Nelly Talks 'Nellyville' at 15, #SaveNelly Campaign, Pushing Past Industry Doubters

The Grammy-winning rapper opens for Florida Georgia Line on massive world tour this summer

Nelly opens for Florida Georgia Line on massive world tour this summer. Credit: Joshua Sobel

On a hazy spring afternoon, Nelly strolls through Rolling Stone's offices, clean-shaven, big diamond studs poking out from the sides of his face. The 42-year-old rapper quickly hones in on a framed painting of Eminem, who was, for a while, maybe his fiercest radio rival. In 2002, Rolling Stone wrote that Em had "finally found a worthy competitor" in the St. Louis native when Nellyville dethroned The Eminem Show from its Number One streak. A feat accomplished in no small part to the massive hit "Hot in Herre."

Nelly's more recent features, like 2015's "The Fix" with Jeremih and "Cruise (Remix)" with Florida Georgia Line, have surpassed "Hot" in audio streams. But last year, when fans attempted to "stream" away Nelly's tax debt, there was one song people played way more than any other: "Hot in Herre" was streamed on Spotify 185,000 times overnight.

Coming up on Nellyville's 15th anniversary, Nelly indulged in some afternoon reminiscing about the his early Aughts domination, before he takes his latest single "Sounds Good to Me" around the world on a massive stadium tour with country duo Florida Georgia Line. 

Your new single, "Sounds Good to Me" is pretty dance-oriented. Do you think your fans were expecting something more country?
No, because my fans have never restricted me. I feel blessed. I'm the only artist in history to have a Number One on every format. Number One Rap, Number One R&B, Number One Pop, Number One Crossover, Rhythmic ... I take pride in that, because as an artist you know your music comes from your feelings and hard work. So to have people across the board appreciate it from all genres, that lets you know that all these people are just like you. 

Fifteen years later, "Hot in Herre" still gets played a lot. What's your reaction when you hear it while you're out?
When I go to clubs, I always tell the DJs, "Listen, don't stop this club vibe and play all these old records." Like, I appreciate the love and I know you just want to send love out, but I'm gonna give you a [new] record that deserves to be played now. I'm just a competitor like that. Some DJs don't give a shit; they'll just be like, "Nelly in the building!" But for the most part, I want to get a record that's worthy of you bumping it in right now.

It seems like it's been a tumultuous couple of years with the IRS tax lien and the arrests on tour.
I don't know. The arrests, I mean I was detained; I wasn't arrested. I don't have any charges. The IRS was something that was taken care of in the next couple weeks.

So people were making a big deal out of it when it wasn't?
Sweetheart, I've got a quarter of a million dollars of diamond earrings in my ... [pauses]. I think they would come for that [laughs]. 

What about the whole #SaveNelly campaign?
I mean, there were some fucked-up moments, but I was never down. It was a situation where I needed to clean up business. We all go through that. But that was it. I cleaned it up and now we're doing what we do.  

When Nellyville came out, did people doubt what you were doing blending rap and rock with the guitar riff on "#1."
They doubted the vision from day one – from Country Grammar. When I shopped my demo records on my little cassette player, going to meetings, playing for A&R reps, wanting to get signed, I probably went through 14 different labels before one was like, "We'll take a chance." And the demos I had with me all were "Country Grammar," "Ride Wit Me," "Batter Up" – they all became hits. 

And later people still doubted that you knew what you were doing?
Of course. But I mean, I think it helped me. I don't think I'd know what to do if I wasn't doubted. I wouldn't know how to channel my energy. I wouldn't know how to take that and put it into what I'm doing that winds up breaking ground. I was just in a different place and each song had its own identity, its own flow, I rapped differently on each one. I've just tried to be diverse.

You've said before that you credit your diverse musical taste to your parents.
My father's an R&B man at heart. Commodores, Earth Wind and Fire, Al Green, Stevie Wonder. But what happened was my man Lionel Ritchie started writing a lot of records for Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, people of that nature. And listening to those records, I was able to listen to all of these records and have a clear understanding of how music transcends. Just because it's written in this vein or has this beat doesn't mean it will only affect certain markets. That was a good way for me to learn how to be a complete songwriter. I can write any type of music.