This past Friday, Nelly was presented with the “I Am Hip Hop” honor at the 2021 BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta. The accolade would be a big deal for any rapper, but as an artist from the Midwest, the award held that much more weight for Nelly who is the fourth best-selling rap artist in American history, according to the RIAA. Achieving that level of success as an unknown kid from St. Louis isn’t lost on the Country Grammar rapper.
“People don’t understand when I say I had no co-signers,” Nelly tells ESSENCE. “There was no one to back Nelly. There was no one to stand up for Nelly. People showed me love but there was no one to stand up for me. There was no one solidified to say, ‘Yo, he’s good.’ You can’t name me nobody that’s successful in my era or in what I do that didn’t have a co-signer. Everybody had a co-signer, but Nelly. Everybody!”
Referencing peers like Ja Rule and Kanye West who were affiliated with Roc-a-fella records early in their careers, Nelly adds, “I came out with a new sound from a new place, a new face and we literally had to work to accomplish and to be here the way that we are.” Pausing to reflect on that success, he adds, “You’re grateful.”
Beyond setting records and being recognized by the entertainment industry, Nelly also sees the fruits of his labor in the wave of new artists on the music scene. “The whole radio almost sounds like Nelly at this point,” he says. “Not saying that these brothers and sisters aren’t putting their own type of thing on it, of course they are, just like I had influences with my style.”
In contrast to common criticisms of artists biting other entertainers’ style, Nelly is happy to hear remnants of his sound in rap today. “I think that’s a blessing. That shows your impact. That’s what you want as an artist, to inspire.”
Check out the full interview with Nelly in the video above.