This may sound melodramatic, but here it is: I’m not sure you’ve fully lived until you’ve stood underneath ice-cold liquid nitrogen being blasted onto your head from the strobe-light heavens; experienced the rush of people dancing around you in their club finest as bottle-service girls hoist handles of Grey Goose above their heads, parading through the LED-lit crowd on their way to the tables of people ready to see Lil Uzi Vert take the stage (go-go dancers flanking either side), as he performs “XO TOUR Llif3.” It's an experience that'll make you and your friends feel like kings and queens.
This is what it’s like behind the velvet rope of Las Vegas’ JEWEL Nightclub, where every night feels like the best of your life. That’s the beauty of Las Vegas. It’s like a city suspended in space, with an accessible glamour that appeals to the masses. It’s that 24/7, anything-goes quality—along with some of the world’s best clubs—that makes Vegas the place to be for hip-hop artists. Whether it’s Migos at Drai’s, Lil Jon’s residency at Hakkasan’s clubs, or Tyga at JEWEL, it’s likely you’ll find one of your favorite rappers performing in the city at almost any given time.
How did rap become such big business in Vegas? The genesis lies in a college rap radio show on the University of Nevada campus.
During the ’90s, when Warren Peace and Larry Larr attended the University of Nevada together, Warren co-hosted the college’s rap radio show “Word Up,” while Larry DJed hip-hop sets around campus. They were doing what they could to boost hip-hop culture for a city far more synonymous with the Rat Pack and Cirque du Soleil than The Roots and JAY-Z. Neither Warren nor Larry could have imagined how hip-hop would eventually conquer Las Vegas nightlife, but that’s exactly what happened thanks to their pioneering efforts.
As Warren and Larry started making waves off campus, they began introducing the music they loved to the city at large. When he was still a student, Larry hosted some of the first hip-hop parties Vegas had ever seen. So when David Cohen bought Club Metz, a 2,000-person venue that was later renamed Club Utopia, he hired Larry to spin there on Sunday nights, which became known as “Hip Hop 101.” That later led to him doing double duty as a promoter to help boost the city’s hip-hop cachet. Among other responsibilities, he also flew in Utopia’s most promising rappers, sparking the still-prevalent trend of featuring hip-hop acts as bonafide Vegas headliners.
“At Utopia, you had two stories,” Larry explains. “You had the ground floor, which is the VIP room. Nobody could get in there unless you had your name at these doors. Slowly but surely, we had JAY-Z in there. We had Fat Joe. Back then, we used to pack it out every Sunday night.”
Over the next decade, Vegas set the stage for the modern hip-hop acts who dominate the Strip today. Namely, Paul Oakenfold kicked off the city’s superstar DJ era in 2008 with his own extended stay at Rain in Palms Casino resort. While the electronica act made national headlines, Jermaine Dupri was regularly spinning at Wynn Las Vegas. Even Kanye West, billed as “YEEZY WORLD PEACE,” DJed a three-hour set at the grand opening of 1 OAK’s Vegas location back in 2012.
In 2013, The Roots co-founder and drummer Questlove became another rare hip-hop DJ to regularly spin at Hakkasan. Questlove’s ties to Vegas are still strong today, as he and Nas helped open APEX Social Club at Palms Casino Resort over Memorial Day weekend with live performances.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Lil Jon feels equally at home in Vegas. His blend of hip-hop, EDM, and Top 40 hits reflects years of spinning at Strip venues. Next year will be Jon’s fifth holding down his “About Last Night” gig at Hakkasan, the MGM Grand superclub better known for hosting EDM marquee acts like Tiesto.
“We’re in, I call it the iPod generation, because everyone is listening to different things on their phones, basically. You’re listening to Jimi Hendrix, but then you might play Rick Ross, and then you might play Steve Aoki,” Jon said to Capital Xtra radio host Tim Westwood.
Pitbull became the first rapper to score an extended stay in Vegas. His own Planet Hollywood residency, “Time of Our Lives,” returned in May, after Jennifer Lopez’s “All I Have” featured him as a surprise guest.
Perhaps no one can speak more authoritatively on hip-hop’s Vegas takeover than Victor Drai. The Vegas nightlife impresario, who’s behind the lavish nightclubs Tryst and XS, famously introduced the Strip to house music when he opened Drai’s After Hours in 1997. The venue had two rooms: The bigger space was reserved for electronic music, the smaller one for hip-hop.
“Over the years, we started to switch the big room for hip-hop and the small room for house,” Drai tells Complex. “That’s where I can see it coming. That is the music people want now.”
Drai’s Beachclub & Nightclub opened in 2014 at the rooftop of the Cromwell, with a set by electronic music DJ Helena Atherton. But today, with help from Victor’s talent coordinator son Dustin, Drai's is best known for booking hip-hop acts like 50 Cent, Future, and Rae Sremmurd, and granting them the full-blown residency treatment. T.I. and Big Sean have also performed with a band and backup singers. This summer, Migos will be continuing their residency at the club on June 30, Pusha T performs July 1, Future on July 14, and Ty Dolla Sign on July 27.
“I think hip-hop is going to keep getting bigger and bigger in a few years,” Drai says. “ If you’re a DJ, and you’re just going behind a table and doing the same set every week, it is boring. If you go to Drai’s, you see a real performance.”
Past featured act G-Eazy has been so appreciative of the opportunity to perform at Drai’s that he’s shouted out the nightclub in the aptly titled track “Achievement.” Ahead of his own 2017 stay, Lil Wayne told Billboard: “Wayne Newton put his stamp on [Vegas], now it's time for me to do the same.”
To celebrate the release of his album Kolorblind, DJ Esco didn't head back to his Atlanta stomping grounds. Instead, he followed Meek Mill’s and Migos’ lead and booked a release party at Drai’s.
“Drai’s made one of the best decisions in club history,” Warren declares. “It’s parallel to when Ra said they were going to do hip-hop on Thursdays. Drai’s said, ‘We're going to go all urban and hip-hop.’ But the urban and hip-hop they were doing [was] really pop music.”
Warren Peace currently splits his time spinning for private events and at Drai's Beachclub. Larry Larr releases mixtapes under the moniker Dantana, while running events that directly boost Vegas' homegrown hip-hop scene. Both of these trendsetters see how well Drai's, coupled with their own foundational works, have impacted Vegas' relationship with hip-hop. Just a few weeks ago, Larry saw an aspiring rapper from New York pass out physical copies of his mixtapes on the Strip.
Vegas appears to have made that same realization, as the number of visitors who went to a show and saw a big-name headliner has doubled to 26 percent over the past few years. Metro Boomin, T-Pain, and Ludacris all performed at the LIGHT at Mandalay Day during New Year's Eve weekend. 1 OAK Las Vegas has hosted Juicy J, Flo Rida, and J. Cole, while TAO Nightclub at the Venetian has booked Jermaine Dupri for DJ sets.
Other cities may be long-standing hip-hop capitals, but Vegas best represents how, thanks to hip-hop culture, our ideas of entertainment have changed.
You can feel like Vegas royalty and catch Migos at Drai’s in late June and July; Travis Scott at Marquee Nightclub on July 7; Tyga and Lil Jon throughout the summer at JEWEL; and DJ Mustard’s residency at TAO and Marquee Nightclub & Dayclub in the coming months.
In the meantime, stay locked for part two of our series where we chart out our dream list of hip-hop residencies in Las Vegas.