“Life was great,” he tells Rolling Stone of his touring career, calling from his Los Angeles home. “For it to abruptly end because of the lockdown, that was different. I don’t think any of us were expecting that, but my situation isn’t unique.”
The NYC native got his start in the late Eighties as a member of legendary hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions alongside KRS-One, producer Lee Smith, and the late Scott La Rock. The group became one of the most influential hip-hop groups of the late Eighties, blending politically minded lyrics with intense, confrontational themes that earned them massive critical praise. (The D-Nice-produced “Self-Destruction” in 1989, featuring KRS-One, Public Enemy, and Heavy D, among others, was a leading track in the movement against violence in the black community.) Before the group officially disbanded in 1992, D-Nice, whose real name is Derrick Jones, dropped two solo albums, including the successful Call Me D-Nice that spawned an underground classic in the title track. His less-successful follow-up, To Tha Rescue, was released a year later.
Around that time, the producer-rapper discovered Kid Rock, who began rapping as part of a group called the Beast Crew, and invited him to open for Boogie Down Productions. Jones would eventually sign Kid Rock for his then-home Jive Records, and is credited as a producer on Rock’s 1990 debut, Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast. Despite this, it was a low point for the rap multihyphenate, who told journalist Combat Jack in 2014 that during this time, he was homeless and battled depression. He was left with an abandoned contract and an inability to relaunch his career as a rapper.
Today, though, Jones has found himself in a comfortable moment in his career. While the mid-Nineties saw him pivoting to a new passion in photography — he’s shot everyone from Diddy to Snoop Dogg, among countless other superstars — he eventually would go on to become your favorite celebrity’s favorite DJ. (He was the official DJ for President Obama during his time in office — including Obama’s 2012 inauguration — and has shared the stage with numerous Hall of Famers like Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder.)
So when his packed touring schedule slowed down, Jones decided to find a unique way to revisit his past as well as his favorite tunes with friends and fans, while maintaining the social distancing orders. On March 17th, he hopped on Instagram Live to play some music for his followers, with about 200 friends and friends of friends tuning in to hear him talk about records he had produced and the music he loves. Like any good party, word spread quickly.
“The next day it was 1,000, and it just started to grow,” he says. That Friday, the party raked in roughly 25,000 viewers with the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Drake stepping into the live-chat feature. Jones dubbed the set both “Club Quarantine” and “Homeschool,” and began to treat it more officially, with a mix board hooked up to his laptop and keeping a camera positioned on himself giving shout-outs to famous and non-famous viewers alike.
The next Saturday, the party grew exponentially: 100,000 Instagram users watched him spin a blend of golden-age hip-hop, Nineties R&B, and more recent Top 40 party staples, as Democratic presidential nominee contenders Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden as well as Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Rihanna, and Will Smith watched.
Jones reckons there were even more people than the numbers showed. “People go in and out of IG Live, but that number stayed consistent. People are leaving and new people are coming,” he explains. “We’re talking millions of people that was able to hear me play music.”
Jones’ Saturday set was not just ambitious in terms of viewership: He played for nine hours straight. “I tend to get caught up in playing, but I’m not going to do another nine-hour set,” he says, laughing. Though it wasn’t his intention to play that long, he’s glad he didn’t stop after only two. Not only did it allow for word to spread, but it also reminded him of the passionate, lengthy sets he used to put on when he was just cutting his teeth as a DJ.
“I’d play for six hours! I didn’t have an opener or a closer,” he reminisces. “I’ve always had the stamina to do it.”
The music in Jones’ set is diverse, as made clear by the Homeschool playlist he partnered with Spotify to create in honor of his virtual club: a mix of soul, rock, dancehall, pop, and hip-hop peppered the afternoon-into-evening. “The only song I played twice was “Ye,” from Burna Boy. I had played it earlier [in the set], but when Rihanna stepped in, I know that’s her favorite song,” he adds. “I just played it to make her feel good and welcome her to the party.”
Making everyone feel good was his only intention, but the sets have caused a significant boost in his visibility as a DJ. He had less than 200,000 Instagram followers when he first opened up Club Quarantine’s doors. He now has more than 1.8 million. He did a Sunday set after his historic Saturday marathon and later partnered with Michelle Obama for a voter-registration party via IG Live. Even with the demand from a brand new legion of fans who are stuck at home and itching to dance, D-Nice is determined to not burn out from DJ’ing too much. He took a break this weekend and is currently figuring out how often he wants to make his parties.
“I plan on slowing down and making it weekly,” he says. “I don’t want to lose the love I have for it. I really do love playing music.”
He is also thinking about what life will look like after lockdown. He’s been dreaming of the first parties he will be able to put on once this is over, parties that will celebrate survival as well as a newfound leg of his success.
“Once we’re able to be able to be together again, I want to pick three cities to actually do a Club Quarantine party live,” Jones says. New York and Los Angeles are in mind, with Miami, Atlanta and other major cities in the mix. “Play that same vibe and celebrate with the same people we’ve been celebrating with virtually,” he says. “Just to be able to see them face-to-face, play that music and feel that bass, that’s the ultimate goal that I have.”