Bad Rap?

Hip-hop artists and producers sound off on Vegas’ often chaotic, sometimes deadly rap scene

Damon Hodge

"Don't push me, cuz I'm close to the edge, I'm tryin' not to lose my head."

—The Message, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Call it rap's 15-plus years of infamy. Since 1988, when N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton machine-gunned American eardrums with an FCC-inciting brand of black rage that hadn't been heard since Huey Newton's '60s-era call for an armed Black revolution, rap and rap artists have been in the crosshairs (sometimes literally), the favored targets of Capitol Hill types (Bush 41, Dan Quayle, Tipper Gore), self-appointed moralists, police departments, musical rivals and street thugs.

Since then, whenever fists or bullets fly, pundits proselytize.

Lately, there've been quite a few flying bullets—four deaths over the summer, six since 2000—and plenty of proselytizing: Sheriff Bill Young pushing to ban gangsta rap concerts in Clark County; university system Regent Stavros Anthony seeking a similar prohibition on campuses; the state Gaming Control Board warning licensees about hosting gangsta rap events. Particularly contentious have been the weeks since 21-year-old rapper Amir Crump fatally shot 14-year police veteran Sgt. Henry Prendes, who'd responded to a domestic violence call at the 8336 Feather Duster Court home Crump shared with his girlfriend. Somehow Crump's crime has been linked to his occupational aspiration.

The ensuing media frenzy has been a double-barreled blow to a local rap community that needs bad news like a punch in the mouth. It's a community that stands as a house divided: beefs over on-wax disses and physical confrontations, neighborhood affiliations and women; consternation over urban radio's minimal support; feuds between local artists and out-of-town newcomers; anger at bar owners for not booking them and heavy-handed security police tactics when they do. (In 2004, Rolling Stone writer Touré said Metro tails visiting celebrity rappers.)

The tension has led to eruptions such as a 30-person brawl at the Take One Nightclub in January and potential catastrophes thereafter like the near-riot at the Beach nightclub following a no-show in February by hotshot Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy, whose Snowman T-shirts (with depictions of Frosty) created a furor because of reputed references to cocaine.

Such negativity has hurt efforts to establish a venue like the Tunnel, the legendary Manhattan hip-hop club, or the Hip-Hop Shop in Detroit, meeting place/launch pad for Eminem and Slum Village, and to unite the Valley's several dozen rap labels into a cohesive front. With cohesion, there's a better chance to create a Vegas sound as distinctive as the "snap" and "chopped and screwed" styles that propelled Atlanta and Houston to hip-hop's forefront and the kinetic "hyphy" movement that's slowly restoring the Bay Area's prominence.

As it stands today, the scene remains the musical version of a baseball farm system, filled with talented people playing under the radar. Changing that, says rapper James Allen, starts with understanding and understanding starts with getting out in the streets and neighborhoods and seeing what rappers are rhyming about. "No one's talking to us, the people in the streets, in the game, doing this every day, about what's going on and, more importantly, how to address it."

Smallie Bigs (pseudonym), who's been rapping locally since the early '90s, says skirmishes like the two January incidents at the Take One Nightclub scare bar and club owners away from booking rap acts: "The club [Take One] has been real good to the hip-hop community. They were starting to do things nightly with hip-hop. Then came the fights. There were about 30 people involved in the first fight. Tables and chairs were thrown. The place was damaged. The police came. Then it happened again the next week. I think the brawls were over minor differences. I know who was involved but I don't want to say. There's lots of envy and jealousy out here. It's a mixture of gang and crew beefs. As far as I know, this hasn't spilled into the streets but it easily could."

J. Kadahiro, hip-hop concert promoter and promoter of Take One Nightclub: [For the first fight] "This girl was throwing a party. It was supposed to be a lingerie and ladies night; that's how he promoted it to us. Well, it turned out not to be that. She had a group that wanted to perform. We hesitated, but we let them. So they performed. When they were done, another group wanted to perform. They thought it was locals' night. In general, we don't let local acts perform just for this reason. Words were exchanged and a scuffle happened. As we escorted the guys out, other groups jumped in. A chair was thrown."

Gary Sax, co-owner of the Take One Nightclub, picks up the story: "So we turn the lights on and call the cops. They took off when they heard the cops were coming. The cops were here in minutes and caught them as they were trying to run. There were no arrests, only citations. I don't really like rap ... But you can't hold the music itself responsible. In the '60s, people rioted to heavy metal music. It's really the generation as opposed to the music itself."

BG Vegas (refused to give real name), on the melee at the Young Jeezy concert at the Beach: "It was set up all wrong from jump [the beginning]. It was too many people in there. The nigga [Jeezy] was supposed to come on at 11. So everybody up in there parlayin' and waitin'. Then he supposed to come out at midnight. No Jeezy. Motherf--kers startin' to get restless. The cops gettin' nervous. They tell everybody the nigga ain't comin' out and the show is cancelled. Nigga, we paid $100 a pop to be in the V.I.P. section upstairs and y'all sayin' the nigga ain't comin' out? Hell yeah, niggas was heated. They ain't getting [their] money back and the cops trippin'? Something was going to happen."

Take One's Kadahiro: "The riot at the Beach had nothing to do with Jeezy not showing up and everything to do with how they [management] handled the situation. It's midnight and he's still not out. Then the power goes out at 1:15 and they [management] shut the place down. People get mad and start rioting. The problem is since we have no hip-hop venues, per se, you have places that play hip-hop but no one representing the club who can identify with hip-hop, with the culture. This ain't just music, it's a way of life. I've promoted gangsta rap concerts at the Beach—Lil Jon, Lloyd Banks, Yin Yang Twins, Fat Joe—and never had a problem. I know what element these groups attract and I prepare—beefed-up security, dress codes. There was nothing about the Beach that made people feel comfortable. You can't have the cops be overaggressive or the bouncers hassling people."

Isaac Sawyer, founder Urban Artists and a "conscious" artist who experienced rap-on-rap violence in May 2005: "It was an isolated incident that didn't have anything to do with hip-hop as a culture or the music and didn't happen because of the music I make. It was after a show at Famous John's [Convention Center Drive between Paradise and the Strip]. Everyone was outside freestylin'. I went and got some CDs from my car and was seeing if anyone wanted to buy one. One guy asked to check it out. He started to put the CD in his pocket and told me he was going to pay me later. I told him it's $5. Next thing I know, he breaks my CD. Next thing I know, I'm on the ground. He sucker-punched me. I got up and my jaw didn't feel right. I felt woozy. I couldn't drive myself to the hospital because I was disoriented, so my friends drove me to the hospital. I had my jaw wired shut for a month and a half. Again, it wasn't because of hip-hop that this happened. Yes, there is a separation between rappers that talk about positive things and don't use a lot of profanity and rappers who use a lot of profanity and negative imagery. But it's all art, in my opinion. Even if the young kids aren't talking about positive things, it's still art and they need that form of expression. I've been in Vegas all my life and have been to many hip-hop events and have rarely seen any violence."

James Allen, member of the rap group 2 Sense: "There's always been tension in the game. Everybody wants to be the first one to blow up out of Vegas, so they don't really support everyone else. You also have a lot of people and groups that come from out of town, that recruit locals to be part of their camps and then these out-of-town labels stir up beef with the local artists."

Smoke, a solo artist who's been on the scene for 12 years, says a lack of radio support and an increase in territorialism foment competitive tensions: "When you go to other cities, the people there embrace the artists in their cities. Radio supports them and radio stations are looking for artists to come out of the city. Here, the radio stations don't care about rap artists. If you listen to the radio, [KVEG] 97.5, they got a guy from Oakland who plays all underground Oakland music. Even Mexican rappers have their own local hour with all their raps. Black artists don't. Everybody do want to blow, but you can't blow if you don't have no radio support. When we go other places, everybody loves us. Hotels don't care about rap artists, either. So it's hard to create the distinctive things, with dances or dress styles, that LA has or the South has. Vegas is like a melting pot. You have rappers from Vegas that have a culture and you have people that come from elsewhere and they try to establish their culture and that's where problems start. Some people from here have ties, yes, to gangs. In the inner city, you remember back in the days, gang-banging was at an all-time high. I'm from Northtown. I claim Vegas. But you got some people hollering California or elsewhere and trying to claim Vegas, too. They're telling people they represent Vegas, which downs the people from Vegas who've been putting it down. They're playing both sides of the fences."

Dwayne Cromwell, owner of Triple P Records, says the media is blowing things out of proportion: "We're still struggling to build a hip-hop scene for Vegas because we don't have a place we go to clique up. You have a few artists that people know, but that's about it. The scene is coming. There are artists out here that write true-life stories about Vegas that are not getting heard. If we're going to complain about radio stations not playing our music, we need to pull back from those stations in terms of pulling back our money. If we come together and make a move like that, it will send out shock waves, then we can start building a scene. We [his artists] participated in a book drive [for Las Vegas City Councilman Lawrence Weekly]. We did it because we're part of the community and care about the community, but the media won't write about that."

Greaz, owner of Avenue Records, says Sheriff Young's anger is misdirected and rappers aren't credited for the good they do: "I don't care that the sheriff did what he did. The casinos don't support us anyway. No one from Vegas has come out to do something really big, except the R&B folks, the 702s, the Ne-Yos, but nobody on the rap side. Some things that happen [violence] have nothing to do with music business. Rap don't have a lot to do with a lot of the stuff. A lot of it going on because the next man don't like the next man. I think there might be some racism [in the push to ban gangsta rap] because a lot of local rap artists are black. But on the other hand, it's not all racist. Some of it is ignorance. The same way guys I used to know who came from elsewhere thought we lived in casinos, you had this news anchor lady saying we don't need gangsta rap in the community. We are the community. She's making it seem like the community is just Las Vegas Boulevard or the suburbs. They make it seem like Vegas doesn't have ghettos, that all we have is slots and entertainment. They're not looking at the positive aspect of us trying to be entrepreneurs. A lot of these young people, if they weren't rapping or in the studios, they would be out robbing and stealing cars because they don't have any other dream. Music gives them a way out: Make a CD, burn it and sell it for $5 to $10 on the Strip. Music gives these gangster rappers life. I own a recording studio and I deal with these knuckleheads. In many cases, they are knuckleheads. But when they do music, you see the side of them that their mommas and grandmommas see, the good side."

Paulie Mac, Las Vegas hip-hop pioneer, has even stronger words for Sheriff Young: "The sheriff telling the casinos not to book rap is oppression, pure and simple. At a rock concert, there's 10 times more violence than a rap concert. How can he say ban rap for something that hasn't happened? [Someone dying at a casino]."

Kieawa Mason, owner of Nervous Breakdown Entertainment, says the rap blackout is in full effect: "A friend of mine was trying to book a show for us at a property affiliated with Harrah's [Entertainment]. He's booked rooms there and elsewhere before. As soon as he told them [casino management] that it involved rap, they shut him down. The sheriff is telling folks don't book rap acts; that's law enforcement telling for-profit organizations how to run their organizations, which makes no sense. He doesn't see how this [banning high-profile national rap acts] affects local artists. You can release CDs, but people want to see you perform. So you have to go out of town to perform. Now the big artists, they can sell lots of CDs, but can't come here and perform. That's crazy, like back in the day in Vegas [when blacks could perform on the Strip but not stay there]. While there tends to be, at some rap events, shooting and violence, it's not the rappers causing it, it's the people—people who are probably already shooting things up on the weekend anyway. I've been to rock concerts and seen mosh pits—people punching people and coming out bloody. All the mayhem surrounding rap concerts usually take place after the event, not during it."

Voice-mail recording for Club 702, an East Flamingo Road nightclub that has seen its share of violence and is known for playing gangsta rap and attracting a tough crowd: "Thank you for calling Club 702, Las Vegas' one and only hip-hop and R&B nightclub. Our address is 1700 East Flamingo Road and doors open at 11 p.m. Every Friday and Saturday night, everybody gets in free and drinks free from 11 p.m. to midnight. Everybody. All ladies, all men, locals and tourists, can get in free and drink free every Friday and Saturday night from 11 p.m. until midnight. Club 702 spins the best hip-hop and R&B in the country. This is Scott Shaw, CEO of Club 702, inviting you to the ultimate hip-hop experience in Las Vegas. Thank you for your time and consideration and I'll see you at the club." (Shaw failed to return repeated phone messages. Contrary to published reports, the club is not closed.)

Take One's Kadahiro: "Club 702, which used to be the SRO has had a lot of problems with shootings and shit. They play a lot of gangsta rap and underground gangsta rap. You go to the place and they have bars on the windows and use metal detectors. It's not a great atmosphere, but at least they're trying to deal with the issue of safety for people that go to the club."

Twix, co-owner of Bigg Dogg Klan Records: "If I were to get killed, they shouldn't say a rapper got killed. I'm a rapper at heart, but I'm not a rapper until I make it. If someone gets killed, they should just say someone got killed ... [As far as any gangsta rap ban] We might need to get together to show how racist the sheriff's proposal [is]. Are they going to listen to every song to determine if its gangsta rap? How do you decide if something is gangsta rap? People die every day on television shows. Is that gangsta TV? I'm sure more people have died from gambling issues—jumping off buildings because they lost their money—than have died in rap. Are you going to ban gambling? No, because gambling runs the city ... [As for how rappers can improve their lot] We have to stop the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality. Being the best in Vegas doesn't mean much. You have to try to be the best on the West Coast."

Triple P Records' Dwayne Cromwell, on both the media's and rappers' roles in demonizing hip-hop: "The media will always take the negative and use it. Him [Amir Crump] being a rapper had nothing [to do] with what happened between him and the officer and the mother of his child. Every artist doesn't beat women. It's ridiculous to say that rap caused him to do what he did. As far as the sheriff talking about not booking rap acts, they don't book local acts, anyway. You haven't seen Qadeer or Trigger headline a venue at any casino. For them to say don't book us, they have to stop booking 50 Cent and Kanye West. That's not going to happen. It's about money and hip-hop brings money to casinos. Sheriff Young won't be able to stop rap. It happened with NWA—they [powers that be] tried to stop it but couldn't. As far as the violence ... violence hurts any scene. If you have this person from Gerson [Park Kingsmen] and this person from Donna [Street Crips] and they don't get along, they might put their beef on wax—bangin' on wax. I can't really say that I agree with bangin' on wax. When it comes to something that you love, I think you should step back and think about it. When you tell someone that when I see you, I'm busting, you are not uplifting hip-hop. When you jump into this industry, you have to know this is business. Business and bangin' don't go together. They never have."

Smoke, on how police make a bad problem worse: "We had a spot at the Sultan's Table. We never had a fight or argument and kept 100 to 150 people in there every weekend. We ended up getting shut down because someone underage was outside and the bar owner got fined. The cops was basically trying to find something wrong, but it had nothing to do with rap. In general, bars don't want to deal with rap. They're intimidated. But Vegas ain't as bad as it used to be. People get killed everywhere in the city now, not just Northtown, but in Summerlin. We have more people making music out here than ever before; there are a million labels. They [hip-hop's detractors] don't realize that if you don't give people a place to do their music, which gets them out of the street, then the problems are going to start. Every time we open up a spot, either the police or manager comes behind us to close it up. I'm not saying there haven't been altercations, but you have fights at cowboy events and they don't shut the rodeo down."

Chuck Myers, owner of Thinline Records, says the solution to the negativity and violence in rap is unity: "Anything that has to do with black-on-black crime is associated with rap and that's wrong. Remember the situation [Alfonso "Slinky" Blake was convicted of capital murder in the March 2003 shooting death of Priscilla Van Dine and Sophear Choy. Kim Choy survived the attack, which occurred in a desert near Interstate 215 and Decatur]. He was an R&B singer, not a rapper. [In a March 9, 2004 Weekly story on allegations that Metro tails celebrity rappers, Sgt. Rick Barela said Blake's crime was "rap-related"]. The way we get past all this madness is to come together and teach the kids it's about unity. In order for Vegas rap to get on the map, everybody will have to come together. Jay-Z even did it by hooking up with Nas, his enemy. When he sold out Madison Square Garden, it wasn't because he was Jay-Z but because he had every artist from every borough. I'm taking that step here. If a rap label said, "Let me go pick up this cat from a rock band or a country band," then that label will have all those fans. I'm doing that. We have a gospel group. We have a model who won a Sports Illustrated contract. We actually have a rock group called Thrail Kill, who are as hot, if not hotter and better than the Killers. I'm definitely willing to sign a country act. Our label deals with other labels and subsidiaries so a country artist or rock artist that we sign, who doesn't want to be linked to a rap label, doesn't have to be."

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