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Posted by Robert
Rap News Network
10/11/2004 4:59:15 AM

Tags and topics realted to this article include Nelly, Jay-Z, Lil Jon and Notorious B.I.G..

When hit rapper Nelly shopped around his first album in the late 1990s, New York's premier hip-hop labels, Def Jam Records and Bad Boy Records, passed on the unknown artist from St. Louis. He didn't have the gritty street cred of homegrown acts like Jay-Z and the late Notorious B.I.G.

Ultimately, Universal Records decided to take a chance on the rapper, with his melodic style and milder lyrics. Nelly's first album, Country Grammar, went on to sell more than 9 million units in the United States alone.

 "The other labels thought his music wasn't hard-core, wasn't gangster, wasn't violent," says Monte Lipman, president of Universal Records, part of the Universal Music Group. "They thought it was wack."

Fast-forward five years, and rapper Nelly is no longer the exception but the rule. This year's hottest hip-hop artists are from the Midwest and the South, from Atlanta or St. Louis or Chicago--anywhere, it seems, but here.

Members of the new toned-down breed of musicians, like Nelly and Atlanta rapper Lil Jon, are starting independent labels and clothing lines in their hometowns. Though they emulate New York hip-hop greats Russell Simmons and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, they're pushing New York out of the limelight.

"As the whole hip-hop sound became much, much more mainstream, it opened the door for talent to be found in places other than Queens, Harlem and Brooklyn," says Kenard Gibbs, president of Vibe, an urban music magazine.

During its heyday in the 1990s, hip-hop helped revitalize the moribund music business and returned New York to its glory as the spiritual center of the industry--a role that had been snatched by the West Coast several years before. And hip-hop was more than just a musical force. The entrepreneurial elan of its artists and producers added vigor and innovation to the mix, generating hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

Mr. Simmons launched Def Jam Records, currently a unit of Universal Music Group, more than 20 years ago. He branched out into clothing by launching Phat Farm in 1993. Now a full-fledged fashion empire offering sneakers, womenswear and men's suits, the brand generated $615 million in revenues last year.

Mr. Combs is not far behind, thanks to Bad Boy Records and his $400 million Sean John clothing line. Another young local hip-hop mogul, Damon Dash, set up Roc-A-Fella Records with partner Jay-Z. Their Rocawear fashion unit has grown into a $300 million company.

However, New York is no longer giving birth to the latest artists-cum-entrepreneurs.

Topping the charts

Nelly had the top two best-selling albums, Suit and Sweat, in the third week of September. Atlanta-based Usher has the biggest-selling album so far this year, with 5.7 million copies sold. OutKast, a duo from Atlanta, sold 3.1 million copies of its album last year and won a Grammy for album of the year. Other new platinum artists this year include Chingy from St. Louis, Lil Jon from Atlanta and Kanye West from Chicago.

Although the out-of-towners have been recording for several years, their popularity has exploded in the past year or so.

"What we're seeing is a four- to six-year gestation period giving birth right now," says Tom Silverman, founder of pioneering hip-hop label Tommy Boy Records.

The newcomers have quickly replaced fading New York hip-hop icons in the public imagination. Jay-Z has announced plans to retire. Even the very

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