Saint. Louis. Twenty years ago, I heard those two words recited on my favorite music television shows for the first time; it raised goosebumps on the back of my young neck. It was an occurrence people who originate from more commonly recognized cities probably take for granted. For me, that rare occurrence was something I always wanted to hear without knowing there was a desire. Hearing local street names and seeing local nuances amplified on a global stage felt like my life and my way of living was being seen for the first time. Seeing the Arch, our beloved monument, on “106 & Park” was a moment. Turning the volume up on “TRL” to hear someone pronounce the R’s in words just as I did was a moment. Watching the “chickenhead,” “the mono” and “the pancake” – dances I would often see on Saturday nights at Saints Roller Rink, now being showcased on “Making the Video” was a moment. I was watching the videos, listening to the music, and reciting the lyrics much earlier than I probably should have been but for me, Nelly’s ascension connected the dots. It was the first example of the heights that someone from my city could take it; from St. Louis, Missouri to the world.
“You can find me in St. Louis rolling on dubs”
Those were the first words Nelly uttered in the first verse of his debut single, “Country Grammar.” It was a proud proclamation of where he was from and a pairing that would soon become both synonymous and iconic.
I’ll never forget the moment when I personally first became familiar with Nelly. On a beautiful day, I accompanied my dad as he drove our family’s beloved 1996 Nissan Altima to an event that was announced on the radio earlier that afternoon. We arrived at a record store that once existed near Lewis & Clark Tower, a presently abandoned landmark erected in North St. Louis county in 1965. Outside of the record store, 100.3 The Beat, our local Hip-Hop/R&B FM station was hosting a well-attended promotional event. My dad and I joined the crowd of dozens of eagerly waiting people in the store’s parking lot. The crowd continued to grow until eventually a shiny all-black 2000 Ford Explorer rolled up with dubs intact as mentioned in Country Grammar. The doors of the SUV opened, and the large crowd began to absolutely lose it. Even in my youthful oblivion, it was clear to me this person was the reason everyone was congregated.
“Who is that?” I asked my dad. “That’s Nelly,” he said.
In the Spring of 2000, Country Grammar was already a local radio hit and was just starting to bubble on the national scene as well. Despite this newfound success, Nelly and the St. Lunatics (Murphy Lee, Ali, Kyjuan, City Spud, and Slo'down) had already achieved a certain level of local fame. After forming in 1993, the group had a local hit with their single, Gimme What You Got in 1997. The success of that single led to the St. Lunatics forming a business relationship with management at Fo’Reel Entertainment, with whom had previous success managing Harlem’s own, Mase. Together, the Lunatics and management began shopping a group deal, but eventually realized it may be easier to break a solo act first due to the lack of representation of St. Louis talent in mainstream rap. Nelly became the chosen one from that decision and inked a deal with Universal Music Group.
For kids in St. Louis like myself, who admired and were influenced by rap music, there was a before Nelly era and an after Nelly era. When “Country Grammar” dropped and became Nelly’s national debut single, it completely changed the city forever. As the song dominated the charts and the video dominated music television, it created great pride for our city and many people wanted close proximity to the success. At the time, it was not at all an uncommon thing for people in the city to share how they were somehow related to or acquainted with Nelly or another one of the St. Lunatics. “Nelly is my second cousin on my daddy’s side” or “Murphy Lee used to stay right by my granny’s house” are the stories you would hear people tell. Some of the stories being completely true; some not.
When the album, “Country Grammar” was released in June 2000, it cemented the moment as much more than just a hot song. Nelly was attempting to carve a real stake for the city of St. Louis to be included in hip-hop discourse. The album became a multi-platinum success within months; spending weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. All of the songs included on Nelly’s 4-track demo that led to his Universal deal became album singles with accompanying videos: Country Grammar, E.I., Ride wit Me, and Batter Up. The massive success of the album led to unprecedented opportunities for Nelly especially with him being a rap newcomer. These extraordinary opportunities included a performance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a half-time performance at Super Bowl XXXV, and a MTV Video Music Awards appearance that was originally scheduled to be a red carpet performance but was later upgraded to the mainstage.
Nelly’s rise to superstardom occurred simultaneously as St. Louis was also thriving in the sports world. The St. Louis Cardinals were flourishing under the direction of Tony La Russa with an all-star roster featuring Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria, Mike Matthews, and none other than the great, Mark McGwire. The mammoth that Nelly would later become for St. Louis music is what Mark McGuire was for sports enthusiasts in the city. McGuire had cemented his legendary status in the city during the 1998 MLB season alone. During that season, he beat out Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds, and his Chicago Cubs rival, Sammy Sosa, clocking in a historic 70 home runs. Mark McGwire’s home runs were an extremely jubilant affair for St. Louisans; marked by loud cheers, fireworks, and sometimes even free McDonald’s. In the old Busch Stadium, there was a section high up in stands sponsored by McDonald’s called Big Mac Land. Whenever Mark McGwire would hit a home run into this section, every fan in attendance would receive a free Big Mac.
Just a few blocks away at the Trans World/Edward Jones Dome, the St. Louis Rams were flourishing as well under the direction of Dick Vermeil and then Mike Martz. This iconic Rams team consisted of enormous talent such as Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt. During the 1999 NFL season, their offense was dubbed The Greatest Show on Turf and it took them all the way to the Super Bowl. The St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV bringing the city it’s first and only championship win. As one may imagine, this victorious season brought great joy to St. Louisans but also to the players on the field who were actually creating the moment. After catching a touchdown pass during his rookie year, Torry Holt began to celebrate by squatting, swaying side to side, and moving both arms like he was doing bicep curls towards his chest. After being co-signed by Isaac Bruce and other teammates, the infamous move became known as the Bob ‘N Weave and served as the team’s official touchdown dance leading up to their Super Bowl win. The league eventually banned this act deeming it “prolonged, excessive celebration” and threatened players with fines of up to $20,000.
What was even more satisfying than the city’s sports victories, was the synergy between Nelly and the hometown franchises with Country Grammar serving as a soundtrack for it all. From the start, Nelly made his hometown known just as much visually as he did audibly in his music; donning a Blues pullover and Cardinals jersey in the Country Grammar music video and riding in a St. Louis Rams-themed Cutlass in the E.I. video. It made for a very unified moment when the local sport teams embraced Nelly right back with his music being played in locker rooms and during games, him throwing out the first pitch at Cardinals games, and standing on the sidelines at St. Louis Rams games. There are very few things that can bring people together like music and sports. The triumph and synergy Nelly and the hometown franchises were pumping into the city also brought about a sense of racial harmony amongst their diverse fans in the community.
In the years since the album, “Country Grammar” was released, it received Diamond certification by the RIAA; denoting ten million units shipped in the U.S. With the enormous success of his debut and its follow-up, Nellyville, Nelly has become a household name and has been immortalized not only in hip-hop culture, but in popular culture as well. Nelly’s huge stake in pop culture was validated through opportunities like him being featured in Got milk? advertisements, his likeness appearing in NBA Street Volume 2, and his music appearing in Bud Light commercials.
As he cemented himself in popular culture, Nelly simultaneously brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the city of St. Louis. Along with the St. Lunatics, he broke the barrier for STL acts to follow: Toya, Pretty Willie, Chingy, J-Kwon, Huey, Jibbs, Ebony Eyez, Penelope Jones, Smino, Bari, etc. Former mayor, Francis Slay recognized Nelly’s efforts for the city by proclaiming May 13, 2001 to be Nelly Day in St. Louis during a presentation at a Cardinals game.
More than the multi-platinum success, more than the appearances on prestigious stages, more than the synergy with the sports world, more than the global popularity, what means the most to me in regards to Nelly today is the possibilities he made real for me. It’s one thing to witness someone ascend to superstardom, but it’s another thing to see someone who looks like you ascend to superstardom. It’s a completely different, personal experience to witness someone who looks like you and emerged from the same corners of life as you ascend to success. This was Nelly’s role in my upbringing.
These days, I no longer live in St. Louis, but my country accent remains and often leads people to ask where I’m from. Nelly is usually the next thing they bring up in conversation. He served as many people’s introduction to the city’s culture.People mention how they loved the music, how they emulated his style by wearing a band-aid as a fashion accessory, how fascinated they were by the region’s accent and dances.
Just as Nelly’s introduction to the world brought unprecedented attention to St. Louis, it also broke way to a very special, harmonious moment in my city. I can’t speak for what occurred prior to my existence, however, this very vibrant moment in the city is what I consider to be the golden era in St. Louis. It is a time I wish I could’ve been able to bottle up so I could revisit it whenever I felt the need.
Vango Jones is an art director, set decorator and filmmaker based in New York City.