Nelly Made the Trop Smolder with Heat
I headed to the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday afternoon game wearing my jeans, an old Disney character polo and of course, my old Air Force Ones. It wasn’t Nostalgia Day or even 80’s Day, it was my own way of celebrating Hip Hop Night at Tropicana Field. Think about that wording for a minute…Hip Hop at the Trop…..Word to your Mother!
People seem to forget if it wasn’t for Nelly’s emerging talent at the mic he, Nelly might have made his way someday onto the Field Turf of the Trop on his own as a baseball player. He had some mad skills in the middle infield growing up and could turn the corner on a double play like his idol, former St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.
And as soon as the ball settled into the Tropicana Field stands, and the team concluded their on-field Team Meeting with Aybar as the guest speaker, then it was Aybars turn to get a ceremonial shaving cream pie to his face and head and begin getting in Nelly mode. I was already feeling the rhythm and the pulse of the bass to get out on the field and take a spot where the photos would fall like rain, and the crowd would swing in unison to the verses and song of the minstrel named Nelly. But I made a cardinal sin ( at least in my book).
I had a photographer’s pass from the Rays and I wanted to get deep into the action, so I posted up on a L-shaped corner in the right end of the “Mosh Pit”. At that moment it just seemed like a natural move and perfect move going from shooting the Rays first concert from the middle sections for John Fogerty, to right behind the VIP section during ZZ Top, to down in the pulsating action and sea of motion of the proverbial front row. It seemed like a natural progression….But a hasty mistake on my part.
For I had put myself in the eye of the swallowing storm on the wrong side of the steel barriers. I have been in the front rows tons of times before, but not with a camera, and surely not with a group of most teens to 20-ish fans who wanted to move and groove to every single sound wave of beat or vocals coming out of the supercharged bass system right in front of the assembled mass. From the first deep drumbeat from the DJ, there was pushing and shoving from the side and back as people began to crush forward wanting a taste of Nelly and the music.
But then again, I would have done the same thing myself 20-odd years ago. Well, I know I did. And the audience was definitely transfixed as the beats got deeper, and the crowd behind me got more animated and pulled into the rhythm and music. Out of the 480 photos I took that night, I had to trash about 200 photos due to the hands in front of the camera lens or small waves of motion around me that caused the photo to appear out of focus produced by my arm and shoulder constantly getting hit during filming. But I took the commotion and the frustration in stride as I got popped like a pinball for a few songs but within me I now wished I had taken a position on the stage side of the barrier.
But the music was the center of everyone’s attention tonight as even some of the Rays players like Carl Crawford,Dioner Navarro, Reid Brignac, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Garza and B J Upton swayed and rocked to the beats while doing their own version of Nelly Karaoke on the West side of the stage region. Upton seemed to be totally into the concert as you could see him singing the words and doing his own set of dances to the beats. It was great to see the players having as much fun as the Rays fans that night.
And it is sometimes weird that Hip Hop has now been around long enough to have Nelly “classics” like “Ride Wit Me“ , “Air Force Ones” and “Batter Up“. I still remember watching the first broadcast of MTV at a college viewing party complete with free MTV swag and music until we left transfixed by this new style of selling the music to the public. How much we have all grown accustomed to this video and music combination that now most of us never hear the song without also seeing a video interpretation of the song at the same time.
And from the moment Nelly first emerged wearing a stylish white Rays T-shirt, the crowd on the field and in the stands were immediately consumed by the tunes and the chatter from Nelly. From his classic Nike Air Force Ones on his feet, to the diamond-encrusted dog tags, and glittering diamond watch bevel, Nelly was quickly transporting us to a part of St. Louis with his music we would never venture into alone. We were taken instantly into Nelly-ville, and he was the Mayor and the man that was definitely large and in charge.
And the Trop almost seemed to take flight the moment Nelly as his crew began to sing ” E.I.” as well as “C
ountry Grammar“. The moment the first beats hit the speakers, the entire crowd began systematically swaying and singing to the tunes. It was definitely a well needed audience participation segment, and the assembled crowd did not disappoint as it rang out loud to an almost deafening level all around me. But people forget, it was not all about the music tonight.
But people forget it was not entirely about the music tonight as there was a large amount of young and older women inching towards the front of the stage area hoping to catch an eye glance with Nelly or getting some sort of savoring trinket to take home and cherish forever. At that moment you knew the focus and the attention was firmly bulls-eyed on Nelly as the player of the moment. When one of his crew announced he had a gig later that night at a local St. Petersburg nightclub, it was the assembled women who screamed and quickly asked the surrounding people the 5 W’s of finding this club. Nelly was in full effect, and the ladies were going to be in massive tow tonight at the Push Lounge.
And with that announcement, Nelly had just found the perfect segway to pop into his classic “Hot in Here” as he quickly removed his Rays white t-shirt and threw it straight into the teeth of the crowd as people frantically pulled and yanked and finally separated the t-shirt into two sections before it fell into someone’s hands firmly encasing the prized possession for the night like a prized jewel. It was a white Rays gift from one of the Hip Hop chosen ones, and it now had to be guarded and cherished from that moment.
And as Nelly let the crowd know about his forthcoming album to be released some time this Summer you could feel the crowd letting go a bit knowing their dream might end soon. Usually when a singer or group mentions this tidbit, it is nearing the end of the concert. And when he asked for three volunteers from the audience the sound was deafening as every woman within reach of the stage began cheering and more than eager a chance to be on stage with the Hip Hop icon. Three women were finally selected and it was the beginning of some interesting final moments to the concert.
Nelly even gave one of the chosen ones a photo opportunity of a lifetime as she snapped a photo with her phone of Nelly facing her with the screaming crowd behind him. Then he quickly quizzed them as to their singing abilities and then broke into his tune “Dilemma” which he did originally as a duet with former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland.
The girls instantly fell into the rhythm and the rhymes of the song and began to sing and dance along with Nelly and his crew. It was one of the slowest moments of the concert, but helped the crowd recharge a bit before the night ended too soon for so many in the crowd. People wanted to hear every song from all his album in his unique styling that some have called a “Missouri Twang”.
The night quickly condensed into a meandering of unforgettable song hooks based on schoolyard songs with double-dutch chants. But what is amazing is the simple fact most people do double dutch lyrics as a rap, while Nelly has primarily done them in song, which is a major reason so many see him as a Hip Hop icon. The night was truly an adventure into Nellyville (also the title of his 2nd album) that I will not soon get out of my head.
But that is the thing about great music no matter what the format or lyric style. If it is good, it stays with you for a while and maybe drills into your subconscious for a future moment or even visual stimulation brings it out again for a great memory. People say that Rap or Hip Hop artists are this generation’s storytellers. They give their versions of the action and stories of life through their musical lyrics and prose. Nelly is a great example of this sage of wisdom and urban existence being told through music. And through it all, we also get a chance to see life through Nelly’s eyes.