HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Chief Keef is trotting around the club. He’s surrounded by his Glo Gang family, a handful of suited security guards and 20 or so recording-enabled iPhones sticking up in the air like rectangular UFOs.
He’s shouting out a song named “Kobe,” both a reference to the basketball star and to his own slot on the rich, young pop-star continuum.
He is tallish, about 5-11 or 6 feet tall, slender yet well-built (think wide receiver), and it’s easy to spot him hovering over the heads of the hip-hop revelers packed into The Attic, a Hollywood Boulevard nightclub.
It’s sweltering. The floor is vibrating. The crowd is pulsating. And though many question the long-term musical future of the South Side rap phenom, Keith “Chief” Cozart is fearless as he pushes into the crowd assembled Wednesday night for his 19th birthday party and official comeback concert.
It’s “Almighty Glo Day,” a visceral combination of Bible semantics and the name of his own label, which was part of a deal signed, reportedly for $6 million, with Interscope Records in 2012.
His managers worked long and hard to get him to the venue and to secure the live-streaming agreement that brought this very concert to mobile phone users who bought a “ticket.”
The night is chaotic and messy and at times poorly produced, but he shows up. Finally.
This comes a year after a slew of issues that have kept the rapper in the news, including the murder of his close cousin, a parole violation and getting sued for being a concert no-show. And this, according to Keef’s managers, is the beginning of his transition.
“I wasn’t making shows,” Keef explains, eyeballing an electric, blue-colored hookah with suspicion and showing off a rare, full glimpse of his smooth, chocolate-brown face. No teenage acne to speak of. He sits in the open-air hookah lounge at the club. Says Keef: “I’m about to turn up.”
The hookah lounge isn’t the first location for this talk, which originally was planned for a quiet, VIP entrance staircase enveloped in red velvet, with disco balls and chairs arranged just so. But it wasn’t enough space for Keef plus his entourage of nickname-only friends. They’re all distinctive-looking young black men: tall, well-dressed in their Glo Gang custom-designed pants, shirts and jackets. They collectively smell like a combo of Swishers, pot and cologne.
Keef is about to sit when a ruckus starts outside. “Crip. Crip. We run this town!” booms a baritone.
Others join in. A crowd surges to try to enter. Someone curses. Someone kicks. Someone pushes.
Keef goes out, comes back in. Goes out again. Yells at someone.
The shouts grow louder and the shoves grow stronger. Escalation. Chaos. Tension.
The Glo sure don’t want to stay on the staircase any longer.
Later on, managers give different takes on whether the people outside are friends or foes. One jokes and says Keef could have been shot messing around for an interview. Another says the shouters simply wanted selfies. Regardless, the crew quickly hops on upstairs, hence, the hookah lounge.
Keef, who turned 19 Friday, shakes off whatever just happened and sits again to answer a few questions in his glib, short way Grammar school? “John Foster Dulles on 63rd and Calumet.” High school? “Dyett.” Did you finish? “I left every day.”
Let’s try again: Did you finish? “I left every day.” OK, so you dropped out? “I left everyday, but’’ he chuckles and flashes his ultrawhite, million-watt smile, “stay in school.”
Ah, Keef got jokes. Inside jokes, too. He calls for his manager Rovan “Dro” Manuel at the same time a girl with an Afro, a leopard-print tutu and a full-body tattoo offers him the blue hookah. She tries to engage him in conversation. She’s a Leo just like him. Her birthday is next week. She smokes just like him. He nods politely. He still doesn’t want whatever she’s offering. Nah. Head shake. He looks through her to Dro.
“Dro, I’m missing something. Missing . . . What I’m missing? Some money, get the f— outta here!”
Word on the street is Keef makes $5,000 a week selling merchandise. His managers say he owns his image and can collect his own money from it, a rarity given his reported multimillion-dollar deal with Interscope. True?
“One week, no, in a week and a half, I made $20,000,” he says. “Maybe just ’cause my fans . . . they like me. They love me. Heh. I got negative fans who love me. It’s tough love.”
That said, Keef recently halted production on merchandise to focus on his new album, “Bang 3,” which he says will drop at the end of September. He has released a song with A$AP Rocky and a week ago was in the studio with Kanye West finishing another cut that could be similar to West’s remake of Keef’s chart-topping, bravado-bolstering hit, “I Don’t Like.”
Keef also is creating a clothing line with Chicago designer Martez Malone to bring the outfits that Keef wears to the masses.
Malone, who is at the party, says most people don’t know Keef’s social media-driven business side.
“Because of where we from, it’s already prejudged,” Malone says. “The kid is a product of his environment. He was just really blessed that he had talent with the music and he was able to change his life for the better for him and his family.”
That family includes his mom, his grandma, a little brother and a little sister and his beloved baby girl Kay Kay. The 2-year-old (who turns 3 in November) had an Instagram account until it was hacked by someone who shared inappropriate pictures of women. Keef talks strongly about that situation, and of being a dad, he says the best thing is “holding her.”
He’s living in a mansion in Calabasas, California, following a stint in rehab.
His famous neighbors include Khloe Kardashian and fellow pop-culture bad boy Justin Bieber. No, they don’t visit; he doesn’t care. He’s not into neighbors like that.
As for Chicago, he hasn’t heard of the Bud Billiken Parade shootings until this interview and in response says the city needs to create more jobs or the people will create their own.
“Get some deals out,” he says. “Everybody taking them (and) that’s the only way out. You from Chicago you taking a deal, especially if you come from where I live. Where are the deals? You also need a good manager and support to get what you really want. If you gonna be a basketball player, get a deal. Football player, whatever. Deal. All of them are deals. Doctor deals.”
His deal with Interscope came after having honed his skills, as a 16-year-old, in places like Adriana’s, a club in Harvey. He tried staying in Englewood. Trouble. He tried moving to the north suburbs, but trouble followed with numerous run-ins with police. After releasing his debut album “Finally Rich” in December 2012, he moved to LA. For him, it was safer.
But in March, while back from California, a member of his entourage was wounded by an unknown gunman at Keef’s manager’s house in Northfield.
“He shot to celebrity status in an environment that doesn’t work for that,” Dro says. “Now out here [in LA] there are other guys in his age range and on his level of stardom. And, to be honest with you, it’s a lot more positive. It’s just him being around certain things and getting exposed.”
Barneys New York is one of those things, Dro says. It shows.
Keef is a watch guy, and he wears ones encrusted in stones and precious metals. An expensive timepiece was the first thing he bought with his newfound wealth.
His watch matches the massive, similarly bejeweled sun pendant he wears. Custom work. He can afford it.
But by now, the hour grows late and his fans await. He grows more alert and talks more casually. He begins to avoid curse words, though they are abundant in his music.
Keef’s “menacing sound” of Chicago drill music also mentions guns — a lot — and uses gunshots as part of the tracks.
“You got to be real, and really on it,” Tyree Pittman, aka Young Chop, Keef’s producer on “Finally Rich,” said in an earlier interview. “Keef on some real stuff, and Keef is really like a good kid. He just wants to say stuff and [some of it] was just stupid to say.”
Others in the hip-hop community echo Chop’s impression of Keef and fellow drill music musicians.
Rapper Nas was just in Chicago for Lollapalooza and while here, at least two people were shot at local nightclubs. Nas has never been a so-called gangster rapper, but he has thoughts on the necessity of the music.
“People can get mad all they want, but the streets make people respond,” Nas says. “Had it not been for [Keef and others], most of the world would not know what’s going on because the media doesn’t care like they care about other stuff. So, we have to say what’s going on.”
According to Keef’s worldview, what’s going on are lots of shootings, fellatio and drugs. According to Cali fans, that’s exactly what they want to hear.
To the left, an uncle wears a Devin Hester jersey. On the right stands a friend sporting a snapback cap stitched with “Goon.” Girls of all shapes and colors crowd in, pushing to get close to the man they call “Sosa.” He raises his arms and revels in the worship.
Later, someone brings out a birthday cake, yellow and shaped like the diamond-studded sun medallion draped around Keef’s neck. It’s funny how his Glo Gang uses such imagery for an art form that, to some, celebrates the worst of city living.
Keef doesn’t think so. The sun tends to illuminate what’s difficult to see in the dark. And maybe that’s the whole point.