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20 years since Nelly's 'Country Grammar' and the explosion of St. Louis hip-hop

20 years since Nelly's 'Country Grammar' and the explosion of St. Louis hip-hop

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St. Louis rapper Nelly brought a mighty Midwest swing to the music world with “Country Grammar,” his unlikely phenomenon of a debut album, which marks its 20th anniversary today, June 27.  

With the album in 2000, he cleared a path straight to the top during a big release year with new albums from Britney Spears, Coldplay, ’N Sync, Green Day, Madonna, Outkast, U2, Ludacris, Erykah Badu and Sade.

“Country Grammar” is in a rare class of hip-hop albums to be awarded a diamond certification, selling more than 10 million copies.

“Country Grammar,” Nelly.jpg

"Country Grammar"

In early 2000, Universal Records executives invited VIPs to Blueberry Hill to hear the label’s buzzy new rapper, University City native Cornell Haynes Jr. He had been plucked from his group, the St. Lunatics, for a shot at stardom.

Though everyone in the room was rooting for him, no one knew Nelly would be the next big thing.

At the time, there had been only a couple of rappers with St. Louis ties to make any real noise nationally: Domino (“Getto Jam”), who claimed Long Beach over St. Louis because California wielded more hip-hop cred, and Sylk Smoov (“Trick Wit a Good Rap”), credited as the first St. Louis rapper with a major record deal. The area’s only other claim to rap fame was the fact that East St. Louis radio station WESL was the first to play “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang.

The deck may have been stacked against Nelly. According to his Universal publicist in 2000, hip-hop media was hesitant to cover this unconnected, unproven St. Louis rapper after hearing his single. Billboard magazine’s rap editor at the time said he couldn’t stand Nelly’s album — though he’d later come around.

Nelly early publicity photo

An early publicity photo of Nelly 

Ultimately, Nelly’s newness paid off. His music felt like a fresh alternative to the hip-hop coming from the coasts.

And he was always sure of himself when it came to introducing the masses to St. Louis hip-hop.

“I think I can do it, for sure. That’s what I want to do and that’s the plan,” he told the Post-Dispatch before the release of “Country Grammar.” “I look to Missouri as being the last in everything — the last to give up slavery to the last to get on the map. But nothing comes easy, and everybody has to wait their turn. So we sharpened up our skills, worked harder and appreciated everything we got.”

As he prepared to release “Country Grammar,” he promised listeners would get something they’d never heard before. “It’s well-rounded, universal,” he said. “I got it for the streets, I got it for the clubs, I got it for your house, I got it for your car. I’m showing you I can do it all.”

He delivered — and then some.

The “Country Grammar” single, released in February 2000, was something all its own. The insanely catchy, singsong tune was brazen right off the top, mixing a classic children’s rhyme with a gun reference. The unedited version of the song opens with “I’m going down down baby yo’ street in a Range Rover/Street sweeper baby, cocked ready to let it go/Shimmy shimmy cocoa what? Listen to it proud/Light it up and take a puff, pass it to me now.”

Apparently, it was just what the world was waiting for. The song was a top 10 Billboard 100 hit and No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart.

The album came next, a St. Louis hip-hop affair that produced several hit singles: “E.I.,” “Ride Wit Me” and “Batter Up.”

The album’s unabashed St. Louis flow included the use of local lingo, the song “St. Louie,” posse cut “Steal the Show” with the St. Lunatics, production by Jason “Jay-E” Epperson of Basement Beats, and an intro and outro by comedian Cedric the Entertainer of Berkeley.

Nelly received Grammy nominations — rap solo performance (“Country Grammar”) and best rap album — but lost to Eminem. Other honors soon followed, though: an MTV Video Music Award for best rap video (“Ride Wit Me”), a World Music Award for world’s best-selling new artist, a BET Award for best new artist and a Soul Train Music Award for best new artist.

Then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay issued a proclamation honoring Nelly, though previous Mayor Clarence Harmon had refused, taking issue with Nelly’s lyrics.

Nelly — and St. Louis hip-hop — had officially arrived.

It didn’t take long for his local influence to resonate. Most notable was Chingy (“Right Thurr,” “Holiday Inn,” “One Call Away,” “Pullin Me Back”), who once told the Post-Dispatch that Nelly’s success influenced him in a big way.

“It opened the door and let me know, at the same time I was doing my own music, that you can be an artist from here and make it in a major way,” he said. “I saw it and said someone from St. Louis can actually be serious, and get it done. That’s the importance of that album to me. It was a lot of encouragement there.”

Others included Jibbs (“Chain Hang Low”), J-Kwon (“Tipsy”), Huey (“Pop, Lock & Drop It”), Ebony Eyez (“In Ya Face”) and Pretty Willie (“Lay Your Body Down”), while Penelope, Potzee, Da Banggaz, Joka, Hakeem Tha Dream, Spaide R.I.P.P.E.R. and Gena (now known as Fresco Kane) all brought new heat from St. Louis.

There was also the rise of those in Nelly’s direct camp. St. Lunatics released their own album, “Free City,” and there were solo hits from group members Murphy Lee (“Wat Da Hook Gon Be”) and Ali (“Boughetto”).

A number of hits came out of St. Louis, but the music — undemanding with an undeniably feel-good party vibe — often wasn’t highly regarded.

Nelly continued to ride the wave, upping his game and adding production from the Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri and Just Blaze for chart-topping follow-ups including “Nellyville” (2002), “Sweat” (2004) and “Suit” (2004).

He has performed at the Super Bowl; won Grammy Awards (“Dilemma,” “Shake Your Tailfeather,” “Hot in Herre”); debuted “Suit” and “Sweat” at No. 1 and No. 2 simultaneously on the Billboard 200; and landed country smashes with Tim McGraw (“Over and Over”) and Florida Georgia Line (“Cruise”), paving the way for Lil Nas X.

But that initial rush of success with “Country Grammar” surely means the most, not just to Nelly but to St. Louis.

What Nelly: Live From the Drive-In • When 7:30 p.m. July 12 • Where Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre lot, 14141 Riverport Dr., Maryland Heights • How much $125-$300 per car (four people max per car) • More info livenation.com/drivein


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