Imagine playing the same game of Texas HoldEm for almost 30 years, starting out with zero chips but with a mean poker face and the determination to walk away a high roller. Every time you start winning, you're dealt shitty cards or someone at the table starts cheating. Other times, a gangster robs all the players at gunpoint, and there's nothing you can do about it. Occasionally, the dealer drops dead, leaving you waiting until someone new takes their place. Do you think you could keep betting with a smile through all that?
This is the career of Darren Hubbard, a.k.a. Darren Vegas, a tall half-white, half-Mexican producer from Huntington Beach who cut his teeth in the music industry at a time when it could've literally left him bleeding to death in the street. Even though bad record deals and bloody murders closed doors for him several times, the 47-year-old isn't bitter over his losses. Today, he spends most of his time mentoring amateur artists at 17 Street Studios in HB.
Vegas—who adopted the name as an homage to his second love of playing poker in Sin City, as well as so people would remember it—followed the path of Dr. Dre, from working at Ruthless Records to holding the position as head producer for Death Row Records' second era, Tha Row. In its winter 2002 issue, King magazine recognized him as the hidden backbone of the music coming out on the label and dubbed him "the Invisible Man." He was also an architect behind two seminal '90s rap groups, Fonkadelic Concepts and Killafornia Organization. His skills on the keyboard carved his place in the industry, relying on pure musicianship instead of sampling and creating his own melodies for his bass-heavy productions.
"He will go down in history to me as one of my top five," says Tha Chill from Compton's Most Wanted. "Especially after Killafornia, when he started doing his thing over at Death Row, to now doing his DJ stuff, dude is a real Orange County vet musician."
While on Tha Row, Vegas worked with LA-based KXNG Crooked (formerly known as Crooked I) and King Lil G (formerly known as Lil Gangster) before they earned their hip-hop crowns. "I met him back when he was on Death Row," Lil G says. "I'd say the reason my style is the way it is came from working with Vegas. Being around [him] drove me toward the right lane, and now we're out here making music videos, making records, making money."
Though Vegas will probably never get all the credit he deserves from stars who've launched their careers off his beats, his importance to the history of West Coast hip-hop shouldn't be overlooked.
While on Sway's Universe in September 2016, eccentric battle rapper Daylyt called out the man who helped him shape The Black and White Project, released earlier that year with HB rapper Mr. 2theP. "Big shouts out to my exclusive producer, which is Darren Vegas," he said. "I'm honored to be working with a man that has only worked with great people."
"There's a couple of people that don't get the acknowledgement," Sway added. "People don't know of . . . the history, they don't know the legacy; [Vegas is] one of those people."
* * * * *
Born on Dec. 6, 1970, Vegas grew up just blocks away from the Pacific Ocean. A passion for music came to him at age 6, inspired by groups such as Kool & the Gang, Earth Wind & Fire, and the Whispers. At age 10, his parents bought him a Casio keyboard and piano lessons; he then learned to play drums in junior high. During high school, he fell in love with rap music after hearing artists such as Run D.M.C. and N.W.A, and he began to DJ parties at 15 while creating his first instrumentals by layering tracks on a boombox. His talent for golf at Edison High School almost made him pursue a career in sports, but his obsession with making beats ultimately won out.
"It was a new form of expression," Vegas says. "I got made fun of sometimes; [other kids] were like, 'Dude, what are you trying to be, a black guy or something?' It was different then because nobody in Orange County was doing hip-hop."
He enrolled in the music program at Orange Coast College, where he met now-legendary DJ/producer J Rocc in 1990. They became instant friends, deejaying and collaborating after Vegas saved up money to buy his first keyboard sampler, an Esoniq EPS. They brought on local MCs Boodro and Pranksta to form the group Fonkadelic Concepts, with the goal of representing the county.
At the time, renowned musician Melvin Lee Davis was dating Boodro's sister, and he took the group under his wing after hearing "amazing talent," becoming an early mentor for Vegas. "Darren was crazy dedicated . . . to making beats," Davis says. "You sort of have to be dedicated to it if you want anything to go down of any significance. . . . Someone gave him the keys to the door; he opened it, and they saw he had the skills."
After turning down a deal with Soul Train creator Don Cornelius, the group released the record O.C. Bound in 1993 with funding from Davis and Vegas' friend Mark Carranza. The project is a perfect blend of early gangster rap, R&B, and breakbeats, with a standout title track. It starts with a slowed techno sample leading you into a bass-heavy rhythm that slams down like a lowrider's tires hitting the street and a loop of someone saying "Orange County" right before the gangster-rap rhymes begin styling over the beat. Fonkadelic Concepts truly represented where they were from at a time when other artists in the county were claiming Compton. Vegas remembers people loving the record when it dropped, especially Mexicans cruising on Bristol Street in Santa Ana.
Fonkadelic Concepts dissolved over time, and Vegas went back to school, earning an AA in music business in 1993. He then began putting all his time into honing his production skills. In 1995, he started working with underground groups while attending Cal State Dominguez Hills. Vegas' big break came when his roommate Uni and producer Dave Knight helped to set up a meeting with Big C-Style (of D.P.G.C.) and Tha Chill. "I was like, 'Damn, these beats are dope as hell,'" Big C-Style recalls. "I said, 'We can do something with this,' and I immediately put some artists on top of it."
Tha Chill says he's never met a white guy who had so much soul while playing piano. "He could mimic any record vs. sampling," he says. "I could hum a melody to Darren, and he could just play it."
Big C-Style took the beats to Death Row Records, and a hard-hitting, melodic instrumental Vegas made with Knight ended up being used for LBC Crew's song "Dippin In My Low Low" and Snoop Dogg's interlude "Traffic Jam" on Tha Doggfather. The D.P.G.C. co-founder remembers Vegas meeting with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre at Can-Am studios in Tarzana in 1995; the Death Row artists thought Vegas was way ahead of his time. Jai Hassan-Jamal "Big Jake" Robles soon reached out to Vegas about signing him to the label, but Robles was shot outside an Atlanta nightclub on Sept. 23, 1995, before they could finalize a deal. He died a few weeks later.
* * * * *
Vegas' luck changed right before the summer of 1996, when the broke producer received a $10,000 check for his contribution to Snoop Dogg's "Traffic Jam."
"I had made the fucking beat in my boy's garage when his mom was in there doing the laundry," Vegas says. "You have to understand, I was a white kid making fucking rap music. People are like, 'What the fuck are you doing, dude? You're not going to ever make it doing that shit,' so that [recognition] kind of validated me."
He decided to drop out of school to focus on producing Killafornia Organization, a collaboration between veteran rappers including Compton's Most Wanted, South Central Cartel and Tray Dee and some fresh artists out of Orange County. The producer worked on the beats for the album as a part of Three Strikes Productions, with Vegas advancing his style to create pure G-Funk melodies and Tha Chill crediting Vegas for teaching him "the flyness of music." The group expected a big payday when the record dropped on Aug. 27, 1996, but they say they never saw a dollar because of a bad deal with the now-bankrupt Raging Bull Records.
Vegas then quit the music business out of anger until 1999, when, he says, "I did these fucking beats, and I said, 'This sounds like something Bone Thugs-N-Harmony would sound good on,' but I didn't even know them."
However, Vegas did know legendary Samoan rap group Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., and they connected the producer with the hip-hop group. He remembers playing a vicious instrumental for the Cleveland MCs that particularly excited them. "They were in the kitchen, dude, and for some reason, they started throwing chairs because they were so hyped," Vegas says. "[They were] rapping in my face, and Bizzy jumped on top of the table."
The resulting collaboration, "Righteous Ones," landed on the group's BTNHResurrection album along with another Vegas-produced song, "One Night Stand." The album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, reached No. 1 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums by March 18, 2000, and is now certified platinum. This led to Vegas working on Mo Thugs Family album Mo Thugs III: The Mothership (2000), then Layzie Bone's solo album Thug By Nature (2001) and Bizzy Bone's The Gift (2001). Vegas remembers Layzie would get so pumped up in the studio that he'd take his shirt off when he'd jump on the mic, as though he were preparing to fight.
"Righteous Ones" got a second life in 2013 when Mac Miller and the Alchemist sampled the beat for Prodigy's "Confessions of a Cash Register" on the R.I.P. 1-3 mixtape.
He started producing for Long Beach rapper Crooked I in 1999 while the MC was signed on Death Row Records. They created his still-unreleased album Untouchable, which caught the attention of the label, so Reggie Wright (who ran Death Row while Suge Knight was in prison) arranged for Vegas to fly up to Mule Creek State Prison in late 2000. "[Knight] was like, 'Look, I've heard all this shit you've been doing, man, and I want you to sign with me,'" Vegas recalls. "'I listen to your music; everybody's been talking in the streets. . . . You're going to be the biggest record producer in the world.'"
They wrote out a deal on a napkin, and Vegas says Knight agreed to pay him $50,000 to do two remix albums, Tupac Shakur's Until the End of Time and Dogg Pound's 2002. Vegas linked up with G-funk creator Cold 187um, a.k.a. Big Hutch, to work on the records and brought Monsta O onto the label to help with production. Vegas was given a $10,000-per-month salary and worked 12-hour days six days a week at Can-Am Studios. "We had a chemistry going when we'd create stuff and collaborate on beats," Monsta O says. "[Vegas and I] were all about trying to stay away from sampling because we're real players."
Tha Dogg Pound's 2002 contained a few tracks Vegas worked on with Big Hutch, most notably "Smoke" and "What Cha About." As a longtime fan of Shakur, Vegas was honored to work on the rap legend's posthumous 2001 album Until the End of Time, creating beats for his vocals. Vegas did the tracks "Why U Turn on Me" and "Happy Home"; the beat for the latter captured the emotion of the song. Vegas and Monsta O remember meeting Shakur's brother at a party after the album dropped; Mopreme Shakur told them he loved the record. By April 14, 2001, Until the End of Time was No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and certified four times platinum.
After Cold187um left Death Row in 2002, Vegas took over as head producer, becoming a "beat-making mothafucka" working with any artist who walked in the door; he had huge budgets and access to any equipment he needed. Knight would constantly pop into the studio to test his producers, requiring every track to have a West Coast gangsta feel. They'd know Knight loved the music when he'd spark up a cigar and relax.
Vegas took his position as both a challenge and with a determination to make his mark. "Darren Vegas was the first time I realized it wasn't only blacks making those hard-ass hip-hop and R&B tracks," says Spider Loc, a former Death Row rapper and former CEO of G-Unit West.
"He was incredible; I thought he was very talented, a master at what he did," former Death Row rapper Eastwood says. "He gave us a sound that was up-to-date as well as familiar with the authentic Death Row sound. . . . I just thought he was talented the way he bridged the gap between old and new."
Vegas got to see the star power in Keyshia Cole with her cracking high notes and raw, shining potential in the studio. Ray J could get in the booth and think of hooks just as fast as a rapper could think of verses. Vegas brought Latino artists to Tha Row, encouraging Lil G to craft a smooth rap style for women on the song "Sending This Message." Left Eye would come into the studio, light candles everywhere and keep very few people in the room while she recorded her N.I.N.A. project before her death in April 2002. When Kurupt returned to the label, Vegas produced the song "I'm Back (Remix)," on which Kurupt raps, "I'm in Vegas with Vegas, motherfucker, gangstaz smashing through Vegas motherfuckers."
For the soundtrack to Eddie Griffin's documentary Dysfunktional Family, Vegas brought in every artist he had at the time. Tha Row came decided to also make a compilation album, almost as a sampler of all the music they were making for the film that wasn't being released. "It was a great album," Griffin says. "It should have been promoted."
While at Tha Row, Vegas produced some of his best work with Crooked I. The two were dedicated to being the best they could be, complementing each other on every track. In 2003, they released Westcoastanosta Vol. 1, 17 minutes of gangster rap guaranteed to give you a stank face from just how raw every song is as you bob your head. Vegas is confident if Untouchable had dropped when it was supposed to, he and Crooked I would've been the biggest artists in the rap game. "I really ain't ever heard Crooked I make another doper record than that one him and Darren did," says Big C-Style.
But being with The Row was not only frustrating; it was also dangerous. Two of Knight's associates were killed in 2002. Vegas says he lifted weights every day in case he had to fight in the studio or over his chain in the street. And he had to go along with Knight's wishes for Vegas to produce the Tupac remix record Nu-Mixx Klazzics while sitting on far more superior albums.
Vegas decided to leave the label in the beginning of 2004, as it was obvious the label was dying a slow death. "The records weren't coming out," he says. "[Suge] stopped paying me; he went back to prison one time, and I remember he called me from prison saying, 'I want you to go do this record,' and I said, 'Dude, you haven't paid me in like 3 months.' He's like, 'Pay you? You owe me money, motherfucker.'"
The producer says thousands of beats and hundreds of tracks he worked on there may never see the light of day. And despite being ahead of their time, releases such as Crooked I's Hood Star or Kurupt's Down and Dirty didn't get the pushes they deserved. According to Vegas, he doesn't receive royalties for any of the records he produced for the label. (Entertainment One, which now owns the rights to the Death Row and Tha Row catalogs, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
* * * * *
Vegas found himself blackballed in the industry. No label wanted to deal with a producer still under contract with Knight, so any production work he did during these years stayed underground. When his contract with Tha Row expired in 2010, Vegas was determined to find the biggest artists he could while reinventing himself as an independent producer. He teamed back up with King Lil G for the mixtape Sucios Pt. 2 in 2011 and with 40 Glocc for a remix for the song "Welcome to California," which featured verses by West Coast artists Snoop Dogg, E-40, Xzibit, Too Short and Sevin.
He then took a break from hip-hop to return to his roots, becoming a DJ performing at clubs and making EDM-inspired tracks.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Then in 2016, Vegas teamed up with infamous battle rapper Daylyt and Mr. 2theP on Friday the 25th, The Black and White Project, and a yet-to-be released record. He's still searching for the right artist or deal to return him to his former glory, he says.
A major investment loss into real estate during the Great Recession forced Vegas to confront all his frustrations over his losses in the industry, with him choosing to let go of it all so he could finally live his life. He's happier now, raising two sons with his wife of four years.
All Vegas needs now is the right star to work with, but more important is to find companies willing to financially back records because without the money, a project will go nowhere. Vegas is currently in talks with a major artist about a project that he says will require fresh talent, but they must believe they have the skills and a desire to learn from a producer who's worked with the West Coast's finest. "You may have great talent, but if you don't get with the right trainer, someone who is going to help bring that out of you and help show you the way, then you may never reach your full potential," Vegas says. "I'm not just a guy who makes beats; I'm the guy that will teach you the fucking game."