They’re staring at Hassan Hamilton. As the massive rapper and I make our way into Downtown’s Container Park, I notice them—pairs of concerned eyes focused our way. “Nice shirt, man!” one guy yells, before coming in for a handshake. Confused, I look to my right … and finally notice the words on Hassan’s white XXL shirt: “I enjoy vagina” in fire-engine red.
Hassan’s T-shirts are a lot louder than he is. When he’s not rocking the mic Downtown, he’s usually the quiet one near the back of an indie show, supporting local artists of all genres. “My mom was a hippie,” he says, explaining that he digs everything but country. We grab a seat at Bin 702, and he takes out his notebook, covered in Inland Empire and DTLV stickers, the signs of a SoCal native now living in Las Vegas.
In March 2013, Hassan was in a much darker place, going through withdrawal from Klonopin, a benzodiazepine prescribed for anxiety and panic disorders. “It was, essentially, putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound,” he says. And when his doctors took him off the drug cold turkey, Hassan thought more than once that he might die. “I had severe insomnia, sweat spells, I couldn’t eat. My panic and anxiety came back harder than before. It’s like I was losing my mind.” Through perseverance and determination, Hassan made a full recovery and returned to what he loves most: music.
“Now I’m just building on being a better me, free from the panic and the worry and the things that were hindering me.” His words sound like fodder for his next track, though his upcoming EP, Fat, Black and Awesome, due in early July, focuses more on ditching his nice-guy image. “I’ve always been that one you can rely on,” he says. “But at the end of the day, nice guys get f*cked over. You jump over oceans for people who wouldn’t jump over puddles for you.”
After lunch, we head to Naked City Audio, where he’s been recording. PBR tallboy tabs echo off the walls as Hassan gets back to work. “You got your headphones on?” asks John Kiehlbauch, known as Professor Def. “The intro’s way too long. [Just] do the last four bars.”
A murky, ’90s beat comes over the speakers. Hassan opens his mouth and in one ferocious breath unleashes a tide of cutthroat rhymes: “Out your mouth I’ll smack the taste/Some say that I’m a basket case … I’m ’bout to turn y’all on like light switches/Me and mics go together like skinny ni**as and fat, white bitches.”
“It’s loud as f*ck in the earphones,” Hassan says after the first take. After a few run-throughs, he’s ready to record for real. His lyrics bounce from politics to sports to current events, “Your boy is a warrior like Stephen Curry … and I won’t stop until Donald Sterling hates this black player.” And later, “I am not better off as a slave/F*ck you Cliven Bundy.”
“He’s different.” Def says. “Las Vegas guys sound like they’re from somewhere else, ’cause Las Vegas doesn’t have a hip-hop identity. As far as Hassan … it’s a different perspective. It’s the message of LA, with the bounciness of the Bay.”
The following Wednesday, Hassan’s at Hard Hat Lounge’s weekly indie-music showcase, Common Ground. His signature comb is sticking out from his hair and he has another eyebrow-raising T-shirt on, this one reading “F*ck yourself.”
“Allow me to squash your dreams, that Vegas is showgirls and slot machines,” he bellows into the mic. “What happens in Vegas is not on your TV screen.” He’s got the crowd in a chokehold, hitting again and again with raw, unfiltered raps. “If anybody’s offended, guess what? I don’t give a sh*t,” he says.
And then, moments after he’s done, he’s hanging out below, doling out hugs and laughing. It’s been a hellacious year, and he’s happy to be back.