I'm in seventh grade, sitting in a school bus full of chattering middle-schoolers. It's another early weekday in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. The sun peeks over the mountains, adding a magenta haze to the dark blue sky. Maybe it's because we can tell winter's almost over, but Anchorage kids always bubble with energy in the spring. Kids are wearing shorts again, even though it's still only between 40 and 50 degrees at the bus stop in the morning. But we couldn't have cared less; spring was here.
The bus radio was on every morning, and on most days it was background music for our prepubescent dialogues. But one morning, out of the speakers came a melodic, sing-songy rap that instantly caught our attention:
I'm goin' down down baby, yo street in a Range Rover/
Boom, boom baby, ready to let it go!"
Growing up in Alaska, our hip-hop exposure was limited to BET, MTV and radio, but we knew a different sound — and a different movement — when we heard it. The topic of conversation switched from who had a crush on whom to questions like, "What's a 'shimmy, shimmy cocoa puff?'"
"Oh yeah, I seen a picture of that boy," one girl chimed in. "He light-skinned. He cute." One boy ignored her statement and asked, "What's this dude's name again?"
Someone else replied: "Nelly. He from, like, St. Louis or something...."
It's been nine years since that spring morning, when Nelly first exploded onto the commercial music scene and spurred a nationwide craze over all things "derrty." "Country Grammar (Hot...)" became a staple on BET and MTV and peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard charts, while two follow-up singles, "E.I." and "Ride Wit Me," also became chart hits — helping Nelly's 2000 debut album, Country Grammar, also reach the No. 1 position.
Other mainstream St. Louis rappers, such as Chingy and Jibbs, followed Nelly's blueprint — catchy hooks delivered with a Midwest twang — in subsequent years. But Grammar was unique because of its lack of big-name producers. (In fact, its most notable collaboration wasn't even with an actual rapper: St. Louis' Cedric the Entertainer added his comedy to the album's skits.) Production talent consisted of then-unknown local beatsmiths, like Jason "Jay E" Epperson, who rode the strength of his Grammar production credits to later work with Joss Stone and Three 6 Mafia. The album's success also launched the careers of Nelly's crew, the St. Lunatics.
In other words, Country Grammar was organic, homegrown rap at its best, an album that retained its unique, St. Louis charm while having universal appeal. Almost ten years later, Missouri artists still recognize the spark that gave them a sense of pride in their home state. During a recent weekend, a group of artists and musicians, all from Missouri, met in my Columbia living room to discuss Nelly's influence.
"It used to be a diss to call somebody 'country' — [but] then Nelly took that and flipped it, and did it so well," says spoken-word artist Eddy English, who, like Nelly, was raised in University City. English mentions that the U. City style of dress is "just bright," and he wears a mature, Columbia-fied version of that brightness: a floral-print linen shirt with a matching bandanna tied around his neck, which takes attention away from his dreadlocks. "[The St. Lunatics] could have ran from the whole 'thurr' thing, and now, you have nerd-rap, white MCs from the underground, using that slang. They just liked being who they are, and now you have regional acts embracing their slang, embracing their fashion and embracing their differences."
ThE.SiS, the business manager of Indyground Entertainment, a Columbia-based record label, sits in the middle of the room. He, too, is a spoken-word artist and also a certified accountant, and his glasses, plain white collared shirt and blue jeans help him look the part. His cell phone rings, and he answers it; on the other end is rapper Steddy P, one of the founders of Indyground and a Kansas City native.
"Did you bump this album when it came out?" I ask him as he puts the call on speakerphone. While Steddy ponders a response, English and St. Louis producer Matt Thurman, seated on a couch across the room, answer.
"I'm from St. Louis — I had to," Thurman says. Adds English: "I used to listen to it over and over. They used to play it all over the place. You couldn't go nowhere without hearing it." ThE.SiS was more immune to Country Grammar's charms. He screams demandingly into his cell phone, "Be honest! I'm from St. Louis, and I swear to you, I used to play the hit singles on the radio only because all my friends were in the car, and that's it."
But Steddy doesn't deny the impact of Nelly's debut. "Everyone in Kansas City was listening to that — St. Louis is four hours away, dog," he says. "That sound reverberated up here very easily. Everybody was like 'Oh, they're talking about St. Louis in that song.' That's a Missouri thing. No matter what, you got to feel a closer connection to Nelly rather than Jay-Z when you see their videos on TV."
For Thurman and English, it wasn't just that someone was finally repping the Midwest on a national level. It was how Nelly repped. "We'd never heard nothing like it," English said. "Not even in St. Louis was anybody rapping like that. He took St. Louis' car style, clothing style and the speech of the whole region and completely flipped and did something original with all the styles."
At the same time, they point out that Nelly and the St. Lunatics were the first to take command of a hip-hop scene that lacked direction.
"There were the Lunatics, but they were still more underground," English continues. "There was nobody. There was nobody you could point to and be like, 'Oh yeah, that's the St. Louis rapper.'"
Still, according to St. Louis' DJ Trackstar, the fact that Nelly is now the "St. Louis rapper" doesn't always help the city's hip-hop scene in 2009. "There are probably literally 20,000 rappers in this city who think they've got somewhat of a chance to be the next Nelly — all of whom, literally, are wrong," he says, in a separate phone conversation. "Worse than that, there's probably two or three thousand vultures out here, and there's a million ways to take advantage of a starving artist desperate for his shot."
Nelly is now a businessman as much as he's a musician, and he's in a position to help those "starving artists" that Trackstar speaks of. But Thurman, a recent MU graduate running his own music production company, 5Mic Productions, doesn't understand any debate over Nelly's role in helping the next generation of St. Louis hip-hop. "I understood where these new artists were coming from, because a lot of them were like, 'Nelly should help out,' or 'Nelly should put everybody on,'" Thurman says. He acknowledges that nothing was given to Nelly, either: "But at the same time, nobody put Nelly on. He had to put himself on."
Adds ThE.SiS: "Why is it his responsibility to give back? Who he owes or doesn't owe still isn't subject to our whim or our judgment."
Regardless of how people may feel about Nelly's role in developing the next crop of Missouri artists, no one can doubt that his influence stems from one thing: hard work. Country Grammar was created by an artist and a crew that had been grinding locally since the early '90s. English and Thurman both remember Nelly's local singles, and the latter's older brothers told him about watching Nelly perform in smaller venues in Columbia when they attended Mizzou in the '90s.
Nelly's success was not an accident but rather a product of persistence. Country Grammar introduced the world to that product: the harmonious, carefree world of Cornell Haynes Jr. and friends, complete with bright jerseys of St. Louis sports teams and muscle cars with racing stripes.
"He was rapping about St. Louis," Thurman says. "And that made me say, 'Wow.' People from all around the world were listening to what's going on at home."