Guess what, bitch? Coronavirus!” Cardi B’s shriek echoes until it resembles a siren. A hi-hat-heavy beat comes in on the rapper’s frantic warning: “Shit is real!” The words are from a 46-second video Cardi B posted on Instagram in March, broadcast to a shell-shocked nation. But it was DJ iMarkkeyz who turned them into a cheeky club banger with visuals to match every beat drop — Childish Gambino, Beyoncé, Future, Elmo, and Bugs Bunny all get crunk as an animated coronavirus molecule floats by with a toothy smile like the alien villain in a kids’ cartoon.
The year looked bleak until iMarkkeyz (real name Brandon Markell Davidson) remixed it. “It’s a lot of wild nonsense going on,” says the 30-year-old producer-editor from behind his computer screen in East New York; he’s wearing rectangular Clark Kent glasses, a du-rag, and a plain black face mask with an iM printed on it. (Even in non-COVID times, the mask is his signature look.) “But somebody’s gotta make people not live in fear.” Along with “Coronavirus,” he created joyful musical interludes for 2020’s other distressing news cycles. “Lose Yo Job,” centered on a viral clip of a Black woman being detained by a security guard, became a national anti-police-brutality protest anthem, making it all the way to a Saturday Night Live cold open featuring Jim Carrey and Maya Rudolph. In November, his tongue-in-cheek remix of Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser repeating the words I hear a sound of victory arrived right as many Americans needed to hear it.
Before the pandemic, iMarkkeyz DJ-ed parties around New York City and in nearby cities — until December of last year, when he landed in the hospital with an abscess in his lower back. “I was going through a depressive phase because I thought it was it,” he recalls. “January, February, I was still in recovery mode. I wasn’t going anywhere, so I didn’t really do nothing but make remixes.” In March, just when he was getting back on his feet, “Coronavirus” made it to No. 9 on the iTunes hip-hop chart within hours of its release, and it hit No. 1 in several countries. A packed club in Rio blasted it unironically. The track now has tens of millions of views across YouTube.
Like the rest of the world, he first saw the Cardi clip on Instagram. Then people started tagging him and begging him to “remix this.” Equipped with a 2020 MacBook (recently upgraded from his 2011 model) and a mastery of the music-production software Ableton Live, iMarkkeyz can flip a meme into a booming remix in ten to 20 minutes — even fewer if he has already been working on something that fits, which was the case for “Coronavirus.” “I was like, Okay, I’ll get this done in two to five minutes. And then I got it done in two to five minutes.” He took another seven to ten minutes to splice together the medley of dance clips.
Like today’s TikTok stars, iMarkkeyz had his first brush with fame thanks to a video-sharing platform. Seven years ago, he turned a Vine into the infectious Jersey-club mix “Rounds.” Both the original clip, by Carl Garrett, and iMarkkeyz’s remix went viral. (Croon “Baby, come through” at any 20-something and there’s a good chance they’ll reply with an equally passionate “You deserve rounds.”) When Vine died, iMarkkeyz took his talents to Instagram. Why cover your face with a mask when you’re on the cusp of fame? iMarkkeyz says he wants to keep the focus on his music. “If you love my art, then I’m not gonna be important,” he says. He also just wants to be able to go to the grocery store with his mother.
Born and raised in Bed-Stuy, he spent his childhood listening to tapes by A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty by Nature, and Biggie on his mother’s Walkman. His aunt introduced him to dancehall and reggae, while his grandmother played him soca and oldies. His father, whom he lost at the age of 6, kept music “blasting in the house or blasting in the block party.” He moved to East New York at age 15, and the nearby Fresh Creek Nature Preserve, an expanse of green surrounded by housing complexes, became his “backyard patio.” (These days, he wanders around Fresh Creek beatboxing to himself.) At 16, inspired by a SMACK DVD interview with Rsonist from the Heatmakerz, he downloaded FruityLoops studio, a digital-audio workstation. Making music felt familiar to him, like riffing with his friends as a kid. “I could find music out of anything,” he says. “It’s been with me like that since, like, public school, junior high school. Somebody says something and we repeat it in a musical way and then we just start making a song out of it.”
In the genre of meme remixes that provide relief from the news, “Lose Yo Job” was an instant classic. The original clip shows a woman named Johnniqua Charles being detained by a nightclub security guard with her hands behind her back as she sings “You about to lose yo job ’cause you are detaining me for nothing.” The remix displays the mug shots of each police officer involved in the killing of George Floyd with the word CHARGED printed in red above. Floyd’s death was particularly bitter for iMarkkeyz, who is the nephew of Eric Garner on his father’s side. A video of Garner’s death in a police choke hold, in which he can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times, spread across the internet in 2014.
Like Garner, Floyd had repeated the words I can’t breathe countless times before his death. “[Floyd’s death] put a dent in my grandmother’s heart,” says iMarkkeyz, referring to Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. “Because it’s the same exact thing that my uncle went through in Staten Island. If it’s taking this long to get this man, when he just killed somebody on-camera with no remorse, what does that tell you? What makes you think this is not going to keep happening?” Garner’s last words became a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement, including during this year’s protests, where, at times, you could hear them repeated alongside “You about to lose yo job.” iMarkkeyz’s remix became a thrillingly hopeful protest anthem in a time when Black Americans still have little recourse for justice.
Making “Lose Yo Job” in June was a “group project” between iMarkkeyz and DJ Suede the Remix God, a Georgia-based producer known for his pop-culture remixes. “Sometimes we’ll flip a coin and be like, ‘Well, I got the melody, you got the drums’ or ‘I got the drums,’ ” says iMarkkeyz. But the cadence here was all Charles. While the star of “Coronavirus” was unmistakable, little was known about the energetic, freestyling woman behind the “Lose Yo Job” video until her sister reached out to iMarkkeyz directly to let him know Charles was homeless. “It was shocking to us,” he says. “I told her sister, ‘Okay, I’m gonna make a GoFundMe page. You can get access to the account. [I’m gonna] make a ringtone. My people is going to get everything copyrighted for her, as far as the actual clip of the original video. And then [she’ll] get shares in the song.’ We wanted to make sure she was situated and off the streets.”
Back in 2014, iMarkkeyz wasn’t able to monetize a video like “Rounds,” but this time he made it a priority to secure compensation for himself and for Charles. He uploads his songs to a service called DistroKid, which allows independent artists to distribute their music on platforms like Spotify and YouTube and collect revenue everywhere the song is streamed. Charles and her 4-year-old son have now moved into their own home, and she’s expecting another baby. “Basically, we changed someone’s life,” iMarkkeyz says, still in disbelief.
“Lose Yo Job” injected hope into the fight for justice, but it’s not a PSA. “Racists don’t give a damn,” he says. “I don’t want to waste my energy to just get a point across when nobody’s gonna really listen.” He’s just trying to keep the party going for his community of supporters online and, hopefully, someday in real life again. “I want people to come out and have a good time,” he says, “and go home with a memory like, ‘Oh, I just found this girl at iMarkkeyz’s party, and now we married.’ ”
*This article appears in the December 21, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!