Nelly was born Cornell Iral Haynes, Jr. in Austin, Texas, the only son of Cornell Haynes and Rhonda Mack. Haynes' father was serving in the Air Force for much of his childhood, and when he was seven, his parents divorced. Haynes moved with his mother from St. Louis to University City, Missouri as a teenager, and while in high school, Nelly formed the St. Lunatics, with his friends Ali, Murphy Lee, Kyjuan and Slo'Down, and his half brother City Spud. The group enjoyed moderate local popularity with their single "Gimme What Ya Got" in 1997. Despite being popular in Missouri and the surrounding areas, the group struggled to achieve success outside of St. Louis. The rest of the group agreed to let Nelly go solo after a major record deal failed to appear. Later in 1999, Nelly was signed to Universal Music Group by A&R Kevin Law. Law told HitQuarters that Nelly was largely disliked by the label when he first signed, with the feedback he received from his colleagues on the rapper's music being "extraordinarily negative". Nelly was unusual for being a rapper from the Midwest at a time when hip-hop was dominated by the East Coast, West Coast and the South. The label used this to their advantage by branding Nelly as a star of the Midwest, hoping to inspire pride in the people of St Louis and the surrounding regions. Despite the negative feedback he received from the label, Nelly's debut single, Country Grammar (Hot Shit) was a success, peaking at #7 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and UK singles chart. Recognising Nelly's potential, the label began to change their mind and allowed work to begin on his debut album. Along with this, the success of Nelly's debut single opened the door for the St. Lunatics to reunite and join the label shortly after. The label decided to do a solo record with Nelly first and then return to the St. Lunatics the following year.