Interview: Nelly

JUICE can admit when it’s wrong. For example we would have never pegged St Louis native Cornell Haynes Jr for a hip hop megastar, but Nelly has since emerged with a string of #1 hits, formed some unexpected collaborations (Tim McGraw anyone?), bagged countless awards and – if rumours are to be believed – Ashanti too. But his shoes will be hard to fill for other reasons. Nelly is a sneaker head and he probably won’t let you anywhere near his prized possessions. The St. Lunatics rapper alumni, who has his own streetwear label called Vokál, has produced limited edition sneakers in the Air Derrty, a retro remake of Charles Barkley’s signature Nike Air Max2 CB ’94 named after Nelly’s music label, the very recent 6 Rings Jordans and even hooked up with Reebok. Having just launched his latest album Brass Knuckles, JUICE legged it round to Room#4506 of his Cerulean Tower hotel suite Tokyo to put our feet up and fire away.

Interview + Image Universal Music

Yo Nelly! It’s been 4 years since Sweat / Suite, what have you been up to?
It’s been an experience I must say. I lost my sister [Jackie Donahue] in 2005, and I lost my grandfather 6 months after that. They both died of cancer. It was my first time losing someone as close to me as them, so dealing with that was different. I don’t show my feelings or express my pain to people a lot. It’s a part of life though, it’s not a complaint.

We’re sorry to hear that. Some artists use music as a method of therapy to recover from tragedy.
Who knows, somewhere down the line I might come out with a song. [But if] I did write it, but I’m not sure if I would put it on a record. Some people deal with it early on in their life growing up, but it’s different when you reach my age and all of a sudden this tragedy occurs. It’s like your first time riding a bike, when you get older it’s different.

How is your new album Brass Knuckles different to your previous releases?
When Country Grammar came out, it was my introduction. Nellyville was “Okay, now let me show you what Nelly can do.” Once I got to Sweat / Suit, it was “now, which one of Nelly do you like the most?” Do you like the Sweat side that’s more of ‘Country Grammar’, ‘Hot in Herre’, ‘Grillz’, ‘Air Force Ones’, or do you like the Suit side which is more mild like ‘Dilemma’, ‘Pimp Juice’ and those type of songs. Brass Knuckles is more of a statement album as opposed to me re-launching myself. It’s more of “Yo, guess who’s back?!”

‘Air Force Ones’ is all about the famed Nike sneaker of the same name. Do you still collect sneakers?
Yeah! I wrote another song about sneakers for this album [‘Stepped On My J’z’ with Ciara and Jermaine Dupre]. And I’m going to do 9 more sneaker songs! Hip hop is your life, and it’s the way that you are. The way you dress, the way you walk, talk, and act…. Sneakers are a part of that fashion. I’ve actually worked with Jordan and they are coming out with special sneakers called The Ring. It has all 6 of Michael Jordan’s rings, the ones he wore when he won those championships, all in one shoe. I did a special edition of those. And then we are going to work on something to put out for charity next.

Yo! Your album cover is cray-zee. Without sounding all gay, we must say you’re looking ripped!
You got to work out. I hit the gym at least 2 or 3 times a week. As far as diet goes, I haven’t eaten pork in about 15 years, beef in about 10 years. I just started eating chicken and turkey again in 2003. And I eat fish. It’s more about the mental, rather than physical aspect of it. It’s about making yourself do something when you don’t really want to, mind over body. It’s exhilarating in a way that, once you’ve accomplished it, you can be like “Yo, I can do that” because not everybody can do it. If everybody could, then everybody would. But they can’t, and that’s why we all look different.

We look different too, just not like that. Do you apply the same principle when it comes to your music?
I do, and that’s why it takes me so long to come out with an album. You spend 4 months working on the album, you spend another 4 months promoting it, and then you spend another 5 or 6 months on a tour before you try to do a new album again. But I can’t do it like that. I got to think about what is it that I want to do, and where music is going, as opposed to where music is at. I like to be a step ahead.

And what have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to a lot of my own artists, such as Avery Storm who has been featured in my new album in the song ‘Who F**ks Wit Me’, as well as Murphy Lee [St. Lunatics alumni of ‘Shake Ya Tailfeather’ fame] who has just finished recording an incredible album. Also Lil Wayne’s album, Lupe Fiasco, NERD, and Ashanti’s new record. A little bit of everything….

Who would you like to work with next?
You know what? I don’t know. My thing is that I don’t put limitations on anything that I do. Somebody asked me a long time ago, “If you could live the rest of your life indoors or outdoors, which one would you choose?” I thought about it for a minute, and then I said, “Well, probably outdoors.” If I live indoors, then the ceiling is as far as I could go, but if I lived outdoors, the sky is the limit.

The use of internet tools is gaining ground with the increasingly self-enabled artist. Are you down with that?
How can you not be a part of the Youtube culture?! You check it for something, whether it be the daily news, sports highlight, or some music. I’m not a MySpace guy because I think I’m a little too old. But I appreciate those that go on my MySpace. I do go on my MySpace sometime just to check out what some of my fans think of my music, or just to say hi to them. It’s one of those things that in 10, 20 years, is going to be incredible.

You’re the man when it comes to new trends, like wearing grills and plasters. What’s up with that?
It’s good because it shows that people have interest in you, and what it is that you are doing. Not just career wise, but socially, fashionally, and creatively as well. That’s a beautiful thing.

The beautiful Nelly’s fifth studio album Brass Knuckles is out now at all good record stores on Island/Universal. It features collaborations with Fergie, Ciara, Jermaine Dupri, Pharrell, Ashanti, Nate Dogg, Snoop Dog, LL Cool J, TI and Chuck D among others. More of Nelly at