How Atlanta’s DJ Speakerfoxxx Championed Trap’s Crossover Success

Christina Lee pays tribute to the instrumental influence of the Atlanta scene’s trusted trap ambassador, who passed away in December 2018

Speakerfoxxx in August 2016 Brian Hall/Red Bull Content Pool

When Christen Nilan was 12, she saw herself moving to New York to become a fashion designer. Her native Atlanta felt too “country” and “close-minded” to support those dreams. Then, in 2006, she was arrested – she’d never say why in interviews – and court-ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. During probation, which was “basically house arrest” in her mind, she saved up enough cash to buy her first set of turntables.

This was the first step Nilan, the DJ known as Speakerfoxxx, took in becoming a trusted ambassador for the South’s evolving hip-hop heritage. Before she died of a drug overdose in late 2018, she bridged a generation gap in Atlanta nightlife, between ’90s house music and the trap music to come in the aughts, as she nurtured the latter’s crossover success. “I love this city,” she said. “I am obliged to keep it fresh, bring in new ideas and honor the ones that came before me that gave Atlanta its culture and gave it its place in the music industry.”

Nilan’s interest in music dated back to age five, when she was singing in church choir. In high school she formed punk bands with names like Sex Kitten. But once Nilan was 17, she used a fake ID to sneak into places like MJQ, a fringe nightclub burrowed into a parking lot in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood. MJQ was the epicenter of Atlanta’s underground during the ’90s, with lineups including artists ranging across drum & bass, jungle, Britpop and more. Steve DeNiro, MJQ’s creative director from 2000 to 2007, says that “Christen was one of the only younger kids who would be at house events Saturday nights. She wanted to understand everything.”

Speakerfoxxx was a tough girl anyway, but she became a badass DJ in her own right really quickly.

Dr. Dax

In 2000, hip-hop became a central focus in MJQ’s lineups when DeNiro hired DJs who worked by day at a nearby rarities store, More Dusty Than Digital. Nilan has said that More Dusty Than Digital owner J-Sun Buckner, an early mentor, inspired her to “learn about the history of DJ culture and later start DJing.” But DeNiro remembers there being a generation gap between Nilan and the More Dusty Than Digital crew he hired. He can’t help but think of that tension as symbolic of hip-hop’s shifting tastes. “She would try to talk to a lot of those house cats,” he says, “but they weren’t feeling that shit and never gave that girl her props. I was like, ‘Man, let that girl eat.’ I’m not into trap either, but you gotta respect what they’re doing.”

One DJ who saw Nilan’s potential was Rob Wonder, who worked at More Dusty and spun Friday nights at MJQ. Around 2011, Wonder started managing Nilan and named her Speakerfoxxx, after OutKast’s 2003 album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, as she also became affiliated with Dixie Mafia – which became Yelawolf’s Slumerican crew. (Previously, she went by Double Dutch.) Dr. Dax, Dungeon Family member and graffiti artist, was sharing an office with Wonder when they put her “through bootcamp.” That meant teaching Nilan the old-fashioned mechanics behind the craft of DJing, as Nilan simultaneously attended AA meetings, sometimes twice daily. “Don’t just be a pretty girl with a bikini on behind the turntables,” they said, according to Dax.

“She was a tough girl anyway, but she became a badass DJ in her own right really quickly,” he adds. “This was me being a jerk, but I’d tell her, ‘Man, it’s crazy that if you’re a girl you can take off so quick.’ She got really mad and was like, ‘It’s not because I’m a fucking girl. If you worked as hard as me, you’d be way further ahead too.’”

Nilan had found a place where she could come into her own. In 2005, Wonder and his then-wife Rosa Thurnher took over El Bar, a basement club beneath a Mexican restaurant east of MJQ. Initially, El Bar was where Wonder and his fellow crate-digging turntablists found even more creative license. But around the same time he started managing her, he paired Nilan with DJ Cristo Disco on Friday nights. That shake-up further cemented El Bar’s place in Atlanta’s nightlife calendar. “To me, that is the house she built,” says DJ Jelly, whose mixes and production fueled the success of Big Oomp Records, Atlanta’s first independent hip-hop label.

Nilan was a resident at El Bar for more than six years, turning a club that fit a hundred people, max, into a Southern hip-hop destination. (Mannie Fresh spun on her fifth-year anniversary there.) When DJ Wally Sparks relocated from Chattanooga in 2011, the Big K.R.I.T. collaborator contacted Nilan to find his footing in Atlanta’s nightlife scene.

“My first impression with her as a DJ was the breadth of her knowledge of her music, specifically Southern rap music,” he says. “She was playing stuff that I don’t expect to hear during a party setting. I’m like ‘OK, at least she knows the music.’ I started listening to her as a DJ, and she gets the party moving. She never tried to be anything that she wasn’t. She wasn’t trying to do crazy turntable tricks or anything like that. She was playing it in a way that would engage people. Which in and of itself is a skill that needs to be honed, and a lot of DJs don’t have, at least naturally.”

In a 2012 Creative Loafing interview, Nilan traced her ability to read a room to back when she grew up with an alcoholic father: “That survival skill has really helped me as a DJ, because now I can read people, and Atlanta is full of all kinds of people.” But as a nightlife persona, she mostly kept the fact that she was sober under wraps.

She also seemed to realize that the mere image of her at El Bar was striking: As a hairstylist by day, she used the mirror that lines the DJ booth to check on her blunt bangs. This white woman would pair a gold grill with a Chanel bag, or alternate between vintage Braves jerseys and ruffle-collar blouses. On top of that, she’d have folks sweat it out to older album cuts like Three 6 Mafia’s “Late Nite Tip” and Pastor Troy’s “Help Me Rhonda,” along with newer-generation trap like Young Scooter’s “Columbia.”

“When I get up there and perform, sometimes I can tell: They’re kind of like, ‘Oh, what is she going to do?’ So it’s a fun challenge,” Nilan said to FACT. That same appeal can also be found in her 2013 release Dopegirl Anthems. Nilan and her all-female posse mean-mug on the cover art. One member of that posse, Gangsta Boo of Three 6 Mafia, hosts the mix; such a co-sign confirmed Nilan’s stature as a Southern hip-hop authority. (Nilan also DJed for Gangsta Boo on tour.)

Xen Lang, who already counted Tamara Sky and Heroes x Villains as clients, started managing Nilan that same year. “The challenge for Speakerfoxxx was to scale her brand without compromising who she was and her relationship with Atlanta,” Lang says. “We wanted to have her spread her gospel nationally and internationally but while staying true to her Atlanta roots.” By all appearances, Nilan answered to that challenge with gusto.

She was already DJing on Ballers Eve, a show by New York’s underground station East Village Radio, making a larger case for Southern rap’s rollicking appeal. Then, in 2013, she was part of the inaugural class of DJ Drama and Don Cannon’s DJ conglomerate called the Academy, breaking new artists with the likes of touring DJs for Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. She helped turn Art Basel Miami into a hip-hop hub when she spun at car galleries for parties hosted by YesJulz and 2DopeBitches. Daniel Disaster of Heroes x Villains swears that one gig ended in a riot. “It was ‘I Don’t Like’ [by] Chief Keef, ‘Columbia’ [by Young] Scooter, and then [Crime Mob’s] ‘Knuck If You Buck.’ I don't even think she was playing for 20 minutes. Then the cops came,” he says.

Moreover, Nilan was going to bat for Southern rap’s past, present and more playful possibilities. When Ballers Eve founder DJ Dirrty was considering managing Trinidad James, he asked Nilan to vouch for his starpower. (That’s why she appears in the “All Gold Everything” video, flaunting her own gold teeth.) Nilan nurtured trap’s EDM crossover by way of dubstep, like when she performed at TomorrowWorld in 2013. She fixed Gangsta Boo with new-generation producers like Brodinski and BeatKing for 2014’s Underground Cassette Tape Music. DJ Dirrty also says she introduced Lil Yachty and Rich the Kid to Kevin “Coach K” Lee, co-founder of Quality Control Records.

Girls in the Yard (BOSCO & Speakerfoxxx) - Shooter

Perhaps her most complete representation of self arrived in 2016, when Nilan and alt-R&B singer BOSCO emerged as Girls in the Yard. The duo’s self-titled EP, produced by Nilan, married Junior Reid’s dancehall riddims with Missy Elliott’s slinky hip-hop and Santigold’s whimsy. Nilan often said that, with mentors like Coach K and Don Cannon, she was a rare woman in the hip-hop industry that actually felt embraced as such. But Girls in the Yard showed what happened when she didn’t even have to answer to such a tough standard. “It’s becoming easier now because there are more females in the industry,” says Princess Cut, who enlisted Nilan in her DJ collective Queen Cartel. “But I would say that when Foxxx and I first started, there weren’t as many. What I am trying to say is that we helped break the barrier for other female DJs to be able to do some of the things we’ve done – and surpass us.”

As Nilan fielded an offer to spin for an Atlanta sports team, Lang envisioned a Girls in the Yard tour and a sequel to that EP, based on how the first resonated with listeners. “They never really had the chance to finish the journey that they started with that, either,” he says. “They got off to such a great start.”

In conversation, Nilan’s immediate circle carefully dances around the reasons why she didn’t live to see that happen. They name the drugs littered in Atlanta’s nightlife scene, like speed – temptations she faced daily, as an integral player – instead of what was behind her overdose. They remember how Nilan would stay long after her gigs to talk to club patrons struggling under the influence: “I’m going to talk to this person, they need fucking help,” she’d say. But they also acknowledged that Nilan’s high level of productivity until the end of 2016 hinged on her own ability to stay sober.

People have to understand that she bridged a lot of different races and scenes in Atlanta.

DJ Jelly

“For me her real legacy is the impact she had on people around her, and about how those people show up in other people’s lives now,” says Disaster. “Being sober myself, that was part of our connection; we had a similar history. When I had my struggles, I called her because she was the only other person that I knew in our industry that was sober and had a similar past, as far as using.”

“She always went to two AA meetings a day, for as long as I knew her,” Dax says. “Sometimes she would be late to something, because she did that before she would go do a bunch of gigs. She took the time for her mental health. When she was too busy for those things, when she wasn’t going by her daily protocol, it affected her immediately.”

Nilan’s last day at El Bar was in February 2017: “It was the right thing, to end the environment, outside the fact that it was going to ruin the relationship one way or another if it kept going the way it was going,” Thurnher says. On December 23, 2018, after a stint in rehab earlier that year, Lang confirmed Nilan’s death. A memorial service in Atlanta drew over 500 people – a testament to how she represented for her city when its identity was in flux. Among fellow creatives, Atlanta has had this reputation for being a city where you can build your reputation but ultimately don’t want to stay. But when she was alive, Nilan boosted her city as a destination.

“People have to understand that she bridged a lot of different races and scenes in Atlanta,” Jelly says. “When she did something, you had people from the hood. You had hipsters. You had millennials. You had everyone in one place rocking with her. Everyone gravitated toward her, no matter what walk of life they came from.”

By Christina Lee on June 3, 2019

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