"Hey, ain't your name Nelly?" the 11-year-old boy asked the brotha with the big black sports bag.
"What?" the brotha asked back.
"Nelly? Ain't your name Nelly?"
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"Yeah." He flashed a quick grin.
"See, I told you!" he screamed over to one of his boys, following it with a triumphant smack upside the boy's head.
The rest was kind of a blur. While the adults sat back and watched a game of softball between the Stars and the Soulgers at St. Louis's Duke Park, kids freaked at the sight of the Soulgers' most valuable player, 21-year-old rapper Nelly. A crew of boys scrambled for paper and pens to get autographs. A couple of girls screamed as he grabbed both of them and gave them a hug. Even though his team was pulverized during this Saturday tournament game, Nelly was still gracious enough to fulfill his duties as a rap star. The boy who asked to verify his name offered this nugget of opinion: "If he were to play softball as good as he raps, he would've been a superstar."
"He is a superstar," his friends shouted out in unison.
There are three things people should know about the members of the black community in St. Louis, Missouri: One, they love softball. Two, they regularly substitute a "u" for all the other vowel sounds in the alphabet. (Example: "Gurl, stop being so hurd and get the cur over thure.") And three, they absolutely, positively have nothing but love for Nelly.
"We get a lot of love from the real niggas. The real niggas who know what time it is, who know what a person is trying to do out here, who know a muthafucka is trying to make money, who ain't trying to dick-ride or step on a muthafucka to get somewhere," Nelly says, driving his souped-up jet-black GMC Yukon XL through the streets of University City, a suburb located deep in St. Louis. He just dropped his one-year-old son, Trey, back off to his mother (who is also the mother of Nelly's four-year-old daughter, Chanel).
This show of hometown support is important to Nelly (a.k.a. Cornell Haynes Jr.); his goal is to show folks outside the Missouri state lines just how much love he gets from his St. Louis home base. "If you ain't big in your hometown," Nelly explains, "how you expect to be big somewhere else? 'Cuz these the muthafuckas here that know you, you know what I'm sayin'?"
Nelly has been the St. Louis rap scene's most recognizable talent. And now, unless you count Eminem verbally slaughtering his way to the top, he's the rap success story of the year. Practically surfacing out of thin air, this young MC scored big over the summer with the title track from his debut album, Country Grammar (Universal). One of those rare, catchy rap tunes that still sounds fresh even after you've heard it a cajillion times on pop radio, the single helped the album reach the coveted No. 1 position on the Billboard albums chart. So far, Grammar has struck platinum four times over.
A humorous Southern stew of rap, bounce and funk, Grammar is a deep-fried, laid-back, beats-blunts-and-booty opus that's heightened by Nelly's rambunctious, rousing flow. Along with his clique, the St. Lunatics (Kyjuan, Murphy Lee, Ali, Jason and City Spud), he has brought the tastes of "the STL" into full view.
"It's like swing," Kyjuan says, describing the album's sound. "It's like a little swing to it. It's like, you know, St. Louis is blues-oriented, you know what I'm sayin'? So blues is jazz is -- you know, that's all we grew up listening to, the swing."
As with many rap orators, Austin-born Nelly didn't see stepping up to the mike as a vocation. He dreamed instead of stepping up to the plate, but the hustle of the streets called out more than the hustle at the ballfield.
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"The ballplaying stopped because of the streets," Nelly says. "Basically, the money was coming in faster than the letters, you know, to try out and all that. And the rapping came in [while trying to find] a better way to get off the streets, you know, knowing already I had fucked up the baseball thing." Just how did he fuck it up? As a teen, he was more interested in the materialistic things in life. "I wanted the cars, I wanted the jewelry. I wanted all that bullshit I didn't really need at the time." Plus, he discovered that working his way up in the professional baseball ranks was more daunting than he realized. "Baseball is one of them sports that you got to be on top of. Like Michael Jordan found out, it's not that easy."
In 1993 Nelly teamed up with batting buddy Kyjuan and other road dogs to form the St. Lunatics. When Nelly and the Lunatics first began rapping in the mid-'90s, they hooked up with a local entertainment group. "We signed on with these other little cats that didn't know what the fuck they was doing, for real," he says. In 1996 Nelly and his St. Lunatics team cut the single "Gimme What Ya Got," which was a local smash, selling upwards of 10,000 copies. Nelly says he and his boys didn't see one dime from those sales. "We didn't get shit," Nelly declares.
Looking for a legitimate break, they hooked up with a former bodyguard for then-Bad Boy prodigy Mase, who helped put a demo tape in the hands of Mase's manager. Two days later the Lunatics were whisked away to a New Jersey recording studio to lay down new tracks. After a day of recording, the manager signed the guys to a production deal that had them pitching their stuff to record companies. While most of the big labels didn't take the bait, Universal nibbled at it, deciding to sign only Nelly and to leave the rest of the Lunatics back in St. Louis.
Nelly, who is setting his sights on a debut album for the St. Lunatics, just wants to bring St. Louie into the rap scene. As Nelly notes, "I'm just trying to put it down for, like, where I'm from, you know what I'm sayin'? I know everybody says that's bullshit, trying to put it down where they from. But I'm trying to put it down from where I'm from 'cuz ain't nobody ever put it down to where they from -- from here. So that means something, you know what I'm sayin'?"