With a genre-defying discography that includes “Hot in Herre,” “Dilemma” and his latest smash, “Just a Dream,” it is easy to see why Billboard Magazine recognized Nelly as the #3 artist of the decade (2000-2009). Taking his best-selling and chart-topping performances on the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 into consideration, there is no refuting Nelly’s impact on the current generation of music entertainers. Even more impressive: this decade-long journey all began in St. Louis, Missouri – a city that is better-known for its jazz, blues and rock music exports.
On November 15, 2010, the “rapper-preneur” will release his fifth studio album, which has been aptly titled “5.0.” In support of this effort, Nelly managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his entry into the rap game, the legacy of M.C. Hammer, and the “business” side of the music business.
Over the past decade, you have become known for more than your rap skills. As you transitioned from being known as Nelly, the rapper, into Nelly, the businessman, what do you consider to be the biggest professional lesson that you learned along the way?
When you’re working a business, it is only going to be as successful as the effort you put into it. Now, don’t get it twisted. It’s not like I haven’t made mistakes. But I have been fortunate enough to have done so many other things correctly, that my mistakes kind of get covered up. That doesn’t happen for everybody. Some people make mistakes and they never get a chance to recover. So I’ve been really fortunate. It’s not like I’m a genius or doing anything that’s really outside the line. But I’ve just been really fortunate to learn from my mistakes and being able to know what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. I like to walk that straight line. When it comes to business, I don’t really mess with anything that has me stepping outside that line. And so far, so good, basically.
Over this decade-long journey, what do you consider to be the “tipping point” or “breaking point” in your move for financial and corporate independence? Most of the time, when people think about the music business, they tend to focus on the “music” rather than the business?
To be honest, I’ve been thinking like that since I was a kid. I’ve been fairly independent for a long time. My parents got divorced when I was probably like six years old. And neither one of them could afford to keep me on their own. So I bounced around a lot and I moved and lived with different people. I’ve been to like eight different schools. So when you do that, you get used to bouncing around and just making it work.
When you take your music career into consideration, what do you think is your biggest contribution to the contemporary music landscape?
I’ve done my fair share. But I look at the influence of Hammer all the time. If you look at Hammer when he first came out, everybody was dissing Hammer saying that he was too commercial. Why? Because he had a Pepsi deal. He had a cartoon. He was working on a cereal deal and all that. All the things you wish you could have today. You know what I’m saying? So those are some of the doors that I walked through to get where I’m at. And so have a lot of other brothers. We can now step into that realm. And he showed that we could be just as marketable as the “pop star.” So when doors get opened for me, they go back to the doors others have opened up for me, the Jays, the Puffs, the Dr. Dres, the Ice Cubes – everybody that’s made money outside the realm of music. I use them as inspiration. Hopefully, there are some kids out there watching me, and hopefully I am opening up some doors for them. You just hope the cycle continues.
Back in 2004, you released a duet with Tim McGraw that was very innovative, even by today’s standards. Why do you think cross-generational and cross-genre collaborations are so few and far between? In the future, what kind of musical partnerships would you like to see more often? What present musical barriers would you like for artists to overcome?
I just don’t like it when people are scared to try and do what they want to do. That handicaps creativity. And I like to say that I’m “musically free.” And when I say that, what I mean by that, I feel that I can make a hit record with anyone. And I feel that as long as I am creative and I put myself in a position where that isn’t compromised, it doesn’t look odd when I do it. It doesn’t look like a stretch when I do it now, because people know that this is what I do. I’m not afraid to do it, so long as the s**t is right.
I really like that phrase that you used: “creatively free.” With your forthcoming album, 5.0, in what ways have you pushed yourself that you have not done so in the past?
I just went it doing me. When you’re “musically free,” nothing seems like a challenge for you. When you think about it, I’ve done country, pop, man, the top of the pop. Remember my collabo with N’Sync on “Girlfriend.” Christina Aguilera. Tim McGraw, like you mentioned earlier. And I’ve been at the top of several different genres of music. So nothing seems far-fetched. And it’s not like I go into an album trying to shock people, because I don’t think I can shock people anymore. I think the shock for people is when it doesn’t succeed.
You bring up a really good point, when you say that you have been successful on the charts of several different genres. What do you think it is about you and your artistry that makes it work like “magic”? And without disrespecting any other artist out there, the fact of the matter is this: there are relatively few other artists that have been able to do what you have done. Why not?
I just think people feel that it’s genuine. And they don’t feel that I’m stretching. Every since I came into the game, my music has been diverse – from one extreme to the next. You know, I’ll hit you with “Country Grammar,” “E.I.,” “Ride with Me,” “Batter Up,” “Hot in Herre,” “Dilemma” – and none of those songs sound alike. But I made it successful. And my fans appreciate what I do. And they expect that from me. That’s not going to work for everybody. But if you want high reward, you gotta take high risk.
Although you are financially secure, and you do not ever have to record another album, what drives you to keep producing and creating music? What expectations have you placed upon yourself for this album’s success?
Man, for the love of music. The same reason we all get into it. You get out of it what you put into it. I love music. Even if I’m not in it, or it’s not as successful as it was in the past, I’m still going to make music.
Where does this passion come from?
It comes from my family. My uncle was into music. My father was into music. My uncle and my father had a band together. And it kinda came through that. I was always around music. My uncle used to have me and all my cousins singing Jackson 5 records! [laughing]
Now, it is one thing to have a love for music, and another to dedicate your life to it. When do you think you made that decision?
I’ve always wanted it. But being from St. Louis, that’s not really part of your thought process. You don’t know if it could be real, because you haven’t seen anyone else do it. It might’ve been different if I was from New York. My whole life would’ve probably been engulfed, because that’s the heartland [of hip-hop]. And it would’ve been different if I was in LA, because they have a deep music history beyond hip-hop. But being from St. Louis, it has you wondering: “Is this really going to happen? Can this really happen?”
Saying that, now that you have blazed a trail for a new generation of St. Louis artists, what kind of feedback do you hear from them? I am sure you get a lot of love.
From some people I do. But I mean, you still will have haters – no matter what field you’re in. There is always going to be a group of people that don’t want to see you succeed – for whatever reason. Either they want your spot or they think they can do it better. And that’s cool, because the game is wide open for them. If you think you can do better, then prove it! Do it! That’s one thing about this game: it never closes. This is a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year store! It’s wide open – at any time and at any point.
Having spent the past decade in the music business, what comes to your mind when you look over your career and the current state of hip-hop?
What a lot of people don’t realize is that I came into the game on my own. I didn’t have anyone introduce me, or say: “Yo, this is my guy, Nelly.” I didn’t have a guy that had already proven himself to introduce me to the world, or have a super-producer that introduced me as his new artist. I basically got throw into the ocean. And I had to teach myself how to swim.
Well, you really only had two choices: sink or swim! [laughing]
And fortunately enough, I made it to the shore.
Outside the world of music, you are really active in the community. And sadly, more often than not, entertainers rarely get the opportunity to talk about what they do behind the scenes. Tell me about your new venture, Celebrity Sweat.
Celebrity Sweat is basically a behind-the-scenes look at the workout routines of your favorite celebrities. I was chosen as the first. Basically, you’ll see various clips of my actual workout routines and my favorite exercises with a personal trainer, and we’ll show you ways to incorporate it into the things that you could do. So… I’m on there looking like Billy Blanks! [laughing] But I’m not putting you through 90 minutes of straight torture or anything like that! [laughing continues] The focus of my first DVD is triceps and chest.
I am sure that you are well aware of America’s issue with obesity.
Oh, man! The issue with obesity, especially with children, is incredible! I really can’t believe it! To know that there are kids out here that get less than a mile of physical activity is crazy to me! When I was a kid, I probably got ten miles in a day! [laughing] Runnin’ up and down the f**kin’ block! [laughing continues] For real! Running around the block, a corner, a tree – something! [laughing continues] Kids hardly get any recess when they go to school, they come home, go straight into the house, and sit in-front of the TV or a computer. I mean they’re just sitting in buildings all day. And that’s d**n-near depressing. So I do encourage children to get out more and be more athletic. And hopefully, this video will inspire some kids to get into the gym.
I certainly hope so! And what about your other philanthropic activities?
I have two non-profits: “4Sho4Kids [Foundation]” and “Jes Us 4 Jackie.” With 4Sho4Kids, we try to help as many kids in the local community as we can. We’ve done various things, like “Feed the Children,” with 1,500 families that we’ve fed. And the tutor-mentor program that we’ve done, where middle school students tutor elementary students, high school students tutor middle school students, and college students mentor high school students. And “Jes Us 4 Jackie,” you know that is in memory of my sister – [Jackie Donahue] – who passed from leukemia. So we get people signed up for bone cell and stem cell registry. And we try to find donors for people who need stem cell transplants and things of that nature. And we’re trying to keep things going – for as long as possible.
For more information on Nelly, visit his official website.