Exclusive interview with Chilly-O

I had a chance to sit down and talk with Chilly-O this past summer while I was visiting Atlanta. Chilly-O and I talked about his life, the Chilly-O brand, and pretty much everything in between. Yes, I understand the interview is long, but it is well worth the read. For those of you who don’t already know, meet Chilly-O. Yoroshiku.

Who and what is Chilly-O?

Chilly-O is a lifestyle at this point. Of course we like to say we are an apparel brand, its mashed up between different variables, and sensibilities as it relates to music which is Hip-Hop. Urban, which is our linage and urban fashion. From Grand Master Flash, to Sly and The Family Stone, to The Stylistics, to just urban fashion in general. We try to have some element of sex appeal, which goes hand in hand with fashion and culture.

We’ve been around for five years, just on a path to exploration. Its like following that dark path with faith and vision like saying…”we gon make it” every 10 feet you never know what’s going to be ahead of you but we’re still trooping.

Where are you originally from?

I was born and raised in Pittsburg. I was supposed to be born in Nigeria.  My mother was pregnant on a student trip, but she couldn’t acquire health services from a tribe in Nigeria, (my sister is half Nigerian). She had to rush back to Pittsburg where I was born. Soon as I was born, we went up to New York until I was two years old, then we moved to Baltimore until I was about four. Then, we moved back to Pittsburg until I was eight, then out to LA.  Back to Pittsburg when I was 10 for about five or six years, then I moved to Stanford, Connecticut when I was about 15 or 16 and I stayed there until I moved to Atlanta. Somewhere In the process of me being 15 to 23 I went to college and ended up in Virginia for four years.

That transient behavior was due to a lot of family problems. It built a lot of character, and I became well versed in a lot of languages. East cost, West coast, down South I guess that’s why I’m so fluid with people. Most people move around because of military, but we moved around because of family problems. I just thank God that we had people to take us in.

So wait a minute, your mother came back to the states, while she was in labor?

Yeah!

Seriously?

Yeah. They used to call her white girl and they didn’t want to give her health services over there. She was over there with my father, I’m probably talking too much but my father was a professor and she was a student and she was pregnant in Africa.  They were over there for a few months. When I have to explain this to the Nigerians, their like “Oh no no no” they don’t believe it but you know, why would she lie? But that’s in the past.

She was also involved in the drug game hard, which ultimately (almost) lead to her demise, but she was able to fight back. She’s been clean since 1989. Her story though, I guess a lot of drug dealers, you know the same thing that happens in Atlanta today. These guys with money woo these girls and they end up with a habit and participate in whatever they do. When they get older, if they don’t get wise, they have a habit, which usually leads to something crazy. So I grew up around that.

When you were 15 or 16 you came to Atlanta?

When I was 15 I ran away, because I was with my grandmother and I was getting to that age where I wanted to run around in the streets and she wasn’t having it. I got into a fight at one point with my uncle because he was trying to discipline me.  My mother’s side of the family, are all educationists and social workers and my father is an educator.

I grew up in a dichotomous situation, I knew my mother, I knew my father but my grandmother, aunts and uncles, friends and family raised me and I’m sharing because I think the world needs to know in what builds my character its crazy where its like, growing up in a world of drugs and poverty on one side, and your father is like this profound educator… you know?

When I was 15 I ran away, he scooped me up, my father, and that’s how I ended up in Stanford, Connecticut, which is blue blood America.

Ten percent of the people who pretty much run the country reside in Connecticut and that taught me a lot and a lot about America.  I partied with kids who’s parents where gone for the summer and they threw parties in their basements next to 50 Cents’ house. That area housed people like Donald Trump, Diana Ross and you know, parties in their basements, pools, dance floors, bars, rich kids, long money… seven generations.

So he (my father) saved me from going down that wrong path. Where I ran away from, they were starting to get involved with gangs. Pittsburg was probably one of the first cities on the east coast to have the Blood and Crip issues. New York got it maybe 10 years later and now it’s on the whole east coast. I got exposed to that about 1988 1989.

How did you end up in Atlanta?

Cheap rent! (Laughs)

How long have you been here?

I was fortunate enough to make it through college, and back then we all made a pack to move to Atlanta. I guess FREAKNIK was a catalyst as a young man, you know, for everyone to be exposed to Atlanta. I wanted to go to a black college because of all the girls, and then I messed around and got an education. I wanted to move to Atlanta because of FREAKNIK and then I messed around and became somebody. We all made that pack like, “black people are doing well in Atlanta, we need to go there” and I followed through. In Connecticut studios were about $700 at that time, when I first moved to Atlanta in 1994 they were about $350 here so that made a difference too.

What would you say Atlanta as done for you?

Atlanta humbled me. I served about 10-12 years working in the communities out here in the College Park projects, Red Oak projects, Boat Rock projects and Huff Road and I worked with families and kids, from babies all the way up to the age of 18.

Atlanta taught me about soul, taught me about people. A lot of people move to Atlanta and not know what Atlanta really is. When I was here, eight out of 10 people were from Atlanta now it’s different, those eight people are from somewhere else.

Atlanta still holds on to Martin Luther King’s values compared to any other city in the United States. Whatever he left in this city, its still here. When I say that, people cordial to each other, people speak. You still have the crime element like any other metropolitan city, and now we pushing six million people. When I first came here it was about two million and Atlanta has tripled the population after the Olympics. You also have to look at it in the way it relates to African Americans. The wealth per capita… it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the nation and its like… I’m proud of that fact and to see communities of middle to upper class African Americans. If you go to LA you have to go to Baldwin Hills, you go to New York you have to go to Harlem, if you go to Philly you have to go to Winfield, German town…all of these places, but here its like every other place… hundreds of these communities. I think that has a lot to do with people still treat people like humans here. That aggression is not here. I don’t know if it’s a space proximity type of situation, but it allowed Chilly-O to cultivate entrepreneurly which I don’t know if I would have had that opportunities in any other city.

I just don’t like when people come here an criticize Atlanta because its definitely an anomaly. Not even from an African American stand point but there is just a lot of success here for people in general. It’s a good affordable baseline. They are not trying to jack the prices up and charge 30 dollars for a 5-dollar parking spot like an LA or New York or Tokyo. You get what you pay for here.

Would you move?

I can’t see myself moving from Atlanta. I can see my self with other homes in other cities. Its too many things aligned with who I am here that I don’t see in other places, but I don’t want to be that shallow and say I don’t want to explore and see other places. I want to see the world. There’s all frames of inspiration as you travel and see how other cultures live, and think and be. I think I would be in a state of ignorant bliss to say I never want to leave Atlanta. I didn’t get to grow up with that patriotic attitude like most of us had, ”I’m from Houston, I’m from Miami, I’m from Philly!… Brooklyn!” I never had that fair opportunity and pride about a place because I always had to leave… get up in the middle of the night. As a grown man, I chose Atlanta to be my home. I know Atlanta is like “where the real Atliens at?” and all this but I chose this to be my home when I had the choice to. I Never had a fair opportunity to grow up in one neighborhood and be like “its all about this neighborhood”. Really that’s like a Willie Lynch way of thinking, especially if your not doing anything to build, promote or help the community that your in, just living in a box.

How did Chilly-O begin?

We started with hand painted t-shirts. They have always been around, since the 60s 70s. I guess there was a trend in the early 90s where people wanted to wear customizable product and the only thing we could manipulate was paint. We started out with hand painted t-shirts and we were pushing them to a lot of celebrities in Atlanta. They were wearing it, Lil john and the Eastside boys, Titty Boy from DPT, and TI. He probably doesn’t remember, but he brought a Bankhead street sign shirt from me.

I don’t know if you remember that trend where everyone was wearing those street signs? That was me who started that. People started to mass-produce those, but all the originals street sigh shirts that you see in the videos where all hand painted. My ex-wife and I started that project.

I started to see the early principles of that through the hand painted shirts, when it comes to branding and stamping. Like okay, I’m building a demand for this product and I started to think now okay how do I take the person to start identifying with the actual label? In the beginning I had an artist that was doing the street sign shirts and I let him rock his name on it. I didn’t care because it was my idea, actually it was me and this guy named “light skinned Jamal’s” idea, but I executed on it and I was letting the original artist, Azelle, pretty much get all the credit. Then he kind of started doing it himself and I was like…”whoa… hold up! I employed you to do this for me” so the way I think, I’ll just do it myself… I’m straight DIY. Chilly –O wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that kind of attitude. Whenever there was a barrier, we just learned to do it ourselves. We started painting ourselves because we are artists first before anything.

People just started fucking with the name like, “Chilly-O” “Yo, I like that name” then we just started putting statements on shirts like food for thought. Its popular now, but back in 2004, cats in street wear weren’t really doing that. They were using lion heads, earth tones graffiti, turntablism and microphones, things of that nature.

We were coming with these big bold statements like “ I’m a fucking Star” or “I’m a fucking genius”. People were digging that I guess because at that time, people wanted to express themselves. The white-t culture was in effect everybody was the same, I think we kind of started to bring individualism as a style to where people wanted to separate themselves from each other, because everybody were like robots. Everyone kind of looked the same and I’m talking 2003.

Blue Jeans, white tee, white on white air force ones

That was just coming out of the throwback era when everyone was wearing them.  Everybody wanted one of these shirts so we started to screen print them and we started to incorporate the graffiti esthetic to the actual word shirts. And it started growing from there. Couple of the street brands like on karamaloop that were real popular were like… “oh ya’ll are a novelty brand” and then we started to see them duplicate what we were doing and I was like “oh! I thought we were novelty brand!” We had on the same thing!  Then that challenged me to start doing shirts just based on art. Then we just wanted to start selling shirts that said Chilly-O on them, just straight staple brand shirts.  People started wearing those, and these are all sighs saying that we could make it. Thanks to my street merchandising days, it thought me the psychology of how consumers think, and then I started coming up with these quotes. “Hard to get easy when you know how” and “KEI” like we keeping it exclusive. I think this was the protected shell for Chilly-O because people knew that it wasn’t just going to be floating around like that. We learned that from Japanese culture. When BAPE first came out, I’m talking 2001 before it became popular in like 2004 here. My man Ace put me on to that. He started to explain that to me the culture of what he (NIGO) did. How you could only buy one thing out of the store and how you had to find the store. I thought that was fly because it’s a certain offering of protection of your brand. That’s how we run Chilly-O to this day. We want the mighty few, we don’t want everybody in it.

You tweet that!

Yeah! People say “oh that’s an arrogant statement” but really, we are going on six years as a result of that attitude. People already have to search for it and find it, and when you wear it, you get a lot of new friends. Like “what you know about that Chilly-O?”

Yeah! It’s something in common!

Yeah, everyone knows I represent positivity, people may look at them stickers on your laptop and ask you what you know about that Chilly-O?  That’s the attitude that we build and orchestrated from humble beginnings. We were buying shirts on retail. We would buy from Lux Tee’s and paint them which was another five or six dollars but we were selling them for 50 or 60 dollars for Chilly-O shirts in the beginning. Then we dumbed it down and sold them at 38, and now we are moving into the action sport market, which is like the 15 to 25 dollar range.

We are competing with brands even though they are commercial. I admire brands like DC and Zoo York, even thought they are commercial now, I still like how the success that they have entailed of coming from nothing and now its cooler brands out but I like what they did, how they took their dream and made it big. We dropped the price for the economy and the cats who rides bikes and skate board are not dropping 38 dollars on a t-shirt they are trying to get a t-shirt for like 18 bucks and rock it till they cant rock it anymore.

Why the name “Chilly-O”?

I got that name when I was in college like from this street dude because I was always chill. He used to say “you always cool and so laid back, I’m gonna call you Chilly O” because my name is Omar. Cool Omar, chilly o, and when I was trying to think of a name for the brand I thought, “I’m going to use my nick name!” I got that name in 1991. A lot of people knew of the name Chilly-O before then brand in different states, so I thought why not!

Everyone always has such good things to say about you (in my experience), why do you think that is?

I don’t know. I guess that’s just the talent I was given. Everybody has abilities that are surreal and I think that’s just one of the abilities that I was trained for.

I’m very fluid and I guess I convey those lessons. A lot of people withhold it but knowledge is to be shared.  Any civilization that you research like the wealthy people or kings and noble men, they were all very good teachers and wise men because they shared knowledge and I believe in that.

People who don’t want to share knowledge for a positive outcome, are like basically energy takers. Sometimes I’m unaware I guess. Whatever people see in me I don’t see in myself. How are things going to grow? How are things going to build? I have a different attitude I’m not trying to burn myself out or try to over extend myself but at the same time I’m not trying to like not see a positive outcome because I’m trying to hold on to my chips or hold on to my situation and so on and so forth.

I just feel like understanding the importance of cultivation, especially with the youth, because it’s not happening. Even with my own kids, they don’t see it. Sometimes I even feel like they don’t know who their dad is. I have to trust that they are going to replace some of the information I’ve put in them because they are going to eventually replace me. When you study abundance, wealth and positivity, laws of attraction and how people with success think, you learn that you have been taught wrong. I don’t want to think wrong anymore, so I guess there was a shift that took place. The way I execute is through actions and not through talk, even though I’m talking a lot right now.

I don’t know everything and I’m not running around here trying to be a know it all, I’m not trying to be the person that hoards the information, I’m trying to be the person that shares the information. I think that person who shares that information is usually sitting on the top.

What inspires you?

It can be anything. Sometimes I’ll get on my bikes and just ride though the city fast. Sometimes it might be somewhere taking a risk, knowing I could get hurt or messed up right now, maybe something magical could happen! It could be observing another group of people…I get a lot of inspiration from art and a lot of shapes, simplicity, and shapes. I like Picasso, I like a lot of his work, even though he’s well versed in expressing realistic art, I like how he kind of took what people were doing with the fancy art, how he took it and simplified it through shapes.

I like pop art I like predictive art. I like art that looks like a little kid drew it, like what it’s expressing and what kind of story its telling. I like color. I love extreme sports. Extreme sports inspire me. I want to see someone jump off a building. I want to see someone take a bike and jump that thing like 80 feet. I want to see people do corky sports. I like seeing crazy things. I like knowledge, I like science fiction, I like line art I like pointillism, I like a lot. Anything can inspire me. I like socialism I like how people socialize. I like to see how kids express themselves. I like people who aren’t scared.

24 hours in the life of Chilly-O

It depends on what point of balance I’m in.  If I am in seeking mode then I might not wake up until 3:00pm in the afternoon, but I may have been up until 8:00am that morning before. I’ll come to the lab, I’ll do research and if I’m feeling inspired, I’ll indulge in some art, whether if its photography, video or some type of illustration.

I’ll look at and study trends, I’ll do my social networking, may close a few deals, may look at some planning then it will be about 10 or 11pm, I’ll probably end up in some bar somewhere. Bars, clubs, house parties or some private event. The core reason for that is to find some type of inspiration or networking. The night is definitely my creative period. I’m more of a night person. All of my creative energies are concentrated at night.

If I’m balanced, usually I’m more left brained. I’ll get here in the office, schedule meetings, talk with my partner, sit here and just plan on how we are going to role everything out.

So its something structured versus less structured?

Yeah, its like I have a battle. It’s my dichotomy. I’m a walking dichotomy. I’m a cancer and sometimes its like water and fire, everything I do is Yin and Yang. Everything I do, I might be hypocritical, or I might walk with execution. I live on both ends of the extreme.  It’s just a certain sense of acceptable craziness.

It’s just apart of the human experience.

Yeah! Creation. When you create something, sometimes your mistakes are your best creations. There’s no format for me. When I don’t have to worry about small problems, I’m the most creative. When I have to worry about the micro things, it stunts my creativity. I have to wear different hats and get into my left-brain. It stunts my creativity, like when I have to do executive left brained shit. It’s just a certain type of process that works with me, certain rituals, I want to get off the alcohol, I don’t do hard-core drugs, I never did. I know what that will do to you. Alcoholism runs in both sides of my family so I don’t know if that’s something that’s inevitable or something that I can control but I definitely want to leave the alcohol alone. I don’t know though, 24 hours for Chilly-O is unpredictable.

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