When William Keck was 10, he was called to the principal’s office at Arthur Ashe Elementary School in Henrico County. No stranger to disciplinary action, he wondered what he was in trouble for this time.
To his shock, he was hustled into a van and placed in the foster care system.
It was Jan. 6, 1999. Because of what had been his home environment, for the next eight years he shuffled between foster homes before ultimately landing in a group home. He describes the period a marked by feelings of invisibility.
“You don’t even know what you’re doing because you’re being told what to do all the time,” says Keck, now better known as rapper OG Illa. “So you just go with it.”
With almost of decade of work in Richmond’s hip-hop scene, Illa continues to fight for citywide acceptance. He’s simultaneously the most popular white hip-hop artist in the city and one of the most underappreciated.
Reflecting on his childhood, Illa says the foster system stripped him of his identity by forcing him to live in the moment without being able to make sense of, or process, his life. He began to act out, he says, which included selling pills in middle school and getting expelled.
The experiences led to the creation of his artistic, commercial and personal ethos, hooligan life, abbreviated “hlgnlife,” which he describes as “living your life according to your own rules, being responsible to yourself and your circle.”
Self-expression became his route to combating the institutionalizing effects of feeling like a number. “You’re just another social worker’s kid, another case on her load,” he says. “You want to have a voice; you’re unique.”
After failing the first semester of his ninth-grade science class, he says, a teacher told him that he would never amount to anything. Fueled by the personal criticism, he wound up passing the class, graduating with a 3.5 grade-point average and earning a soccer scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University.
But during his freshman year, a severe upper respiratory infection landed him in the hospital for two weeks and prematurely ended his soccer career. Left with what he calls a “gaping hole” in his life, Illa says he found his way to hip-hop through his love of poetry and the advice from a friend that he should put his writing over beats.
A chance meeting at a VCU dining hall with prominent local MC and New Juice Crew member, Emphasys the Prince, provided Illa with a mentor and friend.
Their relationship is “a bond beyond music,” Emphasys says. “It connects with how we came up and our lifestyle. He’s like a little brother to me.”
Richmond artist BCMusic1st says he recalls Illa when he was known as So !lla.
“A lot of people didn’t like him back then,” he says. “They would talk about his cadence or choices, but there was always promise.”
Emphasys echoes this sentiment “[Illa] achieved a level that no one expected of him,” he says. “I’m so proud of him, just taking what I was able to teach him and being so tenacious with it.”
Since its inception in the Bronx, hip-hop has provided an outlet for the marginalized and the ignored to declare, “I exist.” Ultimately, Illa says he believes that Richmond hip-hop isn’t representative of a single musical style. Instead, he says, it’s a shared sensibility founded in perseverance and loss.
He calls his brand of hip-hop Goth trap, “a dark street style” that combines the heavy drums, synthesizers, strings and double-time production found in trap with the darkly personal and introspective lyricism of Goth.
His debut in 2015, “Marijuana Made,” was a three-and-a-half year project meditating on his first 25 years of life. The follow-up, “Zone” was released Jan. 3.
The new album finds Illa at work encapsulating a year and a half of his life when he was “living recklessly.” Writing about drugs, partying and living without consequences, Illa says “Zone” had to be recorded so he could transcend this period and continue to evolve.
Illa already is at work mixing his new project, “Days After the Ave,” which follows “Zone” chronologically, narrating the rekindling and subsequent disintegration of his relationship with his father.
“He’s like B-Rabbit [Eminem’s character in the movie, ‘8-mile’],” Emphasys says. “He works 10 times as hard as anyone else. He will always be working against people doubting him based on race.”
Illa is the first to acknowledge that his back story isn’t unique. He describes his journey as quintessential of Richmond hip-hop. “I feel like I am Richmond hip-hop. I am the sound of Richmond,” he says. “There’s so much pain here — so much coldness.”
“That’s where you see the real Richmond artists — they have a lot of heart and grit in their music,” he adds. “All I can do is write about and reflect who and where I came from.” S
An album release party for “Zone” will be held in February, with details to be announced. Information can be found on OG Illa’s website, hlgnlife.com.