How St. Louis recalibrated rap radio
As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.
Back when "pop" was among the most derogatory things you could call a rapper, the king of it called Nelly to share his admiration for "Country Grammar," the buoyant, euphonic hit that moved from "urban" radio to Top 40 in three months during 2000. Nelly seemed intent to bring that grammar — of Ebonics, gin, tonic and chronic — to every city he mentioned in the song and more. "I'm basically representing for everybody [in the] Midwest, South ... everybody with that slur on their English," the rapper told MTV. He was calling his music St. Louis blues, hinting at its melody but also its melancholy, and even Michael Jackson could hear something special in it. Nelly didn't know it yet, but he was a microcosm of St. Louis rap — overlooked until commercialized, then rebuked for being mercenary. Even as he quietly innovated, even as Jay-Z acknowledged him as a peer, he was largely dismissed as a yokel and a trifle.
For much of its history, St. Louis was not a sacred space for Black creatives. Miles Davis noted that St. Louis, and East St. Louis, where he was raised, were country towns with country people, and Josephine Baker called it a city of misery and terror. "I found St. Louisans cold, smug, complacent, intolerant, stupid and provincial," the playwright Tennessee Williams once said. In Darkwater, W.E.B. Du Bois' description of the place invokes dingy, isolated imagery: "St. Louis sprawls where mighty rivers meet — as broad as Philadelphia, but three stories high instead of two, with wider streets and dirtier atmosphere, over the dull-brown of wide, calm rivers. The city overflows into the valleys of Illinois and lies there, writhing under its grimy cloud." Rappers have not been immune to this gloom. As a rap moniker, "dirty" would stick for the South, even though people in St. Louis used it as slang; a fitting qualifier for the STL would be "rigid." "St. Louis is hard. It's not the people, but the politics," Nelly told Ebony. That distinction seemed to fuel its local rap scene, which stood for the city from its earliest days.
St. Louis DJ Jim Gates played "Rapper's Delight" on radio before any other station in America, and hip-hop hit the Clinton-Peabody housing projects hard. The nascent scene existed primarily in call-and-response freestyles on air until 1987, when two teenagers, Dangerous D and DJ Charlie Chan, went to the Vintage Vinyl to cut the first local record, "The Power of Soul." But it wasn't until Sylk Smoov, in 1991, that a St. Louis rapper was actually being heard at hip-hop's power centers: His self-titled album appeared in The Source's review section alongside Houston's Scarface, Oakland's Del the Funky Homosapien and Inglewood's AMG. A smattering of local artists picked up the mantle chasing rap in all directions, but by the mid-'90s the influence of G-Funk had won out, thanks, in part, to Smoov, who worked with the producers for AMG and DJ Quik. Mz. Monk rapped about chronic and ripped "Boyz-n-the-Hood" and Lil Whit channeled the funky worm. NCO parroted MC Eiht, until he became Raw Society; the scene's most talented artist, he brought a clarity and confidence his peers lacked. But as most of the gangsta rap apostles tweaked patented formulas, a group of childhood friends strove for something bigger.
The St. Lunatics were founded in '94 and, after hitting the air on local radio in '96 with the jiggy single "Gimme What U Got," moved around 10,000 records out of a trunk, according to Nelly. There was no path to a deal for them as a group, so, like a double-A roster trying to make something out of its prospects, they sent Nelly solo to the majors. The feedback on Nelly, according to the Universal A&R who signed him, Kevin Law, was "extraordinarily negative," but the early returns didn't lie: three singles, three hits. Overnight, he seemed to transition from Natural Bridge and Kingshighway to the Super Bowl. And between albums one and two, he'd go from standing in front of the Arch to naming his next destination after himself: "Nellyville is the place you go to after making 8 to 9 million in sales," he said astutely in 2002.
Beyond the buyers and the sellers themselves, most bystanders were putting very little value in what Nelly was actually accomplishing at the time. In a story for The Washington Post in 2000, the writer Neil Drumming summed up the discourse surrounding St. Louis' surprise star: The rapper's success seemed to "support the industry's system of regional exploitation," his "countryfied slang" was a "disposable gimmick," and he didn't have more to say than "flossing around town, smoking and sexin' women." (Drumming would concede two things: "his colorful descriptions of otherwise mundane life in ol' St. Louie are pretty authentic, and thankfully he doesn't resort to thug posturing.") The compliments were backhanded, but they also disregarded — or omitted — a key truth: Despite all the cynicism, Nelly had brought nearly all of his hometown friends up with him, and the only one he hadn't, City Spud, was being railroaded by the local justice system. Beyond the "gimmick" was a local clique working out a local sound, and finding greater success than the world could have ever imagined for them.
As much as anything else, Country Grammar field-tested the other St. Lunatics. They seemed to be hanging out together, passing blunts on "Wrap Sumden" and chasing skirts on "Thicky Thick Girl," all over bopping, acrylic beats produced by City and in-house beat maker Jason "Jay E" Epperson. There is, of course, the slippery City verse on "Ride With Me" and the Ali- and Murphy Lee-assisted "Batter Up" (which was later added to the group's Free City album), but it's "Steal the Show" that establishes them as an icy, slick-talking tribe. On Free City, they evoke home at almost every turn. The album went platinum in 2001. Nellyville asserted Nelly as a megastar in 2002. Murphy Lee went gold soon after. They'd pulled it off.
Maybe Drumming was right, and the capitalists at Universal had tapped into a fresh vein, or maybe Law was right, and the labels had finally given the Midwest a voice, but it quickly seemed as if Nelly had opened the Gateway. As if to one-up the "Hot in Herre" star, Chingy pushed pronunciation keys even further with "Right Thurr," pressing into every single "r" to embrace his city's positioning to the south of the Midwest. He was followed by a series of one-and-done hitmakers: the hood-hopping J-Kwon ("Tipsy"), the snap-adjacent Jibbs ("Chain Hang Low") and the everyman Huey ("Pop, Lock & Drop It"). None were able to tap into the Lunatics' Midwest swing, nor were they, as Nelly put it, representing St. Louis every time they breathed, but together they did help establish a phenomenon that would become key to rap marketing: the gold rush, surveying a local scene with hopes of turning up a star. Prospecting would become the way, especially as the internet widened the map.
We saw that scramble in Houston around the same time, and again in Chicago in 2012 with drill. We saw it with Odd Future. For the briefest of moments it felt like maybe, just maybe, St. Louis might supplant other rising scenes as rap's new lodestar, behind Nelly, Jay E and some coveted hit-making producers floating in their orbit, The Trackboyz and Trak Starz. But the hyperbole, in retrospect, can feel hard to understand. "The atmosphere in St. Louis is now a little like that of Nashville in the nineteen-thirties, with the Grand Ole Opry, or of Detroit in the sixties, with Motown Records," Jake Halpern wrote in a New Yorker story about the Trackboyz. In 2002, the Trak Starz were fielding meetings with Jimmy Iovine and Sony, being compared to The Neptunes and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The producers burned bright and hot, but ultimately their careers fell short of the benchmarks established for them. In a great bit of irony, it was another producer from St. Louis who ended up reimagining rap sounds a few years later, only for another scene entirely. Metro Boomin, to work with some rappers he met online, would catch an eight-hour ride with his mother ... to Atlanta.
Though St. Louis rap's greatest sonic treasure will be remembered for furnishing another city's evolution, the blues that Nelly created, which manifested most expressly in his melodic style, has yet to be extinguished, either in wider rap or at home. The grandson of a man who played bass for Muddy Waters, going by Smino, has carried the legacy for locals lately; attuned to rap's bond with soul, he has improved upon its link with singsong to a nearly alchemical degree. It is impossible to imagine a rapper like Smino existing without a rapper like Nelly, and that existence seems to validate the St. Lunatics' efforts. Even if Smino is associated with rappers from Chicago, he is a byproduct of St. Louisan labor, its commercial successes and failures. With the gateway open, and the prospectors long gone, there is a freedom to travel the untrodden path.
Where to start with St. Louis rap:
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