It was an otherwise beautiful Monday afternoon, Nov. 12, and the sun was setting outside Shands Hospital when F. Kyle Marshall, aka DJ Chef Rocc, took his final breaths, surrounded by his family, shadowed by a phalanx of broken-hearted visitors, setting in motion the most explosive outpouring of collective grief that the city of Jacksonville has perhaps seen. Nothing like this has ever happened before, and it might never happen again. Because there was only one Big Kyle.
He had been on life support for several hours after collapsing over the weekend. The machines that kept him alive as his organs slowly gave out were finally disconnected around 6:30 p.m. But he was a fighter, and he held on until about a quarter past seven. Meanwhile, an extended online vigil grew increasingly grim until the bad news filtered through that evening. Then the floodgates opened.
His 39th birthday was just three days away, and the occasion was celebrated in his absence. The whole week was a concussive blow to a community already rocked by heartbreaking loss. It’s been a rough year in this city, and themes of mortality have been recurrent—gunshots, overdoses, car-wrecks suicides—but this was different. Rarely has one individual personality so completely dominated social media in this city—no politician, no athlete, no crime victim. The effect was visceral and horribly heart-rending. It continues as you read this.
Even those closest to Marshall were surprised by how quickly and completely the hurt spread throughout the Duval cultural scene in which he had figured, prominently but in often subtle ways, for two decades. Poignant tributes came from relative strangers, too. Folks who may have only had one or two brief interactions with him were left with a strong impression.
Francis Kyle Newton was born in Langley, Virginia, on Nov. 15, 1979. He was an Air Force brat who moved to Florida in the late ‘90s, when his stepfather switched branches to pursue opportunities as a Navy pilot. (He now flies commercially, for Jet Blue.) Kyle changed his surname in his stepfather’s honor a few years ago. Since he always hated the name “Francis,” he simultaneously took the liberty of legally shortening his first name to just “F.”
F. Kyle was no stranger to conflict or controversy, but these were mostly aberrations in a life spent making peace. He’s a complicated man.
“We met at work,” says his wife, Traci Deanna Sloan. They met while both worked at a call center; it was near the end of 1999. “He was 20, and I was 19. It was weird, because he was Kyle. He would start with throwing paper balls at my desk, and I didn’t want anything to do with him. One day he asked me for a ride, and we became friends. On his 21st birthday, he decided it was time to tell me how he felt.”
They were married on Sept. 13, 2004. Their son, Beckham Henry, was born in 2008 and named after their two favorite soccer players. He also had a daughter, Olivia, now five.
“The best times that we ever had were out brokest times,” Sloan says. “He was my rock, and I was his.”
Today, she struggles to hold up, halfway through the worst month of her life. Her father died on Nov. 1, and the love of her life fell ten days later, leaving her alone with a ten-year-old who, naturally, struggles to process the loss of his primary male role models. It’s hard but she endures, because that’s how she is. That’s how they were, together and apart. Although they split years ago, the couple remained married on paper and linked inextricably in the spirit. Their relationship was far from conventional, but they were not conventional people.
Condolences poured in from around the world. People who had left Jacksonville years ago were suddenly drawn back home. The Five Points strip was practically empty that Monday night. Rain Dogs closed early, as friends gathered at Shantytown and Nighthawks. At 9:30 p.m. sharp, dozens of people shot-gunned beers in solidarity. Folks aren’t typically sentimental out here, but this was a special occasion. All the usual snark and cynicism subsided for a precious moment.
Two days later, and drizzle dots the downtown streetlights as Ian Ranne smokes American Spirit cigarettes outside his Justice Pub. He opened the bar six months ago. It’s the latest of some half-dozen venues his team has brought to life in the past decade. Kyle Marshall was there for all of it.
“This is about as bad as it gets for me,” Ranne says. “Nobody was closer to me.”
He met Kyle 20 years ago, not long after Marshall moved here.
“I thought he was hilarious,” he says. “We just automatically clicked. He was my right-hand man, he was my bodyguard, he was my confidant, my best advisor. My vice-president, really.”
They shared a DJ booth for years as members of the Big Buck$ Crew. Their last gig was supporting Wu-Tang Clan in St. Augustine on Oct. 7.
“He would always set up and break down the equipment,” Ranne says. “At the end of the night, you always knew everything and everyone was in a safe place.”
Ranne’s usual relentless optimism faltered upon hearing his friend had collapsed. Kyle was unconscious at Shands, where Ranne’s sister is a nurse, but he couldn’t bring himself to go there.
“There was something in the air,” he says. “It didn’t look good.”
The first of several benefit shows was billed as “Legends Never Die” and held Nov. 24 at Rain Dogs. Marshall had been a fixture there from the start, serving first as doorman and bouncer before quickly advancing to become the club’s resident soundman.
“It’s a very rare transition,” says Ranne. “It takes a very special ear to do that. He paid great attention to detail.”
A separate, family-friendly memorial is to be held Thursday, Nov. 29 at Black Sheep Restaurant.
The “River City Raunch” crew produced a special 56-page zine titled, “Aren’t We the Fortunate Ones.” On the back cover, Marshall is dubbed as “The Patron Saint of Bad Bitches,” and there is certainly a case to be made for that. The spiritual theme was reinforced by a custom votive candle, made by Jenna Richey and bearing his image.
Marshall’s passing inspired tributes from all over the local art scene, including people like Al Clark, Brent “Chef B” Coleman, Natalie Frazier, Tyler Lewis Goshen, Rommel Kravitz, Devin Maya, Mike McIntyre, Aisha Nieves, Zoe Nissen, Brittany Raja, Jimmy Pines, Molly Riefler, Chip Southworth, Destiny Sutton, Jen Thornton, Kyle Willis and, of course, the Shaun Thurston piece commissioned for this week’s cover. Many of these pieces were part of the silent auction, which raised nearly $4,000 for his kids. (The original works will remain on display and up for bidding at Rain Dogs through December 8.)
A lover of soccer and NASCAR, with a massive Tom Petty tattoo on his leg, Marshall was a classic dude’s dude, but he played a special role for ladies of the Riverside scene.
“The first time I saw him was when I worked at Larry’s in Five Points,” says Sunny Parker, who now performs and promotes shows in the area. “He would come in every now and then wearing that blue silk [Sacramento] King’s jacket.”
It was years ago, but she still remembers exactly which booth she was sitting in when they first conversed.
“Kyle always looked out for the ladies. He never let anyone disrespect us and he was never creepy towards us. That’s why we would always let him hang. You felt safe around Kyle, and he would let you know when you are looking fine, and when you should probably go fix your eyeliner. He wouldn’t let you walk around not looking your best self.”
The one thing everyone mentioned most often was the quality of his hugging. The man knew all the fancy handshakes and the lingo of salutation, but that hug-game was truly his bailiwick. A Marshall hug was dense but supple, like a cross between cotton candy and memory foam—a straitjacket made of joy. It could mellow out a thunderbolt, or warm you up on your coldest day. Kevin Lee Newberry summed it up nicely in a song called “Bear Hug.”
“Make sure to greet the ones you love,” Newberry sang through tears, “With a pound and a bear hug.”
More than one observer noted the synchronicity of Marshall’s passing on the same day as comic book icon Stan Lee. Not only was Kyle a fan, as we all are, but in some ways his life was similar to Lee’s. They were both regular guys who found a way to make something special in this life, using just their wits and their passions. Whereas Lee created superheroes, Marshall made other people feel like superheroes. That’s a special kind of magic that most people don’t have.
“If I could personify Duval County,” wrote BeBe Deluxe, “it would have been him. Strong, wild as hell, full of love, and down for a good time. He was truly an institution. This is a big loss for our community of punks, queers, sissies, f*ck-ups and turn ups.”
Big Kyle is gone now, but he leaves a legacy of the spirit; he’ll live on in the memories, and the example he set.
“Now that’s he’s gone, I feel so much more responsible to look out for everyone the way he did,” Parker says. “I guess that’s something we all have to do now.”
And they already are.
Many, many people had much to say about Kyle Marshall, but it’s appropriate that his widow is given the final word.“When he was good, he was the best,” Sloan says. “Every person he met, he made them feel special. He just had a way of making people love him.” Yep.