Since its inception, the BET Hip Hop Awards have recognized artists who have created a lasting legacy through their music and beyond. Established in 2006, the I Am Hip Hop honor’s first recipient was Grandmaster Flash. From there, KRS-One, Salt-N-Pepa, Lil Wayne, Master P, Lil Kim, and Uncle Luke have all added the award to their resume.
In 2011, Hollis, Queens emcee LL Cool J was presented with the honor by Nelly. At the time, he was already established as a best-selling, globally known hip-hop act. Now, 10 years later, the St. Louis-bred rapper is up to accept the award himself.
Nelly, born Cornell Haynes Jr., is being recognized for his longevity in Hip Hop, a massively successful career, and achievements in ventures outside of the booth. Throughout his rap career, the 46-year-old has earned multiple Grammy awards, launched two successful clothing lines, established himself as an actor, raised money for philanthropic causes, and more.
“I just want people to just remember I worked hard. I always tried to be innovative in some type of way. You know what I mean? I think that was just the key for me,” he said to VIBE on a Zoom chat ahead of the 2021 BET Hip Hop Awards which premieres tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET. “I think that’s the craft. I think I feel like the first time we’ve ever heard Michael Jackson, he didn’t sound like anybody. And not by any means am I trying to compare myself to the G.O.A.T. or nothing like that, but I’m just saying as far as people in general, putting a stamp on music, and whatever genre of music that they’re in.
“I don’t feel like Prince sounded like anybody. I don’t feel like LL [Cool J] sounded like anybody. I don’t feel like Eazy E sounded like anybody, Snoop Dogg, Biggie. I think these are people, when we say these names, we automatically get a vision of what it is that that we either like about that person or dislike about that person. And that’s what art is.”
During the interview, we discussed his legacy in Hip-Hop, his notable career moments, and other artists he believes may earn their own recognition in the near future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VIBE: You’ve been in the industry for a while now doing your thing. Looking back, what have been some of your favorite or most memorable career moments?
Nelly: My favorite career moment is just me getting in. Because you had to understand, again, I’m from St. Louis. You know, from the Midwest, from Missouri. Nobody co-signed me. If you look at the majority, a lot of these people who’ve been successful on some level, they got co-signs. I love Eminem, but I didn’t have Dr. Dre. I love 50 Cent, but I didn’t have Eminem and Dr. Dre. I love Snoop, but I didn’t have Dr. Dre. I love Biggie but I didn’t have a Puff [Daddy]. You see what I’m saying? I love 2Pac, [but I] didn’t have a Digital Underground. Didn’t nobody put me on stage. Kanye. Didn’t nobody put no Roc-A-Fella chain around my neck [while I’m] standing on stage. I’m saying all these blood, sweat, and tears were built. You talk about getting it out of the mud. All of what I was able to achieve was built with these hands, my crew, and my city.
I feel like when you get a chance to establish something that’s truly from the ground up like that, I feel like it’d be almost remiss if people would dismiss it. Sometimes when they talk about who’s doing whatever, who’s making a lasting mark on certain music, [and] when your name isn’t mentioned, you kind of be like (sighs). I don’t let it stop me, and I’m not bitter. I’m not stopping what I’m doing to argue with people. I’m not going to do that. I will engage in the conversation, but I’m not going to stop what I’m doing.
10 years ago, you presented the I Am Hip Hop honor to LL Cool J and now, 10 years later, it’s kind of a full-circle moment. Are there any feelings there about that? About how you went from presenting this honor to receiving the honor within one decade?
Yeah, I knew I liked him for a reason. It’s almost like he’s inspired me since the beginning. It’s almost like whatever you do, you latch on to these people who inspired you the most. Hopefully, you aspire to one day go down similar paths that they have gone down. Sometimes you can follow the wrong people, you know what I mean? It just solidifies what you had already hoped that you knew when it was just like, “Yo, I knew this guy was dope when I first heard him. I knew he was great, I knew he was going to impact music,” and this is something that I want to do. Again, even though like you said 10 years ago, Nelly was still doing what he was doing, here he was honoring somebody who had basically sparked something in him to be this person. And then you get a chance to walk on the same stage and [for] the same honors is dope as hell.
On the flip side, 10 years from now, who are some of the newer artists that you can see kind of passing the torch to whether it be directly or indirectly? Some of the newer artists who you think in a decade will be being presented with these types of awards and [we] will still be celebrating their artistry?
You have a lot that’s so obvious in the sense of…I mean, you know, the elephant in the room would be Drake. I think he’ll be honored across the board by the time he’s done just period. Just as one of the greatest entertainers to ever live not just one of the greatest rappers or musicians but it’s one of the greatest entertainers to ever live. I don’t see cous slowing up, because he’s constantly trying to think ahead. I mean you don’t always get it right but I think he’s established himself well enough to where even if he missed every now and again, his misses are still going to look like wins. His misses are still going to look like wins because he’s just so talented.
When we look at the females, I mean obviously you look at Nicki [Minaj] and I think Meg [Thee Stallion] is just getting started. I think if she can continue on the elevation that she’s on…but you know, it’s hard especially now because the attention span is just so different. Because you hope that you get bought into as an artist and not just people going out buying your singles. What worked for us [back then] was that people bought into who you are. They wanted to hang your poster, they [would] buy your album, take the CD out and put the poster up. Now, nobody really buying the poster, you know? If you liked the song you may buy the song, [it] doesn’t mean you’re gonna buy the whole album. It’s hard to gauge if you’re really buying into that artist or if you’re buying into the thing. I think Drake has done that. People have shown that they’ve bought into Drake.
Nicki’s kind of on the borderline of coming from our era of the CD, [of] still buying the CD going into the digital wave. Then you have someone like Megan, who’s taken off from the digital wave. I think Lil Baby, I think Tip [T.I.]. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s [honored] like next year [or] some sh*t (laughs). Again, I think Hip-Hop is the music of the youth, and it’s inevitable that it infiltrates all music and runs the world. There’s no way to get around it, it’s just no way.
A lot of the artists are kind of genre-fluid their music, so they rap and they sing a little. As somebody who has been doing that, what advice would you give to newer artists who like to venture into other sounds, but still hone in on Hip-Hop as their core?
That was part of what Nelly was. When I came in, that was part of what it was. But was that I the first rapper to sing? Hell no. Was I the first rapper to hold a melody? Hell no. Why? Because I was influenced upon creating my style and understanding that that style could work because I had Bone Thugs N Harmony. Because I had Arrested Development. Because I had CeeLo Green. When you start coming up with how you’re going to do something, you have to have certain types of influences. But, I think when I was doing it, it wasn’t a lot of people singing their own hooks and rapping their own verses. Basically, those people that I just named, that was it.
You almost have to be able to do that now. If you ain’t got no type of melodic or some type of melody to you on your flow, it’s going to be like, mmm. Look at some of the dopest emcees who we like to call lyricist emcees. Kendrick [Lamar] has hella melody. J. Cole has hella melody. These are the brothers who we put…when we talk about the skills, that some people would call real Hip-Hop to a certain degree. These brothers have hella melody, man, I don’t think you’re able to get by now without incorporating [the] music into the Hip-Hop.
I think Hip-Hop fought so hard to be viewed as music. And that’s what grudges me sometimes when people are like, “I don’t like all the melodies.” No, people fought so that Hip-Hop can be recognized as a musical art form. We were mad because we were not being acknowledged as a musical art form. And now you have these people putting music into it. You’ve gotta have it.