Last week a firestorm of media attention broke out when it was revealed that Sheriff Bill Young wrote a letter last June to the Gaming Control Board requesting their help in getting casinos to ban gangsta rap from their nightclubs and concert venues. "I don't know if we can influence the gaming industry to not book gangster rap acts here in Las Vegas," Young wrote, "however, to my way of thinking it is a legitimate crime prevention strategy."
Following the murder of Sgt. Henry Prendes by an aspiring rapper, the Gaming Control Board referenced the sheriff's concerns (although the letter had been written seven months earlier) in a general letter to casinos reminding them of their responsibilities for policing nightclubs on their property and warning against illegal activities. The Gaming Control Board memo did not mention gangster rap specifically. Still, on February 23, Allen Lichtenstein of the American Civil Liberties Union appeared before the Gaming Commission in Carson City to express his concerns that the two letters in conjunction worked as de facto censorship of certain artists by the government. For its part, the Gaming Commission has taken a wait-and-see attitude as no rap act has yet complained about being banned or casino complained about being barred from booking acts.
In fact, rumjungle at Mandalay Bay hosted an event featuring Nelly shortly after the Gaming Control Board letter went out and news of the sheriff's earlier letter broke. This is important, because while Nelly would not be considered a gangsta rapper by most music fans, the sheriff's June letter followed shootings that he specifically tied to the aftermath of a Nelly concert at the Aladdin last May. But Senior VP of Public Affairs Alan Feldman of MGM/Mirage (the owners of Mandalay Bay, the resort responsible for rumjungle) says he had no concerns hosting Nelly on one of his properties because his company did not interpret the sheriff's letter as a call to ban these acts and that his company has no intention of doing so. Rather, Feldman took the sheriff's letter more as a head's-up on issues his company is well aware of and fully prepared to deal with.
According to Feldman: "What we heard from the sheriff was an expression of concern that relates to events that frankly have nothing whatsoever to do with events or concerts, or anything up and down the Las Vegas Strip. It has to do with the incredibly tragic and unnecessary murder of a police officer. These things are unrelated, but the sheriff very understandably is concerned. I am not sure what the ACLU understands the letter to say, but what we got out of it is that if you can't handle dealing with these events then don't do them. I suppose there may be a reading of the letter that said 'just don't do them.' But our reading of it was to be sensitive to if in certain circumstances there are security needs that are different than other circumstances, and that is not new. We have known that for a very long time. I feel our company is capable of assuring the safety and comfort of everyone."
Las Vegas Weekly reached Sheriff Bill Young to find out exactly what he meant in that June letter and how he feels about the controversy that has followed its release.
The ACLU says you are calling for casinos to ban gangster rap, and Alan Feldman of MGM/Mirage told me he interprets your letter to mean that you only want to make sure casinos have proper security for those events, which he says they do. Which did you mean?
My job is risk-management; I'm more worried about safety and security than content. This isn't a First Amendment issue. If you know in advance that A is going to cause B—and B is shootings, murders, bad publicity for the community and people hurt—I think anyone with any sense would say maybe you want to prevent A from happening in the first place. If it was an occasional thing or one-time thing, I don't think it would be advantageous to us to take a position that we should not book these acts. But I based my letter on a lot of fact and history that is undisputable. You can go back to Las Vegas' first incident when the No. 1 gangster rap artist in America, Tupac Shakur, was killed here at the MGM. So, Mr. Feldman can have his position, but that company was unable to prevent the murder of the guy on their property.
Just to clarify, I didn't live here in 1996 (when Tupac Shakur was murdered following a boxing match at MGM) but I thought the shooting was actually on the street, not at the MGM?
It was right out in the back parking lot as he was leaving the MGM. It was on their property. It happened on the MGM's property. [Editor's Note: Sun and R-J reports say it happened at the intersection of Koval Lane and Flamingo Road.] Look, this isn't a content thing for me, but I am responsible for preventing crime. We have tourists, visitors and our own children who are attending these concerts in the line of fire, and this thing happens over and over. I just wonder if this is really the proper venue for these folks. This isn't about content. I don't care that they make these things and I don't care if people listen to them. Listen to whatever you want. But I am concerned about people getting hurt here in a town that I am responsible for the safety of. That was my whole point. We haven't seen a strong history of being able to have these things safely.
There has been a string of murders of what I will call gangster rap artists that have occurred in Las Vegas in the very recent past. I would say in the last year we have had four or five of these guys killed.
But not in casinos.
No, but they were living and working here and in and around here.
But they weren't successful or famous.
I don't know if they were or weren't. We have a lot of these people living and working here, and there is a culture of violence within it, and I can document and show you the murders that have occurred. You can call them not famous. You can call them anything you want. They think they are famous. And I don't know if you can differentiate between an artist that has great fame and one that is on the lower ebb. If they are playing in a club venue in town, would it not be reasonable to assume they would attract the same gang members and people with guns that were firing them off at the Nelly concert?
I meant someone like Snoop, in Vegas, is more likely to attract a bunch of tourists from the California suburbs who want to see the concert.
That may be true. But do we really want to sell that as the way we make our money in this town? We really only have one business, and that is entertaining people here and showing them a good time. If we have a reputation for entertainment that is going to cause negative consequences like violence and shootings, what is it we are trying to accomplish here?
How do you define gangster rap?
I am not the proper person to define it in particular. I kind of leave that up to the promoters and the people that stage these types of events what the content of it is. I know—I raised three kids who listen to this—there is a big difference between rap and hip-hop and what I call gangster rap. I know Will Smith. He is a fine guy. He is a funny guy. He is a rapper. He doesn't go around making albums called Cop Killer or promoting putting his wife on the street to work her as a prostitute, or selling drugs as the right thing to do. So, while my knowledge of that particular genre is somewhat limited I know there is a difference. I would start with 50 Cent—
Who played House of Blues at Mandalay Bay about three years ago—
—and we had a near riot there and fight there that we couldn't control. Define it any way you want. I am not going to argue with you. I am responsible for the safety of this community, and if I know that in the aftermath of these concerts we are going to have shootings, murders and killings: Why are we having them here? I don't think we should be selling violence here in our tourist corridor. That's not Vegas. We are not a town that sells violence. It is the inability of us to prevent violent acts that are occurring around these folks. I am linking A to B.
Does someone like Eminem concern you, too?
Well, Eminem's product, from what I've heard, has a combination of a lot of these things. Correct me if I am wrong; I am not an expert on these things.
Well, I'd say he is not a gangster but on one typical song he talks about killing his wife.
Yeah, well, personally, I don't think we have a place selling that as a product here.
Do you have any objection to the music being played here like a club spinning "In Da Club" by 50 Cent, or is it just the concerts and events featuring the rappers?
I am worried about the aftermath of events. This is America, and I love that people can listen to whatever they want.
Do you consider that they (gangster rappers) love it when you do something like this; that this glamorizes their image as outlaws when the sheriff of Las Vegas doesn't want them around? They sell that.
I wrote a very low-key letter to a body that is properly responsible for the conduct of these venues in casinos clear back in June. I've been used as a pawn in this because I saw this coming.
What is your next step?
I have no next step. I wrote a letter. Gaming Control is responsible for these casinos and policing them. This thing has been taken so far out of context. Those who said that I wrote that letter in response to Henry Prendes' death are so misinformed. The R-J wrote a front-page story saying I wrote this letter in response to that. I wrote that letter in June and did no follow-up on it. Gaming chose to write their letter after the Henry Prendes [shooting], and not just because of Prendes, but they had a series of other issues in some of these nightclubs. Their letter did not totally specify concerts, and I think that is important to note. They had a whole myriad of issues like underage people going in. I think it is all in that same arena where gaming is telling these people that there are rules and regulations about age and that what happens on your property you [resort operators] are responsible for it.