Paul Mussan and Stelo X rolled into Atlanta's Freight Room for the afterparty of BET's First-Annual Hip-Hop Awards. There, someone told the Kansas City rapper and his manager that they'd need to buy $5 tickets to use for drinks at the bar.
Mussan wasn't having it.
It was November 2006, and damn near every star in hip-hop's firmament was descending on the Freight Room, a gala event space reserved for the night's festivities. It was also Nelly's birthday, and the St. Louis rapper was set to perform live, along with Rick Ross and Jermaine Dupri. Snoop Dogg was there. Eve was there.
Mussan scanned the scene: 6-foot dudes stirring drinks in tiny plastic cups. He reached under his paisley designer hoodie, deep into the pockets of his jeans, pulled out five $100 bills and stuffed them in the palm of a passing event staffer. "I want bottles," he said.
There were no tables set up in the ballroom, but minutes later, the waiters brought one. They set out bottles of Grey Goose and champagne. A bucket of ice. A case of orange juice. A couple of candles.
All eyes turned to Mussan.
"Motherfuckers were looking, like, Who the fuck is that?" Mussan recalls. "I'm looking at the rappers and shit, they got plastic cups in their hands. We're walking around with big-ass Grey Goose bottles."
As the night progressed, Mussan kept a bottle of vodka at his side and filled strangers' cups. He took a picture with Snoop Dogg. Someone passed around Ecstasy, and people popped the pills like Altoids.
It felt like the peak of Mussan's year, but 2006 was about to get even better. Radio stations around the country were starting to play his single, "59Fifty." Kansas City's top-rated radio station, KPRS 103.3, played it from December 2006 through February 2007. "People said he reminded them of 50 [Cent]," says the station's program director, Myron Fears.
Mussan had the essential trinity for making it in the music industry: talent, connections and, thanks to a wealthy investor, money.
But it was starting to go to his head.
Mussan should have been Kansas City's Nelly.
In 1999, a record exec's map of America would have looked like this: pushpins up and down the coast of California. Pushpins in New York, in Atlanta, in Chicago. A pin in Houston. A pin in Miami.
When Nelly dropped his No. 1 hit album Country Grammar in June 2000, the Midwest finally got its pin. On his way to fame, Nelly hauled his hometown with him, name-checking the Lou in effervescent party songs that looped on Top 40 radio. Nelly's momentum carried the rest of his crew, the St. Lunatics, which released its own album (like Nelly's, on Universal) the next year. Though St. Louis-born Chingy was a protégé of Ludacris, Chingy's career took off after he went on tour with Nelly.
Kansas City's hip-hop scene is still waiting for that kind of star. Many local artists blame KC radio, complaining that the city doesn't have a station committed to pushing hometown music on regular rotation. (Charlie Chan, a DJ at St. Louis' WHHL 104.1, broke Nelly by playing his singles in St. Louis clubs, which prompted DJ Kut to play him on New York City's Power 105.1.)
Record execs are looking to break someone from the Midwest, says Terry McGill, CEO and founder of a Texas company called Major Money Entertainment. "That's our goal — to put Kansas City on the map," McGill tells The Pitch by phone from his office near Dallas. "Not just Kansas City but the whole Midwest. Tulsa, Wichita, Kansas City, Omaha — there's about four, five, six artists in those markets who have a shot. The key is just finding 'em."