Rhyme And Reason

Could the sheriff’s bullying be the best thing that’s happened to Vegas rap?

Damon Hodge

Warning! This article on hip-hop contains explicit reasoning, parental guidance suggested. What I'm about to write may sound crazy—like I'm puffing on one of those potent purple cush blunts that some rappers talk about. But here goes: Sheriff Bill Young has the makings of a good hip-hop producer.

Before you try to revoke my ghetto pass, hear me out. I'm not saying he should switch careers. (How does Young Beezy sound for a moniker?) What I am saying is that the best producers are salesmen: Suge Knight peddled fear and Death Row Records sold millions of records; P.Diddy peddled flash and Bad Boy sold millions; Lil Jon peddles steroidal angst and he sells millions. Stripped to its essence, salesmanship is about putting your name in peoples' mouths. Now to my point: Hasn't the sheriff done that for local rap?

When's the last time a majority of the major media outlets in town did stories on the Vegas rap scene? When's the last time a university regent, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, Metro police, the state Gaming Control Board, nightclub owners, university students, television anchors, radio personalities, the people who write letters to the editor, the people who lead watercooler office talk, rap consumers, parents, teenagers, Myspace.com users as well as hip-hop artists, producers, entrepreneurs, supporters and activists were simultaneously involved in some form or fashion in Vegas rap? When's the last time the disparate factions of the Vegas rap scene not only agreed on something but came together for something positive, like they did for last Thursday's Don't Stop Hip-Hop forum Downtown?

You can thank Young's reactionary, hair-trigger response to incidents surrounding rap for this. Without the sheriff warning the Gaming Control Board in a letter last June about booking gangsta rap acts, does the Wall Street Journal—nothing says your-name-is-in-peoples'-mouths notoriety like coverage in WSJ—run an April 3 story on Harrah's Entertainment nixing a private Snoop Dogg performance at the Rio due to pressure from law enforcement?

Doubt it.

Young's letter to the gaming board came after a handful of shootings and deaths involving rappers last year, and his rhetoric intensified after the February death of officer Henry Prendes, slain during a domestic violence dispute with 21-year-old Amir Crump, an aspiring (emphasis on aspiring) rapper killed during the shootout with cops.

By seeking to ban gangsta rap from gaming venues, the sheriff has, in less than one year, helped generate more ink on Vegas rap than has been spilled in the last 15. He's also pushed local artists—who are most affected by the proposed casino blackout because their performance options are already limited—into activism, becoming their version of '90s rap antagonist C. Delores Tucker (except he's male, wears a badge and can legally shoot you if need be).

Don't Stop Hip-Hop's organizers took pains to note the event wasn't a Young-bashing affair—though the sheriff wasn't far from the minds of the 40-plus attendants.

Microphone in hand, Lou Collins, president of Fan Club Entertainment, whose 124 S. Sixth St. office doubled as rally central, says, "We're here to raise awareness. We're here to inform the misinformed. Hip-hop is not a race. Hip-hop is a culture. We are not taking on the city. We are a group of individuals trying to feed their families, trying to eat, trying to make a positive impact in the community ... A lot of [big-time] rappers don't even know there's a ban ... But we [local artists] need casino platforms to show our talent. We're targeting entertainment directors and club owners. We want them to make a rational, reasonable decision on allowing hip-hop in their venues."

Try making a living as a rapper when you've got no place to perform. While celebrity rappers can sell millions of CDs without touring, local artists often rely on performing to generate enough interest to sell a couple thousand units. Breached contracts have forced quite a few acts to tour, which is a break-even proposition at best since traveling costs money. And try traveling out of town to perform when you're a single father raising three daughters like the appropriately named Johnnie Las Vegas.

"It's almost impossible to get gigs here. I'm involved in a breach- of-contract situation right now," says Johnnie, noting that Metro questioned him because he was a friend of Crump's.

And try getting gigs when you're a tattooed ex-felon who served time for gang-related shootings, has paid his societal debt and now raps for a living, like Johnny Boy, a.k.a. Mr. Las Vegas: "I do gang counseling to keep kids out of gangs, but the cops still harass me and have actually pulled my CDs off shelves," he says.

If you're going to make a living producing hip-hop events, you better have industry cred like Big Keith, a New Yorker who's been in Vegas for 10 years and has toured with the likes of Bow Wow, or J. Kadahiro, who's done some of the biggest concerts, rap and otherwise, in town. Scuttlebutt has it that several nightclub owners have been forced to triple the number of security guards and increase their insurance coverage—direct hits to their pocketbooks. Because of pressure, Audacity had to move her Sunday night UPN hip-hop reality show from Club Ice to Downtown's hip-hop-friendly Take One Nightclub. Such moves close hip-hop purveyors out of a scene that Kadahiro says isn't going to stop playing the genre.

"We want doors opened to hip-hop," he says. "These clubs [on the Strip] play hip-hop and there might not be a black person in there."

It's too early to judge this as a movement. Seeds must germinate and the people who make the scene must continue to press a positive message. As Fat Man, who's been a player on the local hip-hop scene for years, says, "This is a business, we must act businesslike." Or, as another speaker proclaimed: "[This is a] crucial stage right now. We have everyone's attention and we need to show them we're not animals ... we're entertainers."

From the seeds must sprout cohesion (disregard for race, side of town, gang affiliation, who's hitting skins with who) and innovation (Hasaan Muhammad gives local artists play on his Xradio.biz website; UNLV film student Brandon Reese shot a documentary on the local rap controversy; several artists have launched an anti-radio campaign to pressure stations to play local artists).

To build on the unity, leaders must emerge to set goals and spark action, holding everyone accountable, themselves included.

Collins equated this to a modern civil-rights issue. That might be a stretch. But if treated with similar fervor, Vegas rappers can overcome their problems.

If and when that happens, they might want to thank Sheriff Young.

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