When I met aspiring music mogul Keith "Lil Kee" Norates, he was struggling to get local hip-hop stations to play his solo record. That was in 2007, when I followed the Tampa man for several months as he balanced his responsibilities as a husband and father with his dream of becoming a successful deejay, rapper and producer. He was, as he put it, "staying on my grind. Just working hard."
This time, when I called the 28-year-old to find out what he'd been up to over the past two years, the location he chose for the interview wasn't lost on me: the Wild 94.1 studios. Norates and his protege, Orlando R&B singer Javon Black, were the guests of honor for the station's nightly countdown.
The grind is paying off: In the past two years, Norates has heard several songs he's produced or rapped on the radio, including Lil Mama, I Rock, Drunk in VIP and Shawty Tear It Up. He's gone from renting a two-bedroom house in Tampa to owning a Riverview house with five bedrooms — enough space for his family, with a room left over for a studio. Norates said his music career is profitable, although he declined to offer a dollar amount. He even tried getting his wife, Yolanda, to quit her banking job and stay home with the couple's three children.
Two years ago, Norates was focused on the video for his single Low to tha Flo. The clip never made it to television, but the shoot proved fruitful for Norates. It was on the set that Norates met Black, who had come as a background dancer. Someone mentioned that Black could also sing and slipped a CD to Norates, who liked what he heard and invited Black to collaborate with him on a song. That single, On the Road, will appear on Norates' forthcoming album, Jook or Die, due out Feb. 10. Norates also provided Black with the beat for Shawty Tear It Up, a dance track that enjoyed plenty of radio airplay earlier this year.
But the grind isn't over yet. Norates spends at least eight hours a day working on music, and he deejays Fridays at Studio Inc. in Tampa. He's even working at his own birthday party, performing at a New Year's Day bash to celebrate his 29th birthday, which is Monday.
Norates' years of hard work have taught him a valuable lesson: "It's about being patient," he said. "Don't sit back and think somebody else is going to make your career happen. You have to make it happen."
That means networking. Rather than sticking to clubs where he deejayed, Norates began shaking hands at other venues on his nights off.
"Once I got out there and networked and met a couple people, that really changed everything for me," Norates said. "It's all about having good relationships and staying in everybody's face, letting them know that you're going to keep hustling nonstop, no matter whether they're playing your record or not."
Norates also attributes his success to the recession. While other artists could no longer afford studio time and producers, Norates kept producing in his home studio.
"My goal," he said, "is to be a millionaire by the time I hit 30."