EW rides with chart-topper Nelly -- The mayor of ''Nellyville'' talks about his life before platinum sales, his fashion line and movie moves, and why he wears that Band-Aid on his face

By Tom Sinclair
August 02, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
nelly Photograph by David Drebin

To paraphrase crossover rap’s man of the moment, it’s gettin’ hot out here.

Here (or is that ”herre”?) is the front entrance to the Trump International Hotel & Tower, July 12, where the concrete steps have been absorbing Manhattan’s ferocious summer heat. With the sun’s merciless rays beating down, it feels like Sahara-in-the-city. A small contingent of folks from Nelly’s record label, Universal, are gathered, sweating out the expected emergence of the star and his group, the St. Lunatics, from their air-conditioned suites. They’re already more than an hour behind schedule, having been slated to arrive at NBC’s midtown studio at 11:30 a.m. to rehearse for their appearance on ”Last Call With Carson Daly.”

As 1 o’clock edges nearer, neither Nelly nor the Lunatics are anywhere in sight. His publicist confers frantically with Nelly’s laid-back tour manager, who phlegmatically informs her that charging into Nelly’s room issuing ultimatums is likely to only further delay matters. Things take an absurdist turn when the van that had been dispatched to pick up St. Lunatic Murphy Lee, 19 — who is inexplicably staying at a different hotel — returns sans Lee. The driver explains that he had, in fact, picked his man up, but on the way Lee made a last-minute decision to hop out and do some shopping.

Finally, just after one, Nelly and three fourths of the remaining St. Lunatics — Kyjuan, 22, Slo Down, 18, and Ali, 25 — emerge from the hotel lobby, trailed by various female friends and posse members. Resembling a traveling hip-hop fashion show — baggy pants, do-rags, braids, backward baseball caps, platinum- and diamond-studded pendants dangling crotchward — they saunter into the waiting van with a ”What, us hurry?” ease, joking and laughing. Following a brief ride, they’re escorted onto an NBC soundstage by a nervously grinning young woman with a clipboard. After a quick round of power shakes and shoulder-bumping half hugs with stagehands and production assistants, the boys run through a spirited rendition of Nelly’s current smash ”Hot in Herre.” In 10 minutes, it’s over.

Nelly, God bless him, never broke a sweat.

To the casual observer, the jet-propelled rise of the St. Louis-born-and-bred rap star Nelly (real name: Cornell Haynes Jr.) looks so effortless, so blessedly smooth, as to seem damn near divinely ordained. The 23-year-old rapper burst onto the national scene in 2000 with the hit single ”Country Grammar,” a crazy-catchy hip-hop nursery rhyme that helped propel his debut album of the same name to sales of 8 million-plus. Now he’s back with another big pop hit, the aforementioned ”Hot in Herre” (that extra ”r” is intended to reflect the preferred St. Louis pronunciation of ”here,” says Nelly), and an album, ”Nellyville,” which drop-kicked ”The Eminem Show” out of the No. 1 slot on the pop charts, selling a dizzying 714,000 copies its first week; four weeks later, it continues to hold strong in the top five.

Of course, in showbiz, there’s always a knotty back story, and Nelly’s is full of the sort of grit and grime that his PG-rated rhymes would seem to belie. ”I’ve probably got a longer rap sheet than most of the so-called gangsta rappers out here,” he says with a laugh, referring to his early days ”hustling” on the mean streets of St. Louis’ black ghetto, moving the sorts of products you won’t find in Walgreens. In fact, for a time it seemed as if Nelly’s destiny lay in the reformatory, not on the radio. His path out of the hustling life began in earnest amid the stentorian laughter and humming hair clippers at Leroy’s barbershop in St. Louis, circa ’93, where the guys who would go on to form the St. Lunatics hung out. ”Back then, I’d stop in, get a haircut here and there, and holler at them,” says Nelly.