In 2000, of course, the Lunatics—well, one of the Lunatics, Nelly—put St. Louis on the rap map. Hipping the world to a new pronunciation of the letter “R” (an element of the dialect he called “Country Grammar”), Nelly sold an astounding eight million albums, drawing all hip-hop biz eyes to the home of Eero Saarinen’s famed arch. “I’m cheering them because I’m happy for them,” Chingy says, remembering his reaction to the ’Tics’ sudden success. “They broke through, being from St. Louis. That’s not only good for them, but now it’s giving my city an opportunity. Now you can be at a club and you might bump into an A&R or some music-inclined person.”
Sure enough, 3 Strikes were soon doing regional dates, opening for Nelly and the St. Lunatics. Even with the added exposure and filial bond to fame, though, they couldn’t make it happen for themselves. The trio split over personal differences in 2001. Chingy had grown close with the St. Lunatics’ manager, T-Luv, who agreed to help shop him as a solo act. Talk of a solo deal with the St. Lunatics or Universal Records never materialized, but T-Luv hooked the young rapper up with local producers Shamar “Sham” Daugherty and Alonzo “Zo” Lee, a.k.a. the Trak Starz, who helped him with his first solo cuts. “Chingy was the one that stood out of the group, that had the most charisma,” says Sham, comparing the then-struggling rapper to his former partners in 3 Strikes. “He just had the presence and delivery. We decided to sign Chingy to a production deal.”
The Trak Starz were being managed by EbonySon Entertainment, a firm co-owned by Def Jam South vice president (and Disturbing Tha Peace CEO) Chaka Zulu and his brother Jeff Dixon. When Chaka asked to hear some of the artists the Trak Starz were working with in 2002, they played him five of Chingy’s songs. “Out of the five songs, I thought three of them were singles,” says Chaka Zulu. “One of them was ‘Right Thurr.’ It only had two verses on it. So I was like, Okay. And I listened to it over and over again—I really feel this.”
“Chaka must’ve liked the song,” Chingy remembers. “’Cause after that, we went right to the studio to mix and master that song. We finished most of Jackpot and sent it to Chaka and a couple of other people. I hoped that somebody was gonna call back and be like, ‘We’re diggin’ this, and we would like to work with you…’ Chaka and them happened to be the one to call back and be like, ‘We can do something with this.’”
With Chaka Zulu’s contacts and resources behind the project, record labels started sniffing at Chingy. “I think a lot of them were still skeptical, ’cause they was like, ‘Was Nelly a fluke?’” says Trak Star Zo. “But they was still kind of looking, because Nelly sold so many records.” Chaka invested out-of-pocket to press up a stack of “Right Thurr” 12-inches and sent copies to club DJs and radio stations, earning some regional airplay and increased major-label interest—most notably from Capitol Records.
“Then Chaka was like, ‘What y’all think about Chingy being on DTP?’” says Chingy, of the origins of his multitiered deal. “We was thinking, ‘Hey, who cares, as long as we get out? We want to get cash and do the video and put the music out and let’s be heard…’ There’s the Trak Starz contract, and Trak Starz made a contract with DTP to use my service, use my music, through their deal. That’s how the contract went. I ain’t got no straight contract with DTP. Chaka and Jeff were managing me then, but there was no management contract.”
By mid-2003 “Right Thurr” was a massive hit. At the same time, the new DTP affiliate was trying to find his place on a roster with one already established star, Ludacris, and a crew of mostly Atlanta rappers hungry for just the type of success Chingy was enjoying. Folks like Shawnna, I-20, Lil’ Fate and Tity Boi—artists introduced on DTP’s 2002 posse album Golden Grain—had been waiting to release solo efforts, and now they were getting put on the back burner. “There’s a lot of attention on me,” Chingy says. “People are like, ‘How you put him before everybody?’ I’m coming into this bitch like, ‘I’m just trying to do what I gots to do.’ When I first came around, you could sense it. That people was really like, ‘Uh, yeah. Okay. Whatever.’ They didn’t know me. Once you get to know me, I’m a cool guy, good dude. The doors open up and they see the real you. So I was cool with everybody. Luda’s a cool dude. He was busy, just like I was busy working on my stuff. Luda was busy doing his thing, but eventually, as it grew, I came around Luda more.”
“Right Thurr” was followed by the July release of Jackpot. The album spawned two more huge singles—the infectious “Holidae In” featuring Snoop, and the lovey-dovey “One Call Away”—on its way past 2.8 million in sales. Meanwhile, as Chingy’s face became an everyday sight on MTV and BET, his management paperwork was never worked out. “I’m not stupid,” says Chingy. “I was like, ‘When we gonna do the management contract thing?’ They [EbonySon Entertainment] was like, ‘Don’t worry about that. It’s cool.’ I was putting my life in Chaka’s hands. I didn’t have no lawyers of my own. But that’s my own fault.”