I had agreed to meet William Keck aka OG ILLA at his newly renovated space on Broad St, which he has dubbed CNTR in the last year—a creative space for creative people. The location is humble enough out front, bearing the marks of its many past iterations, such as the bookstore it once was, but the inside is on its way to becoming one of the most innovative spaces in the city. I was greeted out front by Keck just a few minutes before our agreed-upon time, and he ushered me inside where we attempted to find a place to sit down and talk, as the renovations are not quite complete. We ended up in the recently vacated basement that, until a few days ago, was occupied by a CBD hemp company. Our conversation could begin in earnest as Keck told me the story of what brought him to this point.
Starting out 15 years ago as a young rapper, Keck had ideas of grandeur and high exceptions of where his life might take him. Like many independent artists however, he had to start small and engage in most of his expansive ideas by himself on his own time. Said Keck, “I was a musician for 15 years, a rapper, and along that time, I learned to do a lot of stuff… my biggest thing was I learned how to do graphic design, I learned how to shoot videos, I learned how to brand myself… I learned how to design merch, I learned how to do websites, all because I was too broke to pay someone to do it. The more I did that, the better I got at it, and the more people started hiring me to do it for them.”
But these newfound skills were not the end-all-be-all, as Keck quickly became disenchanted by the process of almost completely anonymous freelance work. At first, he did it for the love of creating, but it came to a point where Keck was doing so much work, yet he wasn’t getting the credit he felt he deserved, and it wouldn’t scale to larger projects as the proper compensation wasn’t there. “I don’t do it necessarily for those reasons, but it was limiting me to how I could get to other people, and how I could build on what I was doing,” said Keck. This was the origin of Keck’s design skills, but he also had a background bringing people together and organizing, such as when Keck started a grass roots movement known as Virginia Hip Hop.
Originally formed after a chat room app that Keck loved fell through, he started the group and would host hundreds of people who were involved in the Virginia hip hop scene where they would discuss the issues of their community. Overwhelmingly the idea that pervaded and was constantly on everyone’s mind is that there were no publications covering the community, and no platform for those who care about the hip hop scene. After reaching out to numerous writer friends inquiring into whether they would be interested in starting a blog on Virginia hip hop, and not being warmly received, Keck decided he would start one himself. Thus is the origin of The MSQ Shop in 2021, a blog covering Virginia’s hip hop scene.
In 2021, Keck also founded The OG Design and officially incorporated his efforts as a graphic designer and brand developer. He worked for a while under this umbrella, with The MSQ Shop as a blog, and The OG Design as brand and content creation, but as Keck says, “as we went along our first year, those things just started overlapping.” It felt like things needed to change, so Keck decided to consolidate. “After the first year, we were doing both, and we thought [that] the branding was off, and people aren’t getting exactly what we do, so we merged everything,” said Keck. This was in 2022. At this time, Keck was working out of one room in the building he now currently occupies with CNTR, but at this time he was a part of a creative community known as The Collective. Due to a series of back rent payments not being paid by the larger organization, The Collective was kicked out of the building. Keck, who had been up to date on his rent payments to the organization, felt that it was time for him to launch into his larger vision and fulfill his idea of what a collaborative creative space should look like, so he took control of the building.
It was a completely fresh start for Keck, who said about the transition, “it wasn’t just the building, I got rid of a lot of people in my life… I really had to clear space so that I could stop being burdened by the stuff that I was dragging along… So I could have to do these next things… But that was the biggest blessing in my life, just having the courage to say that, ‘I can do this on my own, I can stand out here, and I can trust myself.” As of right now, it appears that the hard work and courage are paying off, as Keck has managed to turn his dreams into a reality.
So the space is new, and there’s some exciting new things happening, but what exactly is CNTR, The MSQ Shop, and what do they want to help creatives achieve? Well, said Keck on the grand scheme of things, “[CNTR is] a creative space, but just like you see it now, it’s constantly evolving… We have retail up front, all the clothing that you see up front is Virginia owned, we have an event space that doubles as an art gallery, we have a recording studio, and then we have tenants who also contribute to the creativeness of the space… such as [a] tattoo shop… It’s a haven for creatives to create.”
It’s important to separate The MSQ Shop from CNTR, and to differentiate the two, Keck put it quite succinctly, saying, “[The MSQ Shop is] a creative company inspired by music, so we use music to inspire what we do, but we work with a lot of different brands. The MSQ Shop is the one that does the creating, CNTR is where we do the creating.” Walking in the front door, visitors are immediately greeted by the clothing store, where there is a basketball hoop, decorations from some of the current artists working out of the space, and a claw machine. Walking back down the small hallway, visitors will find themselves in the main event space; a giant multipurpose room with a large sliding door that can be shut for privacy, serving as an art gallery with a constant stream of artwork circling through. Essentially though, this room can, and has been, used for anything from live comedy and hip hop shows, a studio to record live bands, or even private events such as baby showers. Going even further back through the space, visitors are brought to the room that will serve as a tattoo parlor, and then to the small music studio space in the back.
There are hundreds of people involved in the process of making this place a reality, but as far as some core people who are staples of CNTR, I asked Keck to lay some down for me. He mentioned far too many names to include here, but you can read go to their website and find some information on many of the people involved. In short, however, up front NVSTD Brand Clothing runs the store. Many of the day-to-day operations are overseen by Chris Forte as the studio manager for The MSQ Shop and Keck’s “Swiss army knife.” Videographers constantly on site will include people like Sean King and Dyfferant among many others, not to mention numerous photographers, musicians, sound engineers, tattoo artists, and creatives of all kinds circling through.
A veritable one-stop shop for any and all creative needs, CNTR and The MSQ Shop have everything any creative may need at any level of their career, and this is only the new beginning. Keck has found himself faced against insane odds, yet with passion, perseverance, and the support of an entire community and city’s worth of fellow artists who wanted to help him realize it, have brought this incredible space to life. Who knows where they’ll go from here.
Main photo by Amir Dennis @difficultdennis
Photos by Andrew Bonieskie