Walking through the MU Student Center with a black windbreaker and a bright yellow hat, junior Chef Noriega does not carry himself like someone managing multiple businesses and a budding rap career.
Chef talks confidently about all of his ventures, which include rapping, a clothing line and photography company.
This confidence has created opportunities for Chef. Just recently at South by Southwest music festival, a performer at a show he was photographing didn’t show. Immediately, Chef whipped out a flash drive with 30 minutes of music and offered to jump in.
The man running the show asked if Chef had ever performed before and his response was simple.
“That’s not an issue. Just load me up and you’ll see.”
When Chef was a freshman in high school, he began to rap for the first time. However, this was not his first musical venture — Chef’s mother actively sang in the family’s church choir, and his father participated in a small funk/disco band with other members of the family.
“I've been pretty much involved with music in some kind of way since birth," Chef says.
Chef used to sing along in church even as a baby, his mother says.
It was Chef’s mother who also introduced him to one of his biggest musical influences: ’80s rock ‘n’ roll. That, not rap, was the first music Chef ever heard.
Sting is one of Chef’s mother’s favorite artists, and the sentiment has rubbed off on the rapper.
“I dream of making at least one song with Sting,” Chef says. “That’d be a very fun collaboration.”
Other creative outlets were not far and few between from Chef growing up. A hyperactive imagination peppered his childhood with many adventures featuring imaginary friends. Somewhere in the garage of Chef’s old home, 12 issues of his own comic book sit in a box. As he aged, Chef turned to YouTube, creating a page with dance videos and original short films.
Those videos were first shot on the digital camera Chef bought when he was in eighth grade with the money he’d saved up from golf caddying. Since the fifth grade, Chef had only taken photos on disposable cameras.
Chef now takes photos for other artists (such as the one who took him to SXSW) and does photography and editing for his company, Ctral Photography.
Hailing from the small Illinois suburb of Chicago Heights has deeply affected the rapper’s approach to both music and himself. The town sits about 30 miles south of the Windy City and has a population of about 30,000 people with a wide range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.
Growing up, Chef was an inbetweener of sorts, he says, someone who simply couldn’t fit into a box.
“I feel that you either have to be street hard, turn-up or you're intellectual and a geek,” Chef says. “I like to party, I like to go crazy, I'm not a thug. I'm smart; I'm not a nerd.”
Chef says he wants his music to appeal to those suburban inbetweeners. Those who, like himself, don’t fit into traditional molds.
"Not everyone is born into those ‘hood areas’ anymore, it's more diverse everywhere,” Chef says. “And so for the people like myself who were exposed to a lot of different things growing up, that’s what my music is predominantly for. So they have a voice.”
Chef faced the same frustration in the music world as he was well-aware of the stereotypes that force hip-hop artists into strict themes of criminality and partying.
"For a lot of my musical career I felt like I had to fit the mold (of what) most hip-hop artists is, which is you gotta be hard, you gotta be street,” Chef says. “It wasn't until I started to get older and started to see people who I grew up with, who were in my same first grade class, trying to start selling serious drugs and trying to join different gangs and stuff like that, that then I was like, ‘Why? You know we were fortunate.’
“There are people that really have to sell drugs to pay bills and maintain their life situations and we'd never have to do that, so why would I want to portray something like that?” Chef says.
This realization acted almost as a cleanse for Chef’s music, allowing it to become more cohesive.
“It was a lot easier to not be self-conscious about it because I wasn't lying anymore,” Chef says. “It was more I'm just letting people know this is me. If you like it, you like it. If not, well not everybody likes everybody.”
Chef now says he makes his songs to better fit performing — his favorite part of music. He says it has made music that much more fun thanks to the interactions it creates on stage.
“You do all this work in the studios to help people understand your music, but the live performance is where people understand music,” Chef says. “It's where you can become someone's favorite artist.”
The first show Chef performed at took place his junior year of high school. And it didn’t go off without some hijinks.
Chef and some friends talked to a bar owner about wanting to perform back in 2011, claiming that they could get a 300-person crowd to the show.
“A lot of people were doing music at the time, but no one had done a show yet so I was like ‘I gotta make sure I'm the first,’” Chef says.
After the original date was canceled due to the club owner’s forgetfulness, the show was rescheduled for the day of the NBA Championships — something that “totally killed the (amount of) people that came out.”
“We had maybe six people in there after promising 200, so we were like, 'Yo, let's hurry up and get on stage,’” Chef says.
Worried that the owner might cut the power, Chef’s crew set up as quickly as possible. Shortly after, the power was indeed cut.
“We got as many songs in as we could, and it was a good experience to have,” Chef says laughing.
When it comes to making music, Chef does his best to produce everything by himself. Quizzy, a local producer, taught Chef how to make beats at the level he is at now. One summer, the two produced an EP called “Cyberswaggin On Blue Heaven”.
“We spent a lot of long days in the studio,” Chef says. “Sometimes we’d sleep in his studios because we’d be working on stuff.”
On his most recent project, “Illumbia 2,” Chef mostly produced the beats himself, and he initially mixed and mastered the tracks himself. Now the project is in the hands of the producer KaCe, who is mixing it to give a professional sound.
“I want longevity for this project,” Chef says.
In his music, Chef has several standard facets including guitars and choruses for a powerful feel, and he incorporates drums and bass using an 808 now that he has an industry-level sound system.
His “secret ingredient,” however, is adding snare for a live stadium feel.
Chef also runs a clothing line known as Clan Clan, which is meant to represent “a family within families.”
“I made a family within families because growing up me and my family, we’re close now, but we weren’t close,” Chef says. “I was closer with my friends so my friends were my family.”