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Desert Companion

Kings of the Norf

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Kings of Norf
Photography by Brent Holmes

Often dissed and dismissed, North Las Vegas has an export it’s proud of: a distinct brand of hip-hop

When Trade Voorhees opens a concert, he and his North Las Vegas cohort become the main event. A crowd at least fifty strong — composed of other rappers from the “Norf,” as they call it, along with friends, relatives, girlfriends, and weed dealers — rushes to the front, some climbing onstage to become impromptu hypemen, singing along to every word and ad lib that Trade drops in his signature style of disaffected, deadpan amusement. It feels like a championship team’s homecoming, minus the ticker tape parade. The room is filled with booming cheer; fans are flailing. Trade’s their MVP.

Then it turns into a North Las Vegas all-star showcase: Rob Falco might join Trade for “Black Bag.” Jerry Shinefield might jump up — shirtless in a leather jacket, his trademark look — to perform his rowdy track “Pretty Ugly” alongside Thelonius Gawd and Trade: “Stupid how the function get / Damn they gon’ love this shit.” Elbows fly and bodies lunge in a mosh pit that’s equal parts sweat and PBR. For all its raw energy, “Pretty Ugly” might be the unofficial anthem of the Norf’s hip-hop.

If North Las Vegas is an underdog city — dismissed as either faceless suburbs or stereotyped as gang-ridden ghettos — North Las Vegas hip-hop is its subversive soundtrack. It’s rebellious, rambunctious, a little goofy, and raw. But proud.

Support comes from

T.Rabb“We built our shit from the ground up,” says T.Rabb, another North Las Vegas hip-hop artist on the rise. “We didn’t get any opportunities.”

Consider Trade Voorhees — far from the first hip-hop artist from North Las Vegas, but one of its earliest successes. An obsessive fan of horror movies and Halloween, he raps in a surprisingly musical, stoned slacker drawl about everything from B-movie murder fantasies to the pleasures of pumpkin-carving. (“I’m not scary/ But clearly I love Halloween and horror flicks / No, I’m no freak show and I’m not gonna kill my chick/ So can you quit with the asinine questions, ideas, and suggestions?/ God, I send my blessings.”) His sound caught traction during the blog-rich days of the mid-aughts Internet.

“I’ll probably be buried in North Las Vegas,” says Trade. It’s part resignation, part pride. Born Stephan Perren, Trade grew up obsessed with metal, hip-hop, and (as you might guess from his stage name) slasher flicks. It made for a style of his own, one bolstered by North Las Vegas. He moved there at 16, and quickly fell in with the kids at the now-defunct Bueno Park, which they dubbed Steez Park. It was a playground for misfit teens — skaters, rappers, gang bangers, and nerds all hanging out, united by one fact: There was nothing to do in North Las Vegas other than slap box, shoot skate videos, and drink stolen beer.

The cultural diversity made for sonic diversity. While Las Vegas’ west side was known for its gangster rap and the east side was known for its slick-talking hustlers, the North Las Vegas sound was a mixed bag, heavily influenced by skate and Bay Area hip-hop culture.

“We were a ragtag bunch of rascals that were just trying to find the party the next night,” Trade says. In those days, his crew listened to a lot of “hyphy” rap — a hyperactive style of Bay Area hip-hop with minimal, whimsical beats anchored by heavy bass. It wasn’t very popular outside of Northern California, but Trade latched on to it. “For us, it was like a party drug,” he says. Some of that influence is apparent in North Town’s rap roster. You can catch hints of it in Jerry Shinefield’s unhinged performances or LeRoyCHOPS’ animated delivery.

But make no mistake: “Trade is the godfather,” says 27-year-old rapper G.Reed.

Much of Trade’s early music was a mirror of those years. His 2009 track “Driving By Myself” is about going to Steez Park and having everyone try to hitch a ride. “It was so common for motherf---ers to hop in. There’s six skateboards and motherf---ers who smell like garbage,” Trade says with a laugh. “I still make songs about that park.” The skate park gave them something to do, but hip-hop gave them unity. “What made North Town dope is that we’re a fruitful group. We all do something different, we all have a different walk of life,” Trade says. They all came together to make music, with Trade laying down production for North Town’s budding rappers the way Kanye West unlocked Chicago’s sound.

But being the godfather doesn’t mean Trade’s raking in money. He’s been at it for more than a decade, and his rewards — fulfillment, respect — are largely intangible.

“Chasing the dream can be crushing the older you get. Slowly, you start to see this dying light in people,” Trade says from his home studio, decorated with painted Friday the 13th masks, and crowded with shelves of vinyl, drum machines, synthesizers, and instruments. During rap’s blog era, his releases would appear next to now-ubiquitous names like Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, and Mac Miller. Now, Trade’s lucky to get a few thousand streams.

“There’s days where I won’t even come to this room because the grayness has got to me. I see my friends losing their imagination, and all I think about is chasing my imagination so I don’t lose it.” Acknowledging the fact that his music won’t make him millions, Trade’s become more creative than ever. He’s incorporating more live instrumentation in his work, and even made a punk album by himself. He thinks of his newer music as Frank Zappa-esque, kooky and satirical. “I don’t have to hold my tongue for anybody,” he says. “Who is everybody anyway? F-ck ‘em.”

 

The ‘F’ in Norf

There’s a moment in the Norf’s lore when the distinction between North Las Vegas rappers and everyone else was made. It was in March 2011, during a hip-hop showcase starring rappers from throughout the Valley at the now-defunct Daddy Mac’s in Henderson. It was packed with about 150 or so people. Almost every Las Vegas ’hood was in that building, those at the show recall. “All the different sets (were there), and then this skinny black dude gets on stage and starts screaming ‘North Town!’,” Trade says.

“It just had that energy that any second some shit could pop off,” says Terry Rabb, aka T.Rabb, the emcee onstage that night. T.Rabb chose to end his brief set with his song, “Norf Town.” (He put the “f” in “Norf” as a way to distinguish the music from the gang culture, as “North Town” was shorthand in the streets for “North Town Gangster Crips.”) The song begins with a chant of “Norf, Norf, Norf,” followed by the war cry, “Nooorf Tooown” over sinister keys and brooding bass. “The whole crowd was going crazy in the most positive, uplifting way,” Trade recalls. When Rabb left the stage, the crowd was still shouting “Norf Town.”

“The DJ couldn’t play anything else, so he played the track again,” Rabb says. Given the makeup of the audience — fans and rappers from every part of the city, representing different loyalties and groups, many of them enemies — it was a gamble. Rabb got messages on social media the next day telling him he was lucky he made it out of the venue. But he was more than alive; he was victorious. From that day on, the Norf was recognized as a musical force. “Rabb changed the perception from gangs to bars (lines of lyrics),” G.Reed says. “He was the first person to wear the North on his back.”

Rabb didn’t sound like anyone else, in Vegas or elsewhere. A cerebral lyricist with haymaker punchlines, he fills his raps with sports references and effortless swagger. Though he isn’t flashy, he’s fashionable, often in a pair of Jordans, washed denim jeans, and T-shirt emblazoned with “North Town.” If Trade embodied the Norf sound, Rabb solidified and marketed the brand.

 “No one wanted to be from North Las Vegas,” Rabb says. “Whenever I told people I was from North Las Vegas, they’d treat me like I was from the slums.”

Rabb took outsiders’ vitriol and turned it into a sense of pride, into something that belonged solely to them. Soon, almost every rapper in North Las Vegas was on board. They became their own support network, appearing on each other’s projects, and putting on shows themselves. “Our whole thing was: whoever is on, he’s the man right now. If you’re performing, everybody’s gonna pull up,” Rabb says. “When other people would perform, we wouldn’t get on. We got that mentality that it was us against the world. It just turned into North Town or nothing.”

Though some of his peers his age have put music on the backburner, 28-year-old Rabb is not going anywhere. He’s released a string of singles over the last year, with a new project, Relentless, in the works. “In my eyes, North Town still run this rap shit,” he says. “We’ve had more influence over this scene than anybody.”

 

The New Wave

Rabb’s generation laid the groundwork. Those building on it are taking it to the next level — that is, exporting the Norf sound to bigger and broader hip-hop channels.

North Town runs through Ty Henderson’s blood. Better known as Toxsikk, he’s the son of Vocabb and younger brother of S-U-Preme — and one of the Norf’s biggest lyrical exports. A regular at media company Team Backpack’s live events, Toxsikk’s freestyle battles garner hundreds of thousands of views and spark hundreds of comments in debate. Onstage and on records, he’s a force. At 6-foot-3 with a hoop in his nose and long, thick dreadlocks, he looms over opponents — just making his rap-battle opponents lower the mic stand is belittling. He’s a bull of an emcee, and every line is a horn to the gut. “I’m about to open the morgue and open the door / and pick up these rappers all over the floor,” he spits in a recent freestyle clip. And at 24, he’s already a veteran, having started rapping at 10 and recording in his early teens.

“I was raised around a lot of gang bangers and street dudes. It was just wild sometimes,” he says. “I had to force myself to stay in the music to stay out of trouble.” His peers did the same. It gave rise to a tight-knit but highly competitive community. You had to stay sharp. “There’s no one in the North that’s mumbling and not saying anything,” he says.

 Landry Williams, aka 24-year-old Impact RH, reps the Norf on all of his projects, with titles like 200 Miles Norf and Norf Pole.

“We’re the only voice of North Las Vegas,” he says. His crew, Real Hits, is trying to make it known worldwide. CMPLX, a North Las Vegas producer who works closely with Impact RH, has secured major label placements, most notably with the song “Drama” by Canadian crooner Roy Woods and superstar Drake. Producer Blair Norf also puts on for the city — it’s right there in his name, a name linked to hip-hop heavyweights like Freddie Gibbs and Curren$y.

Among the most promising new acts is long-haired stoner Russell Schoenbeck, better known as Wave MMLZ, an acronym for Make Music Live Zen. The 24-year-old is a production virtuoso who can make a beat out of anything. In a series of videos posted on Twitter, he roams his house for random sounds to sample, from the ripping of takeout menus to the chk chk of scissors. Wave got his start in music by playing drums in a metalcore band. He’d always loved hip-hop and wrote raps, but it wasn’t until he got tired of relying on others that he dove into hip-hop. With hip-hop, he could be the entire band himself. It was when he entered the hip-hop scene that he witnessed how much pride there was for his hometown.

“I saw it was cool to be proud of being from North Las Vegas,” Wave says. “I make it a point to say I’m from North Las Vegas, because not only is that where I’m actually from, it’s different from Las Vegas. It’s more of a community.”

Big Homie Stone

Rap rivalries are inevitable, but a shared North Las Vegas pride takes precedence, says Big Homie Stone.  "The rap game is one separation from family."

That kinship runs deep. Kiari Cook, aka Big Homie Stone, grew up in the same neighborhood as Impact RH. He remembers watching videos of the old Steez Park freestyle sessions and going to see Jerry Shinefield and Thelonius Gawd perform when he was 15. He even named his pit bull Norf. At 23, he’s among the youngest North Las Vegas exports, blending the North Town OGs’ swagger with new-school aesthetics and getting hype on national blogs.

Stone looks at rap like a sport. After a brief falling out with Rabb last year, Stone fired a diss track at the self-proclaimed King of the Norf, but because of their community connections, the beef didn’t progress beyond that. “Me and him not family, but we consider some of the same people family. The rap game is one separation from family,” Stone says.

Stone still shows Rabb the utmost respect. He recently got in his car and heard Rabb on the speakers. Stone thought his phone automatically connected to the speakers via Bluetooth and played a Rabb track. Nope. Rabb was on commercial radio.

“That made me happy,” Stone says. “But that’s North Town. We’re always down for each other.”

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