Derek McAllister Jr. was 16 and broke, living in Columbia, South Carolina, and, like any teenager, needed money in his pocket. He wanted a job at the fast-food chicken joint Zaxbys but when they didn’t call him back, he turned to his computer. Using a beat making program called FruityLoops, which he had been fooling around on since he was 13 after he watched a clip of the self-promotion wiz and teenage dance-rap icon Soulja Boy doing the same, he put beats for sale on a website called SoundClick and marketed them aggressively on social media.
Around 2010 or 2011, McAllister sold his first beat to a Miami rapper for $50, which he used to purchase his trusty pair of affordable speakers. He scored early major placements on Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers, for “Tony Montana,” and French Montana’s Coke Boys 3, for “Dope Got Me Rich.” Through his production, you could hear the heavy influence of Atlanta’s rap scene: his piano melodies, soft enough for a jack-in-the-box, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Travis Porter deep cut; his doomsday-ready 808s and ticking hi-hats were indebted to Lex Luger. Splitting the difference between his beats sounded like the ones on Future’s Pluto if they came from a cracked version of FruityLoops on a personal computer in a 16-year-old’s South Carolina bedroom.
Over the next year, McAllister uploaded 250 beats on his SoundClick page and sold them all. With this newfound spending money, he bought what would instantly become his prized possession: A brand new black-on-black Camaro. Later on, the car would be referenced in his songs again and again, and featured in his music videos with dramatic slow-motion shots that made it seem like the Batmobile.
Rapping came along almost as a promotional tactic. “The whole purpose of me rapping is that I knew I could make a good song,” he said in a grainy interview from 2013 that looks and sounds like it was shot on a flip phone. “I knew how to promote myself, so that would bring more people to buy beats from me.” In spring 2012, he began to upload melodic singles on YouTube under the name Speaker Knockerz. “All I Know,” the best of his early tracks, laid a robotic, lifeless melody—with a generous amount of Auto-Tune—over a bright piano line. This clash defined his music, especially the two essential mixtapes released in 2013.
Married to the Money and Finesse Father sound like much of popular rap throughout the South and Midwest in the early 2010s, because they’re not trying to be anything more. The twinkling production, the catchy coos delivered with a deadpan demeanor, and the attention to detail elevated the pair of mixtapes to melodramatic mini sagas. Sometimes the songs were just shit to throw ass to in the club (see: “Freak Hoe”). But usually, they were bitter anti-love pop ballads and street fiction. But his heartbreak, loneliness, and paranoia came at a strange remove, like the fantasies of a teenager who’d learned about these emotions from the music videos he religiously watched on the internet.
He studied the music around him like he was going to be tested on it. (There’s a clip on his YouTube where he’s dancing along to Future’s “Same Damn Time,” and stops to make a comment. “Why do rappers brag about selling mid?” he asks. “That’s the dumbest shit ever. I would brag about selling loud.”) Particularly the cold style of Chicago’s emerging drill rap scene: Whether it was the stoic melody Durk began to experiment with, or how Keef could warble about numbing his trauma with drugs and alcohol, and it was still sung along to by fans as if it was a joyous Top 40 radio record. Similarly, Speaker Knockerz could rattle off villainous, neurotic sentiments on “How Could You,” or pen the hopeless three-part crime epic “Rico Story” trilogy, and overlap the grim mood with sun-splashed production that felt like it was made for teenagers wearing skinny jeans to dance to, which is…