Robert Strawder has worn many hats.
He has been called “Straw” since the days he played basketball and aspired to suit up for the Los Angeles Lakers.
For nearly 20 years, he has gone by Vegas Don — a rapper who lived the high life of urban hip-hop culture in the early 2000s.
Strawder has made Vegas Don into a brand. A couple of hundred people showed up at his film’s premiere.
Strawder was 5 when his parents, who were not married, split up. That’s when he and his mom, sister and brother moved to North Las Vegas from Los Angeles.
His mom got married shortly after the move to a man Strawder called “the best dad … when he wasn’t high.”
“He was a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of guy,” he said.
Strawder said his stepdad used cocaine and heroin and abused Strawder and his brother. When his mom would leave for work, Strawder said, his stepdad locked them in the closet.
Strawder said his mom also was a drug addict. He woke up one day and his mom was gone, leaving his four siblings and him alone. Strawder was the oldest, at 16. His sister and brother were 15 and 14, while Strawder’s two other sisters from his stepdad’s side were 11 and 4.
Strawder feared social services would split them up, so the children agreed to keep his mother’s departure a secret. In need of money while still attending Southern Nevada Vocational Technical Center (now Southeast Career Technical Academy), Strawder turned to selling crack.
“I bought $100 of it, and I just kept going,” he said.
Strawder went to Porterville College in Porterville, California, to play basketball. He made the six-hour drive each week to Las Vegas to look after his sisters and brother, who took care of themselves. Strawder frequently missed his Monday classes, dropped out in 1989 and moved back to North Las Vegas.
‘It changed my life’
Strawder turned his focus to rapping.
He got his break in 2002, at a show in Reno with a star-studded lineup of Too Short, RBL Posse and Digital Underground. After the show, Strawder was approached by Shock G, the founder of Digital Underground and one of the people responsible for discovering Tupac Shakur.
“I gave him my CD (debut album ‘Living in the Negative’) and he said he’d call me,” Strawder said.
Shock G collaborated on Strawder’s single “City to City,” and Vegas Don put his stamp on the Las Vegas hip-hop scene. He did shows at The Venetian with Xzibit and Digital Underground, and he spent the next five years building his brand and D-Blocc Records, his record label. It was under that name until 2007, when he rebranded it to Vegas Don Enterprises.
Strawder said he lost money on real-estate investments, and in 2008 he filed for bankruptcy.
The women, drugs and music took a backseat, Strawder said. He took in his daughter at the request of her grandmother. Strawder said he also found God.
His daughter, now 20, got accepted to Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, with plans to become a doctor. She’s set to graduate next year.
“It changed my life,” he said. “It made me sharpen everything up.”
Strawder went back to making music after his daughter left for school, and he turned to his family for a new project.
When Strawder started production of “Checkmate” four years ago, he had a guy in mind to play A-Town, a cocky and funny protagonist who gets off a bus in Las Vegas with hopes of becoming a made man in the city.
Anderson Hunt Jr., then 20, was Strawder’s choice. Strawder has known Hunt for decades; Strawder’s brother dated his mom while Strawder was taking care of his family.
While Hunt’s father, former UNLV basketball player Anderson Hunt Sr., pursued a professional basketball career and moved to Detroit, Hunt Jr. stayed with his mom in Las Vegas and was raised by “Uncle Straw.”
“He’s always been there for me,” Hunt said of Strawder. “When I’d lose teeth, he’d put $5 under my pillow like he was the tooth fairy. He took me to get haircuts, everything. He was influential in everything I did. I thought he was so cool growing up.”
Strawder’s experiences in Las Vegas were the inspiration for “Checkmate.” Trying to make a name for himself, A-Town (played by Hunt) finds it harder than he’d expected. He trips over a set of garbage cans is beaten up by gang members minutes into the film. He meets the Spirit of Vegas — one of many characters played by Strawder — and is given the tools to succeed in the streets of Sin City.
A source of hope
At Presidential Limo Las Vegas, 2000 S. Industrial Road, there are a few senior drivers tasked with driving the party limos and buses.
Strawder is one of them. He has worked at the company for four years.
Strawder was set to graduate May 15 from the College of Southern Nevada with an associate’s degree in mental-health services. He said he hopes to guide underprivileged kids away from the types of hardships he went through. He started a nonprofit, Taking Back the Blocc Inc., providing kids with clothes and school supplies.
“I wanted to help somebody who was just like me … and give them some hope,” Strawder said. “Back then, I (had) no hope.”
At his movie premier at the Suncoast, Strawder stood by his mother, whom he said has been sober for nearly 30 years.
Tears fell behind Strawder’s sunglasses as he hugged his mom and she expressed how proud she was.
“The only time family got together like this (was) a funeral,” he said. “Now, we’re together and it’s a happy moment. I’m blessed to be someone from the projects to be where I am now.”