For a musician, the big "aha" moment often comes upon crafting that one track that you know is going to blow up—even when others don't quite see the vision.

For St. Louis producer Jason "Jay E" Epperson, the architect behind some of Nelly and St. Lunatics' biggest hits, that moment came with "E.I.," the 808-heavy banger released in 2000. "I feel like it hit home base for me," Jay E tells XXL. "I like doing the 'Ride Wit Me' pop stuff and I love doing hip-hop, but I felt like, to me, that was almost like my 'Hypnotize.'"

After a chance meeting with the crew at a skating rink studio in the mid 1990s, Jay E went on to produce the majority of Nelly's debut album, Country Grammar. They brought the music to New York City and shopped for a deal with several labels before the St. Lunatics officially signed with Universal Records in 1999. One year later, Country Grammar dropped and—along with Eminem's emergence—shattered the glass ceiling for Midwestern artists. Nelly's maiden project merged R&B and hip-hop, popularizing his own country twang and slang.

The now-certified diamond LP held the No. 1 spot on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart for six weeks and spent a staggering 104 weeks on the chart altogether. Country Grammar's first three singles, "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)," "E.I." and "Ride Wit Me," were all co-written and produced by Jay E and broke the Billboard 100's top 20, providing a huge win for the St. Louis natives and their city.

Tonight (July 20), Jay E will take the stage with Murphy Lee, Chingy and others to perform their biggest hits at Red Bull Music Presents St Louis: The Mind of Jay E. In promotion of Jay's Jay E Presents "In the City" Vol 1 compilation album, released July 6, several up-and-coming St. Louis rappers, including Mvstermind, will perform, as well as the Bay Area legend E-40. "Mvstermind is the guy that was inspired by Nelly and the Lunatics, Country Grammar and my sound," Jay E explains. "And E-40 was somebody that inspired me when I was growing up and trying to do music."

Read below to find out more about Jay E's humble beginnings, how he met the St. Lunatics and his thoughts on the current state of hip-hop music.

XXL: Let’s talk about your album, Jay E Presents “In The City” Vol. 1. Why did you decide to finally drop something of your own?

Jay E: I wanted to give back to the city and work with St. Louis artists. And I wanted everybody to be on the same album, because I feel like St. Louis has been kinda quiet lately. I wanted to do my part as far as giving back and trying to put it back in the spotlight a little bit more. And I’ve always wanted to do my own project, like DJ Drama or Khaled.

A nice little compilation.

Exactly. Tying St. Louis together.

You have an extensive history with St. Lunatics—Murphy Lee and Kyjuan are on your project. How instrumental were you in the group's career and vice versa?

I’ve known all those guys—the whole Lunatics crew—since like, '95, '96. Pretty much the majority of my life. Originally there was a studio that I was at. It was at a skating rink and I was deejaying outside. I’ve always wanted to do production and I’ve always wanted to make beats, so basically I just stuck around the studio watching how everybody was working in there, ’cause I didn’t know how to work anything.

That's how you got your start?

Yeah. I’m just learning everything as times goes on. After a few months, they were like, “If you wanna mess around with this equipment, you can.” Then there was a session coming in and it was the Lunatics before they were Lunatics. They were like, “Oh, we’re really liking this beat.” This was probably my third or fourth beat I’d ever made. Ali introduced me to Nelly, Murphy Lee, all those guys. From then on, we started making beats and making music.

What do you remember about the studio sessions in which “Country Grammar (Hot Shit),” “Ride Wit Me” and “E.I.” were created?

“E.I.” we actually did in New York. The majority of the record was already made before he got signed to Universal. So “Country Grammar” was already recorded. Originally there was gonna be some younger kid singing it [who was] supposed to be on the hook—’cause you know, that nursery rhyme ["Down Down Baby"]—but we ended up just using Nelly’s vocals. If you really listen to it, the pitched-up one is really back in the background. And then [with] “Ride Wit Me,” the hook was already done so we just finished everything else up at Sound on Sound [Studios]—I don’t know if it’s still here.

Out of all the of tracks you’ve produced for him, which one is your personal favorite?

The one I like the most—just because it was mixed dead on and everything—sonically was “E.I.” It wasn’t too crossover and I just remember Funkmaster Flex dropping a whole bunch of bombs over it.

Who are some producers you favor today?

I’m a big fan of Kanye, Murda [Beatz]. Metro Boomin, for sure. Definitely those are my top three.

And what are your thoughts on today’s music quality? There are so many different sounds these days.

It’s a mixture. Nelly kinda started a lot of stuff. The sing-songy type of stuff. So I do appreciate what’s coming out, but obviously some stuff that I don’t like gets through. It is what it is.

I like a lot of the new stuff that’s coming out and I love the trap stuff. It’s kinda like the same thing when we were coming up with the big 808s and the snare rolls and fast hi-hats. I remember the first time I came out here, I was trying to shop beats to Raekwon and he was like, “Don’t add so many snares.” Now it’s all over the place. It’s pretty cool to see all that happening.

Who are some of the artists you’re working with currently?

Ricky Mane and Miistro [Freeyo], they’re gonna be the ones I’m really working with next. But I’ve been working with Tef Poe, he’s really been under the spotlight with Killer Mike and Nas. A bunch of guys really like his sound and his lyrics and stuff like that. We’ve got an EP coming out soon.

I just did a song with Chingy, [he’s] on the album. And I’m always gonna be working with Murphy Lee.

It seems like you two have a great relationship.

Yeah. All the people that I work with have that grind and they love the music. That’s a big key for me. I don’t wanna have to be constantly nagging people to work. They’re already ready to work, and that’s one thing I really appreciate out of all of this.

You’ve also been working with Krayzie Bone.

Yeah, it’s funny because I sent him beats probably about eight months to a year [ago], and I never really heard nothing back. Then he was like, “Hey, we’re gonna put this on the album.”

And how about Mvstermind?

I just got hip to him a few months ago through the Red Bull connection. He’s doing really well; he’s got a big buzz in St. Louis.

Who are some of the artists we should be looking out for from St. Louis?

Tiffany Foxx is doing really well. She’s got a big buzz. Mai Lee. Smino—he’s blowing up.

Why do you feel St. Louis hasn’t had another big rapper come out of the area?

I feel like the record industry changed, so a lot of places aren’t taking so many chances. Every record label here in [New York] turned Nelly down, and that’s a diamond record that we were shoppin’. “Ride Wit Me” was done, “Country Grammar” was done—all of that album was done except for “E I.” I don’t get what these labels didn’t see. Universal took that chance and it blew up.

There’s a lot of big labels still not taking those chances, like on the OutKasts and the Missys. That’s when hip-hop was really fun. And the videos were better.

It’s so different now.

Well, everybody’s got a camera now. Our attention spans are so much shorter. There’s a single and it’ll probably last, at the max if it’s blowin’ up, like a month, maybe. If that.

And songs are so much shorter these days.

I’m telling you. That’s where it’s at, though. But see, on my record I kinda did a little bit of that. But I love the longer songs. Especially if they’re really dope. And I love instrumentation and guitar solos. There was a big songwriter that told me, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” That’s all they want to hear, the hook.

But you’re sticking true.

Yeah, I love 16s. I love three verses. I have a lot of different varieties on my record as far as that, because I wanted to stay true. My fans grew up with me, so I kinda wanted to give them something that they could appreciate, rather than keeping up with the young kids. I do have some young stuff on there, but I wanted to do what felt right for my age. I’m up there as well [laughs].

What's your advice for up-and-coming producers?

The matter is just locking in your sound. Constantly do it everyday. It’s like a surfer almost, you gotta go out there in the water in order to catch that 20-foot wave, you know? You gotta constantly keep doing it and eventually you will have a hit and stumble across your own sound. Just don’t let the outside world bog you down. Stay with it. It is a hard hill to get up, but once you get there it’s all worth it.

See New Music Releases for July 2018

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