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Lil Kee: For aspiring mogul, doors keep busting wide open

7

April

(All this week, we’re spotlighting tbt*’s 2011 Ultimate Local Artists on Soundcheck. Today: Lil Kee.)

In 2007, tbt* spent two months shadowing Tampa rapper, producer and DJ Keith “Lil Kee” Norates for a story about how tough it is for an aspiring club mogul to turn his passion into a career.

Living with his wife and three kids in a rented three-bedroom home, Lil Kee struggled to pay for studio gear, get played on the radio and make his presence known in local clubs.

Three and a half years later, none of that is a problem.

Lil Kee hit the big time in 2010 with Buss It Wide Open, a NSFW club anthem that was a hit in Florida and has received radio airplay around the Southeast. He says he’s even heard it on TV, during a timeout at an NBA game. It enabled him to sign a deal with New York indie label eOne Music, home to Fat Joe, Faith Evans and Bubba Sparxxx, among many others.

And it nudged him ever closer to that elusive dream of being a mogul.

“Where I wanted to be then, that’s where I’m at now,” he said. “Where I want to be now is, I want to be Diddy — an entrepreneur with a clothing line, a record label, stuff like that.”

There’s no way that can happen, right? Well, consider where Lil Kee started.

lil.kee_.jpg

A few years ago, he was hustling for DJ gigs, scraping together cash when he could. He knew he wanted to build his record label, Keezone Records, and started recruiting rappers and singers around Central Florida. By his own admission, he “didn’t have anything big going for me.” But he didn’t give up.

One by one, he convinced artists he respected to buy into the concept of the “Keezone Boyz” — a coalition of artists who would back each other, depending on who had the hot single at the moment. Today, the Keezone Boyz includes Javon Black, an Orlando singer who had a club hit in 2009 with the Kee-assisted Shawty Tear It Up; Strizzo, a rapper who has long been part of Tampa’s “Jook City” scene; Shawty, a dreadlocked, Auto-Tuned R&B singer from Largo; and Tampa rapper Yung G.

“It took a good three years to convince everybody that I had the vision for this whole movement and where it was going to go,” he said. “I had to put myself out there and prove to them that, okay, look: When it comes to marketing and business, this is what I can do. I’m going to show you what I can do for myself. Then my team will do it for you.

“Right now, they’re letting me play point guard, and I’m running with it.”

Especially with Buss It Wide Open. Recorded in his home studio, Lil Kee had no idea the song would become a hit — in fact, he was counting on another song he wrote, Javon Black’s Lil Mama, to be his breakthrough ticket.

“I didn’t promote it, didn’t get any CDs pressed up, didn’t do any marketing whatsoever,” he said. “I was DJ’ing at the time, and I wasn’t even playing the record — and it was my record! Then Strizzo called me and said, 'Dude, you gotta start playing Buss It Wide Open. It’s getting a crazy response in the club.’ I played it that night, and it was a totally different response than I got five months earlier. When I saw the response, I was like, 'Oh, we might have something.’ ”

A few weeks ago, he was hired to perform it at a “Sweet 14” birthday party. “It was nothing but suburban white kids singing the song word for word,” he said, still sounding incredulous.

Kee’s success has allowed him to buy a new car and move to a bigger home in Valrico. In March, he performed before a sold-out crowd at Wild Splash in Clearwater.

But he hasn’t forgotten life before he had a hit single.

“Being where I am now, it really shows me how far I came,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.”

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 5:22pm]

    

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