Not many mention him, but Nelly was one of the most successful rappers of the early-2000s. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the musician (real name Cornell Haynes) brought a previously unheard country twang to hip-hop and quickly rose to the top.
Without a doubt, the first emcee from his city to enter the mainstream, Nelly was smooth with his delivery and produced irresistibly catchy songs. Haynes’ rise to fame began in the early-1990s when he became part of St. Lunatics—a St. Louis-based crew. A collective of friends including Nelly, Ali, Murphy Lee, Kyjuan, City Spud, and Slo Down, only Haynes and Lee (to a lesser extent) would have successful solo careers.
A St. Louis disc jockey named DJ Kut is one of the primary individuals responsible for Nelly’s success as a solo artist. Kut (real name Brian Nelson), as a proud Missouri native, would heavily play St. Lunatics on The Beat FM 95.5. Moreover, Nelly was independently flooding the south with mixtapes. Before long, around the turn of the millennium, record labels were snooping.
Signing with Universal Records in 2000, Nelly released his debut album, Country Grammar. The project went straight to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and cemented Haynes as a rapper to be reckoned with. The album remained atop the charts for over a month. The Missouri musician maintained this momentum well into the 2000s. One of Haynes’ most known songs is ‘Dilemma’ featuring Kelly Rowland. Released in 2002, the track has since become the quintessential hip-hop love song and has been sampled numerous times. Being the legend that he is with his 2002 album Nellyville getting certified over seven times platinum, it is no surprise that renowned music publication NME wanted to sit down and learn more about the artist as he enjoys his forties.
Speaking with the rapper, NME journalist Mark Beaumont wanted to learn more about what kind of music Haynes consumed as a child. When asked about the first song he had ever heard, the emcee responded, highlighting ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ by Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell. Elaborating on his experiences listening to it, the St. Louis star recalled, “I don’t want to date myself, but my mum used to play this a lot when I was younger. It’s probably the first song that I knew the words to. All music brings back memories, but my mum and dad got divorced very early on [in my life]. So this song helps me remember a time when I actually had a mother and father at once.”
The rapper referenced a vast array of African-American acts he listened to as a child, such as New Edition and The Jackson 5. Haynes’ was even asked about the first album he ever owned. Responding to Beaumont about said project, he unveiled the first album he ever owned was N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton.
Speaking about his mother’s reaction to the highly explicit project, Haynes divulged, “It didn’t make my mother too ecstatic when she found out that I actually had it. Some friends of mine had a few portable tape players and we would take them down to the park and listen to all the things that we couldn’t listen to at home – and that was one of the tapes I couldn’t wait to buy. My mum was pretty cool about things like that – she didn’t condone it but she would let me know that she wasn’t too pleased about me having it, and if it caused me any troubles, so to speak, then I would also be in trouble with her. But I didn’t get why people thought: ‘Yo, this music is turning people into…’ You know? I didn’t want to go out and shoot nobody or nothing like that, I just liked the music.” You can listen to the N.W.A title track song in the video below.