Hold up. Before we proceed any further, I should clarify that "most important" business. The city being a pinprick dot on hip-hop's map, there's probably no such thing as the most important hip-hop tune to ever come out of Vegas. When asked, a handful of local artists certainly couldn't name one.
Of course, pose that question in New York, and you're likely to incite arguments, maybe even fisticuffs. I can hear the conversation now:
"Hands down, son, Public Enemy's 'Rebel Without a Pause.'"
"Naw, yo, it's Rakim's 'Follow the Leader.'"
"Both a y'all's crazy. BDP's 'My Philosophy,'
without a doubt, B."
It'd go on forever. Which is the point. Vegas doesn't have the hip-hop history other places do. Los Angeles, whose Blood-Crip culture launched a million studio gangsters? Nope. Philly, which gave us Schooly D, The Roots, Beanie Sigel and Eve? Nope. Nor Jersey (Naughty By Nature, Redman, The Fugees) or the Bay Area (Too Short, E-40, Lyrics Born) or Atlantahip-hop's reigning meccaor Chicago, Houston, Memphis ... even hip-hop afterthoughts like Cleveland and Boston get more shine than Vegas.
Hence the importance of the song reverberating through this bedroom studio on a nippy January afternoon. Catchy tune, this. A marriage of bass and adrenaline. There's an earnestness in the emcee's voice, like he's been stung before by hip-hop but ain't about to give up on his dreams of blowing up.
Rapped by 25-year-old Vegas (by way of Texas) emcee D Jon (aka Donald Johnson) and produced by Thomas Marolda, the Grammy-winning writer and producer of "Look Out For Number One," from the movie Staying Alive, and owner of the Summerlin home, "Get Up" landed on the score of Rocky Balboaprobably first time a local emcee has made the score of a big movie. The song beat out submissions by hip-hop thug-o-crats like DMX.
The typical Vegas ending to the story would have D Jon following in the footsteps of a generation of other local rappersfrom Doomsday and 420 to The Chapter and Qadeer, King J to X-1who've crept within a few feet of their 15 minutes of fame, but haven't gotten that major-label deal, that deal that changes lives and tax brackets. Off the microphone, D Jon's laid-back, thick-as-okra Texas drawl makes him sound like he's barely awake. On "Get Up," though, he's energized. The song is personal. He's had songs rejected by America's Next Top Model and several movies on the Lifetime channel, so he has to make something out of this.
Possibly his ticket out this purgatorial rap city, "Get Up" could also be the theme song for Vegas' rickety hip-hop scene. It's a scene that, 18 months ago, looked worse than Vanilla Ice's last comeback. After a series of violent incidents at rap concerts in 2005, then-Sheriff Bill Young urged casinos not to book gangsta rap acts. Targeted at celebrity rappersthe Snoop Doggs and 50 Cents of the worldit impacted local artists, who've struggled to get casino venues, having to settle for small clubs that often lack requisite security. The murders of a handful of rappers in 2005 added to the antirap fire. Shit really got hectic a year ago when budding rapper Amir Crump fatally shot Metro officer Henry Prendes. Crump's occupational goals became the life of the story, not the alleged domestic abuse he engaged in. Soon after, the state Gaming Control Board chimed in, reiterating Young's warning to gaming licensees. As if the bandwagon wasn't already full, university regent Stavros Anthony, a cop by trade, encouraged a similar ban on campuses.
The rap scene was getting dissed: by law enforcement, major labels (one artist, Johnny Boy, was dropped by Universal over contract issues), radio stations (wouldn't play their records), venues (casinos, clubs and bars) and each other. This crew bad-mouthed that one. That dude ice-grilled this one. With all the external problems and internecine strife, suddenly the rap life didn't seem worth livingand could actually get you hurt or killed.
The rap ban made Vegas, for a time, the center of the hip-hop universe. Local and national forums addressed issues like racism, freedom of speech and the cultural disconnect between hip-hop and mainstream America. Editorials were written and activists like Troy Nkrumah of the National Hip-Hop Political Congress and websites like allhiphop.com monitored the situation.
Today, things are much improved. The music's bettermore attention paid to lyrics and beats. Beefs are being put aside to focus on making money. Crews are connecting with hip-hop luminaries on projects. Latin hip-hop is gaining steam. Radio stations are slowly opening their playlists to local cats and, shock of all shocks, casinos are starting to embrace hip-hop. Last Thursday night, outside the Rockhouse club at the Imperial Palace, two graffiti artists painted images, a growing crowd admiring their skills with paint cans. The night also included some emceeing and three dozen breakdancers in the middle of the dance floor.
However, it's not all kinship and kumbayas. (Although you can hear spiritual rap from local Christian emcees on idradionetwork.com.) There's still drama over things like which side of the town is the hardest, which crew is the toughest and who's truly repping Vegas hip-hopthe natives or the nomads. Remnants still persist of a crabs-in-a-barrel mentalityI want to be the first to blow, and if that means pulling you down or climbing over you, so be it. What's different, Spoatymac says, is how people are channeling animosityinto their art, not at something.
And he and others say the former sheriff deserves partial credit for rappers stepping up their game. If he doesn't push the rap ban and venues don't listen, then you might not have people touring the country building Vegas' rap or running their enterprises from MySpace.
"[After what he said] we had a choice," says Spoatymac, whose Street Reporter has gotten good local reviews. "We had to make it happen."
'We Can Have a Peaceful Event'
He calls himself Mr. Las Vegas, but to look at Johnny Boy is to see America's nightmare. Not that he's ugly, mean or particularly menacing. Quite the opposite. A former member of the Hispanic 28th Street gang, he's polite, funny and jovial. But he stands several shades under 6 feet, has a shiny dome and more tattoos than the average Hell's Angel. Dressed in zoot suit attire, he looks like a throwback to the Mexican gangsters of East Los Angeles lorecharmingly cool cholos who'd smile at you as soon as kill you. In overalls and a Raiders hat, he resembles a thuggin' homeboy who'd pistol-whip an enemy violating his turf. But these are just looks, part of his character. Dude's got kids, a job and a full-fledged music careerhe parted ways with Universal Records over money issues and wants another shot at a major-label deal.
Flash back to November. On the stage at Club Madrid inside Sunset Station. In a white hat and overalls, surrounded by a harem of pretty young Latina things (his dancers.) When he rapped about being "Mr. Las Vegas," you felt that he believed it. Before the show, he was like a mini Wayne Newton, mackin' the ladies, dapping up the thugs, making sure things were cool. The most important part of the night, he says, was the ending. The first such event in a casino since the rap-ban comment, it went off without a hitch.
"We wanted to show that we can have a peaceful event, and we did."
The 200 or so people at Sunset Station that night pales in comparison to the nearly 2,000 folks who get a weekly fix of Latino hip-hop and reggaeton (a type of Spanish-language dance music developed in Puerto Rico in the mid-1990s) on Urban Latino Radio, KLAV 1230-AM. Urayoan Padillo ("call me Uti," pronounced "ooo-ti") is the so-energetic-it's-contagious chief executive officer of the Thursday evening program.
"This show is part of a movement. If we listen to regular hip-hop, where's the Latino movement in it? So I created a forum for it," he says. "For young Latino people that grow up in the city, in an urban environment, our music relates to our experiences. We can't relate to our grandparents' experience of working in the fields, but we must focus on being bilingual, so we can still enrich our culture, [while] living in an urban culture."
The Stardust welcomed Latin hip-hop, but now that it's closed, Uti says there are few, if any, amenable venues. That'd change if rappers would clean up their acts and if listeners would alter their perspectives. Yes, some songs reflect the harsh environs of barrio or ghetto life, but not all do. For every Fat Joe (street name: Joey Crack), there's a Will Smith. Put out more mainstream musicUti bumps music that veers toward love, respect and having funand venues will come calling, he says. Act civil, and cops won't have a reason to harass urban youth.
"We start the change in our lives, we're responsible," he says. "If a police officer is negative towards us, we can't help that. We need to forgive him and keep on doing our thing."
'If I Make It, Vegas Makes It'
Tyson White is in a bit of a funk. He was a manager at Big B's, the legendary Maryland Parkway music store. It closed last month amid allegations of financial chicanery. But he should be on top of the world.
At mention of a CD he worked on, Cali Untouchable Radio: The Game Returns, White perks up. Yes, it's that Game, the multi-platinum performer. White sent some music to a DJ in Cali who linked with Game's folks and got him to produce on the mixtape. Game Returns was put out to hype Doctor's Advocate, a follow-up to The Game's five-million selling debut, The Documentary. White earned music production credits on the CD.
"I was blessed with the chance to manage hip-hop and mixtapes at Big B's, and I met a lot of the up-and-coming local artists, such as The Chapter, Sampson, Classic Crew," says the 28-year-old, who goes by the name September 7th. (September 7 is White's birthday. His hero, Tupac Shakur, was shot on September 7, 1996. Shakur's death six days later changed White from a drug-using knucklehead into a responsible adult: "It left a mental scar. I used that name to remind me to stay on the musical path.")
It was magical, White says, almost surreal, to hear one of the world's hottest emcees giving him props, despite the fact that they weren't in the studio working together and had never met. They still haven't. "Being shouted out by The Game felt really good, but Big B's closing a month later made it really bittersweet," he says.
Souring things even more: the recent racketeering arrest of Atlanta's DJ Drama (Tyree Simmons), arguably the top mixtape DJ in the country. Drama is the Oprah of the mixtape CD; support from him is big. Such is the murky otherworld of mixtapesshunned by labels who don't condone noncopyrighted music but also woven into album promotionthat Drama's arrest has many rappers jittery. (The beef pits artists willing to forgo royalties and revenue for the sake of exposure against the Recording Industry Association of America, which equates mixtapes with pirating.) Rap icon Chuck D of Public Enemy told MTV that many DJs around the country are getting out of the biz for now. MTV.com reports that a slew of web sites that sell mixtapes have stopped. (The owners of hiphopsite.com, which has a store on Maryland Parkway, weren't reachable before press time. Their web site lists a catalog of mixtapes.)
Posits White about Drama's arrest: "He was the most official guy. But we're official, too [his Cali mixtape collective]. We're no different than an independent artist on consignment from a store. But we're about to be registered with RIAA this year."
As for how the double-barreled blow of Big B's closure and Drama's arrest sets back his career, White isn't sure. He might well be the only local talent who's been affiliated with a rapper as successful as The Game. (By no means is he the first local act to land a big name on a project. The Chapter has Roots drummer/producer ?uestlove's stamp of approval and got worldwide distribution for Us vs. Them. Qadeer recorded with Lil Flip. Other groups have gotten folks like Brotha Lynch and Mopreme of Tupac's Outlaws on their joints.) How to turn that affiliation into something major is what White has to figure out. Same thing for Vegas: This place is a hip-hop magnet, somebody's gotta get noticedand quick.
"Arizona is actually starting to lap us. With the Game mixtape, we need to show people in Vegas that someone from Vegas did this, and you can do this, too. A lot of people don't know who September 7th is. But if I make it, Vegas makes it," says White, who was born in Louisiana but has spent 25 of his 28 years in Las Vegas. He went to Valley High and briefly to UNLV. "It's inevitable that someone will get signed, if we keep our heart in it. There's a mixtape crew out here called Lost Sounds Crew, and they're doing major damage. They're putting their mixtapes out for free. There's progression here in terms of new artists, but the culture hasn't caught up with yet. Last year, the culture was very slow on the retail side. We need a Game to come out of Vegas."
'Doin' What It Takes to Get Noticed'
Dwayne Cromwell owns Triple P Records, which is one of a gaggle of record labels in town. (I stopped counting at 20.) Though he'd probably disagree, Cromwell doesn't necessarily grind harder than any of the othersit's an honorarium for some artists to be known all around town, in every 'hood, and to have built a bigger name in out-of-town locales than on the home front. Credit the rise of his label to a more unconventional imprimatur: going where hip-hop hasn't dared. Like wrapping a Citizens Area Transit bus (with permission) in the visage of his main artist, Qadeer. Or appearing with the likes of university regent/cop Stavros Anthony, who wanted gangsta rap acts banned from college campuses, on a KNPR radio show after the Crump-Prendes shootings.
On the plate now: doing mixtapes and cliquing up with artists outside of Vegas to let foreigners know what's poppin' inside Vegas, including one with ... DJ Drama. Cromwell, who is aware of Drama's legal travails, is putting out the next edition of the deejay's infamous Gangsta Grillz CDs.
"We're blessed to be able to do this," Cromwell says. "We did a mixtape with DJ Warrior that got on the MTV pick of the week on Mixtape Mondays in July. So we wanted to get with another DJ who was credible with the mix-CD game. You got DJ Drama, Greg Street, K Slay, but we went with Drama because his second artist is out of the South and Drama is the hottest DJ in the South. We got to align ourselves with people outside of Vegas because in Vegas there's no one to align yourselves with. There's no one you can go to give you those real connections."
'Doin' the Drummer Man'
On the Vegas hip-hop biopic, Heat City from Undaground to Gangsta, local entertainer/man-about-town "Sweet" Lou Collin says Vegas needs a distinctive style. That's tough. Vegas is gangstafied, but Cali's got that genre sewn up. Can't make a name talking about babes and bling, either. Cats in London do that. And who wants to hear about casinos?
How about a distinctive dance? Dance tunes have helped power Atlanta's rise.
The best candidate so far is called the drummer boy. You do it just the way the dance sounds, like you're drummingslow and to a one-two, one-two beat.
If the reaction of the crowd during the Black Student Association's open-mic night at UNLV is any indication, Willy Haddock, aka Lil Will, might be on to something. The song started off slowly, but when he and a half-dozen members of his posse launched into the chorus, doing the dance as if they were drum majors in a black college band, people stood up in the aisles and followed them. The crowd was pumped. Plans are to shoot a video, Haddock says, and take the dance as far as it can go.
And after you've danced to the drummer man, Haddock and his crew want you to listen to his magazine. That's not a typo: Yes, listen to his magazine. Golden Rapper Magazine (Magnum)it might be the only mag with a condom in the mastheadis a magazine-on-CD replete with songs and interviews. Cover lines from the second issue: "B Mase Shows The Veg' He Can Rap!!!" "Calling All Thick Thangs!!!" "Is Sedrew Price in Young Ballas?" Esquire, it's not.
"It was a new concept and something nobody had done before," he says. And the early reviews? "People like it."
"'Image Is Everything'but don't forget talent, savvy and luck/The A&R's don't even scout no mo'/Now everybody's wonderin' which route to go/Without a label, independently about the dough/But localized, so everybody be doubtin' the flow/But if we step up our game a bit/The rap reputation in Vegas will change a bit/And on the map, we'll finally get a name in it/And [be] recognized for being lyrically dangerous"
"Stag'nated," from Street Reporter
If not the most important song to come out of Vegas, Spoatymac's "Stag'Nated" might be the most truthful. It hints at the still-fractious nature of the Vegas hip-hop scene. What cross-pollination there isunderground rappers, thug rappers, battle-rappers, etc., all on the same pagehe's responsible for much of it. In his first DVD, Heat City from Undaground to Gangsta, he interviewed a who's-who of Vegas artists, from pioneers like Doomsday to poetic spitters like the eclectic Isaac Sawyer.
For his second DVD installment, as well as an upcoming compilation, he's reached back and widened his scope, trying to include everyone he can, provided their skills are up to par. In assessing the scene, top to bottom, Spoatymac says people have become more professional and are putting more time into the craft.
"They're putting projects together a lot better, with artwork and all the copyrights, so that when someone from a major label comes out here, they have a professional product. We want music executives to say that Vegas is being represented well. Image is everything."
Quality is a testy subject. Perhaps because the scene is so small, so insular, and the potential for retribution is quick, many folks don't name names when they talk about what's goodand what isn't. Having listened to nearly two dozen CDs and written harsh critiques of some, I can say that the best ones have what everyone looks for in music: good stories, expressive lyrics, the ability to alter your mood and transport you somewhere else.
By and large, Vegas hip-hop artists don't do this. Hell of a bind they're in. You're supposed to rap about your city, butand I'm thinking as a music executivewho wants to hear songs about gambling?
Rapper seeking deal: Vegas has rough neighborhoods.
Music exec: They've got gangs in North Dakota.
Rapper seeking deal: I got songs for the streets and the clubs.
Music exec: Who doesn't these days?
Looming larger than the lingering beefs, the handful of venues willing to let rappers perform, the lack of wholesale support from radio stationsall extremely vital components in helping artists own their cities, which helps in negotiating with the big boys, who want to know your sales numbersis uncertainty over what it'll take for a Vegas artist to go big. The town has nearly every aspect of hip-hop covered. Gangsta. Conscious. Underground. Dance. Latin. Reggaeton. Horrorcore. Nerdcore. Mixtape. Pimp shit. And still no shine.
Odds are a rap version of R&B star Ne-Yo (went to Rancho High, has written for the likes of Mary J. Blige and earned several Grammy nods) will get a major-label deal.
Says Stallone, 'You Did a Good Job'
You can trace Atlanta's current dominance back to the early-'90s with Kris Kross, Chicago's come-up to Twista and Da Brat, St. Louis' steady rise to Nelly. All it takes is one person and a city can blow up, Marolda says. He's fiddling with the sound equipment and running down a mental Rolodex of industry contacts and potential avenues to put D Jon's name at the forefront of the local hip-hop movement. D Jon trusts him to do what other producers couldn't deliver on: getting him to the next step, putting the city on the hip-hop map in much the way The Killers and Panic! At the Disco have done for rock.
Key to their plans is using Marolda's credentials. They're all over his walls. Says one plaque: "National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presents certificate in nomination for Best Album of Original Score written for a Motion Picture or TV Special for 'Staying Alive." Another notes the platinum status of Staying Alive.
Those bona fides are how he got the hook-up for Rocky Balboa. But D Jon still had to competehis and Three 6 Mafia's songs made the cut. In this respect, Marolda is like N.W.A. producer Morey Alexander, a music industry veteran who moved here and is trying to revive his career. So far, no good. Alexander's signed former phenom Canibus and has put out several artists that haven't yet broken through.
D Jon is excited at the possibilities, though you can't tell by his laid-back tone. His most animated moment comes in the retelling of an encounter between him and Sylvester Stallone at Rocky Balboa's premiere. Stallone comes up to him, sizes him up, then in his Lurch-like drawl, gives him props. "D Jon," D Jon says, mimicking Sly, "you did a good job."
D Jon's new CD is titled Underdawg. That's how he feels. The guy seems to have a knack for encapsulating the Vegas hip-hop experience. Knocked down by problems created by those inside and outside the scene, it's weathered the blows, got up and got back in the fight.
Marolda turns down the bass on the title song: "Somebody big should've come out of Vegas a long time ago. We think he [D Jon] can be the first."
Familiar last words.