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For old-school fans, Nelly’s brand of hip-pop represents everything that’s wrong with the genre in the 21st century. But the rapper has every intention of setting things right

Rahul Verma Sep 14, 2008

Markus Cuff/Corbis

It’s a sweltering summer afternoon in central London, and the air-conditioning at the Philippe Starck-designed Sanderson Hotel is not working. Hotel staff are hot and bothered, Nelly’s man-mountain of a bodyguard is melting, but the rap superstar is cool, calm and unflustered as he pours us a glass of water while musing on the bottled water industry: “Selling water: isn’t that something?” he asks quizzically. “Water is big business.”

The 33-year-old hip-hop superstar from St Louis, Missouri, in America’s mid-West is big himself what with a CV featuring 30 million record sales, three Grammy Awards and 11 Grammy nominations. Nelly’s 2002 single ”˜Hot In Herre,’ a smash hit on par with 50 Cent’s ”˜In Da Club,’ Punjabi MC’s ”˜Mundian Te Bach Ke,’ Beyoncé’s ”˜Crazy In Love’ and Gnarls Barkley’s ”˜Crazy’ propelled the rapper with plasters on his cheek into hip-hop’s major league and made him a global icon.

Nelly has ditched the plasters; he’s wearing a white vest that accentuates his bulging, tattooed biceps and a black New Era cap. His bright eyes are overshadowed by dazzling bling: diamond rocks adorn either ear, a jewel-encrusted Gucci watch sits on Nelly’s wrist and his infectious grin reveals gold teeth.

A motorbike roars past the open window of Nelly’s immaculate, all-white suite: “I love to hear that shit – I love speed. I don’t care if it’s bikes, cars, planes, just give me speed,” he says excitedly.

It transpires that speed, or more specifically the pace of modern life, has influenced his long-awaited fifth LP, Brass Knuckles. “The world is getting faster, and music is dictated by life. There’s lots more going on in life tempo-wise, everyone’s doing things faster, walking faster,” says Nelly, standing up and stamping his box-fresh Air Jordans all over the equally pristine, white carpet. “Technology has made life faster – people don’t go to the CD store anymore, they download, everything’s in shortcut mode and that energy of life has transcended into my music.”

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Brass Knuckles has more energy like Country Grammar [Nelly’s debut LP], it’s not as melodic as my Nellyville or Suit albums. It’s edgy, the tracks are harder – Brass Knuckles is the best way I can describe how hard this album hits you: POW!” exclaims Nelly, grinding his fist into his palm.

However, in these fast-paced times, the four-year gap between Nelly’s last albums – the simultaneously released Sweat and Suit, (the latter debuted at Number One on the Billboard album chart and the former at Number Two) – and Brass Knuckles seems an eternity. Why has Brass Knuckles taken so long?

“I’m the kind of person that wants to make sure my album’s right ”“ I’m not just going to put it out. Some people can do an album every year and I applaud that but when you spend months making an album, months promoting it and months touring it, if you’re putting out an album a year where are your thought processes? Have you really thought about it, or are you just hashing it out?”

In contemporary hip-hop ”“ as in business – you can gauge a rapper’s standing through mergers (or collaborations), and in these terms Nelly’s at the top of the NASDAQ: Brass Knuckles features Fergie (Black Eyed Peas), R’n’B superstar Usher as well as R’n’B divas Ciara and Ashanti, hip-hop legends such as Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, LL Cool J and Chuck D and new school rap icons Pharrell, Akon, and TI.

It makes for a varied record spanning raucous club music such as crunk-flavoured anthems ”˜Party People’ (with Fergie) and ”˜Step On My Js,’ Nelly’s trademark radio-friendly, hip-hop-tinged R’n’B, in particular ”˜Body On Me’ (featuring Akon and Ashanti) that might just scale the heights of ”˜Hot In Herre,’ stellar slow jam ”˜Long Nite’ (with Usher), which is another guaranteed hit single, as well as conscious rap (”˜Self Esteem’ featuring Chuck D).

The last of the aforementioned collaborations, with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, arguably the most politicised, polemical rapper of our times, has raised eyebrows. Earlier, Nelly’s been accused of degrading women by swiping a credit card between a bikini-clad girl’s buttocks in the video for his 2003 single ”˜Tip Drill.’ For many old-school hip-hop fans, Nelly’s brand of hip-pop represents everything that’s wrong with the genre in the 21st century: party, sex and bling-obsessed middle-of-the-road rap emitting irresponsible, unwholesome imagery.

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Yet in person Nelly comes across as a caring family man who talks about his kids and is hugely passionate about hip-hop. He clearly has an entrepreneurial mind and is intent on redefining hip-hop through unexpected collaborations: in 2006 Nelly teamed up with country and western star Tim McGraw, and Brass Knuckles was scheduled to feature The Boss, aka Bruce Springsteen though it didn’t happen because of hectic schedules. “It’s hip-hop’s job to go in new directions, I love doing that,” he says. “Hip-hop boycotted the Grammys when they weren’t televising the rap categories in the late-1980s. But now we’re on the other side we should be doing songs with country, rock and pop stars – that’s the way you stay at the top of the game.”

And he has plans to make sure that happens. “White kids have mixed what they do with hip-hop: Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit are rock & roll but with a hip-hop foundation. Where are the bands like Earth Wind & Fire, The Gap Band, SOS, Tony! Toni, Toné, and Kool & The Gang? That’s my next project Cornell And Them, a whole band where we look the same and dress the same.” Black bands, he says, are almost extinct because hip-hop hasn’t implemented such changes yet. “We’ve got to let the kids know it’s cool to play bass – we don’t want hip-hop just to be one thing. People are killing it and trying to close it off when we should be expanding it.”

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