a half-hour into the ride, he apologizes: "I really have to get this. It's Universal, and they keep calling."

He listens for a few seconds, and suddenly he's beaming. "Me and the Neptunes are gonna hook up!" he says. "I've been waiting for this so long. That's just so tight."

He makes a quick call to Kevin Law, Universal Records' A&R guy. "I'll do whatever they want," he tells Law emphatically. "I don't want to scare 'em away, like with that Raekwon shit, everyone telling me what to ask. I don't want a lot, maybe ten or twenty a track. I could do whatever they want. Why don't they come down here to the Lou? Tell 'em I've got a studio they can work at, and we're all good."

He pauses for a second, listening to the voice at the other end. "I don't have no manager," he says. "I'm my own manager."

On the inside back cover of Nelly's debut, a single white face appears in a crowd of twenty black ones, sporting a goofy grin. Unless you happen to be tight with Nelly's crew, there's no way you'd know that the dark-haired kid with the goatee is Jason "Jay E" Epperson, the man who wrote the music for and produced the bulk of the album, including the giant hits "Country Grammar (Hot ...)," "Ride Wit Me" and "E.I."

The 2000 release sold more than nine million copies. Since then, the St. Lunatics have dropped Free City, which also went platinum; founding member Ali has released his solo debut, Heavy Starch; and Nelly has put out Nellyville, which has sold more than five million copies to date -- making it the second-best-selling album of 2002. Although his picture doesn't appear on any of the CD booklets after Country Grammar, Epperson wrote the bulk of the music for all these records, too.

He's now 24 years old, and thanks to his co-writing and production credits, he's a rich man. He may lack the star power of the Neptunes, Timbaland and Dr. Dre, but Jay E's one of the most successful hip-hop producers in the world.

Of course, Nelly is the one who makes the little girls sob and shriek, the one whose pretty mug graces the covers of Vibe and Source, Billboard and Teen People, the one on the late-night talk shows. Epperson might get a one-page interview in EQ or one of the other geeky tech mags, but even the most famous hip-hop producers don't usually get famous famous. In fact, when Epperson and Hermann met three years ago, at a bar on Laclede's Landing, she had no idea who he was. "I saw him walk in, and I thought he looked like a singer I like; that's what made me attracted to him," she recalls. "Even when he told me he was Nelly's producer, I still didn't know what a producer was."

In that respect, Hermann wasn't unusual. Music fans schooled in other genres tend to underestimate the importance of hip-hop producers, who, as opposed to their knob-twisting counterparts, also create the music, the textures, the sounds, the structure of the songs. In rock & roll terms, it's like being the entire band. With their freaky, irresistible beats, the Neptunes -- arguably the hottest production team in contemporary pop -- can invest the likes of Britney and Justin with instant street cred.

Whether it's a consequence of file-sharing, the poor economy or general cluelessness, the record industry is experiencing a massive slump, its bloated carcass propped up by the sales of just a handful of artists. Because Nelly is one of them, his main producer and songwriting partner is riding high. And with baby-faced Murphy Lee set to release his first solo joint this summer, Epperson's keeping busy. His contract ensures that he'll produce no fewer than eight songs on each St. Lunatics-associated album as long as the group continues to record for its label, the behemoth Universal. Regardless, his royalty checks from Country Grammar and Nellyville alone should be enough to see him through his retirement years.

How did a working-class white kid from St. Charles County, a high-school dropout whose previous work experience is highlighted by stints at a Jack in the Box and a Citgo, end up a multiplatinum millionaire? Luck, of course, is part of the equation -- the same freak luck that turned a former drug dealer from University City into one of the biggest crossover successes rap music has ever known. But it's also a result of drive, instinct and a genuine gift for making bright, bouncy beats. Epperson's ears are his fortune, and so far they've never let him down.

Epperson's mom answers her cell phone with the salutation "Hello, Jay E Inc." Not long ago, Epperson asked Ronda Thoele to quit her job at an insurance company. "I'm working for him full-time now," she says, "whatever he needs me to do." This might mean anything from paying the bills to babysitting Jaysha, running errands or cooking meat loaf for the crew after a marathon recording session.

Before Epperson can even remember, his dad moved out. His mother remarried and had two more children; for about ten years, until her second marriage dissolved, they all lived as a family in a small house in St. Charles. Thoele's eldest child was a music lover from the beginning. "I remember driving to Florida and him listening to [DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's] Parents Just Don't Understand the whole way there and the whole way back," she recalls with a soft chuckle. "He was probably seven or so. We always had music on wherever we were at" -- mostly country and classic rock, she says. "I've got pictures of him spinning records on his little Fisher-Price phonograph when he was two or three."

At age fourteen, Epperson started DJing for real. "I was in a really white school," he says, "but there was a little group of us that really liked it, and we came up together, like, friends vibing off records and stuff like that." Not long after that, when Thoele's second marriage ended, she moved the kids to Overland, closer to her job. Rather than transfer from St. Charles West High School, Epperson dropped out. "He was going through a lot," Thoele says. "It was hard on Jason -- changing schools, moving away from all of his friends."

Recalls Epperson: "Of course, she wanted me to go. Finally she was, like, 'Well, as long as you get a job, you're cool.' So I got me a little job at some Mexican restaurant. I was a dishwasher there, and then I moved up in the world and started working at Jack in the Box. Then I started doing gas-station jobs because it was the easiest: Just stand there, take people's money and clean up once in a while."

Thoele let her son set up a rudimentary studio in her basement: a mattress, a couple of turntables, a sampler and a vast collection of records. "If things didn't work out," Epperson muses, "I'd probably be at my mom's still."

But the move to Overland -- just a short bus ride away from good record stores, fellow DJs and recording studios -- turned out to be a boon for Epperson. "I was used to coming out there, but I wasn't used to living out there," he says. "It was where I wanted to be at. I used to take the bus to Delmar every other day."

When he wasn't hitting the record stores, Epperson was hanging out at Saints, the Olivette roller rink that served as the unlikely nexus of St. Louis-area hip-hop culture. If you were a St. Louisan devoted to hip-hop back in the early '90s, chances are, you knew about Saints. Picture a miniature Brill Building populated by young hopefuls, hustlers and speculators. DJs spun rap records while hundreds of African-American teenagers whirled around the rink or danced in one of the adjoining party rooms. In the back, twin brothers David and Darren Stith borrowed a few spare rooms from their older brother Andr, who owns the rink, and set up a recording studio, where they encouraged aspiring producers and rappers to lay down tracks. When they heard potential, they signed the artists to their entertainment company, D2.

The twins heard potential in Epperson "The thing that got me about Jay E," Darren Stith told the RFT last year [Saller, "The Producers," April 10, 2002], "Jay E would go into the studio and work on scratches and stuff for eight or nine hours straight. I said, 'Dude, you need to work on this sampler, start programming stuff.' So I showed him how to go through all that, thinking to myself in the back of my head, 'If I can get him to stay here eight hours and start creating songs....'"

Epperson scoffs at the Stiths' claim that they transformed him from a turntablist into a bona fide producer. "I'd sit in on everybody's session and watch how the engineers recorded, watch the producers working. Nobody really helped me," he contends. "A lot of people say they did, but nobody really helped me for real."

To this day, however, D2 gets a percentage of everything Epperson earns, owing to the deal he signed with them early on. It's not a huge percentage, but it's more than he believes is warranted. (None of the parties will say exactly how much money is involved.) "Whenever we wouldn't be arguing, it was a cool place, but you really had to fight for your freedom of music," he says. "There was a lot of people around me, and I kinda didn't want that vibe, but it was the only studio I could be at. They'd be arguing; they'd put a single out and nothing would happen for a long time -- two or three years would go by. And I wanted to do stuff that was consistent."

Epperson prefers not to talk about Saints at all. Reluctant even to speak the name of the place, he asks that it not be published. It's an unavoidable part of his story, though: Saints was where he learned how to make beats. More important, Saints was where he met the St. Lunatics.

On Martin Luther King Day, the studio in the basement of Epperson's St. Peters home is packed nearly to capacity, mostly with local musicians who'll be laying down tracks for Murphy Lee's solo record. Steve Eigner, the engineer on all the Lunatics' albums (not to mention those of just about every other big name, from Mary J. Blige to Rick Derringer), is here, too, having flown in from New York City. So is Epperson's production partner Waiel "Wally" Yaghnam.

Epperson and the Lunatics will finish recording in New York, Miami or Atlanta, at a professional studio. Vocals are trickier to capture, and given Universal's budget, they might as well do things right. But that's not for another month. Today Epperson has assembled a group of local session musicians to augment a beat he has tentatively titled "Skool Boi" -- an homage to Murphy Lee, the youngest Lunatic, whose nickname is "School Boy."

Epperson first hooked up with the St. Lunatics in 1997. At the time, the crew was led by Ali and consisted of Murphy Lee, Kyjuan, Lavell Webb (a.k.a. City Spud) and, of course, Nelly. "They were messing with some local producers, and they weren't satisfied," Epperson remembers. "Ali heard my beats and really liked them, and then he introduced me to the rest of the group. He did two songs by himself and said, 'This is the guy to work with.'"

Epperson felt especially close to Webb, who shared his interest in production. "We just became friends and started doing beats together," says Epperson. "We'd trade information on how to do stuff, which was pretty cool. Spud was kind of, like, outside, compared with the rest of the Lunatics. Different, I guess I mean. The Lunatics are all vegetarians; Spud'll eat a hamburger a day. He's more to my aspect of things -- the way I did things, he did them the same way. We started coming up together, doing, like, competitions almost. Like, 'You got a cool beat -- I'm gonna try to outdo it.' It was all in friendship, but we kept ourselves going."

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.

"I hear you blowing over there, Oliver," Eigner shouts out to Sain, glancing back from his post at the soundboard. "Sounds great, man!"

When they're ready, Sain closes himself off in the sound booth. While the track plays in his headphones, he nails his solo in a single take. Outside, everyone erupts into spontaneous applause. "Beautiful," Eigner says into the microphone. "You can come back in, Mr. Sain."

They play the track back for him. "If you hear some good riffs," Epperson says, "let me know and we'll pull them out."

Sain listens, his rheumy eyes half-closed. "All this stuff is so musical," he says, smiling. "I hope that's a good thing."

When he's not upstairs relaxing with his family, Epperson spends most of his time making beats in his basement. It's not a huge space, but it's outfitted with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Almost the entire back wall is devoted to various keyboards: samplers, vintage organs, analog synths. In one corner is a stand holding several guitars, including a baby sitar, and a snazzy set of Danelectro effects pedals. In another corner is a drum kit. Between the drum kit and the sound booth is an entire wall of LPs, a few of which have been pulled off the shelves and stacked on the floor: O.V. Wright's Nucleus of Soul, the Ohio Players' First Impressions, Oliver Sain's Main Man, Idris Muhammad's Power of Soul. Yaghnam has a small preproduction studio of his own, but on this day he has come to Epperson's basement to rap on an original track.

An affable Palestinian-American with a quick smile and a slight stutter, Yaghnam was born in Denver and moved to Milwaukee when he was eight. When he turned fourteen, he started to hang with a bad crowd, so his Muslim parents moved the entire family to Jerusalem. A couple of years later, in January of 1995, the family moved again, to North County, where Yaghnam finished high school. He met Epperson around the time of the Country Grammar sessions, and they've been working together ever since.

The beat they're working on today -- a clattery, futuristic uptempo track -- is a personal project, not meant for any of the Lunatics. "Basically you could say it's a party track, but it's definitely, like, a show song," Yaghnam explains. "I'm doing verses for each of us: Eight bars will be about me, eight bars about Jason, eight bars about Koko and eight bars about City Spud."

The two producers sit at the soundboard, staring intently at the flat-screen monitor and editing the various tracks in Pro Tools. A half-eaten plate of eggs darkens and congeals on the table behind them, near a photo of a newborn Jaysha's tiny fist encircling Epperson's index finger. Epperson's wearing baggy sweatpants, tube socks and a vintage San Antonio Spurs basketball jersey -- number 44, after the great George "Iceman" Gervin. (The St. Lunatics advised him on the purchase.). He's also sporting some serious bling: a gigantic diamond-and-platinum pendant with the mirror-image double Bs of the Basement Beats logo.

Yaghnam closes himself off in the booth and spits his rhymes into the mic: "Put your thumbs up, throw your fists together."

"Do it again," Epperson says immediately.

Yaghnam repeats the phrase.

"You want me to put that delay on it?" Epperson asks. They tinker with the tiny segment obsessively, playing it over and over again, backing up, layering echo effects. Yaghnam wants to add another track beneath the mix, a falsetto tikitikitikitiki part that he thinks might sound cool.

Epperson mutters to himself and then says to Yaghnam, "I'm gonna put an effect on that, 'cause it just sounds fucked up. You don't know how gay you sound, dawg."

Epperson's record dealer, a sweet-faced nineteen-year-old Olivette kid named Jason Koenig, sits patiently in one of the half-dozen leather executive chairs that surround the recording equipment. Earlier in the afternoon, he brought over a load of old vinyl, which Epperson rifled through, eventually nabbing a rare LP by '70s-soul great Ann Peebles. Koenig makes his living buying record collections and selling them to vinyl junkies such as Epperson, but he also does a little DJing on the side, under the name DJ Clockwork. Too young to get into the clubs, he's content to play the occasional house party or scratch on his friends' beats.

Like Koenig, Epperson started out as a vinyl fetishist. It was the love of DJing, in turn, that got him into producing. "I'd find weird breaks, drums and stuff, and I'd take the DAT and keep on looping that, then throw in a sample of some weird guitar. Then I just said, 'Well, if that's producing, I'm gonna be a producer, because I love that.'"

When Yaghnam finishes rapping the verses he's written so far, he ducks out of the booth. Epperson plucks a Hamster Breaks breakbeats album from his wall of records and drops it on a turntable. One finger on the mixer, one on the vinyl, he demonstrates the kind of scratch he wants for the track, then steps back and lets Koenig take over.

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.

"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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