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Desert flow

As the hip-hop scene continues to expand in Las Vegas, more budding rap artists are cutting their teeth in battle contests

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Let the battle begin: Left to right, P Freeze, Omar Starr, Artisan.
Photo: Richard Brian

As the sunlight seeps out of the sky and the rainbow lights of the Fremont Street Experience begin to blaze in the darkness, a crowd forms outside Neonopolis.

Inside a circle of onlookers, two men face each other. Artisan wears a blue baseball cap and white T-shirt and sports a diamond stud, a gold chain and pristine Timberlands. Nov is short with an Afro halo framing his round face.

“I’ll leave you like a YouTube critic with no fucking life/I puts it down, I be getting it done/My flow like a sexy nurse is as sick as they come … It really ain’t a big deal, you ain’t never been ill/My flow, 30 below, Fahrenheit plus wind chill … call me stove-top ’cause my flow’s so hot/Your chance of winning is like a gun without bullets, you got no shot … Don’t try to ax me, I’ll make that gat bleed/That’ll put his plasma on the wall like a flat-screen.”

Spitting Rhymes

Artisan delivers his jabs in an aggressive, clipped cadence. Nov shakes his head, looks up and down and off to the side as he waits for his turn to retaliate. Sometimes they get up in each other’s faces, and it looks like one of them is about to pull a gun, as they often threaten to do.

But the only weapons unleashed are brutal put-downs about the other’s looks, clothes, rapping abilities, street cred and sexuality, coupled with larger-than-life swagger and empty but terrifyingly violent threats. It’s the real 8 Mile, and it’s happening regularly all over Vegas.

“I’m so focused I can see through walls, uppercut ya till you leak from your jaw/Now you breathe through a straw,” Nov comes back hard. “I bust pipes like a bad plumber/And my flow hotter than Nevada was last summer … I’ll break you down like a fraction/My gun is like a crab leg, it’s known to get it crackin’ … He probably sick to his stomach now/My flow is like a trip to Mexico, nobody want it now … Dude’s like mayo, he light and he soft/And after this battle he’ll need a map, ’cause he lost.”

After an intense back-and-forth, made more heated by the crowd’s loud reactions, a few pre-selected judges confer and announce the winner of the round, who advances to the next until a champion of the evening is announced, who will then challenge another local rapper to do battle at next month’s match.

Last month, Nov narrowly beat Artisan at a hotly contested duel at Head Hunterz barbershop. At tonight’s rematch on Fremont East, Artisan prevailed, making him the local freestyle rapper to beat. He has won citywide respect and is now aiming for international fame.

“They want me to retire, they feel like I’m too big to battle,” says Artisan, a lean 20-year-old with a wide, friendly grin and a raging ambition to be the next Jay-Z. “But I don’t feel like that. It’s fun; it’s exercise. If you want to box, you’ve got to spar.”

Omar Starr, a DJ and on-air personality at a local radio station, hosts and films the battles and then posts them online. Clips of Artisan’s freestyle flow, which supposedly streams from his head that very moment (called “spitting”) and packs as many hard-hitting insults (called “punchlines”) as possible, have attracted combined views of close to 75,000.

“Whoever makes it from Las Vegas, the first person to get signed from Las Vegas, is going to have something to do with these battles,” says Starr, who is a tall and confident ringleader with long curly hair. “People are starting to recognize that Las Vegas does have a hip-hop scene … so I think it’s just a matter of time.”

Past battles have been held at amenable local businesses such as WC Motoring tire and rim shop and Head Hunterz barbershop; last Friday a major throwdown attracted curious passersby (and one homeless man) who were traversing the foot bridge connecting TI to the Fashion Show Mall. The light-skinned tourists paused to watch the brawling black men with looks of bewilderment and bemusement before continuing on their way. The bum stepped up to challenge Krimzon to an impromptu showdown. He lost after the first round.

Much of the crowd is made up of the rap battlers’ “camps,” groups of friends and support systems. A camp is a powerhouse composed of like-minded artists who are working toward the same or a similar goal. If someone in the camp makes it big, then they will take the rest of their camp along for the ride and represent them (like 50 Cent does for G-Unit and Lil Wayne for Young Money).

Krimzon takes his turn at the mic.

Artisan is the head of the G.W.A.P. camp (stands for Grinding Will Always Pay), which has eight members and includes his good friend—and frequent rap-battle opponent—R&B singer King Lo. Other local camps include Four Pounds, The Chapter Crew, Team Gutta, The Piranha Gang, Poetical Slang, The Las Vegas Allstars (led by Y.A. Poet), Heat City Recordz, The Hustle Squad and Campfire, which has as many as 100 members.

Although the idea of “battling rap camps” smells like something Metro would be on like flies, no one need worry that Downtown is turning into East LA.

“We acknowledge other camps, we show respect, and they show respect back,” King Lo explains. “[The rapping] is the main event. After all this commotion, at the end of the day, they’re gonna shake hands. We do this battling for the buzz and for the love of music. We push music. We’re really artists; we do this battling for fun.”

“It’s like the NBA, and everyone has their own team,” continues Artisan. “If you’re in the playoffs, everyone has got to face off to see who is the best.”

Some local artists participate in the lyrical confrontations hoping someone important will take notice, others for status, others for fun or for practice. But most don’t realize that Starr has his sights set on something bigger for those who show the most promise.

He is hoping to take the top eight rappers in Las Vegas to the World Rap Championships, which are scheduled for September in a to-be-announced city. No one from Las Vegas has competed before. Starr’s team would go up against emcees from cities including Chicago, Atlanta, LA and New York—cities with long-established and nationally prominent rap scenes—and then, if they qualify, on to the finals against European countries.

Starr names Artisan, King Lo, Reallionaire Jream, Sedrew Price, The Chapter (aka Verbal E), Samson, Krimzon, Nov and Fresh Ave as stand-outs.

Freestyle Rap Battles

Starr moved to Las Vegas from California two years ago and got involved with producing music as well as the local hip-hop scene (which extends to DJing), graffiti and B-boying (breakdancing). In that time, the scene has grown dramatically, but Starr is on a mission to make it bigger. In addition to hosting and filming the battles, he brings local artists into his radio station as often as he can.

But Starr isn’t alone. Y.A. Poet, head of the Las Vegas Allstars, hosts the ongoing Automatic Tour, weekly performances of live hip-hop music and spoken word, on Mondays at the Square Apple. Johnny Boy, who has been a well-known local rapper for more than a decade, helps stage and performs at events such as the recent Mr. Las Vegas Summer Jam at Circus Circus. Skip Martin, an R&B singer popular in the ’70s and ’80s, holds Skip-Hop at the Square Apple. High Definition recently started Blend Session Sundaze, a night of poetry and hip-hop, at the Red Room. Pokerface hosts Lyrical Mindz at the Square Apple every Sunday. The Chapter Crew holds Blackbook Sessions at Money Plays on the last Saturday of every month. Highdro stages a hip-hop, R&B and reggae open-mic session every Wednesday at the Bunkhouse Saloon.

“A few years ago, there was hardly any place where a hip-hop artist could perform,” recalls Starr. “But now, right now, a hip-hop artist can perform almost every night. So now these dudes feel like, ‘Oh okay, it’s worth it, making these albums, because we have people listening to us. Now we can perform.’ It’s not just make an album and put it on the Internet and it just ends there. No, now they can actually perform, and while they are performing they can have people trying to sell their CDs.”

Rap and hip-hop have not been welcome in local venues for many years. A few years back, Sheriff Bill Young called for a ban on hip-hop on the Strip following a violent incident, and several clubs and concert halls closed their doors to hip-hop performers. Many people automatically associate the genre with drive-bys, jail cells, back-alley gang-bangs and 2Pac bleeding to death.

“We’re trying to let people see that we can do this and not have no problems and not have no fights,” says Starr, who admits that although past rap battles in other cities have turned physical, those he has hosted never have. “Even though they’re talking crazy as they want to each other, it’s all a lot of love for the game. It doesn’t have to take that violent aspect that a lot of people try to throw on hip-hop; it’s not about that … it’s all trying to help them gain exposure and tighten up their skills and get better.”

Whether or not Starr leads his all-star team of rap battlers to the World Rap Championship, and regardless of whether a local rapper is signed to a label, all the hustlers and grinders and artists of the Las Vegas hip-hop scene will continue to make music, dream big and strive to make Vegas proud.

If the day comes when you are driving down the I-15 and one of their hits fills your car, expect to hear a shout-out to their native city somewhere in the rhyming lines.

“Vegas hasn’t had anybody to bring ’em out,” says Artisan, who labors in his home studio on a daily basis, stringing together knockout lyrics and engineering breakneck beats. “So I’m gonna go in with Vegas as my main base. I definitely rep Vegas.”

Maybe it’s high time that Vegas reps him.

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Jennifer Grafiada

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