Too many of hip-hop’s heroes have departed prematurely, but the cruelly arbitrary death of 19-year-old Derek McAllister, Jr., feels particularly tragic. As Speaker Knockerz, the rapper and producer eschewed a traditional path to forge a grassroots fanbase, unaided by gatekeepers or sponsorship. He was a brilliant pop songwriter, a quality that Drake, who was caught singing along to “Lonely” in a nightclub earlier this year, and Soulja Boy, who eulogized him on YouTube, both must have noticed. His joyous songs were positively ebullient; his darker work was shaded with resonant melancholy. That his end — which came not from drugs, nor violence, nor reckless rock star misbehavior, but mysterious natural causes — arrived so capriciously is hard to reconcile with the vibrancy of the music he left behind.
Over the course of his far-too-brief career, McAllister released three mixtapes of original material. A fourth, the posthumous Married to the Money II, was released at the beginning of this month. He was building to a crossover moment that will now never happen: His most popular singles generated millions of views on YouTube, and he sold hundreds — even thousands, in the case of 2014′s “Lonely” — of copies per week on iTunes. Some records, like fan favorite “Freak Hoe,” were also huge hits on Vine, inspiring teenagers across the country to upload clips of themselves dancing to his music. He toured outside of his home state of South Carolina and as far as the Midwest. Though he was from New York by way of the South, he cultivated a sizeable following in Chicago, and amassed 80,000 Twitter followers, all by himself.
Or almost by himself. In truth, the Speaker Knockerz project was powered by a three-person team, one with virtually no overhead: rapper/producer Speaker Knockerz himself; his father, former musician and business liaison Derek McAllister, Sr., and videographer Zack Dillan, also known as Loud Visuals. After the success of “Lonely” — now with well over 12 million YouTube views — labels (including Atlantic and Universal Republic) finally came calling. But as Speaker Knockerz liked to say, he was signed to himself, and was determined to cross over independently.
Derek Jamol McAllister, Jr., was born November 6, 1994, in New York City, and spent his early years in hip-hop’s Bronx birthplace. His younger brother, Christian, arrived three years later. His father had toyed with becoming a producer himself, and introduced Derek to his equipment early on. “I was always into music, messing with samples and stuff like that,” explained the senior McAllister when reached by phone this summer. McAllister spoke matter-of-factly about his son’s accomplishments and his death, with a faint New York accent in his voice, neither overly excitable nor audibly distraught. He seemed, above all, proud, boasting about how smart and gifted his son was. “He was always messing with my MPCs. Hitting drum pads, messing with my Technics 1200s, scratching, hitting the keys.”
In 2000, when Derek was 5, his father began serving a 10-year jail sentence on a drug-related charge. His mother Mesha Wilson, a religious woman, moved him and Christian down to South Carolina in 2005. “I wanted a better life for them,” she said when reached separately by phone. “The way we were living, it wasn’t beneficial. And I knew the South offered more as far as schooling. The atmosphere was just better.” Nonetheless, father and son stayed in touch. “When I was locked up, he was playing me music through the phone,” says his dad. “I would listen to his beats and give him pointers.”
Wilson describes Derek as energetic, considerate and compassionate, a kid who “always seemed to be a little bit ahead of his time. He and his brother would come to my bed and tell bedtime stories,” his mother says. “We would always create scary stories while it was raining outside, and he would always have the best ones.”
McAllister, Sr., came home from jail in 2010. By the end of that year, Derek uploaded his debut mixtape under the name Jamol Junior to DatPiff. Titled Flight Delayed — with imagery that touched on same themes as Curren$y and Wiz Khalifa did that year — the music has a charming innocence; “Tip You Like a Waiter” displayed a surprising amount of production and lyrical craft for someone so young, with catchy choruses, mature concepts and clever ideas. It’s a strip club record for someone who didn’t necessarily frequent them. Another record, “Fly Around Me,” incorporated the sounds of a buzzing fly into the beat. In a questionnaire he filled out on SoundClick at the time, he listed his influences: “Lil Wayne, Drake, R.Kelly, Roscoe Dash, Tupac, Nelly, Travis Porter.”
Although Derek’s father unpacked some of his vintage equipment, including an MPC, the new computer he bought for the family was Derek’s focus. “Day in, day out, he would come home from school and sit there and try to make beats, all day and all night,” his dad said. Before long the family computer had moved from the father’s bedroom into Derek’s.
In one of the only interviews conducted with Speaker Knockerz, he namechecks Soulja Boy, another kid who built a massive following solely online, as his inspiration. “Everybody looked up to Soulja Boy. I was just wondering how he made beats. So I downloaded this program called FL Studios” (which was later renamed FruityLoops). His copy, only a demo, didn’t allow him to save what he’d recorded. Until he obtained the full version, “he would just leave the computer on and never actually laid any material down,” his father remembers. “He could never save it.”
It was at this point that Derek’s interest in music became an obsession. According to his mother, his personality began to change: The confident, outgoing kid began turning slowly inward. “He really didn’t have a lot of friends, because it seemed like he didn’t trust many people. He wasn’t into giving people second chances. He was just really serious about his music.” His father concurred. “The boy never left that room. He didn’t go out for two whole summers.”
The style that McAllister, who by then had redubbed himself Speaker Knockerz, was cultivating so obsessively was far from radical. His tools, from the rapid hi-hats to the minimal piano lines and 808 drums, were a given. Knockerz sold his first beat to a Miami rapper through SoundClick for $50, which he used to buy a pair of Logitech speakers. Those speakers, his hacked copy of FruityLoops, and some Beats by Dre headphones his father bought him represented the totality of Speaker Knockerz’s equipment until the day he died.
His first big placement came in summer 2011, when Meek Mill used his remake of Will A Fool’s “Tony Montana” beat for the massive Dreamchasers mixtape. By spring 2012, he landed a beat on Coke Boys 3 with the track “Dope Got Me Rich,” his first big original record.
Although a New Yorker by birth, the producer merged the poppier side of Atlanta’s hip-hop — acts like Travis Porter or Roscoe Dash — along with the darker trap sound popularized by Lex Luger for Waka Flocka Flame and Rick Ross. This style had become Southern street rap’s common denominator. But he excelled within that framework, producing simple compositions that conveyed surprising levels of depth. Gucci Mane‘s “Re-Up,” which Knockerz would later call his favorite beat he’d produced, starts with a simple piano line and drums before beginning to work in additional effects in the lead-up to the chorus, where synthesizers weave and snake through the track, tastefully enhancing its anxious tone.
His solo work was more Chicago-influenced, with his vocals picking up tics, slang and subject matter from drill artists like Chief Keef, Lil Reese and Lil Durk. He also borrowed drill’s affectless, synthetic, heavily AutoTuned vocal style—in part, his father said, because his natural voice sounded thin. Future—the Atlanta artist most closely identified with AutoTune—located an underlying humanity inside the machine, his voice straining against its cage and breaking into shards. Chicagoan Lil Durk was a closer comparison, but unlike Speaker Knockerz, his style was more concerned with bluesy expressionist reality rap. But Speaker Knockerz was style was stoic, detached, a hip-hop Robocop. His words were delivered in a bloodless monotone, as if they were one more element soldered to the beat.
Speaker Knockerz produced one record, “Oh Well,” for Taylor J, a rapper on Atlanta’s Big Play label in early 2012. Derek’s father took him down to Big Play studios later that year. Speaker Knockerz and Taylor were in the studio together when someone happened to overhear the two working: “Gucci Mane happened to walk into the studio and heard the beat,” his father says. “Gucci was like, ‘Who did this beat?’ He jumped right on the track and recorded his verse, and after that, they became friends.” It wasn’t until this moment that Wilson realized how successful her son had become. “Gucci Mane had his number and was just personally calling him and sending him text messages. I was like, really thrown by that one. So that’s when I knew it was serious.”
Ultimately, all 250 of the beats uploaded to Speaker Knockerz’s SoundClick page would sell. And he made more money moving beats face to face, to local artists. But he was not content to remain a producer. He restarted his solo career, debuting with “On My Mind” on iTunes and YouTube in May 2012.
His next few songs, which came in the lead-up to his 18th birthday, laid the groundwork for the first Speaker Knockerz album, Married to the Money. First came the buoyant “Weekend,” followed by “Freak Hoe,” released right after his 18th birthday. As with “Tip You Like A Waiter,” “Freak Hoe” is a non-threatening record despite its title and subject matter, its chorus chant more innocent than risque.
The song’s inspiration was an older hip-hop smash. “He listened to Juvenile,” his father says, “and he would listen to all of Mannie Fresh’s beats. He wasn’t listening to the lyrics. One day he’s playing Juvenile’s album and he heard ‘Back That Azz Up.’ If you listen, it’s the same type of melody but the beats are completely different.” While the record wasn’t a local success, “Freak Hoe’s” Internet campaign took on a viral life of its own. “We used to sit down and watch all the YouTube clips. He said, ‘Dad look, they made another one!’ Before he passed away, we had about 10 shows lined up and all of them to perform ‘Freak Hoe.’”
“Money,” also off of Married, was released as a music video in February 2013. It marked the first collaboration between Knockerz and Zack Dillan, after they met at a concert in Columbia, South Carolina. “We shot it a couple weeks after we met,” remembers Dillan.” It did a million views, and then we just became friends and worked together a lot.” The song is overflowing with propulsive, giddy energy, a simple arpeggiated melody given added oomf thanks to a whizzing bass. It became his next viral hit, particularly in Chicago’s dancer-driven bop scene, where it inspired more teenaged video tributes.
The success of “Money,” argues Derek’s father, influenced a number of rising artists as well. “There are so many songs that sound like ‘Money’ right now. Wiz Khalifa, his new song out. ‘We Dem Boyz.’ That’s all Speaker Knockerz. If you listen to K-Camp, ‘Money Baby,’ that’s all him.
For Speaker Knockerz, the subject of “Money” was no joke. The producer’s first tax return, which covered less than six months of SoundClick beat sales, was for $42,000 — not including beats sold under the table locally. Naturally, it was time to buy a car.
Derek was always careful with money, according to his mother, who says he learned from her example. (After nearly two decades as a medical assistant, Wilson launched her own catering and dessert company last year.) “He wasn’t the type to be wasteful, shopping, buying clothes,” she says. But when he bought his signature black-on-black Camaro, she was proud. His father taped the entire purchase, although the footage was lost: “Shit got erased and I was crying,” he remembers.
“We went to the dealer down there and test drove. He was so happy. He got out the car to look at it, and somebody walked up to him and said, ‘This is your car? Can I get in there?’ It was an older lady, she said, ‘You look nice in this car.’ She was just sweatin’ him. I was like, ‘I told you son,’ and he was just smiling and smiling and smiling.” The next day they returned to buy it. “He just put $700 down and had a small payment and rolled off to school the next day and everybody knew who Speaker Knockerz was. Everybody knew who Speaker Knockerz was.”
As Speaker Knockerz the producer evolved into Speaker Knockerz the star, his lyrics retained the common language — some might say clichés — of many others: motivational boasts about his wealth, threats to those who would rob him, etc. He was not eager to go against the grain, treating those clichés like a rulebook he played by simply because it was the one he’d been given.
His strength was to excel within that established framework. “He was a good kid,” his father suggests. “People think he drank lean. He didn’t even drink. People look at videos and believe what they see. People say, ‘Oh, he overdosed on lean.’ That was just a video. People look at that like he walks around with guns all day.”
When asked if he was worried about the ramifications of those impressions, McAllister, Sr. responds like a protective dad, albeit one who didn’t seem to see much of a problem with the his son’s hip-hop fantasy persona. “I supported him, I did what a father was supposed to do. I was there for his whole career. I made sure I protected him. I was at every show. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what was going on. Every song that he made, he did it in the house.
His mother was more conflicted. “He didn’t play it where I could hear the words,” she says. “He didn’t really want me to come to his shows. He was sheltering me. I couldn’t really judge him because at one point I was 19 and I did things that I wasn’t supposed to do, but I had to mature. Because that was something that he had to learn, if it was right or wrong, later on. But I couldn’t crush his dreams, because that was something he was passionate about.” In fact, as he’d made clear to his mother, it was the only thing: “I said, ‘Derek, you always have to have a plan A, B and C.’ He said, ‘mom, I’m telling you, I don’t need a plan B or C. My plan A is going to work.’”
And in fact, Knockerz was stepping on the gas, releasing new material with increasing urgency. Married to the Money came out in April 2013, culling his major singles — “Weekend,” “Money,” “Freak Hoe,” the first two installments of his crime epic “Rico’s Story” were all present, as were new gems like the sweet, earnest “You Got It,” and stomach-butterfly melancholy of “Games.” His next project, Finesse Father came out just three months later. Its capstone record, “Flexin And Finessin,” is archetypal Speaker Knockerz, bursting with contagious, irrepressible energy.
His fame was snowballing rapidly, although South Carolina still showed little support. Wilson recalls a time an unknown local smashed her front window. “They was real jealous,” she said. But while he had a tempestuous relationship with his hometown, other cities had taken him in. “Our biggest market before he passed away was New York,” his father says. “If you look at the views and trending reports, New York was downloading our music the most.” Chicago, his original regional base, was a close second; the video for “Don’t Know” closed with footage of him performing “Money” for a huge crowd in Chicago as the headliner of 2013′s Superfest, a 17-and-up concert at Logan Square’s Windy City Fieldhouse.
In November, Speaker Knockerz celebrated his 19th birthday; one month later, he released “Lonely,” which remains his signature song and his greatest achievement. Speaker Knockerz’s lyrics may have been simple, but the emotions conveyed within his direct, generous songs were not. “He wrote ‘Lonely’ because he felt like in the music business he was lonely,” his father explained simply. “Because he felt he was bigger than what he was at that time, and he felt nobody was accepting him for his music. Everything he did was dark after that. He wanted to do something representing how he felt about not getting enough credit for his music. He wasn’t getting credit. But the money was coming in.”
Speaker Knockerz’s need for validation proved inspirational. “He said, ‘Dad, I want this to be the biggest record.’ I didn’t understand it. That part everybody repeats, where he says says, ‘Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, you mad, or nah?’ He said that in the studio because he didn’t know what else to say, that’s how that line came about.” The phrase ended up becoming a viral sensation.
“Lonely,” according to his father, was doing 3,000 sales on iTunes every seven days. Labels, including Atlantic and Universal Republic, began to reach out. “Radio, if we did that, got that going for us, the sky would have been the limit,” he says.
Speaker Knockerz was on a rapid incline. In early January, 2014, he released the video for “Dap You Up,” which Riff Raff intended to remix. In March, he put a dark single named for All of My Children character Erica Kane on iTunes. Here, the beat replicates the eerie mood of “Lonely,” and spikes it with a note of enigmatic uncertainty. Released March 4 to iTunes, it was the last song Speaker Knockerz would release while he was alive.
Derek McAllister, Sr., celebrated his birthday with both of his sons at Texas Roadhouse in early March, 2014. They talked shop; Derek, Sr. needed a copy of the .WAV file for “Dap You Up” the following day for a studio session. Fans peeked around the corner to catch a glimpse of the young star.
After returning home, McAllister, Sr. was working at his computer when his eldest son interrupted him. “He’s like, ‘Dad, I had a good time last night. ‘Thank you for the food,’ ‘I love you,’ and all that stuff.” Then, Derek left the house, promising his father he’d prepare the file.
At 11 a.m. the next day, McAllister, Sr. texted his son — the session time had changed. Derek never responded. “I still didn’t think nothing of it, I just thought he’s still probably out,” his father says. Derek never showed at the studio, either, and McAllister Sr., wondering if his son’s phone was dead, called Wilson and then Derek’s little brother Christian; neither of them have heard from him. “He said he was supposed to have an appointment or studio time and he never showed up,” says Mesha. “That’s not like him, I know that if anything he takes his business serious.”
The day passed without word from Derek. He’d left everything out in the house and his computer on, as if he were just about to return. His father knocked on the locked garage to no response, and then texted Zack Dillan. At around 1 a.m., Mesha woke up, unable to sleep. “I said, ‘Something is not right.’” When it became clear Dillan wasn’t with Derek either, Wilson and McAllister, Sr. filed a police report.
The police, with Wilson and McAllister in tow, pried open the garage door and found him outside of his car, clutching his chest. “He was cleaning out his car,” his dad says. “The keys weren’t in the ignition, the car wasn’t on, nothing like that. People think he committed suicide, he didn’t commit suicide.” The coroner’s office found no sign of foul play and no trauma. His parents have stressed that it was not suicide or carbon monoxide poisoning; nor was his passing the result of a drug overdose.
The funeral was held at Bibleway Church in Columbia, South Carolina, on March 15, 2014. Wilson estimates 75 family members came through — as did hundreds of other mourners. “It was packed. Everybody couldn’t get in. And that was in the overflow. They had about 1,300 seats in there, and it was all filled.” The family had to hire security to keep people from snapping pictures.
The sudden passing of Speaker Knockerz spurred an outpouring of support. His name trended on Twitter, and a number of artists, in the weeks that followed, tweeted about his passing. These included Meek Mill, whose version of “Tony Montana” offered Speaker Knockerz his first big placement, and DJ Mustard, currently the genre’s most dominant hip-hop producer. Soulja Boy, who’d long supported Speaker Knockerz on Vine, offered up a heartfelt eulogy. “I thought he was a real dope artist. ‘Flexin and Finessin’ one of my favorite songs. ‘Rico Story’ is dope as fuck. ‘Lonely’ — ‘Hahahaha, you mad, or nah.’ I woke up yesterday and niggas told me that shit and I didn’t want to believe it.”
Although his hometown had long given Derek a tough time, now South Carolina, too, rallied behind him. “Now he’s the god of South Carolina,” his mother jokes. “But he was the devil before.” Just prior to his passing, though, he and his father had plans to mend that relationship, attending local shows and giving back to his hometown. Speaker Knockerz also founded Talibandz records at the end of 2013, and was, in part, planning on helping to propel South Carolina talent to the next level.
The legacy Speaker Knockerz left behind is a complicated one. For one, he was not an innovator: His art was rooted in synthesis, economy and craft. These are fundamentally pop tools, used to forge an empathic connection with an audience. Others may have pushed in bolder directions, but Speaker Knockerz had a firmer grip on mood and emotion. His death leaves the ache of lost possibility; the man behind the music was just beginning to manifest himself within it, to finally leave the loneliness behind.
“I just feel honored that God chose me and him, out of all these people in the world, and touched so many people,” said Wilson. “He’s motivated other people to follow their dreams. As they say, use your gift and God will place you in front of great people. I always told him, you don’t have to backstab, you don’t have to talk bad about other people. You don’t have to try to rub shoulders. Just be good at what you do and you’ll get noticed. Even a small town like this, if you believe in who you are, somebody will notice you.”
“His legacy will be to put people on and to give them a start,” says McAllister Sr. “To let them know that he started from nothing and came to something and wanted the opportunity to give other people a chance to get on and see better parts of the world and just heighten their career and make them go where they need to go, as far as what he did and the footprints that he did, the blueprint. I told him it’s just hard work and dedication. Because people don’t know that he stood in that room for two years and he did not come out of that room.”