"You better lose yourself in the music, the moment/You own it, you better never let it go/You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime" --Eminem, "Lose Yourself"
Hussle is the first contestant to arrive, and he quietly leans against the purple counter plastered with pictures of women with big black hair and even bigger butts and the display cases of rhinestoned crunk cups and bling-encrusted belt buckles.
His eyes hidden behind aviators and his well-muscled frame sporting a brown leather jacket, he keeps to himself, but when I approach him with a few questions, he opens up.
“I do it all. Whatever it takes. Yea, I’m tryin’ to make it big. I think everybody’s tryin’ to make it big. … Nah, I ain’t got no day job. Just grindin’ and rappin’. Typical story.”
Grinding and rapping, making and sending out demos, trying to become famous, this is the “typical story” of everyone who makes their way to Grapes & Scittles, a small hip-hop clothing store at 3585 S. Maryland Parkway just across from the Boulevard Mall, on this Friday night. I’m the only white female present and an unlikely judge of a freestyle rap battle, but Y.A. Poet, a local hip-hop artist, asked me to be on the panel, along with him and Grapes & Scittles owner (and parttime music producer/fashion photographer) Dice Hogg.
Freestyle rap battles like the one he’ll compete in tonight are a pastime for Hussle, not a way to get famous. They are fun and entertaining, a way to make contacts, get his name out there and keep his game fresh. Their inevitable atmosphere of tension, competition, confrontation and rivalry is mitigated by friendship and respect.
“You ain’t supposed to come with no written rap, you know what I mean,” Hussle explains. “Just spit in the moment – do what it do, off the top of the head.
“I write songs, but this right here is just kinda like aggression getting out, just spittin.’ Lights camera action, you know. You got 30 seconds; it’s time to shine, you feel me? A song is more like, you listen, download it on your ringtone or somethin’. This is more like, ‘Wow did you hear him just say that right there?’”
Soon Omar Starr makes his entrance. A DJ at KCEP 88.1 FM, Starr tries to get local hip-hop and rap artists exposure by playing their songs on his radio station and posting videos of rap and B-boy battles on his website, AHAT.tv (stands for All Hip-Hop All the Time). Tall and confident, he seems to be a high-profile force in the local hip-hop scene, a proactive, organized and intelligent leader. He hosts the evening’s rap battle, orchestrates its smooth and successful execution and makes sure everything that goes down is captured on film.
He explains the local hip-hop scene to me: It is weak but gaining momentum. No hip-hop artist from Las Vegas has “made it” yet (i.e. signed to a label and record deal. Ne-Yo is an R&B artist; he doesn’t count.). Other cities don’t respect us as a matrix of music or valid artists. We don’t have a local venue that is solely dedicated to hip-hop, and the one big hip-hop club, Poetry, “don’t really give no local artists love, as far as rappers,” Starr says.
A few years ago it was even worse: A local rapper shot a policeman, and Mayor Goodman quickly banned hip-hop from the Strip. No venue would book a local rap artist – instead, they’d end up performing in small shops like Grapes & Scittles.
“But now they’re even loosenin’ up on that,” says Starr, “Ludacris just performed last night. T -Pain was somewhere; they had Slick Rick, DJ Quick and all them.”
The local underground is slowly gaining clout with monthly freestyle rap battles like the one we are at tonight, held at locales like parks and stores owned by friends of the genre. There are First Friday events, Black Book Sessions on Sundays and B-boy battles (hip-hop breakdancing) that bring in crowds of 500 or more.
As artists arrive at the store they all thrust demo CDs, flyers for upcoming events and business cards at me. They all want badly to make it big, but out of all the rappers and grinders out there right now, Starr thinks only two have a really good shot: Reallionare Dream, because he has boxer Floyd Mayweather’s support, PR team and money, and 20-year-old Artisan, who has been on BET, had his song played on the radio, won a ton of rap battles and has earned a reputation that extends beyond Las Vegas. He is competing tonight.
There are four contestants: Young Mack, his lean frame swamped in a big blue hoodie and frizzy hair tied in a ponytail, King Lo, with the dusky, hooded eyes of a lizard, Hussle and Artisan.
They battle first with a beatbox background, provided by the well-honed vocal chords of Jay R, and then a cappella. They spit rhymes quickly, with lyrics that are clever, creative, funny, sexual, insulting and violent. You have to hear them to get the full effect.
The competition moves quickly. In the first round Young Mack loses to Hussle, who then loses to King Lo, who narrowly loses to Artisan, who remains the reigning champion. Starr is right: Artisan, who had brought an entourage of friends with him, had a noticeable star quality, a special swagger. When he opens his wide mouth and raps, confidently confronting the opponent centimeters away from his face, you can’t help but listen, laugh, smile and holler.
“’09 is my year/I shine like Time Square … I been stackin’, I ain’t worried about a lay off/I been ballin’ all season, take it to the playoff … I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it/I’m the shit so my shit’s worth more than your life is/And fuck what you heard n---a, Las Vegas is where it’s at/I’m a keep spittin’ crack, put Vegas on the map.”
“I’ve been rapping since I was 17,” says Artisan who is endearingly modest, “when I realized I wasn’t gonna be a doctor or a lawyer no more, and it just took off from there. So I’m still grindin’ and climbin’. I make beats in the studio, just trying to do all that I can do. I made quite a name for myself, but it ain’t enough, so I’m a keep going.”
The young man is incredibly ambitious.
“All I do is music. I was doing music before I came here. I’m going back to do some more music. I don’t hang out, I don’t go to clubs. I’ll hang out and club when I get to where I want to be.”
And where does he want to be? “At the top.”