In the last decade and a half, Nelly has been a regional hip-hop pioneer, a chart-storming pop chameleon and an unlikely country crossover star. All those worlds collided on Tuesday night during Taylor Swift's stop in his hometown of St. Louis, when the rapper joined the pop superstar and Haim for a run-through of his iconic 2002 Number One hit "Hot in Herre." It's just the latest stop for the remarkably resilient rapper, whose successes in the last two years alone include the remix of Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise," the country-rap hit "Hey Porsche" and the currently exploding "The Fix," which is riding a bouncy DJ Mustard beat and a Marvin Gaye interpolation up the Hot 100.
Rolling Stone caught up with Nelly to find out about his long-standing relationship with Swift, the status of his long-rumored country EP and the 15th anniversary of the album that started it all.
This is your third time on stage with Taylor Swift. How did you guys hook up originally?
Robert, a guy that she works with, is a real cool friend of mine. We've done a lot of work together, over the past years, with like 'N Sync and things like that. That's my man. And then I met Taylor and her father and her mother, and they're just some cool people. She's like a little sister, man, she straight. I've been knowing her ever since she's been on. She calls me whenever, it don't matter, I'll knock it out for her.
How does that phone call happen? Just, "What are you doing on Tuesday?"
"Yo, we're coming to St. Louis, will Nelly be around?" A couple of times, they flew me out to come wherever she was performing. I think one time it was in Houston. And, you know, the girl's fuckin' loaded, she sends her own plane to come get you and shit, so it's not a biggie. [Laughs.] It's a drop in the bucket for her, you know what I mean? It's a cool relationship. Before it's all said and done, man, she could possibly be top five females of all time. As a matter of fact, I know she will.
So wait, what is her plane like? Is it awesome?
[Laughs.] It's a jet, man. She ain't got it all doily-ed up and nothing like that. It's better than the one I don't have.
When did they work out the choreography?
When I went in earlier that day, when we talked and she was like, "Me and the girls were up all night choreographing this. We did our own choreography, we're going to kill this, Nelly." [Laughs.] She's just a dope person. She ain't got no ill wills or nothing like that, and that's kind of hard when you come from where we come from. You rarely come across those type of people. It's kind of like, Taylor Swift and my granny. Who doesn't love both of those people?
Did they show you the choreography before you performed it?
Yeah, yeah, it was hilarious. I loved it, man. And the girls, Haim, they're just as energetic. It made me feel . . . just a tad bit old. They were like, "I can't believe we're gonna rock out with Nelly. I cannot believe it."
"The Fix" is the biggest chart success you've had since "Hey Porsche." How did that track come about?
You know, obviously, it's a Mustard track. Mustard is like a nephew. We actually did a few tracks, but this was the one that made the most sense. It was dope to me because if you could picture where Nelly would be in 2015 after all of the blessings and things he's been having over his career, just being able to be in this position. It kinda feels like a great place for me. In that vibe, in that lane, kinda like "hip-hop after hours," so to speak.
Was it a pain to do anything Marvin Gaye-related after the "Blurred Lines?" suit?
Oh no, no, no, no. Before I even laid a vocal on that record I made sure that they were all good. [Laughs.] Like, hey, listen, I'm not even going to get in there and lay down a rough vocal or nothing. I'm not doing anything 'til these people sign off and say they're cool. I ain't got it, they're gonna have to come to St. Louis and get mine and I don't think they want it like that.
How is your country EP coming along?
It got kinda twisted. It's not actually country, so to speak. I love country music. I respect country music so much that I would never think that I can sit down and just as easy do a country album. That's not it. That's just like some country artist saying, "Hell, I'm just gonna do a rap album." What I will say is that, I'm tryna come up with an idea of doing an EP that crosses all boundaries, all genres and it may feature different country artists. But if you look at country music now it's broadened up so much.
Country music itself in 2015 is an open door to anything
Right, even with Taylor, she started more country than anything when she was getting started. That is something I kinda kicked around as far as the EP, kinda coming up with different songs and different music in a field that I think may appeal to more of a pop-country, pop-R&B, hip-hop, country hip-hop [laughs] type of vibe. But never a "country album," not like that. I respect country music to the utmost, I never think it's just that easy. Never.
Do you have songs in the bank for it or is it just still ideas swirling around in your head?
I've dibbled and dabbled. I'm always working. I have studio here and I also have a school here where we teach kids how to mix, produce, engineer, teach them business 101. We are actually certified by the State of Missouri so we give out credits and everything. We deal with a lot of at-risk youth and things and things of that nature, too. So it's been a great thing for my city. It's called EI, Ex'treme Institute.
Do you do anything on a day-to-day basis with EI?
Not really on a day-to-day basis. I come in a few times in a year. I bring some of my artist friends down. T.I.'s came down, he's talked to the kids. I'm definitely the one that gives away the diplomas at graduation, though.
When you started getting into country music would you actually go to Branson or just pick it up on the radio?
Well, you got to understand,I played baseball too. And playing baseball in the Midwest, you know . . . There's not a lot of brothers on these teams. [Laughs.] I was very fortunate because of my uncle and my father, they were broad when it came to music. And actually, if I could give anybody credit for turning me on, it would probably be my uncle for his love of Lionel Richie. And you know how deep Lionel Richie runs with music across the board.
Is there one country song that resonates the most with you that you can say touches you deeply and sincerely?
Hell yeah. "Cruise! [Laughs.] That touches me like nothing else, man. That touches me so deep, it even touches me in my pockets, baby! [Laughs.] But you know, I mean, it's the obvious [ones]. "Sweet Home Alabama" it's just like, how could you go wrong? And obviously "The Gambler." My father loved "The Gambler," he liked old Kenny Rogers. Everything him and Mrs. Dolly Parton were able to do, you know in those days. I mean it's not like country music was my influence . . . but it gave me an appreciation for it. It's kind of like crossing races. You know, if you're a black guy and you've never met a white guy, or if all the white people you meet have been kind of dicks to you and then you finally meet that one cool white guy, you know? It kind of gives the next white guy you more benefit of the doubt. [Laughs.] And vice-versa.
That's what Kenny Rogers is, the cool white guy…
He was the cool white guy! Kenny, he kind of opened the door! [Laughs.]
Something like "Cruise" really does show how similar music from different parts of the country really can be.
I think the way that kids grow up now, that with social media they get it all at once. Like, the coolest table in the cafeteria is probably the most mixed table of all. It's got the coolest black kids, it's got the coolest white kids, it's got the coolest Asian kids, it's got the coolest girls, the coolest guys, the jocks, the coolest nerd, you see what I'm saying? It's the mixture. Even with Florida Georgia Line, they're some pretty young guys they're like 27, you look at Nelly, this is my 16th year so those guys [knew me] since they were freakin' 11, I hate to say that shit [Laughs.] They've been influenced by myself and things of that nature, so when they come to the music they have no choice but to put some of the influence of what they've been listening to.
Well this year marks the 15th anniversary of Country Grammar.
What did you do differently on that record, compared to how you make records now?
Man, it's a great saying, "You have a lifetime to make your first record, you got a year to make every one after that." That's basically it. When you're talking about Country Grammar, man, we were waiting since I started rapping to make that album.
How was it different technically?
It's a difference in the sound. I was kinda the only one doing what I was doing, now the whole fucking game is singing. [Laughs.] The whole game is melodic now, and I was the only one doing it. You know? I was the first one to sing his own hook, rap his own verses and sing his own bridge. And continuously doing that because my influences, such as Bone Thugs, Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo Green and Arrested Development, you're listening to 'em and trying to find your own niche and then when you come with it but you come with it in a way that's so surprising to people. People don't understand that, shit, the whole game is doing Nelly.
Do you get rappers saying, "Thanks for hooking this up. Thanks for making this happen?"
Nah man, it's all good. Obviously, when you meet other artists, other artists definitely show their appreciation. . . . It's kind of hard to find someone that sings and raps that wasn't a Nelly fan. And it's a little easier to do it now because of Auto-Tune. I didn't have Auto-Tune. That was straight my notes. I had to work that shit out. I had to actually hit notes.
Are you anti-Auto-Tune?
No, no, no. I'm not anti-anything. It's just used so much now, it just sounds like the norm. That's why I say I'm not "anti." One thing I know and I understand is evolution. Everything must change. . . . Hip-hop was created by the youth for the youth. So, you got to let the youth take it where they're gonna take it. If you want to be involved, be involved. If you don't, you don't. It's getting to a point now where hip-hop has a history. Older people, when I was younger, they didn't have hip-hop. If they didn't like it, they just listened to whatever they wanted to do. Now I'm a parent. I had hip-hop, so I don't have to listen to their hip hop. I can listen to my hip-hop. But we're still listening to hip-hop.
Listen, I could be 65 years old, if Jay-Z's having a concert, I'm there. We're in a different era now. I'm not gonna never stop wearing Jordans. I mean unless another company gives me a hellafied check to stop wearing 'em. I don't care if I'm 80, I'mma put on some sneakers. And it's just one of those things that back in the day, it was a certain way you had to dress if you were older. "Why do you have that baseball cap on? C'mon, you're a 50 year-old man. Why do you have on a ball cap and sneakers?" Now, shit, it doesn't matter. I've been wearing this shit my whole life; I'm not going to change this. You look at Russell Simmons — that man, he has a ball cap and sneakers on everyday and he's made damn near a billion dollars
Who are the rap artists that you and your kids bond over?
Obviously, Drake is my guy. He's dope. And I say that to say we like Meek Mill. Neither one can make me stop listening to the other. As long as I get great music out of it . . . hear hear! Future is dope. Fetty Wap. But you know it's a little different because I'm just not a regular parent. I'm also in the business. If I'm going to be in this business, I have to be in this business, so my appreciation for who they like is basically an appreciation for it. Now that they're getting into music and wanting to do music — my daughter and my nephew — it's a dope situation.