How a Strip Club DJ’s Death Marked the End of an Era in Atlanta Hip-Hop

(PitchforkHannibal Buress has this joke about Atlanta strip clubs, the sort that Drake and Future shut down in lyrics and real life. “Those DJs are the most amazing DJs vocally, ever, because they drive the tipping,” he once said. “They crack jokes. It’s just so funny, it’s like, ‘Man, you need to pay the pussy!’”

The way his imitation goes, they talk like auctioneers. But it’s a style so distinct, Buress could only be talking about William Fernando Barnes. As DJ Nando, Barnes was the most audacious strip club DJ Atlanta has seen in the past decade. He helped introduce B.o.B. and Dem Franchize Boyz. He made J-Kwons “Tipsy” and Rick Ross “Hustlin’” take off in Atlanta. He built hype for Usher‘s “Yeah!” ahead of its 2004 release. He re-established the strip club as a default setting, by breaking Travis Porters “Make It Rain,” YC’s “Racks,” Cash Out’s “Cashing Out.” Nando’s efforts affected Billboard charts but went unseen and uncredited outside of the club.

On January 14, 2014, Nando was fatally shot outside his Morrow, Georgia, home; he was 38 years old. Today (June 22, 2016), he would have turned 41. Two weeks after his death, friends held a vigil for Nando at Onyx, one of several strip clubs where he worked. Russell Simmons and Jermaine Dupri expressed their condolences. Could any other strip club DJ have had that kind of resonance?

Of course, strip club DJs have informed Atlanta’s music scene since the late ‘80s. DC the Brain Supreme was working at Magic City when he scored a smash as one-half of Tag Team with “Whoomp! (There It Is).” As even The Wall Street Journal has reported by now, artists pay strip club DJs to play their records. This helps artists gauge the crowd’s response and catch the attention of radio DJs and label execs there—hence why strip club DJs call themselves the A&R of the streets. Rates to play a song can range from a few Hamiltons to more than a grand.

The pay-for-play system was well established by the time Nando met Jay Jenkins in 2002. For two years Nando had been working downtown at Magic City, a now well-known spot that had hosted not just hip-hop and R&B elite but also superstar athletes like Michael Jordan. Nando was still on the “day” shifts from 3 to 9 p.m. Jenkins had one album under the moniker Lil’ J, though now he was going by Young Jeezy. He met at Magic City with his then-manager, Kevin “Coach K” Lee, who often asked for Nando’s help in breaking future hits like the Bun B-featuring “Over Here.”

“We go in that Tuesday or Wednesday, have a drink, and go to Nando like, ‘Man, I got something, I want to hear what it sounds like in here,’” says Coach K. “He’ll play it. If the girls move, he be like, ‘Yo, you might have something, Coach. Give me that and let me see during primetime.’” Primetime is Monday night, when the local hip-hop industry hangs out. But Nando would set an even higher standard.

Two years after meeting Nando, Jeezy signed to Def Jam. Still, the label wasn’t convinced of his star power. L.A. Reid hadn’t seen him club-hopping with Black Mafia Family cocaine kingpin Big Meech, hearing his music at every stop. Trap wasn’t a known genre yet. So in 2005, label staff and radio programmers flew down south to see Monday night in action. The 800-person crowd spilled out into the parking lot. Dancers, bouncers, and hustlers recited every word to Jeezy’s mixtape Trap or Die, played straight through. This wasn’t a mainstream crowd, but it was a cult following that made it rain.

At one point, Nando cut off the music. Time to put this scene into perspective. “For those who don’t know, this is Jeezy’s motherfucking city,” he declared. As for Jeezy’s Def Jam debut, 2005’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101: It went platinum within its first month. To this day, he credits Nando. “At the time I was coming out, it was Lil Jon. It was Lil Scrappy. It was Crime Mob. It was snap music. Everybody kept going uptempo. He was making slow street music work for the club.”

Noah Williams, marketing director at Street Execs, used to visit friends at Morehouse College. These aspiring artists all knew to see Nando first because of Jeezy’s success.

“It wasn’t like you could post to SoundCloud and a thousand people would hear it,” Williams says. “People like Nando and [V103 DJ] Greg Street, they were out there in the culture. You had to go out there and see them. It was the best way to build relationships.”

But Nando sometimes refused to network like other strip club DJs. In 2008, DJ Big X asked him to join Coalition DJs, along with veteran DJ Funky and DJ X-Rated, with whom Nando had a friendly rivalry. Artists still meet with this conglomerate in hopes of hearing their songs played at the clubs that Nando called home (Magic, Kamal’s 21, Onyx). But sometimes he rejected his part of the payment—which climbed from $30 a song to about $300 to, eventually, several thousand—because he thought the music could be better. Even Jeezy got the real talk: “Sometimes I’d put out songs, and he’d be like, ‘Man, why didn’t you call me first?’ I’d be like, ‘Nando, I just sold a million records—what are you talking about?’ ‘It’s cool, but it ain’t street,’ he’d say.”

“When he first got killed, the first thing that a lot of people said was, ‘Man, Nando ain’t play somebody’s record,” says Nick Love, who managed Coalition until earlier this year. “Somebody got upset and ran up on him—that was the rumor. But Nando was very protective of his brand.”

Akon would call him,” says Abdul “AB” Muhammad, Nando’s close friend and business partner in Charge Nation Records. “[Producer] Polow da Don would call him. Usher called him. Jeezy called him all the time. They say, ‘I need you to pick out a record. I need to know what can go in the club right now.’ Nando would sit and have his little face: ‘Not that one.’ They’d be like, ‘Man I like that one.’ ‘No, it’s not going to work.’ He be like, ‘We can’t use none of those. Come back,’ or, ‘I can try with that one. I can play that at the end of the night when the lights go on, but not on primetime.’

“If you’re an artist, you don’t want anybody telling you that your shit ain’t hot. But sometimes people want to be told that it’s not, so they can go back to work. Some people don’t get that second chance.”

In 2010, Pierre “Pee” Thomas was co-running the label Dirty Dolla Entertainment. He’d pay DJs to play music by his artists, only to hear from dancers that they weren’t—that they lied. So when Pee approached Nando with a $1,500 offer, he was shocked to see the DJ run to his car to hear the music first. “I’m not going to take your money if it ain’t nothing I could make them dance to,” Nando had said. Two years later, Pee approached Nando with this new rap trio. Now Migos is signed to Quality Control, the label that Pee and Coach K founded in 2013.

“Every time we got our music together, we just made sure that we let him hear it and put that stamp on it, because he had the street’s ear,” says Migos’ Quavo. “He kind of like Simon Cowell—he be that stiff.”

To have Nando co-sign your record was to have it played to the biggest strip club audience possible. About 300 to 500 people would see him on a weeknight; twice as many went to his after-parties. They’d hear what he played, how he poked fun at the strippers: “Get your ass off the stage with that saggy thong! That shit like a Pamper!”

In 2008 Nando started DJing Friday nights at Onyx, rewriting the logic of Atlanta’s nightlife calendar. He drew folks like Kevin Hart and Kanye West, egging them on to throw money in the air. “Every person came in to spend $5,000 or $6,000 but had to spend $50,000 or $60,000,” Jeezy says. “‘Jeezy, spend another $10,000. Get $20,000.’ It got the point where I was in the DJ booth like, ‘Yo man, chill.’”

Nando got away with this because his shifts were bonafide shows. He learned to mix by trial and error during those day shifts. And with how he talked on the mic, he could sell people on a new track. But it wasn’t enough for Magic City owner Lil Magic, who fired Nando in 2008 because he was being difficult. Nando would “get emotional” if Lil Magic asked to just let a song play out, rather than interrupt it on the mic. So it makes sense that Lil Magic shows little emotion when asked whether Nando could be considered influential.

“There’s no evidence, I’ll say that much,” he says. “If they have been, it’s not so evident because there’s really no other DJs that really DJed the way he did. As far as talking—that would be his trademark. Nando could mix the shit out of a track and make it go live. A lot of DJs don’t practice that today at all. They pretty much play a song and get it over with. So, nope. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone talk the way he talk or mix the way he mix.”

Naturally, Nando’s business partner AB has a different view of his legacy: “Strip clubs were so underground. They weren’t mainstream. So when you make something underground become mainstream, you did pave the way.”

AB now manages DJ Blak, who started working at Magic with Nando in 2002. Blak never imagined staying at the strip club, but after touring with Yung Joc and Yo Gotti, he now hosts a weekly Streetz 94.5 broadcast live from Onyx. This is the first from an Atlanta strip club—what Love originally wanted for Nando.

Coalition DJs now boasts 20 members, including Blak. Several of them joined after Nando’s death. “I just felt like bringing in one DJ, or even one specific type of DJ, wasn’t going to make up for the capacity he had,” DJ Big X says. “You’re talking 300 to 500 people a night, if not more; it’s going to take you two to three more DJs to match those numbers. So my strategy wasn’t to replace Nando, because he can’t be replaced.”

One Friday night last May, it’s standing room only at Onyx. Three men in gold chains throw thousands of singles into the air and watch how they land on the naked strippers. In front of their VIP section, club enforcement stuffs bills from the floor into grocery bags. Onyx is a stimulus overload under pink stage lights, with or without DJ Blak on the mic. Occasionally he tries to take charge of the spectacle, like when he jokes about a dancer’s “M&M nipples.” Later he plays Jeezy’s former group’s USDA’s “Throw This Money,” Nando intro and all. It’s a reminder that while anyone can sound like Nando, Nando didn’t act like anyone else.

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