D-Nice, Taking The Wheels of Steel & Partying With Purpose To The Next Level (2020 Artist Innovator)


What do Oprah, Drake, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack and Michelle Obama, J.Lo, Shawn Gee, Ava DuVernay, Donnie Wahlberg, Dwyane Wade, The Rock, Quincy Jones, Kerry Washington, Madonna, Diplo, Jamie Foxx, Nile Rodgers and President-elect Joe Biden all have in common? They, along with a slew of other A-listers in this bizarre sequestered pandemic year, have all gathered around the warm communal LCD glow of D-Nice’s massively popular Club Quarantine DJ set on Instagram Live.
Yet, for all the solace, communing and unadulterated joy these sessions bring to millions, Club Quarantine didn’t start with any strategic planning or promotion. Rather, it began with a slightly freaked-out old-school hip-hop head, an artist, photographer, MC, web designer, entrepreneur, DJ and music fanatic who last March, along with billions of others, had no idea what the future would bring. This, however, wasn’t D-Nice’s first dance with uncertainty, which, as we’ve seen repeatedly this year, can be an accelerant for all manners of innovation.

“I was sitting on my bed, and I’ll be honest with you: I was extremely sad,” said Derrick “D-Nice” Jones in mid-November from his home in Los Angeles, eight months into Club Quarantine’s wildfire success. “It really hit me that all of our gigs were getting canceled. I was booked for Essence Fest, South by Southwest and Miami Music Week, and Live Nation had booked four dates opening for Jill Scott in June, but everything was being canceled.”

On March 15, D-Nice’s recently adopted home of L.A. was about to be on lock down. “I was stressed out because I wasn’t prepared for the pandemic because I’m never home,” the peripatetic DJ says. “I had no toilet paper, no food, no paper towels, no nothing, and everything was gone. I live downtown and because people broke into all the supermarkets, everyone was just going crazy, nothing was on the shelves. I literally had to buy canned goods.”

But rather than break out the can opener,  D-Nice opted for fine dining at Avra, a restaurant co-owned by a friend in Beverly Hills (where he may or may not have snuck into a storage closet to “borrow” a few rolls of toilet paper). Afterward, he went for a cigar with friends, including a marketing exec and ex-NBA star and spots analyst in Jimmy Jackson. There, he told his crew he was thinking of “going live” and using a new livestreaming tool he tried the previous summer.
(Photo by John Parra/Getty Image)

D-Nice performs at 1/ST Preakness Home Drive-In Field Fest benefiting First Responders Children’s Foundation at Gulfstream Park on May 16, 2020 in Hallandale, Fla.

“It was July 4th weekend 2019,” D-Nice says. “I received an email from someone at Facebook saying, ‘Hey, we have this new feature called Facebook Live.’ I heard about the live feature on Instagram, but they also had Facebook Live. And they said, ‘Hey, you should check it out. We know you’re playing main stage at Essence Festival, you should try it out.’ I was like, ‘Man, who the hell wants to watch me go live backstage? That’s weird. I don’t want to do that.’ They ended up convincing me to do it anyway. One day they were like, ‘Alright, here’s your analytics. You should take a look.’ I was like, ‘Wow. 10,000 people were watching that!? That’s crazy.’ I had only done it that one time.”

Fast-forward to that L.A. cigar bar in March 2020 where, on the precipice of an unfathomable global pandemic, D-Nice drew upon this random livestream experience.

“We were all trying to figure out what to do next,” he says. “Everyone talked about what they were going to do. I was like, ‘Hey, there’s this feature on Instagram where you can go live. I think I’m just going to go live.’ I was just going to interview people. I did 400,000 flight miles last year DJing. I was missing the music. When I was sitting on the edge of my bed, I started to tear up a bit, thinking about family, thinking about everything. Like, ‘Wait, what would potentially happen if this thing continues?’ I got up, went into my kitchen where a center aisle separated the kitchen from the living room. I sat my laptop at the edge of the counter. I had a couple of tears, I was a little stressed out. I opened up my laptop, sat my phone on my computer, opened up Instagram and started playing music from my computer into the phone.”

If you’re looking to learn exactly how innovation happens, look no further. D-Nice’s wild and wending career has taken him from the rough and tumble streets of the South Bronx to audiences with heads of states and beyond. Make no mistake, there’s been busts, too, which he battled through with hard work, determination, flexibility, competence and – always – kindness. And, perhaps none of it happens without serendipity and, also, his cousin’s boyfriend’s voracious appetite.

“My mom had me when she was 17,” D-Nice says. “At the time, she really couldn’t take care of me. I ended up living with my great-grandmother in the Bronx along with my cousin, who raised me. She was seven years older and that’s how I ended up in the Bronx with family. I fell in love with hip-hop when I was 13 or 14. When I turned 15, my cousin’s boyfriend asked if I would bring food to where he worked at the Franklin Men’s Shelter as a security guard. We lived near Yankee Stadium and we didn’t have Ubers in the mid-’80s and I couldn’t afford a taxi, so I walked for three miles and brought his food. Then he decided to introduce me to one of the social workers at the men’s shelter.” That social worker was Scott Sterling, better known as Scott La Rock, a tragic hip-hop hero.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bling and a Fade: D-Nice, a.k.a. Derrick Jones, circa 1987 when he was with the Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions crew.

“Scott introduced me to someone that lived in the shelter who was KRS-One [Lawrence “Kris” Parker],” D-Nice says. “They had formed this group while Kris was living in the shelter. And Scott La Rock looked at me – he didn’t know what my talents were, I didn’t know what my talents were – but he looked at me and said, ‘Hey, I want you to be a part of my group.’ This was like late ‘85, early ‘86. The [Boogie Down Productions single] “South Bronx” came out in ‘86, around the time I got into hip-hop. I literally walked into it. It wasn’t something I was trying to do, everything in my career happened this way.”

Having a massive hit and hearing it on the radio is a lot for anyone, but having that happen as a 15-year-old living with his cousin in the South Bronx was next level.

“It was surreal because I grew up loving music,” D-Nice says. “If I could sing, I probably would have been in some R&B or rock and roll group. For me to love hip-hop and a few years later have a hit record out, I didn’t even know that was possible. It was something we made in a studio apartment in Queens. This guy had a 16-track board and Scott La Rock and I went there and worked on the beat. Scott really did most of the beat. I was just learning. Then KRS came in and laid his verse. And then the three of us did the chorus.”

It’s also where D-Nice almost became D-Ice. “That’s how I got my name,” he says. “KRS-One had this cool name he used to tag as a graffiti artist. And Scott La Rock had his DJ name and I was still Derrick. In the ‘80s, everyone was Ice, like Vanilla Ice and Mix Master Ice and I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll just be D-Ice.’ And then [KRS-One] accidentally called me D-Nice while he was recording the end of ‘South Bronx.’ I was like, “Ah, you know what? I’ll just be D-Nice.’ It’s a very ‘80s hip-hop name, but it works for me now.”

Not long after, on Aug. 27, 1987, another life-changing moment occurred, albeit a far more tragic one that hit D-Nice and much of the early East Coast hip-hop community hard: A mere five months after the debut of BDP’s classic album Criminal Minded, which included “South Bronx” and helped establish what hip-hop could be, with samples ranging from dancehall to AC/DC to James Brown, Scott La Rock was murdered.
His death inspired “Self Destruction,” the massive 1989 all-star single by The Stop The Violence Movement, the one-off supergroup that featured KRS-One, Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav, Kool Moe Dee, Stetsasonic, MC Lyte, Doug E. Fresh and Heavy D. Proceeds from the single, which D-Nice co-produced, rapped on and topped Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart, benefitted the National Urban League. La Rock’s death also had a lifelong impact on D-Nice.

“Scott’s vibe is pretty much the vibe that I have today,” he says. “It’s why I am the way that I am. He was always willing to go the extra mile for people, always wanting to do the right thing. That’s how he ended up losing his life, which was something senseless. There was no beef.”

D-Nice recounts how, at just 25, La Rock lost his life: “I came from a rough neighborhood and there were kids who were jealous. Things were happening for me and they started threatening me with guns. There was no physical fight, he just came over when I called him and said, ‘Hey, these guys pulled guns on me.’ They were just jealous we were doing our thing.  The way Scott wanted to handle it was, ‘Hey, we need to go and talk to them because things are blowing up for us now and we didn’t need that kind of energy. So, let’s find them, talk to them, find out what the issue is and be done with this, so we can always be straight.’ Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way. I didn’t even know them. To this day, they could be walking down the street and I wouldn’t know who they were. But it was Scott’s mission to always find peace in any situation. And those are the lessons I’ve learned along the way, in my own life, is to be that Scott La Rock for someone else, that’s the way he was for me.”

The year after “Self Destruction” went No. 1 on Hot Rap Singles, D-Nice topped the chart again, this time on his own, with “Call Me D-Nice,” the title track from his debut album, released on Jive Records in 1990.

Boogie Down Productions
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

KRS-One, Ms Meoldie and D-Nice pose of Boogie Down Productions posed in New York’s Times Square circa 1988

Only a few years later, without another hit, D-Nice made another pivot perhaps even more radical than landing in the center of NYC’s burgeoning hip-hop scene.

“When I was no longer making hits, didn’t feel loved and wasn’t making any money, I left the business,” D-Nice explains. “I returned years later in the form of another type of creative. Instead of making music, I was now building websites. I was the dude who didn’t want to just have a device I wanted to know how it worked. I got a Mac Performa 6400 for Christmas from my cousin. Instead of using it, I took the entire computer apart because I wanted to know how it worked. I became fascinated with it. I used this app called ResEdit, because I wanted to understand how the operating system worked. I was doing all types of craziness. I bought some books and started reading about building bulletin boards. I built my own because I wanted to have a place for hip-hop conversations. This was early on.”

After working for other web design companies, D-Nice started his own firm, United Camps. “I started building very small sites,” he says. “I got a call from Blackground Records. They had Aaliyah and Timbaland and asked if  I would build Aaliyah’s website. That was one of the first big websites I did. With United Camps, I built the very first Alicia Keys site. That was an innovative site. It was for The Diary of Alicia Keys, her second album. I thought it would be interesting to build this website using flash where she could send text messages to a server.”

While D-Nice was working on his web development business, he simultaneously indulged his long-held interest in photography, developing a web campaign for clothing brand Down Under Gear. This led to studying photography at New York’s International Center of Photography and shooting campaigns for Reebok and 50 Cent with help from his friend, the late, great Chris Lighty of Violator Management. D-Nice went on to shoot album covers for Carl Thomas, Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli and worked for Tyra Banks, even appearing on “America’s Next Top Model.”

“It’s been this career where the pivot has been real and natural,” D-Nice says. “There’s nothing I’ve done that seems too far-fetched. I didn’t go from rapping to brain surgeon. I went from rapping and music and then more behind the scenes with the web development. It’s still creative. It’s still me being D-Nice and being creative, and the same thing with photography.” His shift to DJing, like so much in his career, came organically after catching two DJs with hefty cred: A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson.

D-Nice Q-Tip
(Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty

People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm: Q-Tip and DJ D-Nice spin at the two year anniversary celebration at New York’s Greenhouse on Nov. 10, 2010

“I didn’t know you could play from your heart that way, that you can truly play soul music in the middle of a party,” D-Nice says. “It was extremely cool to see them do what they love. I remember going home at two o’clock in the morning and calling my buddy Chris Lighty. I said to him, ‘I think I want to DJ. I don’t know if I want to build websites.’ He was like, ‘Are you sure? This is a different business than when you were in it. These people are animals now.’ I was like, ‘There’s something drawing me to the music again, but not as an artist or producer, but as a DJ.’ And he said, ‘You know what? If you do it, I’ll always have your back.’ And that man always had my back.’”

For D-Nice’s first attempt at what became Club Quarantine, there was actually no DJing.

“I was using iTunes,” he says. “I had the microphone of the phone right next to the speaker. I was playing maybe a minute or two and would stop to tell stories about the music. Initially, I was calling it ‘Home School,’ because I just wanted to talk about these records and the feeling I had for these old-school records. Like, the first time I heard Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further” in a club, it was an old-school DJ named Brucie B back in the day. This is like in 1986, and I would go into the DJ booth and watch when he would play songs like that.”

With 35 years in and around the business, D-Nice’s Instagram chat quickly filled with hip-hop OGs. “Bun B from Houston and UGK, Black Thought from the Roots, Big Daddy Kane and Al B. Sure!—he was the first person I went live with. Posdnuos [from De La Soul] was in there. The numbers were consistently at 200. I did it for a couple of hours and then I was done. The next day I went a little longer, for nine hours I played music into the phone. Then people started calling and I was doing these interviews. John Legend had just started doing his sessions at home, so I hit up John to go live with me. When John split the screen with me, I didn’t know it notified all his followers. So my 200 in that virtual club immediately went to 6,000. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to invite more people in here to split the screen.’ But I wasn’t DJing, I was just playing music. When I spoke to my buddy DJ Clark Kent he said, ‘You’re playing music and that’s cool, but you should actually DJ.’”

D-Nice, Chris LIghty, DJ Red Alert
Johnny Nunez/WireImage

D-Nice with the late Chris Lighty of Violator Management and DJ Red Alert during D-Nice’s 35th birthday party on June 15, 2005 at Bed in New York

Upon his advice, D-Nice rushed out to the Guitar Center the next day before it shuttered. “I bought a controller and had speakers and rushed back to the house to set it up,” he says. “I started DJing that day. That was a Friday. Drake was in there, J.Lo popped in. That day, I got up to almost 10,000 people. And then, after it was over, I remember someone saying, ‘Man, D-Nice had everybody in there.’ The next day when I signed onto Instagram, it was immediately 10,000 people within the first five minutes. I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’ And then it started to grow and grow and you could see the excitement. I was reading these comments, I remember Bun B being like, ‘Dude, we’re about to make it to 20,000 people in here. This is crazy. It was 200 of us on Tuesday; now it’s like 20,000 people.’”

To hear D-Nice breathlessly describe Club Quarantine’s wildfire growth is exhilarating. “We reached 30,000 in 10 minutes,” he says, “and it just kept swelling and the party kept going. I remember we reached 40,000, then all of a sudden Michelle Obama pops in. Then Gayle King pops in and we reached 50,000 people. All of a sudden Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker – all the politicians wanted to be seen because there’s real people in there. Then Drake was back in, Oprah pops in, and then when we reached 90,000 people. Mark Zuckerberg and Madonna popped in. Mark was leaving comments and I was like, ‘I just want to get to 100,000. No one’s ever seen that.’ And Mark was leaving messages like, ‘You can do it.’ I’m like, ‘Mark, please tell them not to flag me. We need to get to 100,000 people.’ It was just this excitement.

D-Nice Clark Kent
Johnny Nunez/WireImage

D-Nice and DJ Clark Kent, who encouraged D-Nice to DJ during his Quarantine Sessions, attend The Originals In Concert at Chelsea Music Hall on Febr 21, 2019 in NYC..

“When that number reached 100,000 people, it really represented millions of people. That 100,000 was just about the amount of people on that phone at the time, but if your phone rang or you answered your messages, you left Instagram. No one stays on their phone for nine hours, so it was millions. It’s just beautiful to know that what we started with, just 200 people five days earlier, ended up being something that inspired the world and changed the way people use their devices.”

Throughout the vagaries of D-Nice’s stratospheric career, he consistently kept Scott La Rock’s teachings close, working to help others and, as former First Lady Michelle Obama put it, to “party with purpose.”

“I do things that mean something to me,” he says. “New Yorkers for Children is an organization that provides shelter for foster kids, I was a part of that and did things for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. When this started blowing up for me on Instagram, a lot of people would pin the Cash App and say, ‘Hey, tip the DJ or this performer.’ I didn’t want that. What I wanted people to do was, ‘Hey, I’m having this event to raise money for the Apollo Theater or I have this event where to raise money for HBCs. There are kids that can’t go to school or don’t have money for books. What can we do to help them out? I’m going to be okay. You don’t have to send me anything, but let’s help them out.’ That’s important.”

D-Nice tells the story of launching his second album, To The Rescue, where instead of having a party he went to the Spofford Detention Center, a juvenile detention center in the Bronx, and taught a class. “Fast-forward years later,” he says. “I was gone from the music industry and working as a web developer. I was at Elektra Records waiting to meet with Sylvia Rhone. There was this Black kid sitting next to me. He says, ‘I was one of those kids in Spofford Detention Center. Now I’m here. I produce music now.’ It was truly what they say: If you can just reach one person, you’re successful. And seeing it in the flesh, seeing that one person…”

D-Nice Billboard
Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for CÎROC

Billboard in Newark, NJ of D-Nice celebrating Freedom to Vote sponsored by Ciroc on Oct. 23, 2020.

D-Nice’s credits his success and innovation, in part, to an entrepreneurial spirit. “I never wanted to work for anyone,” he says.  “I never wanted to have a job. I wanted to build a business. That’s the way I’ve always been. Some people don’t think that way. Some people like their nine-to-fives, they love consistency, and they love feeling but I hope this year has taught people that there’s no guarantee of with your job or stability.”

He also cites a family member as an inspiration. “When I couldn’t get a record deal, after having hit records, and was struggling to figure this out, I went to my uncle for advice,” D-Nice recalls. “The advice he gave me, and I was roughly 24 or 25, was invaluable.  He said to me, ‘Make sure you follow your heart with everything you do in life.’  He was talking about himself. He said, ‘Hey, look, I’m in my seventies, and I have regrets. I wanted to play in the Negro League, but my wife was pregnant.’ He had to take care of his family. He never knew what his life would be like had he played in the Negro League, but he had a fantastic life, but he was like, ‘You don’t want to live your life with regrets.’”

For D-Nice, it’s been a hallmark year – 2.5 million Instagram followers can’t be wrong. Plus, awards from everyone from BET, which gave him DJ of the Year at the BET Hip Hop Awards, to LiveXLive, which named him its “MVP of Quarantine” and whose Lockdown Awards, the first of its kind, will be livestreamed on LiveXLive.com on Dec. 11. D-Nice deflects any credit for the accolades, saying, “It’s really about people. It’s not about an award for me. It’s really about trying to help people stay sane.”

And, once we’re on the other side of this pandemic, D-Nice reveals another incredibly titillating prospect to look forward to. “When the world opens up, Club Quarantine is going on the road,” he says. “That is the plan. It must happen, not even just for the music, but people deserve to meet each other. We’ve been partying with each other for nine months and supporting one another for nine months of a freaking pandemic. So, yes, that is the plan. It’s not optional. It’s going to be incredible.”

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