When DJ Warren Peace first got the call, he couldn’t believe it. This was almost 20 years ago. Hip-hop music had been mainstream for a couple decades and had just exited what is now referred to as its Golden Era. Tupac and Biggie were gone. Puff Daddy, Wu-Tang Clan and Lauryn Hill were big on the charts. In Las Vegas, hip-hop was on the radio, not in the clubs—partially because there weren’t many clubs. At Club Ra at Luxor, which opened in 1997, music director and DJ Duane King had an idea. “He called me at my house and asked if I would be interested in doing an all-hip-hop thing, on the Strip, on a Thursday, at Club Ra,” Peace says. “I remember laughing. Come on. They were not playing any kind of hip-hop on the Strip. Back then, it was a bad word, period. It brought the wrong element [into the casino]. Everyone was listening to hip-hop, but there was no way they were bringing that in.”
But they did. “After I stopped laughing, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’”
Did it work? Of course. Hip-hop didn’t take over the Vegas Strip, tsunami-style, but Thursday at Ra was a big party—and extremely popular with locals. “We were the only ones doing it for a long time,” says Peace, referring to himself and Mr. Bob, another Las Vegas hip-hop stalwart, one you can still catch on KVEG 97.5-FM and hosting hip-hop nights at Embassy Nightclub. “We thought it would blow up, but it wasn’t advertised at all; it was all word of mouth,” Peace says. “A couple years in, it was huge. We weren’t trying to be cool; it was always about the party. My goal at Ra was, if the women were leaving with their shoes off and the guys’ shirts were wet, we did our thing.”
Things have changed. The Las Vegas club scene is huge, as big as any city’s in the world, and you’ll hear hip-hop in some form in almost every venue. Hip-hop and the Las Vegas Strip are getting along better than ever.
And in a sort of full-circle evolution, the club formerly known as Ra, LAX, has surged recently, thanks mostly to a Throwback Thursdays promotion centered around old-school rap, R&B and pop music from the ’80s and ’90s. Artists from different eras perform every month, including Kid ’n Play, Too Short, Salt N Pepa, Juvenile and Mystikal, and the DJ in control is longtime local radio and club pro R.O.B., who worked and toured with Rob Base, Tone Loc, Vanilla Ice and others back in the day.
It’s not just nightclubs, either. The two biggest tours in the hip-hop world stop at the Strip’s new T-Mobile Arena this fall: Drake on September 11 and Kanye West on October 29. The stars of the genre are brighter than ever, and the Vegas-visiting public is seeking out live performance en masse.
“The millennial segment has certainly embraced hip-hop in a significant way,” says Kurt Melien, president of Live Nation Las Vegas, the monster booking agency behind shows like those at T-Mobile. “What we’re seeing [in Vegas] is people looking for something different to do on the second or third—or first—night in town, maybe after they’ve gone to a club already. With hip-hop, the music’s always been there, but people are looking for the live experience. Drake and Future is one of the top-five biggest tours in the world, and my colleagues are saying there hasn’t been buzz like this for a hip-hop concert tour in years, going back as far as we can remember.”
So how did we get here? How did hip-hop go from being a bad word on the Strip to being as prominent—or dominant—as rock, dance music or any other sound?
First, Las Vegas had to grow up. “If you had a black artist on the radio here, that artist maybe couldn’t get played in the club, because [the club] might be afraid too many black people would show up,” says Peace, going back to those early years of Vegas nightlife. “You could play BBD’s ‘Poison,’ but you have to follow it with Exposé or something. You couldn’t sound too hip-hop. The radio doesn’t have to worry about that.”
Those issues are certainly not unique to Las Vegas; such problems have existed as long as hip-hop has. The local low-point came in 2006, when then-Metro sheriff Bill Young said Strip casinos shouldn’t book gangsta rap concerts because they’d lead to violence.
But you can’t stop the music. Peace eventually circumvented the system, along with other DJs, with a trick called open format. “Open format is just another way of saying hip-hop [without] all the connotations that go along with hip-hop,” Jonathan Shecter explains. “Open format became a way to say, ‘Yes, I play hip-hop, but I also play other stuff.’”
Shecter co-founded The Source magazine, known as the bible of hip-hop culture and music, in 1988 and served as director of programming for Wynn Las Vegas nightclubs for several years until 2014. He notes that the “mashup” style of DJing that influences open format is nothing new, and credits the late DJ AM with popularizing the style.
When Wynn’s Encore resort opened in late 2008 and brought XS Nightclub to Las Vegas, Peace, along with his fellow DJ and nightclub music director Dave Fogg, engineered a tweaked style of open-format programming based on Peace’s KLUC radio mix show that was heavy on house—dance music that originated in Chicago in the early 1980s and then became even more popular in Europe. Once instituted at XS, the programming paved the way for the electronic dance music DJ boom in Las Vegas.
“That format took over, but the bottom line was you always had to play hip-hop,” Peace says. “Drums and grooves, that’s what people in the U.S. grow up on. In Europe, it’s based more on classical music. The root is more melodic. My parents listened to Earth, Wind & Fire, and [Dutch DJ] Tiësto’s parents probably listened to Bach and Beethoven.”
EDM still reigns in the Strip’s nightclubs, and will do so as long as the genre’s star DJs continue to draw thousands to party in Vegas every week. But many of those club sets include quite a bit of hip-hop music, especially when American DJs like Diplo, Skrillex or Steve Aoki are on the decks. The newest clubs on the Strip are going the open-format route by mixing EDM and hip-hop. Jewel at Aria opened in May with Lil Jon, Swizz Beatz and Iggy Azalea blending in among DJ acts like Aoki, The Chainsmokers and Nervo. And Drai’s at the Cromwell, which opened in 2014, has emerged as a true hip-hop club, featuring concert-style performances from Nas, Future, Tyga, T.I., Meek Mill and more. Fetty Wap debuts there September 17.
“What Drai’s did was brilliant,” says Peace, who occasionally plays at the club. “They looked at the landscape and put together proper execution. ... The thing is, it’s pop music. It doesn’t cease being hip-hop, but hip-hop now in Vegas is strong because it’s pop music.”
The Las Vegas Strip’s specialty is programming entertainment that will attract big audiences from all over the world. Today, that program is more diverse than ever before. “The big picture is, America is founded on black music,” Shecter says. “Rock, blues, R&B, soul, disco—all these things created hip-hop. The American audience enjoys dance music in many ways, but in the end, the roots of black music will always win out in the U.S. The inevitable default position of youth culture in America is black music.”