Saturday at the St. Pat’s in Five Points festival, Columbia-reared rapper Ben G entertained a crowd of at least a couple thousand. It was a big day, the first time that locally grown hip-hop was allowed on one of the event’s official stages. Adding to the moment, respected emcee and Bricksquad crew leader Waka Flocka Flame surprised his protege and joined him for a song. A throng of jubilant faces ended up onstage. Champagne was sprayed onto the first few rows.
But a few minutes earlier, Ben G paused his set for some somber reflection. He told the audience of Speaker Knockerz, a local rapper and producer who had amassed millions of views for his songs on YouTube, who had contributed beats to releases by major label emcees Gucci Mane and Jae Millz. Born Derek McAllister Jr., he was found dead at his home on March 6, stopping short a promising career, one that was rewriting commonly held notions of how hip-hop acts can find success in Columbia.
“It was viral music,” posits Ben G, known off the stage as Ben Hiott. “It was catchy. A lot of his beats, as simple as they may be, they were super, super, super great and high quality. People saw the versatility he had. He would have gone far.”
On Saturday, Hiott led a few thousand people in chanting the name of his departed collaborator. He then performed a new song that Speaker Knockerz produced, an apt tribute to a 19-year-old kid who was already one of the city’s most renowned rappers — even if many locals didn’t know who he was.
McAllister laid his claim on the Internet without conquering local turf. “Money,” the first video he produced with his friend and cinematographer Loud Visuals, has tallied more than 1.6 million views since hitting the web a year ago. Three subsequent clips have topped the million mark since, with his two most most popular songs summing up the duality of his appeal: The sleek and enthralling “Rico Story” uses his driving and disorienting production to stoke disturbing momentum behind a rise-and-fall crime saga. “Lonely” feels lightweight by comparison, its familiar feelings of debilitating loneliness made approachable by McAllister’s matter-of-fact flow.
Using Twitter — where he gained nearly 79,000 followers — and other social media, McAllister’s music took off with unexpected quickness, allowing him to sell out shows in Chicago and other spots around the Midwest without pulling similar feats at local clubs.
“He hadn’t been rapping for that long,” explains Zack Dillan, aka Loud Visuals. “It was almost impossible for it to travel as fast locally as it did on the Internet. He went at both at the same time, to go out of Columbia and to stay in Columbia. The Internet just moved so fast.”
The success of Speaker Knockerz validates the tactics of similar emcees, who spend more time working on recordings and uploading them to the Internet than building a grassroots following with local shows, the more traditional route to success. Others, such as the more psychedelic Karmessiah, have achieved regional acclaim with similar strategies.
“Their careers are born at home,” offers Darius Johnson, better known as stalwart local rapper Fat Rat da Czar. “That’s a different thing from my era. You had to build your name up in your neighborhood and your community.”
He may have done it in an unconventional way, but Speaker Knockerz still made music that touched people’s lives. His mother, Mesha Wilson, is a devout Christian, but she’s proud of her son’s accomplishments, despite his vulgarity and violent themes. Local memorial services last weekend were attended by fans from Michigan and Wisconsin. Wilson’s cousin, a school teacher in New York, had a student who insisted that he talk with Wilson, relaying the pain he felt at McAllister’s passing.
“I believe that if you have a gift that God gives you that you need to share it because it’s important to bless someone else,” she says. “And I think that he did that. He made an impact on a lot of people’s lives.”
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