Tampa rapper hustles his way to the top
By Dalia Wheatt, tbt* staff writer
Published November 23, 2007
Perspectives of Hip-Hop
Want to learn more about the business of hip-hop? Catch Perspectives of Hip-Hop: Rap Music in Today's Society, a panel discussion featuring Public Enemy's Chuck D, Surreal Life alum Da Brat, video vixen Karrine Steffans, filmmaker Byron Hurt and poet Bridget Gray at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the USF Sun Dome, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. Tickets are $8, or free with a USF student ID. (813) 974-3111.
Lil Kee live
Want to catch Keith "Lil Kee" Norates in concert? He'll be at Tampa's Club 112, 901 N Franklin St., on Dec. 4 and Dec. 7. See myspace.com/lilkee813 for details.
You've got to stay on your grind.
It's a lesson Keith Norates learned early on. He's been on his grind since his days at selling $5 mix tapes in the lunchroom of Ben Hill Middle School.
"I was bootleggin' like a mug," said Norates, who said he could make up to $200 in a day in the lunchroom, enough to afford Nikes so he wouldn't have to wear the generic brand his mother bought him.
"I was like, "Hell no, I ain't havin' it. I gotta get my grind up,'" Norates said. '"I can't be goin' to school like this. I'm Lil Kee.'"
Today, Lil Kee has sneakers to match every outfit.
Becoming a nationally known rapper is a long shot, but to all those Florida kids rhyming and making beats in their bedrooms, the stakes are worth it.
Last week, Tallahassee's T-Pain was featured in four songs on the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. Carol City native Flo Rida's collab with T-Pain, Low, jumped from No. 64 to No. 6 on the same chart, and was the No. 1 download on iTunes. And Fort Myers native Plies had the No. 34 song, Hypnotized.
Norates, a full-time rapper, producer and deejay in Tampa, wants to join them.
That means hanging his own posters, producing his own singles, and creating his own hype. It's the hip-hop equivalent of a med student depriving herself of sleep for the chance to become doctor, or an aspiring CEO toiling to work his way from the mail room to the corner office.
Tbt* spent two months shadowing Norates and his family to gain insight into the life and struggles of aspiring rappers. For every T-Pain or Flo Rida, there are a thousand Lil Kees toiling for a chance at stardom.
In the rap game, it's called staying on your grind.
For Norates, 26, this is how it's done.
Lil Kee is Norates' stage name. Under that persona, he raps about having "more heat than M.I.A." and being "fresher than a motherf---er" and "cleaner than a b----." He also spits about dancing, not doing drugs and - on How U Want It - his bedroom prowess.He said his slowed-down, Southern-style beats can be heard on Tallahassee radio and on mix tape shows in Gainesville and West Palm Beach.
Norates describes his style as feel-good dance music. His single Low to tha Flo, in which he spits in hushed tones about his rapping and producing skills, is in rotation at Club Skye, Full Moon Saloon and Club 112, where he's the house deejay. He hasn't released an album, but he sells songs on CD Baby.com.
Norates' MySpace page myspace.com/lilkee813 has been viewed about 190,000 times, and the track Low to tha Flo has been played approximately 271,000 times. By comparison, the No. 1 song in the country, Kiss Kiss by Chris Brown featuring T-Pain, has more than 376,000 plays on T-Pain's MySpace page.
When Norates appears as Lil Kee, he wears sunglasses, poses for pictures with his middle finger up and drops the F-bomb liberally. He also wears his rap name on a chain around his neck. "It's just a form of showing that my hard work pays off a little, that's all," he said.
The son of a Cuban nurse mother and hairstylist father in Hollywood, Calif., Norates was raised in Ybor City by his mom and grandmother on a musical diet of the Isley Brothers and Frankie Beverly and Maze. His cousin turned him onto rap with an Ice Cube CD, and soon Norates was a fan of Dr. Dre and Run-DMC.
When Norates was 15, his dad bought him a keyboard. That's when he got serious about making music and decided he needed a deejay name.
"I wrote all these names down. I wrote Lil Kee and I just ran with that for the simple fact that I'm a little dude."
Five feet 4, to be exact.
At age 20, Norates started rapping with the local rap group Black Jack Boyz. He picked up deejay gigs. About three years ago, with the okay of his wife, Yolanda, he quit his day job detailing cars to pursue his dream full time.
It wasn't as easy as it looked. It never is.
Since his days selling mix tapes in the school cafeteria, Norates has learned the following: Get everything copyrighted. Keep a manager around to be the bad guy, so you don't damage your relationship with club promoters. Attend music conferences, like TJ's DJ's Tastemakers in Tallahassee and HooD Magazine Music Conference in Jacksonville. Go to Barnes and Noble to read up on the biz. Always keep CDs in your car so you can give them away on the street or at a birthday party with your kids.
The longer Norates stays on his grind, the longer his "what not to do" list gets.
Never sell your own product. "I just feel like for somebody to be selling CDs out of the trunk, it kinda limits you as an artist," Norates said. "You can't go to Ja Rule and say, 'Can I buy your CD from you?"
Never plaster your posters all over West Tampa without first getting permission. Once Norates hung promotional posters on poles throughout West Tampa. The posters had his phone number on them. He got a call from a building owner, telling him to removed them.
Never expect a marketing tool to work all the time. Be prepared to waste money on promotional tools that don't get results, like the time Flasher sent five Lil Kee prize packs - T-shirts, CDs and tickets to the video release party - to a radio station, only to see contest winners opt for other swag instead.
And never pass up an opportunity for self-promotion.
The Monday before the video release party, Norates headed to the studio of HCC's 1520-AM for a spot on DJ Slick Worthington's Hip-Hawk Hour.
On air, Norates managed to work in the usual plugs - MySpace page, a release party for the Low to tha Flo video at Club 112 - before exiting the studio with Flasher. Leaning on the door, he called over his shoulder.
"Gotta go pick up the kids."
The kids are LaKeitheia, 9; Keith Jr., 7; and Brian, 3. Norates has their names tattooed on his left arm. He lets them listen to clean versions of his music.
LaKeithia, tall and articulate for her age, wants to be a writer when she grows up. Keith Jr. wants to be Chris Brown or Ne-Yo. He also has a mild form of autism, Yolanda said. And Brian, with his Milk Dud head, is so cute that he can get away with just about anything.
The Norates family rent a three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch house on North 17th Street in Tampa. Norates and Yolanda are in one bedroom. The kids share the a Sponge Bob-themed bedroom, with Brian in one twin bed and LaKeithia and Keith Jr. in the other. The third bedroom is Norates' studio.
Norates said the kids are comfortable sharing a room but knows they'll each need their own space as they grow up. So for the past few months, he and Yolanda have been in the process of buying a four-bedroom house in New Tampa. They plan to close on the house in February, he said.
"We're in the 'hood right now, so my main goal is to get my family up outta here," Norates said. "It's going to be a four-bedroom, but my studio isn't going to be in the house. I'm getting an outside studio."
At 8 a.m. each day, Keith drops off Yolanda at her bank job in a black Ford Expedition with a Terrific Kid at B.T. Washington bumper sticker, then shuttles the children to school. He returns home around 9 a.m., eats breakfast and works in his studio until it's time to pick up the kids at 4 p.m. and Yolanda at 5 p.m. Then he makes dinner. Spaghetti and breaded steak are his specialities.
It's tough balancing family responsibilities with the pursuit of a dream, as Norates discovered.
"At first, I was working a 9 to 5 and what would happen was, I was working and then as soon as I would get home, I would go straight into my music. So I really never had time at all for the family," Norates said. "It kinda brought some turmoil, like 'You never spend time,' whatever, whatever.'"
He told Yolanda that quitting his day job would better their relationship because he'd have more time to spend with the family.
"She gets in her mood where it's like, 'Well, your job isn't isn't a real job,'" Norates said. "But at the end of the day, it can get frustrating just sitting in that studio for 16 hours. It really can."
Yolanda said she supports Norates' full-time musical pursuits.
"I think he's very talented, and he just works very hard. He's determined," said Yolanda, 25, a personal banker at City Bank. "I think he's grown a lot from where he started."
How well does it pay being a full-time rapper in Tampa? Norates said he made $65,000 last year - $25,000 from deejaying Fridays and Sundays at Club 112 and the rest from producing songs and doing shows around the state - though he estimates he's spent "an easy 80 grand" on promotions and studio equipment over the past two or three years.
But he offered no documentation to support either of these claims. "At the end of the day, on paper she makes more than me," he said.
The family has insurance through Yolanda's job.
"Damn right," Norates said. "Gotta have insurance."
Like many rappers, Norates has consciously constructed two personas. On the night of the Low to tha Flo video release party, it was Lil Kee, not Keith, he wanted to show partiers at Club 112.
In the late afternoon, Keith and Yolanda dropped off the kids at his mother's house before heading downtown. With help from his manager, Tampa VIPs CEO Ray Flasher, he hung banners and posters that featured him flipping the bird above the words The KEE to Jook City.
The club holds 1,535. At 10:45 p.m., 22 people sat around the club's three bars. There was no one on the dance floor.
At 12:30 a.m., a bouncer estimated that there were 200 people inside Club 112 - an figure that Keith later put at 500.
"It's not a packed club yet, but for me to just bring out this amount of people, I appreciate it very much," Norates said over the din.
Norates spent the evening posing for photos and occasionally going upstairs to the deejay booth, where he'd announce to the cheering crowd which artists and media were in the "motherf---ing building."
Turns out there hadn't been time for dinner after all, and Norates was on his fourth Hennessey and Coke. All he'd eaten all day were some Corn Pops for breakfast.
"I don't usually get this drunk," Norates said with a laugh, sitting with Yolanda on a couch in the VIP room. "I'm a family man."
"I have the keys," Yolanda added.
The night wore on as six opening acts took the stage. Yolanda struggled to stay awake, and Norates grew frustrated. He wanted to give all the opening acts a chance to perform, but it was getting late.
"You see why I have to take off the edge, because if I had to deal with this sober, I'd be real mad right now," he said.
He checked his watch. One-forty a.m.
"'I want to go on (at) this time. This and that, this and that,'" Norates grumbled, mocking his opening acts. "Well, damn! It's my video release party! What about me? It's almost 2 o'clock and I haven't went on yet!"
Finally, Norates takes the stage, surrounded by a posse of female dancers, including Yolanda.
At 2:05 a.m., Norates told the crowd, "I feel like gettin' low to the flo'. You feel like gettin' low to that flo'?" The women crowding the stage squealed.
"What's that?" Norates asked, pointing to a TV screen mounted over his shoulder. "That's the video right here!"
Two girls in the front row danced while the video played. The rest of the crowd watched the screen stoically.
As the video ended, a fog machine filled the stage with smoke. Local rapper Jamal "Strizzo" Lyles rapped on a remix of Low to tha Flo. Norates danced his way to the front of the stage, crouched down and busted a move.
Some members of the crowd danced and cheered. One woman stood on the dance floor, arms crossed, smacking her gum.
One of Norates' biggest challenges is getting Tampa's mainstream radio stations to put Low to tha Flo in rotation. He's sent CDs to the stations and is working on scheduling meetings to show his video to program directors. He said he has nothing against the stations but can't understand why a song that's popular in clubs doesn't get radio air time. "It's hard to really get hot in your own city," he said.
Orlando Davis, program director for Wild 98.7-FM and host of Orlando and the Freak Show, said he gets four or five unsolicited demo CDs every day. Would-be rappers mail them in. They leave them on Davis' car. When they win a contest and come to the station to pick up their prize, they try to slip him a CD.
So the station has streamlined the process. Music director Kristi Reif facilitates a panel on the first Thursday of each month. Potential artists must reserve one of about 15 slots per session.
"If people who enjoy rapping - not artists - want to blame a non-existent, political process at this station as the reason they haven't made it big, they should spend as much time on their hobby as they creating that falsehood," Davis said. "We're not running a talent show."
Making it to radio is the final step in the ascent to stardom, so not every act that's big on the club scene will wind up on air, Davis said. Some local artists, he added, rely to heavily on Wild 98.7 to jumpstart their careers. Other local stations play hip-hop too.
"These people are nice people, so you don't wanna crush somebody's dream. But everybody was not meant to rap. I know it seems like an easy hustle, but it's not," Davis said. "Recognize where your strengths are and go with that." That may mean becoming a manager if you have strong business acumen, or a sound engineer if you're great behind the scenes.
As for Lil Kee?
"I've listened to the record. I'm not a fan of it," Davis said. "But I've played a lot of records that I'm not a fan of."
Norates said he respected Davis' honesty. "What Orlando thinks of me is his opinion," he said. "If he feels like my record isn't fit for the station, I can't get mad at that."
He said his primary focus is on making his record hot in the streets, which he said would lead to more show bookings and club gigs. Of course, he wouldn't mind the mainstream success that radio can bring.
"I'm not saying I don't ever want to be on radio. I definitely want to be on radio," Norates said. "But I'm not going to change who I am to be able to make that happen."
On a crisp Sunday afternoon three weeks after the video release party, Norates and Yolanda took the kids to play baseball at Rowlette Park, near their house.
"Dad, I need the green bat," Keith Jr. pleaded.
"In a little bit," Norates said. "You've got to share, okay?"
Between tossing the ball and wiping his kids' tears when they fell down, Norates mused about how his career has progressed. He said he was okay with the less-than-capacity turnout at Club 112, because he was honored that people would come to see him as a headliner. If he could just meet Dr. Dre or Timbaland, he said, then he could really take his career to the next level.
"If I could ever get next to them and give them a CD with my stuff on there, I would definitely make it happen any way possible," Norates said. "They're pretty much the same type of person that I am."
If he ever does hit it big, beyond the usual big-ticket purchases - mansions in Miami and Tampa, for starters - Norates isn't sure what he'll do with the money.
But Yolanda is. Turning toward Keith Jr., she said, "I want to put money up for research for autistic kids, 'cause he has an autism, so that's what I want to do.
"That's a good idea," Norates said. "Definitely."
Norates has no plans to quit the music biz anytime soon, although he said he'll do whatever job it takes, music-related or not, to provide for his family.
"I can't really kick myself in the ass and say, 'Damn, I could be doing better, I could be doing better,' 'cause there's a lot of cats younger than me and older than me - a lot older that me - that's a lot worse off."
For now, he's still grinding toward that record deal and that four-bedroom house in New Tampa.
"That's pretty much my philosophy, just staying on my grind. Just working hard," Norates said. "Nonstop."