We’ve seen this movie before, right? It is why art-making, craft and creating is as imperative as any other cultural practices to our communities. These practices remind us of the no-so-distant past, instructs us during present times, and warns us about futures we know and feel are coming, yet have not even imagined. In films like CONTAGION and OUTBREAK, the global pandemics depicted were terrifying in human cost and potential to reshape the way the characters lived. Both of them contain plots that devolved into fear, misery and death until an antiviral cure was discovered by scientists who recognized both the urgency for immediate intervention, and who stepped up to the present challenge despite personal cost.
Reality is often stranger than fiction. The present challenge we face is COVID-19, the novel coronavirus at the heart of our current global pandemic, and our world’s lack of preparation for it. The scientist who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Physics is the South Bronx’s own D-NICE. The immediate intervention was music, more specifically the American art form created by Black people called DJing (in this particular format as a pillar of Hip-Hop), which also finds its origins in the BX and the #DNICEHomeSchool at #ClubQuarantine. We will get back to D-NICE, a real American hero, in a minute. First, let me share a personal story.
Similar to D-NICE (only in order of events, stop playing), I was a MC who became a DJ. I was nice, too, with both. However, that is a whole ‘nother epic tale, and this story revolves around two sisters, Dr. Tiffany Michele Bellamy and Britt Matt. We are from Chicago, (always important to restate, family), and we all attended the same high school, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, and the same college, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and all three of these places prepared us all to be extremely knowledgeable arbiters, critics and creators of culture. I love these two women like they are my blood sisters, and highly respect their opinions and thoughts on music, because we are all professional partiers. Ha! We all went to a high school that is more difficult to get into than Harvard, so we be thinking we the sh*t sometimes, and the college we attended has been ranked by Playboy and other publications as one of the top party schools in the country for decades. We take the science and art of partying serious. Because they love me, too, they actually hired me to DJ parties for each of them, respectively. For Tiff, it was a house party when I began making my evolution from MC to DJ. It was rough in the beginning. Rough! Like many inexperienced DJs, my transitions were not good, my blends were out of sync, and my inability to read the audience had me out there struggling. What I did have, though, was an impeccable knowledge of and taste for music, and Tiff knew that. I played good music at her party, and at the end of the night, the last song I played allowed everyone in the room to have a spiritual experience.
“Now you caught my heart for the evening/ Kissed my cheek/moved in/you confused things/
Should I just sit out or come harder?/ Help me find my way…”
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. “Messing me up/My whole head…” C’mon. Y’all know. I played this and the small, intimate crowd, who was at this point tipsy and coupled up, huddled into this room I was in, and started swaying like the robots were coming in THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS. Before the Tribe song could end, they screamed out to me to play it again, and I instantly obliged. “…Make a militant move/peep my strategy/ End of the day you’re not mad at me…” Two times became three, and again, they sang every word, sweating with big smiles on their faces and arms wrapped around the shoulders and waists of their significant others, side pieces and dips. “…Now why you want to do that love, huh?/ Making things for me towards you harder…” Three times became five, and by the sixth time, I thought I was the best DJ in the world by the gyrating and elation I observed. I ended the party on the seventh time I played the song in a row, and though there were groans and disappointment, they were glowing from the collective experience they shared, and gave me love like I was Kid Capri.
When it was time to DJ Britt’s 10-year high school reunion, I was honored that my sister reached out to me. I knew how important these joints were, as I had just celebrated my 10th reunion, and I knew I would see familiar faces in the crowd. I was also more experienced, skilled and had better equipment, so I felt prepared and excited. It went well, but the crowd hadn’t had that one musical experience that could potentially make it memorable. That is, until I cued up:
“Smokin on…/ HAY…IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BARN!”
By the time “Tore up from the floor up…” came through the speakers, everybody in that room was on the dance floor and jumping like when Jordan came back. If you are from Chicago, you know. If you are not, imagine the energy of Kris Kross’s Jump with House of Pain’s Jump Around, with a slice of Three 6 Mafia’s Tear The Club Up. Beautiful young women in amazing dresses formed a baby mosh pit, while the men in their Sunday’s best on Saturday circled around, throwing fists and elbows. Over one hundred well dressed people yelling “…Inhale/ Exhale the smell/ Smoking hay all by myself…” to the top of their lungs is nothing less than a religious exercise, and Britt, usually the coolest and most laid back person in the world, had transformed too, lit in the middle of the group with the energy of Lil’ Jon (Go to 4:40 in this video to see the Westside Chicago energy I’m talking about).. “…We constantly/ Constantly/ CONSTANTLY smoking B’s…” I witnessed a collective recite every word of a song they loved in unison, and I realized my role was much more than just playing music people wanted to hear. A DJ had the power to bring people together, the ability to produce abundant joy, and the potential to heal.
So, of course, it was Britt who put me on to D-NICE’s “HomeSchool” virtual party at the perfectly named #ClubQuarantine on Instagram Live. On Wednesday, March 18th, while the rest of us were shaking our heads at every lie coming from 45’s mouth, Britt was shaking her ass while live-tweeting the first #ClubQuarantine experience with D-NICE and just 200 other folks. And if Britt was there, her cool ass big sister Tiff had to be there, too, because…we are ‘kickin’ it’ professionals!’ By the time I finally got my life together and joined my sisters at #ClubQuarantine on Friday, I felt stupid. After just 15 minutes on D-NICE’s IG live, I looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘You trippin’! How you miss this for two days?!” Man, look! Friday, March 20th was the most fun I have had at a ‘party’ in a long time, and I didn’t even leave my living room! Some of my homies from high school and college were ‘in the building’ figuratively, and the random celebrities that popped up were chilling in the comments with the rest of us. The crazy thing was, I was like…some of these people don’t even know who D-NICE is or how important he is to our culture. There have only been a few times in my 40 years on this planet when ‘a DJ has saved my life.’ DJ D-NICE did it two days in a row.
D-NICE is, at this moment in history, the biggest DJ on the planet. However, the journey of Derrick Jones, from the youngest member of the world famous Boogie Down Productions (BDP) crew to DJing at President Barack Hussein Obama’s second to last event in the White House, is one of the most fascinating and legendary stories in the artform. Discovered by Scott La Rock (RIP), a founding member of BDP, businessman, DJ and social worker, D-NICE would soon join him and KRS-ONE to form one of the dopest Hip-Hop collectives of the late 80’s and early 90’s. After Scott’s untimely death right in front of his understudy, D-NICE stepped up and became a producer/co-producer on classic records like BDP’s My Philosophy and Stop The Violence Movement’s Self-Destruction. Umm…MY PHILOSOPHY and SELF DESTRUCTION! As an aside, seeing D-NICE as a young kid holding his own with Kool Moe Dee, MC LYTE and Heavy D was affirming and put a battery in my back, and to later discover that he produced this song as an 18-year-old makes his legacy one of the most unexplored in Hip-Hop history. He eventually left BDP after having production credits on By All Means Necessary, Ghetto Music: A Blueprint for Hip-Hop and Edutainment, and made his 1990 debut as a solo artist a.k.a. The TR 808 with the self-produced (!) Call Me D-NICE ( the self-titled lead single has a beat that is still so cold that I will come out of retirement to rap on).
(Fast forwarding and rewinding this narrative like a cassette >>>>) While listening to Combat Jack’s (RIP) amazingly thorough 2014 podcast interview with D-NICE, what resonated with me was that Derrick Jones said he always felt like he could do anything. He has literally been a songwriter, breakdancer, beat boxer, drug dealer, rapper/MC, producer, web designer, coder, programmer, photographer, political surrogate, brand ambassador and more, and now he is the world’s DJ.
When I joined DJ D-NICE’s Instagram live on Friday, March 20th, the first thing I noticed was how laid back and humble he was. He vocally greeted his friends, celebrity or not, with the same energy, he was chilling and enjoying himself, and he made you feel welcome and happy to be there. As a former DJ, I have to tell you that this is not the norm. Some DJs are great hosts and/or MCs of parties, however most are isolated to their booths and standoff-ish at best. Not this DJ. D-NICE was dancing with his signature arm swing and uptown body rock, and his constant yet unannoying reminders that we were here to spread love and not let social isolation defeat us was perfect. The backdrop of his spot in L.A., with its floor to ceiling windows, tons of natural light and a backdrop of the city created an open and inviting environment to watch our brother work. It felt like a digital family reunion, of sorts, in which you ‘saw’ people in the comments section that you hadn’t been in touch with in a while from your childhood, high school, college and adult life. There was a lot of HBCU love (Howard and FAMU was reppin’ hard) and city shout-outs (South Side CHICAGO!), and famous and not-so-famous people getting recognized as they entered #ClubQuarantine. An interesting observation was how the IG live comments section democratized and provided equity to the people ‘in the party’; there was no VIP section in this club, no line to wait in or admission fee, and every person could afford their own version of bottle service. Every one held importance and meaning, and all had equal opportunity to critique and share about their experience in real time. While it was really cool to see Naomi Campbell, Black Thought, Mary J. Blige and Ghostface Killah’s name pop up in the comments and hear D-NICE acknowledge them, it was equally dope to see my people, like @tifmichele, @brittisascorpio, @l_a_capital_q and @satori06 in the party with me, and for us to communicate with and acknowledge each other. This humanized a digital event in ways I am still thinking about, and it has implications for our ever-growing reliance of social media as a communication tool, and as a platform to share formerly in-person cultural experiences. One of the coolest parts of the #ClubQuarantine experience is his hat selection (at least 20) and hat changes during his performance (Spice Adams counted 17-18 one night), which other virtual party people (including me) loved and created drinking games and exuberant comments around. I logged in to #DNICEHomeSchool around 4:15pm CST, and by 4:43pm there were almost 2,600 people who joined. In what felt like one hour but was really 5 HOURS LATER…at 9:35pm, I realized that now almost 5,000 viewers joined the fun (Friday’s #ClubQuarantine would cap out at just above 6,000). D-NICE would play music for eight hours on Friday (for the 3rd day in a row), and in my experience as a DJ with a couple of residencies under my belt, that is a herculean feat. I was still glued to my phone (which was at this point connected to my TV and soundbar via Apple Airplay) , temporarily distracted from the coronavirus ravaging Italy, Iran and New York, rocking with D-NICE, and leaving comments about my Black-owned Uncle Nearest Premium Tennessee Whiskey I was sippin’ underneath my boo Tracee Ellis Ross’ declaration of this spot as the “best party.” D-NICE smiled, gave a shout out to Tracee, took his off shirt and just got more comfortable in his present day purpose.
It also also worth noting that DJ D-NICE’s HomeSchool at #ClubQuarantine was/is a Black cultural space, with a Black DJ playing for primarily Black people communicating with Black words and expressions celebrating, remembering and dancing to Black music. It centered Black music, and D-NICE’s knowledge of and love for the various forms of Black music was a masterclass on Black cultural creativity, ingenuity, talent, production, talent and output spanning decades. From Soul/Disco classics like Philadelphia-born trio First Choices’s 1977 joint, Dr. Love, and the 1970’s collective Donald Byrd founded at Howard University, The Blackbyrds, and their often sampled Rock Creek Park, to Chicago House classics like Marshall Jefferson’s Move Your Body and Follow Me by Aly-Us, we all got to hear the best of our music when we needed it the most.
Saturday, March 21st is the day the legend of D-NICE changed everything. It was a culture shift. No lie. The day was a movie, especially since Ava Duvernay, Netflix and BET were also in attendance. Because of the dope experience I had on Friday, I joined D-NICE on Saturday’s IG live super early! He got in his bag right from the start. D-NICE recognized the value of an interactive space, and did something extremely honorable for every music-related elder statesperson who entered #Club Quarantine. When the legendary Chaka Khan entered the party (D-NICE cued up Chaka Khan’s Clouds and Ain’t Nobody earlier, he shouted her out multiple times, saying “We love you, Chaka” (which also prompted thousands of people to share their love for Chaka in the comments, too) and proceeded to play I Know You, I Love You, I’m Every Woman, and the Rufus and Chaka Khan hit Do You Love What You Feel to the excitement and enjoyment of the crowd gathered to hear D-NICE spin. Super crooner Keith Sweat popped in, and we got Make It Last Forever featuring Jacci McGhee, I Want Her, and 1987’s Don’t Stop Your Love. D-NICE turned up when the icon Janet Jackson showed up, screamed “Janet Jackson is in here!”over and over and played FIVE of her hits in a row including 1986’s What Have You Done For Me Lately and When I Think of You, The Pleasure Principle, Escapade and even Nasty! My lifetime crush and master percussionist Ms. Sheila Cecilia Escovedo made an appearance to D-NICE’s delight and he shared Sheila’s hit from 1984, The Glamorous Life, mixed in Ready For The World’s Oh Sheila for dedication purposes, and cleaned it up with Sheila’s Prince-aided A Love Bizarre. Our own Black rockstar Lenny Kravitz came through and was met with immediate love and adoration by the DJ, who played Fly Away, the slept on (by me) I Belong To You and, at the request of Russell Simmons (D-NICE said he didn’t take requests, but made an exception for Uncle Russ), also gave us the ahem It Ain’t Over ‘Till It’s Over. He did the same dedication for Melba Moore, Stevie Wonder, Nile Rodgers, Teddy Riley, New Edition, Patti LaBelle and Buju Banton once they entered, too. D-NICE gave these historic musicians their proverbial ‘flowers while they can still smell them’; In a music industry that mistreats and steals from Black artists often and throughout this country’s history, it was something you loved to see. The DJ also knows what lack of recognition looks and feels like, so to witness praise and worship from artist to artist was in a word, poetic.
COMEDY: It is difficult to describe just how fun, unique and interactive Saturday’s #ClubQuarantine was without one experiencing it in real time, however D-NICE created space for comedy relief on multiple occasions. Anthony ‘Spice’ Adams, a multi-talented human being, who played defensive tackle for my beloved Chicago Bears from 2007 to 2011, is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated (RQQ to the Bruhz!) and has created one of the most prolific social media platforms for comedy, told jokes in the comments throughout the day and entertained us while he was enjoying the music. Early during the evening on Saturday, D-NICE went live with Spice, who was dancing and flipping in his pajamas to the music while the crowd cheered him on. D-NICE also went live with Tiffany Haddish, one of the hottest comedians and actors in entertainment, who also danced and told jokes in her pajamas and head wrap. It was lit!
POLITICS: A highlight of the night came when one of South Side Chicago’s finest made an appearance at #ClubQuarantine. The First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017 (and 1st Black First Lady ever), Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama slid through the #DNICEHomeSchool and the DJ was shook. D-NICE ceased playing music, in disbelief that the closest person to Black American royalty besides Meghan Markle stopped by to watch and hear him play records, looked in the camera and exclaimed “Michele Obama is here! We love you, First Lady! I can’t believe it…I don’t know what to play!” Gathering himself, he remembered that the author of the best selling memoir of all-time, Mrs. Obama, loved Beyonce, and got back in the game with DJ Khaled’s Shining featuring Beyonce and Jay-Z. Later in the night, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Kamala Harris slid into #Club Quarantine, too. D-NICE couldn’t believe it, and gave them both shout outs while saying “Joe Biden! Bernie Sanders! We are bringing everyone together!” Imagine, for a minute, the political implications and strategy that went into both the Biden and Sanders’ campaign teams deciding to log into D-NICE’s Instagram Live on Saturday and to make comments along with thousands of other captive viewers. We can not take for granted the enormity of this cultural event.
DJ D-NICE’s HomeSchool climaxed as the viewership climbed from 80,000 to 90,000 IG Live viewers. #ClubQuarantine was now viral. Everyone from @oprah, @diddy, @queenlatifah, @naomi, @badgalriri, @willsmith, @jadapinkettsmith, @unclerush, @gayleking, @maryjblige, @common, @questlove, @blackthought, @erykahbadu, @fatjoe, @champagnepapi, @kellyrowland, @jlo, @arod, @willpacker, @ciara, @jermainedupri, @timbaland, @djpremier, @djkhaled, @gabrielleunion, @maristomei, @amyschumer, @jennymccarthy, @donnywahlberg, @kholekardashian and more crowded into D-NICE’s IG Live to witness and experience what we all had been experiencing every day. The defining moment of the weekend happened when #ClubQuarantine reached 100,000 viewers. D-NICE, overcome with emotion and overjoyed at the sheer accomplishment of literally and figuratively bringing the country together at one of the most uncertain times in recent history, pointed at the 100K ticker at the top of the screen, stood in a B-Boy stance, took a deep breath and said “Someone, take a screenshot of this!” The iconic pose cemented the moment in time, and everyone in #ClubQuarantine saluted D-NICE in the comments with #100Ks and expressions of love and respect. He DJed almost 8-9 hours every day for 4-5 days straight from his heart for the people. After 30 years in the music business with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, TR-808 a.k.a. D-NICE a.k.a. DJ D-NICE a.k.a Derrick Jones finally got his flowers while he could smell them, too.
Written with admiration and respect by Jerry L. Hawkins. Jerry, originally from the Southside of Chicago, is an executive director of a racial equity non-profit in Dallas, and is a MC, DJ, historian and dad. Jerry can be reached at email@example.com
Also, check out this Kevin Powell penned poem dedicated to DJ D-NICE here.