Old Rap Shit

The Time Nelly Dissed Eminem on 'TRL,' and the Battle for the Summer of 2000

Remembering the brief rivalry that no one saw coming between two Midwest legends.

by Andrew Barber
27 July 2017, 8:51am

Illustration by Michael Alcantara

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.

Old Rap Shit is a column dedicated to unearthing the bizarre corners only found in the weird and wild history of hip-hop.

What were you doing in the summer of 2000? Maybe you were in summer school? Perhaps you were slanging cheeseburgers at a local fast food establishment, or maybe mowing lawns for a few extra bucks? Some of you were probably in diapers, or taking your first steps. I can tell you exactly what I was doing in the summer of 2000: running wild, that's what. Being a teenager. Partying, drinking, smoking, staying up late. Breaking the rules! But everyone needs a summer soundtrack. Today, I'm going to talk about a couple of mine.

Right now, students are enjoying three months of blissful vacation that will forever be time-stamped by a select group of songs or albums. These songs will stick with memories, and will haunt your soul years later as you wither away at your cubicle where you come to the realisation you'll never have a summer break ever again and unfortunately that water cooler break can only last so long. It's also at this time that the topic of song of the summer arises.

I'm reminded of the summer of Y2K, and the epic battle that ensued. A battle between two Midwest legends: Eminem and Nelly. And I'm here to remind you that no one saw Nelly coming. Not even Nelly.

I know it's hard to imagine a time when Nelly was a complete unknown, so let me take you back: in early 2000, Nelly was just a dude with a record deal fighting for a shot on the crowded Universal roster. The music business – hip-hop specifically – was booming, and Universal was giving seemingly any rapper with a pulse a deal. Don't believe me? Go look at a Source Magazine from 1999 or 2000, and you'll notice that like 35 percent of the ads are for Universal artists, many of who never came out. And those ads weren't cheap, at the height of The Source, a full-page ad could reportedly run you $10,000-$15,000 depending on location. One ad I noticed immediately was for a cat named Nelly. The ad stood out because the art looked a little low budget compared to that of his major label counterparts, and he was only getting half-page and quarter page ads placed towards the back of the magazine – not the up front full page slots reserved for the big dogs (or the destined to be) of the day.

In the ad, which also doubled as the album cover, Nelly stood shirtless in front of the Gateway Arch of St. Louis. It was striking but devoid of any flash. Its lone "big" feature was Universal labelmate Lil Wayne, who – believe it or not – wasn't a huge selling point at the time. One of the main objectives of these ads was to flex as loudly as possible about who was on the project, and this one was low on star power. Years later, Nelly would admit that he had to settle for that Wayne feature because his budget wasn't big enough to afford Juvenile. Funny how that worked out.

Some 500 miles northeast, another Midwest juggernaut was having a career-defining year. In the spring/summer of 2000, Eminem was riding high off the release of his sophomore album, The Marshall Mathers LP, which moved an astounding 1.78 million copies in its first week in stores. It was the fastest selling rap album in history, more than doubling the previous record holder, Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle. While many hip-hop heads thought Em was a pop/parody rapper on account of his "My Name Is" single from his debut album, The Slim Shady LP, he'd since won over even the staunchest of hip-hop heads. I attribute this to his darker latter singles from The Slim Shady LP, his album-stealing features on Dr. Dre's 2001, as well as the birth of Napster which unearthed dozens of mind-blowing freestyles which were a huge draw on the file-sharing hub. He'd also secured a slot on the Up In Smoke Tour, which boasted sets by megastars Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg. Yes, fans were excited for that lineup, but they were really coming out in droves to see Em specifically. He was everywhere. He was the hottest thing in hip-hop. The summer belonged to him and he had no real competition in the marketplace.

Until Country Grammar happened.

Nelly's debut single, "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)," was quietly released in February of 2000. For months it camped out in music industry purgatory not doing much of anything. But then something happened: the world saw the video.

The video, which was serviced to outlets around June, truly brought the catchy single to life. It showcased the people of St. Louis. It was bright, it was colourful, and it was vibrant. It was heavy on cars, kids, jerseys, rims, BBQ, and females. It looks like the most fun street party ever – filled with actual humans, not glossy video extras from central casting. There was also a dude with an iguana, and another with a snake. It made you feel welcome. It was a slice of life in the Midwest. Plus, Nelly looked like a dude that you could've grown up with – or perhaps was in your math class. It was honest country grammar, no gimmicks.

Up until that point, I don't recall ever seeing a song blow up so fast. As soon as I saw the video I ran to my parents desktop and downloaded it on Napster, which probably took seven hours. Within a week or two everyone was playing it. Every car, every party, every burned CD was celebrating the greatness of "Country Grammar (Hot Shit)." Hell, even your parents loved that chorus which turned the song from Big into a ditty about doing a drive-by with a military grade shotgun. Nelly was outta here.

Nelly's album had been out for a few weeks by the time it crash-landed on the Billboard 200 chart at number three selling an astonishing 235,000 copies. Something nearly unheard of in hip-hop, a genre in which the bulk of an artist's sales come in the very first week after a huge promo push and rollout campaign. "Country Grammar" was bubbling so fast that Universal had no choice but to push the button on it. The album exploded and a star was born. Universal hardly spent any money recording (it was produced almost entirely by Nelly's St. Louis friend, the then-unknown Jason "Jay E" Epperson) or promoting the album. Universal, and Nelly, were in the black. Big time.

Once fans popped in the CD, they discovered a number of catchy hits. But not just any old hits. These were mega-smash-chart-topping-hits. A one-hit wonder he was not. This was lightening in a bottle. From "Country Grammar" to "E.I." to "Ride With Me" to "Batter Up" (fun fact: these four tracks were on Nelly's demo that was passed up on by almost every major label) – word began to spread on just how amazing the Country Grammar album was. It kept selling and selling and selling. It hovered at the top of the charts. Every teenage party that summer was soundtracked by Nelly. Eminem now had a serious problem on his hands.

Eminem enjoyed a stronghold on the charts from May through most of July, but come late-July, Country Grammar began doing gangbuster numbers, moving 200,000+ copies per week , spending three consecutive weeks atop the Billboard 200 charts, and six weeks at number one on the US Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart. Nelly and Em would duke it out on the charts for the duration of the summer and well into the fall. Critics, publications, and rap rags began to pit the two against each other, making it more than just a friendly competition. Who owned the summer of 2000? It wasn't clear, but fans were picking sides.

Eminem and Nelly were dominating both pop and rap radio. They were also darlings on MTV's TRL, which was basically the closest thing we had to social media in the year 2000 when 99 percent of the planet was still on dial-up. TRL was almost exclusively monopolised by pop videos from Mickey Mouse Club grads and nu-metal bands, so getting a rap video on the countdown was a very big deal.

On August 24, 2000, just as the dog days of summer were winding down, and kids were prepping to return to school, Nelly appeared as a guest host on TRL. Clad in a St. Louis Cardinals jersey, Nelly was visibly excited to be in the Times Square studio. That changed, however, when sometimes host KK Holiday (not sure where Carson was that day?) asked him his thoughts on Eminem: "Well, you know, dirty, dirty, I don't too much know nothing bout dirty, you know what I'm sayin. But he be having some sly little comments about me." Then Nelly unloaded possibly the greatest, corniest, and most predictable layup burn in the history of TRL: "I don't play with candy, you know what I'm saying? I eat M&Ms, flat out."

I remember thinking "Man, that was a really weak diss." In 2017 terms I'd rate it with a strong five corn emojis. But almost immediately after this zinger, he followed up by saying Em shouldn't plan on making a tour stop in St. Louis. Which was a pretty serious threat in front of the TRL audience—the most important audience in pop culture at the time (there really isn't a 2017 equivalent to getting dissed on TRL, it just doesn't exist). Every teenager in the United States heard this shot.

The Eminem vs. Nelly beef began to heat up, and rumours started to swirl that Eminem was to return fire with an angry and potent diss track titled "Detroit Grammar." Message boards were flooded with people who claimed to have heard the record and that it was being played on radio stations across the country, although to my knowledge it never surfaced. If it existed, I would've heard it, and it would surely be on YouTube by 2017.

But then nothing happened. It's almost as if this beef never existed.

Cooler heads prevailed, and both artists went on to have extremely successful careers. (Duh). Rumor was they spoke, and after the convo they agreed to squash it. The beef was soon forgotten, and now only lives on through crude angelfire and geocities sites and a single grainy YouTube clip. The Marshall Mathers LP stands as the second highest selling rap album of all time (10.6 million copies sold). However, it's number two only because of a weird technicality that counts sales as double for double albums. Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below occupies the top spot because of this rule. Nelly's Country Grammar is the ninth highest selling rap album of all time, but could go as high as number five if we don't count double albums.

So who was the king of the summer of Y2K? I still can't call it, but I can tell you there hasn't been a summer where two rap albums sold over 10 million copies since.

Andrew Barber runs Fake Shore Drive, Chicago's premium source for hip-hop. Follow him on Twitter.