Reserved isn’t a word one would normally associate with a rapper, but Valee Taylor, aka Valee, is the first to admit to being shy. And it’s this characteristic that makes him intriguing and likable. Perhaps that’s because in the age of Instagram, when new (and sometimes old) artists are blatantly provocative and looking for shortcuts to success, Valee’s story is refreshingly simple: hard work pays off.
The Chicago-born artist only started putting out music two-and-a-half years ago after unintentionally purchasing music equipment to make his own beats and record himself, and worked on that for a couple of years. Fast-forward to today, and Valee, 28, has found himself a home at Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music. Don’t underestimate the quiet ones.
We caught up with the artist in his hometown where he invited us to shoot him in his work studio and around Chicago. We spoke to him about his career arc, his personal style (which, right now, consists of basic tees, skinny pants, and PUMA's RS-0 Play), and his skillful handwork that includes, as we learned, tailoring T-shirts.
You’re in the middle of sewing a T-shirt right now. You’re making adjustments so that it fits you better?
Yeah, I just got it right. It's nice and fitted right now. Yeah, so I can be comfy and not all shy and stuff worried about my outfit. This is perfect because it looks nice. A lot of times there's clothes that look excellent and then they're a little too big because I'm so little.
That’s understandable, because you’re very hands-on whether you’re customizing cars, tattooing—or tailoring a T-shirt. What about that fuels you?
I’ve always had a niche for enhancing everything. Even if I'm talking to someone, and they say they want to start an ice cream shop. I don't know what my problem is but... they're thinking about something else now, and I'm thinking about the best ice cream shop in the world. As smart as possible, as easy as possible, as cheap as possible, because, you know, it's free to think and enhance things before it's time to do it. It makes everything cool. I don't know why I like to make everything cooler.
Take me back to the day you visited Guitar Center and got what you needed to make beats.
I had moved out into this loft… and I'm in this place and I'm bored. I decided to go and get me a game system and instead of making it all the way to where I purchase the game system from I said, “You know what? I used to do music. I could just go to Guitar Center and I'll start back doing music, but this time I'll really make beats, like up-to-date beats. I won't sample anything. I'll just make really nice beats like what I hear on the radio or any mixtape sites.”
Then, while I'm at the Guitar Center, I said, “Well, damn, I might as well record myself again or rap as well.” So I ended up going to Guitar Center and spending not much money on what I felt as though was everything I needed, a really simple setup. I worked hard at that for a couple of years and then I started putting out music a little over two years ago, two-and-half years ago, and it's been a slow, organic, but true grind.
You talk about putting your head down, doing the work, and putting in the time, and you say it nonchalantly, but the reality is there are so many people looking for shortcuts to success these days. It's refreshing to hear that your success comes out of hard work. Can you speak on that?
A lot of people say there's no shortcuts. There really are, there are shortcuts, but we don't know what they are or how to attack them just yet. I read something that stuck with me. It said you never really become perfect at something until you've obsessed over it. So everyone who is successful in what they do, that means that they have really obsessed over it at one point in time. Until you really obsess over what it is you love to do, I think that really helps and helps you attack what you got to do in that field.
The nonchalant-ness comes with not expecting anything or not wanting anything, but just really loving what I'm doing and, actually, not having anything else to do. Like, no schedule, no get up, go to work every day, no nothing to do. I look at it like building a car, and it wasn't done yet. When I started putting out music, it's like the car I was building, meaning growing in music. The car that I was building wasn't done, but people still liked it.
What are you obsessing over these days?
I have been obsessing over acting, in a good way, because [artist] Hebru Brantley has me acting on these last couple of videos, like the “Miami” one. This new “Womp Womp” video is a lot of acting. I'm in L.A. running around and getting hit by cars and stuff like that for the video, so it's really opened me up and it's got me thinking a lot more about acting.
I know you're the type of person who abstains from being full-on with social media. Are you comfortable with acting? How's that process been for you, putting yourself out there?
Yeah, that's been better. Definitely getting better, because I'm a shy person. So it goes from being shy and never wanting to do anything to doing music, and then music is going well and then you have all these wonderful people reaching out and they want to shoot your videos and things like that.
It requires you to act, it takes a couple of times for me to just shake off everything. But now it's getting to the point where I'm ready to act again. I'm ready for someone to tell me to dart out onto the street. Hebru Brantley’s quickly opening me up, 'cause when someone says, “Run down the street in the middle of L.A.,” you gotta do it. Once you do that a couple times, it's normal now. Anything I have to do, because it's actually getting a little fun. I get a little adrenaline rush out of it.
What has working with Kanye West and Pusha T taught you about life and about yourself?
Well, for one, by them being great people, it’s opened me up and showed me how normal things can be, you know, like no matter what the media portrays of people and things like that. People are pretty normal and still inspiring to me. I know working with them and being around them a couple of times has definitely helped.
And it’s opening me up and making me want to make some different type of music. Not just really one-sided type of music, but it’s making me want to be more creative, even with sounds and instruments and the production. It's just making me want to do some different stuff, but it's still all me, still Valee.
Even their conversation, you know, just for them to have the longevity that they have, being around them is really good. I really do want and believe in longevity. I'm not just here to be here for a second. If I make music now, and I want it to be wonderful, I want it to be 10 times more wonderful five years from now, next year, next month.
You're a reflection of the people around you, so if you have quality people around, that's the litmus test like, “OK, I chose the right team. This is meant to be, these are the people who are supposed to be in my life.”
Oh, yeah, definitely. And then the way that they work is fantastic and wonderful. Some people work quicker and catch a vibe quicker. It's really—you know what it is? They’re not as shy as me. That's what it is. You get around people and they're very lit and excited and happy, you know, about music and things like that. It'll quickly open you up, no matter if you just woke up or not. You quickly wake up. I really do like that, because I spend a lot of time quiet and thinking. And sometimes you just step it up, pump it up, and do what you gotta do.
Let's talk about Chicago and the creative scene there right now. What’s going on there?
The Chicago creative scene, I do know that it's changing for the better. It use to be drill, a lot of people call it dangerous to listen to our music and stuff like that, but I enjoyed that music. I think the city is starting to talk about things differently as well. Even if it's still gangbanging and drill music, they're starting to twist things and say it in a cooler, different way, where it could be played nationally or whatnot... And then with time, production changes, too, like beats and stuff like that. So the type of sound or beats that people want to rap on, it changes. So things just start sounding a little different.
What advice do you have for people who are maybe looking at you and thinking, “I want to be like that and how do I do it?”
Well, definitely always push and believe in yourself. Don't slow down. You're going to run into a lot of days where you're going to feel like you should stop or “Is it working?” or “What if?” but all of that stuff is what you're not supposed to really think about. You're just supposed to do it. Just supposed to do it every day like there's nothing else to do... You get out what you put in. A lot of things doesn't mean pay for everything, just because you have money or whatnot, it doesn't mean you can pay your way to the top. Things have to be original and organic.
That's right. That goes back to not banking on shortcuts, but believing in hard work.
Oh, yeah. Some things you can pay for and make a shortcut, but paying is just what it is: it's paying. You giving someone something in exchange for something, instead of them hearing what you're doing and really loving it, and then they give you something in exchange for what you’ve done.
Let’s talk about your personal style. What do you wear on a day-to-day?
Day to day, if not a couple pair of Balmains or simple pants, like just really skinny, fitted pants. I do like flip-flops and slides, but I've slimmed down on them, because I started wearing gym shoes. I do have some slick PUMA shoes that fit like socks at the top of the ankle. But I just try to keep it normal. I used to wear more jogging suits and track suits and stuff, but now I think this summer I'm gonna get into really nice PUMA tracksuits, like four, five different colors.
Man, it's gonna be nice because every time I do find a style and start dressing that way it's not long before the city starts dressing that way, too. It's pretty cool. But daily basis, really small clothes, couple pair Balmains, mostly black pants, ripped pants, distressed pants, and fitted T-shirts... Still making a statement as simple as possible without being all expensive every single day or being worried about what people are thinking.