DJ D-Nice’s Instagram Live virtual dance parties have been the sensation of isolation, drawing upwards of 150,000 viewers — among them, both Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, former first lady Michelle Obama, Drake, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith and even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — and helping relieve anxiety during this time of stress and uncertainty. The Bronx native, whose real name is Derrick Jones, currently lives in Los Angeles and is, like all of the city’s residents, under a “safer at home” mandate calling for a weeks-long quarantine.
So last Friday, he took to the turntables — DJ-ing and mixing for some eight hours straight with barely a bathroom break. Under the banner “Home School at Club Quarantine,” his sets featured an abundant mix of genres — from disco to funk to soul and hip-hop.
Jones got his start at age 15 with rap group Boogie Down Productions alongside KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock. After selling millions of records, putting out two successful solo albums and helping Kid Rock get a deal and working on his first album, Jones decided to leave the music industry in 1993, telling Variety, “I just felt burnt out.”
Fast forward to 2020, and his audience has never been bigger or his presence more impactful. Just yesterday, legendary rapper Scarface, who tested positive for COVID-19, credited D-Nice’s IG Live for “saving” him. Currently counting 1.7 million followers on Instagram, the outpouring of support and feedback has commended the DJ’s cheerful spirit, positivity and talents on the turntables. D-Nice spoke with Variety and revealed the one song he played twice: for Rihanna.
Where did the idea to host a virtual dance party originate and how did you get it going?
I live in L.A. now so when the quarantine happened, I felt stuck. I started going through withdrawals. I miss being in front of a crowd. All my life, whether I was rapping or DJ-ing, there’s always a crowd involved. To be isolated and not have that as an option, it threw me off. I decided to jump on IG Live and create a fun small party. I didn’t have any turntables hooked up, I was pressing buttons on my computer directly into my iPhone. My friends were joining in, we’re all having a great time. It was people in the music industry or in fashion. There were roughly 200 of us, all cool people I’ve known throughout years.
We’re in there pretending we’re in a club. I was playing music and telling stories about certain songs I produced back in the day. Just a fun time. I did it the next day. The third day, I could tell there was something different about it. More people were coming, so I decided to go out and buy new turntables and really DJ, Not just play music, to really get in there and spin records. That particular day — last Friday — Jennifer Lopez happened to stop in, and so did Drake. I couldn’t believe so many people were in this chat room. Michelle Obama to Oprah to Ellen Degeneres, it ended up being amazing. They weren’t just popping in, they’re in there listening to the music and interacting with people in the comment section. Gayle King, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, The Rock, Rihanna came in.
Then as it was building, and we got to 95,000 people, I felt like we’re about to get cut off [after an hour if IG]. All of a sudden, Mark Zuckerberg signed in. We’re all tripping, like. “Wait, Mark Zuckerberg is in here!” I’m begging him, “Mark, please don’t shut it off! We need to reach at least 100K.” As soon as we hit 100K, everyone’s going crazy. Everyone erupted — happy in being a part of something so monumental. The number 100K doesn’t truly reflect the amount of people who actually heard everything, because people were in and out of the chat room. Knowing we did something so iconic is a great feeling.
What was the purpose of it, in your view?
To provide enjoyment for my friends. I figured, I’m sitting here isolated, I knew that feeling wasn’t unique. Other people were in the same predicament. If we can connect in this chat room while I’m playing music, then we’d all have a good time. Pretend that we’re together. Even though we weren’t physically there, we’re connected. We’re still communicating with one another via text. So many people felt that way because it started to take off, and it wasn’t celebrity-driven. … It grew organically. People caught on.
What was the greater cultural significance?
Oh man, this is a weird time. We’re all dealing with the coronavirus. To have a few hours of not worrying about a thing and hearing music, celebrating with each other and allowing that to relieve some stress is important. Music relieves all stress. No matter what type of music you listen to, it literally changes and touches your spirit. I play more of an uplifting set. Disco music always had a feeling of love and celebration so I tend to find records that feel that way. Whether I’m playing Stevie Wonder “All I Do” or First Choice’s old disco record “Doctor Love,” it feels like love. You want to dance, get up and celebrate. For music to have the ability to take the focus off what’s going on in the world, for an hour or two or however long you’re in that chat room, it’s extremely important finding a way to be happy right now.
How are you feeling in isolation and what were you hoping to provide for others?
Sometimes, I forget I’m here alone. Once I have on headphones and I’m playing music, I actually feel connected as well. It hasn’t really bothered me to be honest, I’m much happier now that I’m doing this. I hope other people feel the same way. We’re caught up in this virtual world of hanging out in Club Quarantine — that doesn’t really exist but for some reason, it’s the biggest club in the world right now.
What do you think drew so many there?
The music, it came from an honest place. I didn’t do this to have all the fanfare that’s going on, I did it because we love music. That’s why I ended up doing a playlist on Spotify. Even after I finished DJ-ing, I wanted the music that I played to actually have a home. [Those who] may not have heard a certain song, they could go back and play that song. Now they’re being introduced to new artists.
What’s the significance of having Biden and Sanders in the room?
With the internet chat room, everyone’s on a level playing field. No one’s really a celebrity. Biden came in and lifted people’s spirits. In their mind, they never imagined being in a text or chat room with Joe Biden. It’s important for [Biden and Sanders] to be there because we’re all going through this together. And for Biden or Bernie supporters, everyone felt good seeing them in there. They felt like they could touch them.
How long did you intend on spinning? Was it to break a record?
It wasn’t really about breaking a record. I was so caught up with enjoying the moment and the music. I play what I love, the music happens to feel good to me. Even though I was getting tired by hour seven, I watched Rihanna come in and I was happy to play even more music. Even though I’ve DJ’d for her in the past, the feeling that I had was… imagine this: most of the parties I DJ, I’m going into someone else’s world. I have to cater my set to what they want. In this case, they’re coming into my world. They’re coming to D-Nice’s Instagram Live. I played what I wanted to hear and wanted to expose them to, and they had a great time.
You said several times “we made history,” how do you mean?
There’s never been 100,000 people in one IG Live.
Describe how you felt when it reached 100,000?
Man, I was definitely emotional. To start something out of being lonely and doing it with 200 friends, to build that so quickly — it was less than a week. Five days. To build something that impacted people on such a large scale, that provided them with happiness and joy, to take their minds off what’s going on. Some people may have a hard time paying their bills they’re losing jobs; doctors and nurses on the front line dealing with this — and for one or two hours to allow them to escape that reality? It makes me emotional when I think about it. I had the ability to do that from my kitchen counter.
Of the hundreds of celebrities that popped in, who blew your mind the most?
Well, I’ve met Mrs. Obama before. I’ve met Joe Biden before. I was extremely happy they’re there but the one person who surprised me was The Rock. The Rock being in my IG live leaving comments, like, “Hey D, great job brother,” that meant a lot to me. I’m a big fan.
Did you have any communication with Zuckerberg?
We interacted one time, just one line each. When we’re about to reach that 100K mark, I yelled out “Zuck, yo Mark, please don’t cut us off!” His response was, “You got this.” That’s what made it all exciting; We were all rooting to get to that number.
To confirm, no songs were repeated throughout?
One song was repeated: Burna Boy’s “Ye” record. I played that earlier, then when Rihanna was there. I know that’s one of her favorite songs, so I decided to play it again.
Who are your top artists in rotation?
I play a lot of Stevie Wonder and Prince.
How did you get into DJ-ing?
I love creativity, so I started a creative services agency developing websites for iconic artists like Luther Vandross, Aaliyah and Alicia Keys. I was doing online marketing for Reebok, Violator Records, 50 Cent’s G-Unit sneaker and in 2003, I was invited to a party by a friend, Q Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. He was spinning with Mark Ronson and being there, I fell in love with music again. I fell in love with DJ-ing.
I started from the bottom. I was one of those guys who’d DJ for six hours in New York City clubs. Even though they weren’t paying a lot, it was gratifying to me. I had my first residency at Serena At the iconic Chelsea Hotel. Similar to the story I’m having right now, it started with 10 people, then it grew to a real party. I was able to play the set I play currently: a mix of everything. I went on to do a lot of clubs — residencies in Cane and Canal Room in NYC. One day, Kid Rock asked me to DJ a Sports Illustrated event he was hosting ahead of the Super Bowl. After that, I became more of a private event DJ. I did tons of huge events all the way until I played the inaugural ball for President Obama’s second term. I became one of the DJs the Obamas would frequently use.
Are you planning to keep Club Quarantine going on a regular schedule?
We’re determining that now. I don’t want to burn it out. It’s been such a great party for people to keep their spirits lifted, but I know I can’t physically do that every day. I’m going to see as far as we can take it. When this is over, I want to take it on the road. Allow people to have that experience of Club Quarantine in person.