Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009 | 6:08 p.m.
Michael Finley Jr. is feeling the pressure: Thirty years of disses, near-misses and outright dismissiveness of the local hip-hop scene by the industry mainstream. Countless local artists sliding CDs to hip-hop heavyweights or their frontmen, only to have those “scheduled” meetings never materialize. A&R reps who promise the world but then can’t seem to return phone calls. Someone was eventually going to expose the world to Vegas hip-hop, says Finley, but that emcee would also face outsize expectations. A wack effort could shut the door on other talented artists.
“I’m definitely carrying the city on my back,” says Finley, whose CD, The Talented Mr. Finley (a riff on the 1999 mistaken-identity thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley) is set for an early 2010 release. “Everyone knows that folks don’t think there’s much musical talent in Las Vegas. Many of us in the game have always felt that whoever got the first shot, if they didn’t do it to the fullest, there wouldn’t be a second shot. People have their arms folded, because they have never seen anyone come out of here.”
Which is why Finley’s recent deal with Island Def Jam (via Ghet-O-Vision Entertainment/K.A.M.P. Wess) is a very big deal in local hip-hop, potentially akin (he hopes) to the floodgates Nelly opened in St. Louis, Common opened in Chicago and OutKast opened in Atlanta. And he’s keenly aware that he’s repping hip-hop’s most iconic label, Def Jam.
“The label has produced the greatest hip-hop ever, so there’s a tremendous amount of pressure,” Finley says. “But I don’t look at it as pressure. I’ve sacrificed my life for this. I’m not doing nothing else. I’m not working at Wendy’s until I make it. I’m putting every second I can into music. I accept the challenge with open arms. I’ve studied up on my craft. Unless I try to fuck this up, and I won’t, I think I got something special.”
Had his parents had their druthers, Finley would be the next Ne-Yo. “I was a singer, but I got tired of it,” he says. In the summer of 1997, after recording a hook on a song, Finley dropped a few verses, rapping about owning the desert and “repping the tumbleweed.” The more he rapped, the more he liked it. At the time, he says, art took a backseat to having fun.
“We were all kids; everybody wanted to sound like Ice Cube or [Brotha] Lynch [Hung], and on some shoot-’em-up, bang, bang,” the Western High graduate says. “I took my ’hood roots and mixed it with the party generation. People had more room to have fun.”
Soon Finley set out to be the city’s best emcee; the unofficial title seemed like the best he could hope for, since major labels weren’t checking for Vegas. “Being on top was important, because there was no light at the end of the tunnel.”
A mixtape, King of Vegas, helped solidify Finley’s rep, helping to earn the connections that eventually led him to Def Jam. And since then, he’s been ubiquitous—posting songs on MySpace, shooting YouTube videos inside Def Jam’s office, doing interviews with top hip-hop media—all in an attempt to make people care about Vegas in a musical sense, he says. With songs like “She’s a G” and “Sin City,” the West Las Vegas native doesn’t intend for his album—which will feature production from veterans Don Cannon (Young Jeezy, Asher Roth) and DJ Toomp (Kanye West, T.I.)—to be a bright-lights hometown narrative.
“I’m from the Westside, and I’ve seen a lot and been involved in a lot. There’s another side to this city,” he says. “Living here is a gift and a curse. This town respects money. I don’t think the Strip is opposed to showing local rappers love, but you have to be established, and we’re not established yet. The deal is really only the beginning. Once you get it, it’s like you’re back at square one. You’re not just competing with people in your own city. You have to compete 100 times harder.”