Ernest Monroe owes his biggest career break to … a rock band? Juiced by receptive crowds at First Friday performances in February, the West Las Vegas rapper set his sights on large bars and casino showrooms. Most venues declined before even hearing his pitch.
Former sheriff Bill Young’s 2005 push to ban gangsta rap acts from the Strip, along with a series of rap-related shootings and killings, made promoters skittish, forcing striving emcees to road-trip and use MySpace to build followings. Monroe felt unwelcome in his hometown.
“I felt like I had to go to California, New York or the ATL [Atlanta] to be an artist,” says Monroe, aka Y.A. The Poet. “I felt like there was no hope in Vegas. Many rappers and groups disappeared from the scene—people who had an opportunity to blow up.”
Without a venue, his vision for the Las Vegas All Stars—a traveling showcase of local hip-hop talent put together both to quell industry factionalism and to sway leery venue owners with promises of free-spending patrons—would exist only on paper.
While haggling with a manager at a North Las Vegas bar, Monroe mentioned that he performed spoken-word poetry and managed a funk-rock band called Orbiter 1. “He was all in then,” Monroe says.
Though few people came to the inaugural show this summer at the Cheyenne Saloon, Monroe says it was a success because artists from different neighborhoods performed together without incident. “Everyone went home safe,” he says.
The All Stars have since toured all over town: First Friday, the West Las Vegas Library, nightclub Poetry, the Cheyenne Saloon, the Box Office and the Ice House Lounge. Upcoming gigs are planned for the Bunkhouse and the Art Bar.
Monroe’s accomplishment is impressive considering fears of rap violence linger in Las Vegas. Hip-hop-friendly promoters like Patrick “Pulsar” Trout tend to prefer underground artists and more collegial acts. Pulsar’s booked rappers at Jillian’s and the now-closed University Theater. “I didn’t book rap acts because of the crowds they’d bring. Places that have done it regularly have had problems—cops always at the doors,” Pulsar says. “When I’ve refused to book underground hip-hop, it wasn’t because of fights. I didn’t want the walls tagged up.”
Outgoing Beauty Bar manager Bree Blumstein has avoided gangsta-rap acts since a nasty incident broke out during the club’s first months in business. “The band members tried to beat up our sound guy,” she says.
Now she selects DJs and acts that offer culturally affirming hip-hop. The bar’s monthly “I Love Hip Hop” nights draw appreciative, well-behaved crowds. “We’ve never had one problem … It’s tough; I want to support local rap, but I’ve got to protect my liquor license and my customers. A couple of bad apples spoil the bunch.”
Should things continue to run smoothly, Monroe thinks he can break into off-Strip casino lounges and showrooms, similar to the November 2006 concert featuring Latino rappers at Club Madrid inside Sunset Station. Also in the planning stage: an all-ages All Stars concert in a 1,000- to 2,500-seat showroom inside one of the larger North Las Vegas casinos.
“Things are getting better,” Monroe says. “Poetry allows you to do one song. Cali [California] artists have asked us to tour,” Monroe says. “If it wasn’t for places like Box Office and the Ice House, we’d be walking the streets rapping with a boombox like back in the old days.”