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Center of Everything 

Rapper OG Illa opens a vibrant creative space that reflects his own versatility.

click to enlarge Will Keck, known in the Richmond hip-hop community as OG Illa, opened CNTR (A Creative Space) at 318 W. Broad St. in conjunction with last week’s First Friday.

Scott Elmquist

Will Keck, known in the Richmond hip-hop community as OG Illa, opened CNTR (A Creative Space) at 318 W. Broad St. in conjunction with last week’s First Friday.

“I tried to make a chair out of hockey sticks when I was a kid,” says rapper and overall creative force Will Keck, known in the Richmond hip-hop community and beyond as OG Illa. It’s just one example of the outside-the-box thinking he’s exhibited, and of his can-do attitude. “Whatever [comes] to my mind, I think I can do it.”

A lot has happened since he tried to make that chair. Foster care. An injury that ended his college soccer career. Tours alongside acclaimed rappers. Incarceration for distribution of marijuana. But Keck’s drive to realize his vision remains unchanged, and it’s resulted in his most multifaceted creation yet: a combined retail, event and production facility called CNTR (A Creative Space), whose grand opening took place at 318 W. Broad St. in conjunction with last week’s First Friday.

Spaces often reflect the inner lives of those who fill them, and CNTR is no exception. There’s the retail area up front, which aligns with Keck’s personal style. “I’m very minimalistic,” he says. “I like everything to look open and clean.” Farther in you’ll find an even more open room where events will be held and art will be sold — an outlet for the curatorial instincts Keck has honed as a graphic designer. Then there’s the recording studio, evidence of Keck’s most public successes to date. After growing up idolizing Lil Wayne and Richmond legend Nickelus F, Keck honed his own lyrical skills, eventually gaining radio play, headlining shows at the National and sharing stages with prominent emcees like Playboi Carti, Chief Keef, Action Bronson and Curren$y.

Life lessons

Yet CNTR’s opening finds Keck at a place in his life where he’s more interested in helping others find success. “I’m trying to get behind the scenes more,” he says. Despite the heights he reached as OG Illa, he remained unsatisfied with where he stood. Even when performing for rapt crowds, he was imagining the bigger crowds around the corner. “I was always like, ‘What’s next?’” With hindsight, he’s realized that “you have to appreciate these things before you can level-up.”

Living in the moment meant something very different early in Keck’s life. “For a long time, I was very selfish. But it was mostly out of survival.” His time in foster care meant being uprooted frequently. Henrico, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, the city — he did stints in just about every part of the Richmond metropolitan area. He’s also experienced homelessness, in addition to his time in jail. “I was fighting real demons. I was like, ‘Yo, I got to survive. I got to take care of myself.’ And that means cutting off the care of anybody else… I realized that’s not a very purposeful life.”

click to enlarge “I just started feeling more rewarded when I would help other people and see their joy,” says Keck, who spent time in foster care growing up. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • “I just started feeling more rewarded when I would help other people and see their joy,” says Keck, who spent time in foster care growing up.

At the time of CNTR’s opening, Keck has a growing family of his own, and a litany of opportunities to revel in the present. From his infant son, he learned about savoring milestones.“He walked, he talked, all of these things, but they’re fleeting, and that’s something I’m learning to appreciate,” Keck says. From his 10-year-old stepson, he learned that he’s setting an example: “I think I was having a bad day, and he was just looking at me, and he was reading me, and I was like, ‘This could be how he sees me in life.’”

Most importantly, Keck recognizes that his success is tied to that of the people who surround him. “I just started feeling more rewarded when I would help other people and see their joy,” he says. Producer and minimalist guru Rick Rubin is one point of inspiration. “I want to be that person they call upon to help artists understand who they are, and be a reflection of that for them.”

A community hub

In addition to shows and video production, the event space at CNTR will host rehearsals so up-and-coming artists can sharpen their creative tools — something R&B singer Rudy Walker, whom Keck manages under the banner of his HLGNLIFE Records label, has already taken advantage of. That side of the business will build on theMSQshop, a resource center Keck opened earlier this year, before he had the full Broad Street address. But CNTR’s mission is bigger than music. “I don’t want it to be boxed into: ‘We just do shows here.’”

From hip hop and wine events and podcast production to awards ceremonies and hemp education workshops — Richmond’s first Black-owned hemp company will also be onsite — the room will host gatherings of all kinds. Keck, who co-owns CNTR with Shantale Person, who goes by Prop, sees it as a place for community. “If you need a safe spot to do something, then come here… It’s for everybody. It’s the center of everything.”

click to enlarge “I’m very minimalistic,” Keck says. “I like everything to look open and clean.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • “I’m very minimalistic,” Keck says. “I like everything to look open and clean.”

In that sense, it’s a reflection of Keck’s own versatility. He started working in graphic design out of necessity, designing his own album art because he couldn’t afford to commission someone. But he found it to be a new avenue for his artistry. He enjoyed considering how logos impact perception and how fonts impact clothing design. “I started understanding why I like certain things,” he says. His rates rose, client by client, enabling him to take advantage of the opportunity he saw as a former tenant to take over the new space and build it into something special.

He didn’t hesitate, nor has he wasted any time in the month between his gaining the lease and opening CNTR. “I hate feeling hindered, he says. “It’s like being in traffic.” He’s been getting up every day, “working until I feel like I can’t work, then go home and do the same thing until it’s right. I know my family is ready for this thing to be done.”

As taxing as the renovations have been — the retail space was set up then broken down and set up again so the hardwood floors could be refinished — Keck is relishing the chance to provide creative direction at scale, and to “call the shots.” He’s benefited from mentorship through Startup Virginia, a nonprofit business incubator, and he’s ready to pass those lessons along to others.

“The fact that people trust me and respect me enough to know that I mean what I say, and that I’m here for the community, [that] I’m really here for the creatives and the entrepreneurs, [that] I’m an advocate, and I’m a resource — that means a lot to me.”

CNTR (A Creative Space) is open now at 318 W. Broad St. For more information and booking inquiries, visit linktr.ee/mycntr. To hear OG Illa’s music, visit hlgnlife.bandcamp.com.

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