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Photograph courtesy of Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library
More than a decade after “Country Grammar” put Cornell Haynes Jr.—and his hometown—on the hip-hop map, the 37-year-old Grammy Award–winning artist hasn’t stopped touting his hometown. “I wanted the light to be on our city,” he says, when asked why he never left. “It’s home.”
Growing up in St. Louis, though, Haynes’ home life was far from stable. His father reportedly was abusive, and his mother, Rhonda Mack, could barely afford to take care of him. Maybe Nelly was trying to escape his fractured home life when “at 9 or 10, my friend and I built a tent outside,” he recalls. “We fell asleep, woke up at 1 a.m., and no one knew where we were.”
At age 13, Nelly and his mother moved to University City. “The best thing about it was also the worst thing,” he says. “It was like a different culture—more fashionable, more calm and laid-back—whereas the city was fast-paced.” It was there that Nelly met fellow St. Lunatics Kyjuan, Ali (a.k.a. Big Lee), and Murphy Lee; Nelly’s half-brother, Lavell Webb (a.k.a. City Spud), rounded out the group. They joked around in class and at high-school hangouts like Saints roller rink.
“Nelly was the Eddie Haskell at my house,” Murphy Lee told SLM in 2001. “He and my brother Kyjuan were the ones getting us into trouble.”
Nelly played basketball, baseball, and football at University City High School, where he was praised in his senior yearbook as a standout wide receiver: “Haynes was [quarterback Terrance] Wilkes’ favorite target this season, as the [University City] Lions’ leading receiver. He dazzled the crowd with amazing catches.” He also played for the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Association and later went to training camps for the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates. But “I got wrapped up in the streets,” he once told Rolling Stone. “Money was coming in faster than [team] letters, and I got distracted.”
Fortunately, there was another distraction. In 1993, Nelly and the St. Lunatics wrote “Country Grammar,” the song that eventually landed Nelly a record deal with Universal. Before it appeared in Billboard’s Top 100, though, it was a hit here. “Club Casino [in East St. Louis] was the first place to ever play ‘Country Grammar,’” Nelly told SLM in 2001, when the song was climbing the charts. “We blew up underground here, people took to us. It’s not like we were adopted by St. Louis—we were born here.”