As you tune in to ESPN during Bowl Week, you'll inevitably see gazillion-times platinum rapper Nelly and his video for "The Champ" that the network is running as a sort of theme music for college football's postseason.
The video is dim, isolated and commendably contemplative, when you compare it with, say, the Busta Rhymes and Justin Bieber spots we (ahem) consumed during the NBA's opening night on Christmas. We got the former athlete, rap vet and St. Louis native on the phone recently to talk about the creative process behind the song and video, the BCS and, of course, we had to ask him about Albert Pujols' exodus. Check it
The Life: How did the partnership come about?
Nelly: Well, I kind of worked with them on some previous stuff before and I was down in the studio just working and came up with the idea. It was crazy because, at the time, I was watching the Cardinals in the World Series and I thought it would be a dope song for us and then I just started exploring the possibility of some other things. So when I talked to ESPN they said they were looking for something for their bowl series.
The Life: That's interesting. So, the inspiration for the song was more for the Cards?
Nelly: Well, it was just more so the idea of just winning. I think we were also watching a fight it was, uh, the Bernard Hopkins fight. There were a lot of things going on and we were watching ESPN and everything in the studio and it just turned into theme music.
The Life: So, is sports a part of your creative process? How big of a role does it play?
Nelly: You know my background is from sports. I always thought that was going to be the Nelly Way. I played a lot of baseball and stuff growing up, went through a bunch of tryout camps and semi-pro leagues. I just thought that would be the lick, ya'know, sports. But it just never came to fruition. Partly because I made a lot of stupid mistakes and dumb decisions. But I guess if I knew A-Rod was going to get $275 million I would have made better decisions. [Laughs] Things happen for a reason. But still, my love for sports is as deep or deeper than my love for music. It's always a part of what I do.
The Life: During your playing days, before your games, what were you listening to? Were you listening to like, M.O.P. or Pastor Troy to get hype, or what?
Nelly: Aw man. Nah, we listened to, like, a lot of Pac [Tupac Shakur]! This was like the late-'90s for me, so we were still doing a lot of Pac. Death Row. Biggie. Biggie was hot.
The Life: More of a West Coast vibe, though?
Nelly: West Coast and Southern. You know -- UGK, OutKast all that was bubbling. But a lot of Pac!
The Life: So, why did you go for the distinct vibe that you created with "The Champ"? It has a "sports movie theme music" vibe to it.
Nelly: Well, a lot of times athletes might listen to music to get them hype. But this was more of an in-depth feeling. You hear a lot of music that's more aggressive. But this song is about, you know, the "ever since I was a kid" kind of feeling and, "now I've accomplished it." As opposed to music that might help you accomplish it, this is almost like the final song to be played. You know, you might be in the locker room getting ready and it's Tupac's "Makavelli" and you're getting ready and rowdy. But this is the song after you got the win. It signifies, "OK, we did it." You know, I talk to a lot of kids that play at schools and, everybody is from different places, but you all meet up for one purpose. Everybody came together as common strangers, but shared one goal and one moment that you take with you in life.
The Life: What about the video concept? Where'd that come from?
Nelly: Well, again, I wanted to set the mood. As opposed to, maybe, some confetti and the words and, "Hey, it's Bowl season!" [Laughs] But once we got on a conference call with ESPN, they kept growing closer to the song and we sort of came up with a deeper concept. That's why that first scene is sitting in the locker room, alone, getting your thoughts together and then we went from there.
The Life: Have you ever thought about doing a solo soundtrack for a sports movie?
Nelly: I haven't necessarily thought about it, but I don't see why not. It's something I would definitely think about.
The Life: BCS. Are you happy with it? Should there be a playoff system?
Nelly: Aw, man. BCS -- I don't like it. I think there should definitely be a playoff system. You can still keep the bowls, just make the bowls a part of the playoff system. Let it be won on the field. People shouldn't be voting for who the champion is -- leave voting out of it.
The Life: It's funny that it seems like everyone agrees on that subject, but we still don't have a playoff system. Let me ask you this, though earlier you mentioned Albert Pujols. You're a Cards fan -- how did you feel when he chose Orange County over St. Louis?
Nelly: Well, look, as a Cards fan, of course you're disappointed. But as someone that's a realist, I feel like that's what we get. The guy gave us 10 great years and, possibly, eight or nine of those years he was underpaid. He's been the best player in baseball for so long and I just think that you don't let a player of his talent come in to the final year of his contract anyway. If you really want him, he'd never get a chance to see the final year. I feel like that's what we get! I get that nobody is bigger than the game. And, here in St. Louis, we have a rich tradition, so we're still going to be the Cards. But to let a player like that get away from you and not retire in your jersey -- someone that was really a part of this community and wanted to stay. He wanted to stay! But he felt disrespected. He watched a lot of people get paid in front of him, yo.
The Life: As Pujols' career starts to wind down and he starts reaching those milestones, are you going to salute him?
Nelly: Oh yeah! First and foremost, I'm a baseball fan. I've been schooled on baseball since a young age when my grandfather told me stories about Jackie Robinson first coming into the league and a lot of the Cardinals players wouldn't even shake the man's hand. See what I'm saying? So I know the history. I'm a Cardinals fan, of course, but I'm a baseball fan first. Of course I'll salute Pujols, because he deserves it! I'm not bitter. Like I said, as a St. Louis fan, I'm hurt; but as a realist, I feel like that's what we get. We shouldn't have come into last spring training without his contract resolved. He had earned the right for people to stop and listen to what he was saying. All the heads of the Cardinals organization should have stopped and figured out a solution before spring training. So, now I don't know we'll see what happens. I'm still a Cardinals fan, though!
Vincent Thomas is a SLAM magazine columnist and a frequent contributing columnist and commentator for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @vincecathomas on Twitter.