Born Cornell Haynes, Jr. on November 2, 1974 (some sources say 1978), in Austin, TX. Addresses: Record company--Universal Records, 1755 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. Website--Nelly Official Website: http://www.nelly.net.
"Yeah, when I make it, I'm gonna get this big ... charm to hang around my neck!" Nelly told Rolling Stone about what he used to promise himself when he was hustling for money in his home town of St. Louis, Missouri. Living his prediction when he conducted the interview, the rapper born Cornell Haynes, Jr., wore a "NELLY" charm around his neck. Beginning with the single "Country Grammar (Hot ... )," Nelly became successful beyond his wildest dreams. His first album, Country Grammar, sold more than eight million copies, turning him into an MTV hero.
The album's success was no fluke. Another irresistible summer-singer chorus--"It's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes!"--turned Nelly's follow-up single, "Hot in Herre," into a smash. (The spelling of "herre" is meant to represent the way people from St. Louis, Nelly's hometown, pronounce the word.) The 2002 CD from which it came, Nellyville, included a guest appearance by Nelly's pal (and 'N Sync heartthrob) Justin Timberlake. The album sold three million copies in its first six months, and vied with Eminem and Bruce Springsteen for the top of the pop charts.
The son of divorced parents, Haynes was born on his father's Air Force base in Texas and lived with a succession of St. Louis relatives beginning at age seven. During high school, he moved back in with his mother, still hustling to make extra money: in addition to working at McDonald's, he told the New York Times, slyly, ''I was doing whatever else I was doing." Haynes turned out to have many talents--he was a star high school baseball player, attracting scouts from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves. (Critics would later remark on Nelly's matter-of-fact athlete's approach to fame and art.)
But sports weren't in Nelly's future. He discovered his interest in rap in 1993, forming the St. Lunatics with like-minded hip-hop fans Kyjuan, City Spud, Murphy Lee, and Jason. Within three years, they had nailed down a management contract, gone into the studio and recorded a 12-inch single, "Gimme What You Want." It became regionally popular, leading to interest from Universal Records. Nelly was the obvious solo star, but the St. Lunatics wound up with a record deal and a hit CD, Free City.
Nelly's style is far from that of gangsta rappers like Chuck D. of Public Enemy. Nelly's raps are filled with simple catchphrases like "don't forget where you came from," his funk isn't terribly complex, and his songwriting rarely strays from gangs-and-babes hip-hop themes. Veteran rapper KRS-One is among Nelly's most vocal critics, ripping him for "going pop," according to the New York Times. (To which Nelly responded, in verse: "You the first old man should get a rapper's pension/No hits since the cordless mic invention.")
Nelly elaborated to the New York Times in 2002: "It's all hip-hop, but you got people trying to divide it, saying what is and what's not. You going to walk into a roomful of kids and tell them they wrong?"
Nelly's style is also simple and catchy, returning hip-hop to its early days of bragging, rhyming, and partying. Nelly himself is the same way: He's still a proud member of the St. Lunatics, and he regularly wears a Band-Aid on his left cheek in case an old friend, convicted robber Lavell "City Spud" Webb, might see it. The Band-Aid, Nelly told USA Today, came from an incident involving a basketball game and an opponent's watch. "Before I knew it," Nelly said, "I had 9- and 10-year-old kids running up to me with four and five Band-Aids on their faces. It was crazy."
Nelly has been known to play the prima donna, showing up hours late for interviews or, in the case of one early supporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not at all. Nonetheless, a major career blueprint seems to be "don't forget where you came from"--he poses in front of the St. Louis arch on the cover of Country Grammar, wears flashy St. Louis Rams chains, and puts out songs called "St. Louie." "Nelly has reduced his life story to a geographical fact," the New York Times' Kelefa Sanneh sniffed in 2002. "He comes from St. Louis."
Nelly, an unmarried father of two, runs a St. Louis-based charity, 4sho4kids, to help those with drug addictions and developmental disabilities. In addition, the St. Lunatics participate in a St. Louis school-attendance program. "I'm not going anywhere," he told USA Today a year after Missouri's governor gave him the key to St. Louis for his birthday.
Nelly is also a savvy businessman who, like many rappers, has no problem with the concept of making money. He's up front about his tax shelters and jewelry purchases and often drapes himself in clothing from his own line, Vokal. "Where I'm from, this Rolex could take care of the whole block for a year," he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000. "It's crazy like that, but this is something you work for."
In late 2002 he starred in his first movie, Snipes, a low-budget action film about a rapper-hustler who makes it big. "Fortunately, enough people have been like, 'You did a good job. You did OK,'" Nelly said of his performance. "I was like, 'Whew. Thanks.' Basically all I was trying to do was not stink up the joint." Later in the same 2002 interview, when USA Today's Kelly Carter jokingly brought up Will "Fresh Prince" Smith, another actor who crossed over into movies, Nelly became excited. "Hopefully, yeah. If I can get $20 million a movie or better, I wouldn't knock it," he said. "I definitely look up to people like Will Smith, who was able to come from a hip-hop background and achieve bigger and better."
by Steve Knopper
Signed with Universal Records, 1999; released debut album Country Grammar, 2000; released follow-up, Nellyville, 2002.
Source Awards, Album of the Year, New Artist of the Year, 2001; Teen Choice Awards for Choice Single, Choice Hook Up, Choice Song of the Summer, 2002; American Music Awards, Fans' Choice Award, 2003; Grammy Award, Best Male Rap Solo Performance for "Hot in Herre," 2003; Grammy Award, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for "Dilemma" (with Kelly Rowland), 2003.
- Selected discography
- Country Grammar , Universal, 2000.
- Nellyville , Universal, 2002.
- Da Derrty Version: The Reinvention , Universal Records, 2003.
- Suit , Universal Records, 2004.
- Sweat , Universal Records, 2004.
October 13, 2003: Nelly won the Source Hip-Hop Music Award for male artist of the year. Source: ABCNews.com, abcnews.go.com/wire/Entertainment/ap20031014_474.html, October 14, 2003.
February 8, 2004: Nelly shared the Grammy Award for best rap performance by a duo or group, for "Shake Ya Tailfeather," with Sean Combs and Murphy Lee. Source: 46th Grammy Awards, grammys.com/awards/grammy/46winners.aspx, February 8, 2004.
July 19, 2004: Charlotte Bobcats' majority owner, Robert L. Johnson, announced that Haynes purchased an interest in the team. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, July 20, 2004; SI.com, sportsilllustrated.cnn.com/2004/basketball/nba/07/19/bc.bkn.bobcats.nelly.ap/index.html, July 22, 2004.
September 14, 2004: Nelly's albums, Suit and Sweat, were released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_1/index.jsp, September 22, 2004.
May 27, 2005: Nelly starred in The Longest Yard, which was released by Paramount Pictures. Source: New York Times, http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=308072, June 3, 2005.
- Chicago Sun-Times, December 7, 2000.
- New York Times, June 23, 2002.
- Rolling Stone, September 14, 2000; October 6, 2000; December 14, 2000.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 30, 2000; December 10, 2000; June 27, 2002.
- USA Today, September 29, 2000; September 3, 2002.
- Village Voice, August 22, 2000.
- "American Music Awards Nominee List: Favorite Artist--Rap/Hip-Hop," http://abc.abcnews.go.com/primetime/specials/ama/bios/nelly.html (October 7, 2002).
- "Nelly," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 7, 2002).
- Nelly Official Website, http://www.nelly.net (October 7, 2002).