“Bring up the elephant!” says Alki David, the Greek billionaire who recently made headlines for signing Chief Keef. He's currently in hologram form in the cramped Beverly Hills studio of his company Hologram USA, where a hologram elephant materializes beside him. He invites the 25 or so of us waiting for Keef to arrive to become holograms ourselves. Two people volunteer, and hologram Tupac pops up and starts rapping “Gangsta Party” beside them. But suddenly, Pac is gone and a girl-on-girl porn scene appears where he just stood. One starts pulling down the other’s panties.
The listening party for Chief Keef’s much-anticipated project Bang 3 has not gone as planned. Then again, not much about Keef’s career—and maybe, life—has. At 16, he claimed rap single of the year with an urgent, menacing listicle of a song called “I Don’t Like” and quickly became a topic of conversation both in the blogosphere and A&R boardrooms. Kanye West remixed “I Don’t Like” and Interscope signed him. But he hadn’t been media-trained and trouble trailed him. Last fall, Interscope dropped him, which could’ve sent Keef, a teenage rapper prone to making teenage decisions, back to his hood in Chicago.
Instead, he laid low in his home in the Valley, painting with his in-house artist Bill da Butcher and curating a gallery show. And then he signed a two-album deal with David, a mouthy prankster who inherited a fortune and is drawn to doing business with bad boy celebrities like Andy Dick and Charlie Sheen. So far, it seems like a successful partnership. It was David who played Keef John Waite’s “Missing You,” which became the basis for Keef’s surprising recent single “Ain’t Missing You.” Bang 3 finally has a firm release date, August 12, through David’s company FilmOn. We're told that when he shows up, Chief Keef will take questions as hologram Chief Keef, although this never happens in the end.
“Interscope couldn’t hold onto [Keef],” David says. “They let him go because he went to jail, he waved a gun at a cop, he was like a crazy person. I mean, he is nutty!” A 2012 profile in The Hollywood Reporter tells a story of David calling his wife’s modeling agency pretending to be a john looking for a prostitute. Today, he introduces himself by saying, “If you Google ‘lawsuit,’ my name comes up.” And if you browse his Facebook photos, you’ll find one of him holding a gun captioned, “Please please come at me bro.” He is 47 years old.
He’s also likeable and charming, and it’s a good thing, because Keef is over an hour and a half late. Sodas, bowls of banana chips and trail mix and little gold bricks of Hershey’s candy are laid out, but publicists push in waiters from next door to ply us with platters of fried calamari and pizza squares. As a last resort, a single bottle of champagne is poured into plastic cups.
“Interscope couldn’t hold onto Keef. They let him go because he went to jail, he waved a gun at a cop. I mean, he is nutty!”—Alki David
An hour or so later, Keef is still nowhere to be found, so David gives us a presentation similar to one you'd see at a tech conference. A bevy of holograms appear on the screen, an LG flip phone swirls, the word “growth” appears out of nowhere. At first, everybody is filming on their phones like we’re the first people to ever witness this technology. It’s weird. “I’ve licensed many dead celebrities,” David says.
And live ones. He talks about broadcasting Mariah Carey’s hologram to five countries at once, and video feed of the event runs. A super-svelte Carey sings “Silent Night,” and massive crowds join her, waving fake candles in the air. “Round yon virgin, mother and child,” they sing. It’s strange in the way only foreign pop culture can be.
At last, David Facetimes with Keef, who apologizes for being so late. He was awake and in the studio until 9AM (“I almost threw a chair through the door at his house earlier today, because I knew he was sleeping,” David says later) and is on the freeway from Woodland Hills, which is a solid 30-minute drive to Beverly Hills even without Friday rush hour traffic.
After a warning from David—“If you leak this, I will not only kill you, I will kill the whole room”—they play a handful of the 14 tracks on the new album. Within minutes, we’re all humming “Yes,” the most radio-ready of the bunch, but others, like “All I Came For” and “Go Harder” are wonkier. (That may be the point. Later, rapidly slapping the back of his hand into his palm, Keef says, “I move fast. I just be thinking nonstop about different shit. My raps just be crazy. Never know what I’m talking about.”)
Finally, near 6PM, Chief Keef arrives. Everybody’s still excited about interviewing hologram Keef, but they park IRL Keef in a chair six inches from us and start the press conference. He and David really have a rapport, and David’s self-deprecation and open-book attitude seem to have rubbed off on him.
“I didn’t want to be on Interscope,” he says. “I didn’t really care about [getting dropped]. Not going to shows, I knew it was gonna happen. It made me look at me and my music and realize I needed to grow up.”
“I didn’t really care about [getting dropped]. I knew it was gonna happen. It made me look at me and my music and realize I needed to grow up.”—Chief Keef
The listening wraps, and Chief Keef wanders by and reminds David to get him a copy of The Bank Job, the Jason Statham vehicle in which David plays a bit part. As I walk out of the studio, Keef glides by on his IO Hawk, sort of a hands-free Segway. With his skinny dreads flopping in his eyes and his diamond-encrusted Glo Gang medallion almost lost against his heather-grey hoodie, he could be mistaken for just another kid with a stack of his parents' money to spend, just another kid annoying the rich old men with nothing else to do but wait for their girlfriends to finish shopping on Rodeo and join them for an early alfresco dinner.
Then a car of teenagers barrels by. “Chief Keef!” they shout out the windows. “Love 'Sosa'!”
“Growing up” to Keef means the only guns he’s interested in are paintball and the only subject he’s interested in rapping about is money—even if that won’t go over so well with some of his fans. “I’m with the Stop the Violence campaign. That’s why I paintball,” he says. “A lot of my fans want the old me. You gotta grow up. I talk about nothing but money. I want to show them you can overcome anything.” Practicing spins on this very wealthy block of Beverly Hills, he is doing just that.