Remember way back in 2000, when Nelly got signed to Universal and soon thereafter became the biggest-selling pop star St. Louis had ever known? Insiders predicted that St. Louis would be the next hip-hopopolis -- if not another NYC or LA, at least another Atlanta -- and everyone sat back and awaited the big-label feeding frenzy. Nelly's crew, the St. Lunatics, released a much less successful record on Universal, and Webster Groves glamour-puss Toya represented the softer side of the Lou with an album on Arista. But who's the next Nelly? We're still waiting.
Time will tell, but it just might be Pretty Willie Suella (né Willie Moore Jr.), a 22-year-old singer/rapper who just signed to Universal. The Berkeley High School graduate's debut CD, Enter the Life of Suella, is scheduled for a March 2002 release, and the single "Roll Wit Me," already a smash on St. Louis urban radio, will be released nationally in December. Universal is also springing for a video, which will probably go into rotation this winter. "Roll Wit Me," as anyone who's ever listened to Q95.5 or 100.3 The Beat can tell you, has "monster hit" written all over it. With the same kind of singsong flow that sold more than 6 million copies of Country Grammar, "Roll Wit Me" will remind the anxious Nelly-starved hordes of "Ride Wit Me" -- surely no accident on Universal's part.
That's not to say Pretty Willie's just a Nelly clone. An advance of Enter the Life of Suella reveals a lot of Nelly's trademark platinum-plated Midwestern bounce, but where Nelly raps melodically, Pretty Willie actually sings, even turning in a few soulful Michael Jackson-esque ballads. He's got something for everyone -- except, maybe, the thugs, who will no doubt think he's not hard enough. Like Nelly, he's got something the little girls understand. (Get your mind out of the gutter, dirty! We're talking about good manners!)
Accompanied by David Stith and Al Henry, of D2 Productions, Pretty Willie met us in the lobby of the swank new downtown hotel WS. After graciously submitting to the whims of our photographer, he sat down with Radar Station and recounted his fairytale: Pretty Willie was adopted as an infant and grew up in Berkeley. While attending Berkeley High School, he was the state champion in the 100-meter dash and won three state track-and-field titles. He was offered a full scholarship to the University of Mississippi, where he completed a bachelor's degree in psychology. Music was just one of his many interests, he says: "I started in church, when I was 8 years old, singing for the youth choir and playing piano. In 1990 [at the tender age of 11], I signed a deal with a local record company. I was rapping with a group called the Baby Gangsters -- it was one of those situations where I was just following the crowd, not really able to do exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to keep my music kinda clean, you know, for everybody."
A couple of years later, Pretty Willie hooked up with a group called Frontline; they kept in touch even when he went away to college. "Then I came home one summer, and I came to D2 Studios, and I was just in there vibin', rappin', singin', you know, kickin' it, and I went back to school. By the time finals came around, they called me back and said, 'We like your style; we want to do a demo.'" The next thing he knew, he had a hit on local radio and the major labels were pitching woo.
In another parallel with Nelly's career, D2 and then Universal, the label Willie ultimately decided to sign with, wanted Pretty Willie first, his posse -- well, maybe later. "I was the man in the forefront," Willie explains. "Initially D2 just wanted me, but I let them know that, hey, I still got guys, and they help me a lot with my creativity. And they were, like, 'Well, it's a good group of guys; let's try it.' It was totally our idea -- one make it, we all make it. It ain't like I'm going to be riding in a Benz and they're going to be walking, you know what I'm saying? Of course, everybody wants to be the man, but they learn how to play their roles. We've always played team sports, so they understand."
Right now, Willie is keeping busy -- making calls and visits to radio stations, organizing a toy drive, establishing a $1,000 scholarship at Berkeley High School, recording new singles and even hosting a mix show on 100.3 The Beat. "I'm on the planes, so I have to pray a lot. I just keep my faith," he says. "I always say God's got a plan for me -- like, when I first started doing my album, the Lord wouldn't let me curse. I'd try to curse, but it's kind of like an inside thing, like, 'Why would you do that?' Of course, it's kind of edgy -- you gotta keep your urban appeal. I got older parents, and I want them to be able to listen to it without turning up they nose. I want everybody to listen. It's not gangsta rap at all. I'm a pretty boy. And it's not just a pretty face and a pretty look; it's a pretty life."