Nelly Breaks Down His Greatest Hits Song By Song x Gallery
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANGELA BOATWRIGHT
It's been 10 years since the Show Me State shared Nelly with the rest of the world, forever changing the face of hip-hop with the release of his debut, Country Grammar. With the title-track becoming the summer anthem of 2000, it was the beginnings of Derrty’s lasting imprint on the game.
We're not just talking about the oversized jerseys or the Band-aids the now 36-year-old STL native used to wear on his face. It's the introduction of the Midwest twang, and the softer, more sing-songy pop formula that ruled the airwaves for years to come that lingers in our minds. Plus, with over 21 million units sold, three Grammy's, and a top-selling clothing brand, it's hard to deny that despite the current disruption of the holy trinity of "Em’, Pimp Juice and Us [Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella]," Nelly's still spent more time on top of the game than any other rapper who's debuted in the last decade.
To top it off, he's done it all while remaining the genuine, easy-going, humble character that he's always been. Well, not counting the backlash he might have received for certain songs and an unintentional beef with a hip-hop legend. On the eve of the release of Nelly’s fifth studio LP, 5.0, Nelly took the time to reflect on the making of some of his biggest hits throughout his stellar career. In case you need a reminder.
After penning a deal with Universal Music in 1999, Nelly burst onto the scene in 2000 with this sweet-sounding summer anthem; the first of many hits for the STL representative. His debut album of the same title sold more than 10 million copies and spawned other hits like “E.I.” and “Ride With Me,” proving that he was no one-hit wonder and etching out a path to the top of the game. However, it was also the song that almost never happened.
“It was a beat that I had got from one of our producers at the time JE. I loved the beat but I don’t think everybody in the group was as excited about the beat as I was. So I took it to one of the most historic clubs in [East] St. Louis. It was called Club Casino. I took it over there the same night and we had a DJ that had been supporting us previously up to that point and his name was DJ 618. He put it on right away and from that moment, you know what I’m saying, people was like, “Boom, boom, boom” and the shit just blew up from there, you know.”
In 2001, Nelly jumped on the soundtrack for the film Training Day with his hit #1, a response to people who were hating on his unconventional flow. Somehow wires got crossed and KRS-One, who had taken claim to the title of No. 1 over a decade earlier, put out a call to boycott his upcoming album, Nellyville. Nelly, however, maintains that the song was a fed-up response to critics and not a direct insult to anyone in particular.
“Your music reflects a lot of how you feel on certain things. Having the type a success that I was having and all a that you still find that there’s people that basically still try to shit on you anyway you try to look at it so… and it just got to a point where you were just like, Man, regardless or whatever the fuck y’all saying, I’m still No. 1 right now and that’s kinda like how we felt… I’m winning and niggas is pissin’ and shittin’ on me and I’m feelin’ like, ‘C’mon, man, like my city, let us get our shine… Why can’t we have ours, everybody else get theirs, why we can’t have ours.’ You know, so at that time I didn’t give a fuck whoever said something, I felt like I was pissed off about it but the whole thing with Kris [KRS-One], was nothing. Why would I pick him of all people to come out the blue at, at the time? ...I took a lot shit personal that I found out you shouldn’t take personal ’cause that’s just the nature of the world, not even the business.”
By the summer of 2002, Nelly had another hit on his hands with this unbearably hot Neptunes-assisted single. Topping virtually all the Billboard singles charts and helping his sophomore effort, Nellyville, sell more than six million copies. “Hot in Herre” also won Nelly a Grammy in 2003 for Best Male Rap Solo Performance.
“I did that in L.A… I remember ‘cause Busta was in the same studio and he came through and he heard the beat and you know how Busta is, you know he’s over the top. He’s life, ‘Yo, god! What is that sound?!!?!? [Laughs] What is that sound coming from here, god? Oh my, god! Pharrell, where was that beat at? Where was that? You were hiding that from me!’ It was a little unorthodox for the time definitely coming out from ‘Country Grammar’ …to a Pharrell [beat], that ‘Hot in Herre’ sound. But, it worked and it helped me too ‘cause it helped me show versatility, not just having to do one angle on some shit.”
After coming off the inaugural TRL tour with Destiny’s Child, Nelly knew that Kelly Rowland would be the perfect person for a “rap duet” he was brewing up for Nellyville. Mix-in an Aretha Franklin sample and it seemed Nelly had struck gold, pardon, multi-platinum, yet again.
“I did the Nellyville album in Miami, recorded the songs and all that [short pause] and we kind of felt like we needed a couple more songs on there. So, the last two songs that we put on Nellyville were ‘Hot In Herre’ and ‘Dilemma.’ At this time we had been on tour with the girls from Destiny’s Child so we had become, fairly close to the girls and all that and I was like, ‘What do you think about Kelly?’ but at this time she was dating someone very close to me, I should say that, and we was like, ‘Yo, fam, this would hot.’ So you know we got her in the studio and shit was magic.”
Despite a blatant explanation of the meaning of “pimp juice” in the song’s lyrics (“Now your pimp juice is anything that attracts the opposite sex/It could be money, fame, and straight intellect”), Najee Ali, leader of Project Islamic H.O.P.E called for a boycott of Nelly over the 2003 song which he and his followers felt glorified prostitution.
“If you listen to the song, it explains it. Pimp Juice is anything that basically helps you to get [something] done, what it is you need to get done. For women it might be their swagger. For a man it may be their job or it may be whatever they’re doing. So that’s what it was. That’s the first time I heard somebody really had a problem with ‘Pimp Juice.’ Now ‘Tip Drill’ on the other hand, now that was a whole ‘nother story [laughs].”
When Nelly set out to shoot a video for his “E.I. (Tip Drill Remix)” for Da Derrty Versions: The Reinvention, all he knew was that he wanted it to be fun and that’s exactly what he got. In the pre-YouTube days, “Tip Drill” had everyone staying up late to catch the sensational video air on BET’s uncensored late-night video show, Uncut. The fun-loving MC got more than he bargained for when students on the campus of Atlanta’s all-women’s HBCU Spelman College called for a boycott of Nelly’s music and an upcoming campus appearance at a bone marrow drive for his foundation Jes Us 4 Jackie. Female students were outraged at the misogynistic images of women that were portrayed in the racy video. Nelly brushed off the controversy in typical fashion.
“David Banner came in with that beat when I was doin’ the remix and that muthafucka was nice!”
With Sweat and Suit Nelly became the first hip-hop artist to release two separate albums on the same day. Even more surprising than the releases and their success was the popularity of the introspective ballad ‘Over and Over’ [Suit] on which the St. Lunatic teamed up with country music star Tim McGraw.
“At that time I had just come from you know ‘# 1’ and all that and I like to think that I learn lessons fast. So if I had already been passed … you know, niggas is gonna say what they gonna say anyway so at this point I might as well do what I’m gonna do because the more I succeed and prove to them that this shit is hot, the more I’m allowed to do whatever the fuck I wanna do you know what I’m sayin’, and that’s how I felt about it and I was just like shit, I’ma try it, what the hell. “
In 2005, Sweat and Suit were bundled together with three additional songs and sold as Sweatsuit. When it came time to record those extra tracks, Nelly traveled down to Atlanta to get his creative juices flowing and walked out of Magic City with more than just a pair of empty pockets.
“I called JD like, ‘Yo, what chu doin’, I’m gonna come down and fuck around with you for a couple days’…We just sat in there and we tried to think about it and we ain’t come up with nothing. So he was like, ‘I’ll tell you what, let’s go to Magic City.’ So we just sitting there chillin’, doing Magic City shit and we got to drinking, and the more I got to drinking–I forgot who was playing, but it was somethin’ that just set me off–and I was like [(humming) smile for me daddy/I wanna see your grill] and I just kept sayin’ it, sayin’ it, sayin’ it, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit’ and I was in his ear, and I was like, ‘Shawty, I got it,’ and he was like, ‘Aaahhhh!’ And he was like, ‘Let’s go,’ and we was out. We packed that shit up and went back to the studio, you know what I’m sayin’… us and half the muthafuckin’ club! ...We went back to the studio and we hammered that shit out, and I was like, ‘Yo, we need to get Paul Wall on this shit. And Gip was one of the first ones to have the white grill, way back in the day so I was like we gotta get Gip, too.”
The reason why many of Nelly's songs sound so light-hearted is because many were inspired naturally by his surroundings—and the presence of the St. Lunatics. “Air Force 1’s” is a perfect example of how joking around with his partners spawned a classic.
"We had got the beat from some producers back home and we had heard it—we were playing it in the dressing room as we were getting ready for the show... We had just talked about leaving the mall and my sister who used to do my styling at the time was getting things for the show—mighta been some fresh new Air Forces—and Murph [Murphy Lee] was like, ‘Man you shoulda got me like two peerrr or somethin’’ like that you know what I’m sayin’ [laughs] and we just started playing with that and integrating that into the hook. It’s funny with us, we’re family first so I guess when you get around family they tend to bring out certain things in you. I don’t wanna say you act more goofy or whatever, but you more relaxed around your family so things like that come out.”
Being the ladies man that he always appeared to be in the public eye, Nelly broke a few hearts with this chart topping single with his rumored girlfriend, R&B songstress Ashanti. In the song, the couple tease their rumored relationship.
“[Akon] sent it to me and it didn’t hit me like right away. I burned the CD and I took it home in the car and my system I don’t know but for some reason my system in my car is where I like to judge my music or something. Because I get a better feel even though it’s louder in the studio or some shit. But once I got in the car on my way home that shit got the knocking I called that muthafucka right back like, ‘Yo, you in line, cuz!’ We did the joint and then I thought it would be hot to do it in kind of a collaboration or so to speak with Ashanti and she came [laughs]. —Brooklyne Gipson
All photos by Angela Boatwright. Styling by Seannita Parmer. Grooming by Janice Kinjo for Jack Black/Epiphany Artist Group.