“Sing it loud…
I’m from the Lou’ and I’m proud!”
—Nelly’s “Country Grammar”
When it comes to performers that have redefined the musical industry over the past decade, St. Louis’s Nelly definitely tops the list. He debuted to a national audience in 2000 and quickly rocketed to the top of the A-list of star power. He dominates almost every area of pop culture these days, from music to movies to fashion.
On his rise to the top, he took the time to pay homage to his hometown by wearing St. Louis–emblazoned clothing in his music videos and on the stage in front of millions of people. He became a “one-man” chamber of commerce for the city and made St. Louis a hotbed of musical talent. He is one of the biggest stars in Missouri history and the future looks even brighter for this entertainment and business icon.
THE EARLY YEARS
Cornell Haynes, Jr., was born on November 2, 1974, in Austin, Texas, but grew up in St. Louis. Like many young men, he ran into trouble as he grew up when he started hanging out with the wrong crowds. So his mother decided to move to the suburban University City.
University City High School was known for its strong sports programs, and Cornell excelled on the field. He was a great baseball player and was even scouted by major league baseball teams. While refining his baseball skills, he was also writing rhymes and rapping with his friends. While attending tryouts with major league baseball teams, his new group, the St. Lunatics, was getting popular. When the baseball dream subsided, he turned his focus to music, which proved to be one of the best moves he ever made.
RISE TO FAME
Nelly and some close friends formed the St. Lunatics in the mid-1990s and produced a regional hit, “Gimmie What You Got.” The song received quite a bit of
airplay but failed to translate into a major record deal. The group tried their luck in Atlanta, which was a hot spot for hip-hop artists in the late 1990s. Their group managers decided that Nelly could be the standout star of the group, so it was decided he should try to land a record contract by himself, and then bring the others along once he made it big. The plan was ambitious, but it worked. Nelly signed with Universal and went into the studio as a solo artist to produce his first major label album.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
“Country Grammar” was released in 2000 and was an instant success. It rocketed to the top of the charts by selling more than a quarter of a million copies in its first week of release. It also became the summer anthem for a generation of music fans. “Country Grammar” went on to sell 9 million copies and stayed on top of the charts for seven weeks, making it one of the biggest selling albums in history. Not only did the album put Nelly on the music scene, but he also put St. Louis on the rap music map by using the city as the backdrop for many of his music videos.
Nelly was such an intriguing figure that he was appearing on TV shows everywhere, including MTV, VH-1, and even at the Super Bowl halftime show. His face was on the cover of music, fashion, fitness, and entertainment magazines. He used the exposure to launch his own clothing line and energy drink. He expanded the empire even further by becoming part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA, buying a controlling interest in a NASCAR team, and even starting his own recording label, Derrty Entertainment.
Despite his solo success, he stayed true to his promise to bring his friends along for the ride. The St. Lunatics went back into the studio and released their first major album in 2001, which was also a success.
His universal appeal allowed him to sell nearly 30 million albums and to star in movies. Nelly followed his first solo album with another disc in 2002 called Nellyville, which also hit the top of the charts and proved that he was definitely more than a one-hit wonder. His role in the movie remake of The Longest Yard won critical acclaim and once again proved that everything Nelly touches turns to gold.
Nelly is a true American icon and one of the most influential performers in America today, but to many Missourians his continued efforts to honor his state
and hometown in front of millions of people are much more important.
*He put his energy into raising money for leukemia research after his sister Jackie Donahue was diagnosed and ultimately died from the disease.
*He received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2005, the youngest person to get the honor.