In April 2003, a day in the life of Nelson El likely involves meetings with radio-station programmers and with the tech-school students who will produce the commercials announcing his new disc, In Ya Face, as well as some studio time with that album's producer, DJ Rice. Evenings often involve treks to exotic destinations such as Montgomery, Missouri, and Salina, Kansas, where the Kansas City-based rapper plays parties to bolster his regional fanbase. Absent from his agenda are gunplay, lewd nightclub exploits and the other acts of mayhem that appear regularly in his rhymes, especially the latest batch.
Nelson sees no conflict between the clip-emptying gangsta on wax and the politely professional married man who answers to "honey" and "love" at home. Paraphrasing the cliché, he says: Don't blame the messenger for the shootings.
"If Larry Moore reports about a homicide or a robbery in our community, we're not going to look at him and say, 'Larry Moore, you're a bad guy,'" Nelson says, becoming the first hip-hop personality to liken himself to the elder statesman of Kansas City broadcast journalism. "Don't blame me for witnessing and reporting what's happened to me or my friends. If these things aren't happening, why are there so many prisons? Something's got to be going on in the streets. That's just reality."
What might confuse listeners, especially younger ones, is the fact that Nelson El's felonious on-wax alter egos do dirt in first person.
"I'm not actually partaking in these acts, and I might not like them, but this is what people identify with," Nelson says. Unlike Tech N9ne, whose tracks dealing with infidelity are famously nonfictional, Nelson plays a role, a character who repeatedly tells all the ladies in the house to touch their toes without calisthenic concerns in mind. His wife, he says, understands that he doesn't do real-life research for his lecherous lines.
"She realizes that, while you don't have to sell out, you do have to speak to what people are doing," he explains. "If they go to a club, they're probably trying to pick someone up. If they're on a date, they're probably trying to get to a certain point."
As the "certain point" euphemism suggests, Nelson almost never curses. No obscenities appeared on his previous releases, Chop City and his debut EP, The Chamber, although those discs, filled with bouncy beats and R&B vocal hooks, had a club-friendly feel. But In Ya Face sounds as rugged as the lyrics Nelson spits. Dance-oriented pop-rap is built for airplay and mass acceptance, so it often eschews vulgarity. But grimy beats and violent topics almost always lead to a product packed with profanity.
"There aren't many rappers who can communicate the hard stories without cussing," Nelson says. "It's just never been my style."
Up until his current release, it's never been his style to use niggaz or push the outlaw angle, but he says Rice's stark, old-school keys-and-bass backdrops demanded that he test his limits.
"The beats dictated that I do something harder," he says. "You can't do a love song or anything light with Rice's stuff."
Instead, when it came time to record "Tru Story," a stay-in-school, don't-do-drugs public-service announcement that employs Nelson's children as a backing chorus, he looked to Don Juan. Not necessarily known for his soft side, this former Tech N9ne collaborator nonetheless found a suitably warm mix for Nelson's ray of hope.
"Instead of putting an element of positivity in every song, I try to dedicate one whole song to positivity on every album," Nelson says. "'Tru Story' talks about a young, up-and-coming rapper who decided to sell drugs; then, when he's right about to catch his big break, his past catches up with him and he has to go to Leavenworth."
For Nelson, this functions not only as a cautionary tale for youngsters but also as a constant reminder of his own checkered past. Nelson's long-ago run-ins with the law inform his street sagas, infusing them with vivid details and criminal credibility. Yet because every line reminds him how far he's come and how much he could have lost, his memories also prevent him from glamorizing his previous lifestyle.
"Those experiences still affect me now -- the things I do, the way I act," Nelson says. "When I was detained, I started thinking about what I could learn from my situation and how I could communicate those lessons."
Nelson, a hardworking entrepreneur and family man, wants to steer fans in the right direction, but he also realizes that listeners often ignore scared-straight testimonials and musical vocational advice. So, he sneaks other tracks into the mix, such as "Tru Story" and "My Angel," an ode to his mother from The Chamber. He hopes that these seeds stick while the others blow up at the clubs without having a longer-lasting impact.
He's not alone in this approach -- everyone from DMX to 2Pac to Tech N9ne has included uplifting material alongside nihilistic rants -- but other artists either maintain thug-life ties or embrace decadence that make even shocking segments of their songs read like diary entries. It's fitting that Nelson's single, now getting spins in Columbia, Missouri, and Manhattan, Kansas, is titled "Chameleon in the Trunk." When he's not showing his "Tru" colors, the rapper wears his disguises well.