Nobody can take credit for “Down Down Baby.” “Down Down Baby” is a part of American folkloric tradition, a clapping-game chant that goes back, at the very least, to the mid-20th century. It’s tough to trace “Down Down Baby,” a tune that children taught each other through the ages. It’s a song that’s passed from one kid to the next, usually in Black communities, and it’s had a bunch of different lyrical variations. (Some of those lyrics, according to this piece, are about interracial dating and violence.) But the tune has been consistent — a joyous syncopated burst of near-nonsense. That means it works as pop music.
“Down Down Baby” worked as pop music in 1959, when the R&B group Little Anthony & The Imperials adapted it into the doo-wop hit “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop.” And “Down Down Baby” worked again as pop music in 2000, when it seemed to be banging out of the trunk of every third car.
Before “Country Grammar (Hot Shit),” there was absolutely nothing like “Country Grammar (Hot Shit).” Producer James “Jay E” Epperson’s computerized brass-band stutter-step and blinky synth noises were familiar from the New Orleans bounce that Cash Money Records was just then taking mainstream. But the voice on the song was new — an exuberant holler, strained and melodic. Practically everything the 25-year-old Cornell Hayes Jr. says on “Country Grammar” works as a hook. He dizzily weaves through the track, veering shamelessly from one itchy and relentless cadence into the next. He shouts out localities that weren’t on the mainstream-rap map — St. Louis to Memphis, Texas back up to Indiana. He namechecks Beenie Man and Onyx and Hannibal Lecter and Billy The Kid. He jumps right out of the speakers.
People had sung on rap beats before Nelly; his fellow Midwesterners in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony had made a careful and intricate art of it. But nobody had ever sung like Nelly. On “Country Grammar,” Nelly takes the Bone Thugs approach to harmony and he sells it like he’s a chitlin-circuit soul singer in 1965. His voice is strained and raspy, but he never sounds like he’s working. Instead, he stays right on top of the beat, bouncing along with it, broadcasting pure exhilaration. In the video, he’s handsome and athletic and energetic. He moves with a self-assured lope, and he never stops, even for a second. Everything around him seems to move with him. It looks like the entire city of St. Louis has turned out behind him. Maybe it has.
St. Louis had never had a rap hope before Nelly. Domino, the soulful sing-rapper who’d had a big hit with “Ghetto Jam” in 1993, was technically a St. Louis native, but you wouldn’t know it from his music. Instead, Domino, living in Long Beach when he got famous, presented as pure California G-funk — even if it’s not that hard, if you squint your ears, to find a sonic connection between the melodic sensibilities of Domino and Nelly. But Nelly was it for St. Louis. He was the big bang. Virtually every St. Louis rapper to achieve any level of national prominence after Nelly has been some kind of single-named pop-rap echo — Chingy, J-Kwon, Jibbs, the late Huey. With his very first single, Nelly essentially defined St. Louis rap.
Nelly isn’t actually from St. Louis. He’s from nowhere. Cornell Hayes Sr. had been an Air Force serviceman so Nelly, born in Austin, had moved around from base to base as a kid. As a teenager, he settled in St. Louis after his parents’ divorce. There, Nelly grew into a baseball prospect and, when that didn’t work out, a small-time drug dealer. Along the way, Nelly and some high-school friends had formed a rap group called the St. Lunatics. The St. Lunatics had a local 1996 hit with “Gimme What U Got.” But for reasons that probably had everything to do with their rap-backwater origins, the St. Lunatics couldn’t draw any interest from out-of-town labels. So they decided they’d all try to go solo. If any of them actually succeeded, he’d bring the others along with him.
Nelly succeeded. Working with local producers, Nelly put together a demo with four songs. All four songs — “Country Grammar,” “Ride Wit Me,” “E.I.,” and “Batter Up” — eventually became hits. A young Universal A&R named Kevin Law made Nelly his first-ever signing. It took a lot of work to get anyone else at Universal to take Nelly seriously. But “Country Grammar” popped. In a summer dominated by Eminem and teen-pop, “Country Grammar” only made it up to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. It seemed like it was a whole lot bigger than that, though. While “Country Grammar” was still rising up the charts, the album landed. The album was undeniable.
Country Grammar, which became one of the biggest-selling rap albums of all time and which turns 20 tomorrow, wasn’t exactly set up to be a big album. The record bears no obvious label fingerprints. There are no clear bids for pop-radio love, no big-name out-of-town producers. “Country Grammar” producer Jay E, another St. Louis guy, handles most of the tracklist. Other than the phoned-in skits from fellow St. Louis native Cedric The Entertainer, the only big-name guest on Country Grammar is a just-starting-out Lil Wayne, still in his awkward-teenager phase.
Wayne had been appearing on hits for years at this point, but if you listen to Wayne next to Nelly on “For My,” it’s striking how much more polished Nelly is. Wayne’s cadences are jumbled and halting. Nelly sounds like a million bucks. Within a few months of the album’s release, Nelly was one of the biggest stars in rap. (Wayne would eventually get there himself, but it wouldn’t happen for years. When Wayne did get there, it was at least partially because he’d absorbed some of Nelly’s sing-rapping instincts — instincts that Drake then inherited from Wayne.)
Like Ludacris’ Back For The First Time, another massive and irresistible 2000 debut, Country Grammar has no real structure. Instead, it’s just one banger after another, a ceaseless party. Virtually any song on Country Grammar could’ve been a single. And the actual singles are magnificent. When “Country Grammar” was still reverberating around my college campus, “E.I.” dropped. “E.I.” is another song that doesn’t really have huge chart stats — it didn’t even make the top 10 — but it felt like it was part of the air that fall. Maybe that’s just because everything Nelly said on the song was so memorable that it immediately entered the lexicon: “I’m a sucker for corn-rows and mani-cured toes!”
Twenty years later, “Country Grammar” and “E.I.” are, in some ways, dated. Partly, that’s because of how many people attempted Nelly’s approach afterwards. Partly, it’s because of some of the lyrical references. Both tracks, for instance, use Donald Trump’s name as a signifier of luxury and success. (“Country Grammar”: “Let me in now! Let me in now! Bill Gates, Donald Trump, let me in now!” On “E.I.”: “Get a room in Trump Towers just to hit for three hours/ Kick the bitch up out the room because she used the word ‘ours.’” Trump, obviously, was a fan.) Nelly has been accused of rape and sexual assault more than once in the past few years, and that complicates those hits, too. Nelly’s whole proposition has always been fun. If the guys who rapped those songs is a sexual predator, the songs themselves hit differently.
And yet those songs still hit. They exist almost independently of Nelly himself. If you were a certain age in 2000, “Country Grammar” and “E.I.” are now inscribed on your DNA. The same is true of “Ride Wit Me,” the album’s third single and biggest hit. “Ride Wit Me” is pure transcendent popcraft: A sparkling acoustic-guitar figure, a breezy wind-in-the-hair melody, an immortal call-and-response hook. (“Heyyy! Must be the mon-ayyy!”) The other rapper on “Ride Wit Me” sounds just as loose and confident, and everything he says is just as memorable as everything Nelly says. The song’s video is a delirious Smokey And The Bandit remake, and it’s a lot of fun. But that guest-rapper, Nelly’s best friend City Spud, isn’t in the video; the other St. Lunatics lip-sync his lines for him. At the moment that “Ride Wit Me” was conquering the world, City Spud was sitting in prison.
In 1999, when Nelly was working on Country Grammar, City Spud reluctantly took part in a botched armed robbery. The story, as outlined by Paul A. Thompson in this great Pitchfork piece, is a sad one: City Spud, who didn’t have a car, had to bum a ride from a friend to make a weed deal. The friend hatched a plan to rob the buyer, and City went along with it. It went badly, and though he turned himself in and cooperated with authorities, City was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The closeness between Nelly and City, who also produced four songs on Country Grammar, is one of the best things about “Ride Wit Me.” I always thought City’s line about Nelly — “City talk, Nelly listen/ Nelly talk, City listen” — was a simple and beautiful description of friendship. When Nelly started wearing his famous Band-Aid a couple of years later, it was in tribute to City.
Nelly took friendship seriously. The fourth Country Grammar single, the infernally catchy “Batter Up,” was set up as a showcase for the other St. Lunatics. On “Batter Up,” Nelly interpolates the theme song from The Jeffersons. By the time it became a single, Nelly was a big enough deal to dance with Sherman Helmsley in the beautifully ridiculous video. (The “Batter Up” video is still the best baseball-themed rap video ever made, even though its depiction of the sport is fanciful at best. You can’t, for instance, just drive a Cutlass around the bases and run over the catcher.) Eventually, the St. Lunatics released an album, and so did a couple of the non-Nelly members of the group. One of them — charming young Murphy Lee, who is really a Thundercat — had some real success. But none of them has ever truly become a star.
City Spud, at least if that “Ride Wit Me” verse is any indication, could’ve been a star. Instead, City remained in prison until 2008, when Nelly’s career was already on the down-slope. Pop music history is a capricious and circumstantial thing. St. Louis is a rough and poverty-stricken town, and Nelly could’ve wound up in prison just as easily as City Spud did. Nelly could’ve also just been ignored forever — one more hopeful in a city that had never produced a rap figure of any note. Instead, Nelly became one of the biggest, most defining stars of the ’00s.
Timing is everything. Nelly was a complete package, but that’s never enough. It’s just as important that Nelly showed up at exactly the right moment, when rappers from provincial Southern and Midwestern towns were just starting to build regional empires. He took things that had already been out in the world — New Orleans bounce, Bone Thugs melody, old-school soul-barker intonations — and he made them feel new. He used an old clapping-game cadence, and he presented it to the world like a brand-new thing. The world received it enthusiastically.