One Man and a Turntable
Those who know, know this man is a master at his craft. Instrumental in the evolution of hip-hop from the 1980s into the ’90s, he has once again brought his turntable abilities to the table at a time when the world is experiencing one of the worst periods of our lifetime.
He singlehandedly brought everyone across the globe together, making us forget about all the things that keep us apart. He utilized his gifts to make us forget our differences and our challenges and brought the whole world to the dance floor.
Ladies and gentlemen, we present the one and only Derrick Jones, better known as D-NICE.
MONARCH: So tell us what inspired the virtual Club Quarantine. We’re bored, hungry, eating everything. Netflix is getting old. We’re trying to find different apps for different movies and television shows. But let me tell you, Club Quarantine was lit. Tell us what inspired you.
D-NICE: Well, it was inspired by just the fact that I was home alone. I was so used to doing a lot of shows. I would do roughly 200 to 250 performances a year. I pretty much didn’t know what to do with myself. When I was at home, quarantined alone, I just decided to get on and play music and share stories with what I believed was only going to be a little bit over 200 people. By the end of the week, you have millions of people listening to me playing music.
MONARCH: So when you began Club Quarantine, did you even imagine that it would turn into this massive phenomenon? This was addictive by the way.
D-NICE: No. When I first started, initially it was called Home School because what I was doing was playing. I wasn’t even DJing.
I would play original samples from songs that my group from the ’80s did, the stuff that I produced in the ’80s—late ’80s, early ’90s. I was playing the original samples and what became the records that we ended up doing.
When I named it Club Quarantine, which was roughly around three days later, at that point I knew because I felt the energy. I felt the shift like, wow, people are really paying attention, and that’s why I started DJing. I was reading comments from people. It was all of these random people that I didn’t know would just pop in. This was even before the bigger nights, the earlier nights of people popping in.
It was Drake and the Rock and J.Lo. This was before the world knew about CQ. I knew within the first three days that it was something special, and I did everything that I could to protect it, which is why I still go on and why you never see any branding. No disrespect to anyone that chooses to go that route. I just felt like my purpose was a little bit different.
MONARCH: Due to the success, how often are you on the road?
D-NICE: Once the world started opening up, I still wouldn’t do shows, because I wanted my CQ Live to be the very first show that I did. So, occasionally, I would do more charity events for frontline workers.
As far as ticketed events, I wouldn’t do anything until my first performance, which was at the Hollywood Room. We sold 10,000 tickets in an hour and ended up selling out the place in three days. Now I’m probably on the road—I’m still selective with it—but I’m usually out at least two to three days a week.
MONARCH: That’s still a blessing because we’re still in the midst of a pandemic.
D-NICE: Yes, we are definitely still dealing with the pandemic. Everything I do has been safe. I do mainly outdoors. Now that we are into the winter months. I’ve decided to slow it down, just for that reason alone. We’ve been respecting safety first.
MONARCH: I love it. Can you share with us a moment that caused you to pause and say, “Wait. I cannot believe I’m DJing a party at such and such or DJing a party for…?” What moment in your career did you have that epiphany of like, oh my God, I’m stoked?
D-NICE: I still have those moments now, to be honest with you. If you’re asking for a more recent moment, the most recent one would be playing Barak’s 60th birthday party at their home.
Even though I’ve known them for years and I’ve deejayed events for them, it still never gets old knowing that the former President, which is our first Black president, and Black first lady trust me to provide a musical experience for them and their family.
So every time I have a moment like that, I do pause, and I show gratitude to God and the universe and just people for believing in me.
MONARCH: I don’t want to get spiritual or religious, but in any level of religion—or in my case, I am a Christian—we use music as a way to tap into the spirit. I think it’s the same way regardless of what genre of music it is. Music, in general, is spiritual. There is so much power in music. So the fact that someone is trusting you to lead the mood of their event is itself extremely powerful.
D-NICE: It’s totally powerful, and I take it seriously. The fact that people trust me, I feel it is my job to not just stay stagnant with the same songs that you would hear on the radio. Although I love popular music and pop culture, I feel like it’s important to infuse who I am as well as the love of music that I have.
I wasn’t quite sure if the average person—the average music lover, the average partygoer—would even understand my style of deejaying, of mixing Jay Z with Annie Lenox, following with Stevie Wonder, and then somehow making my way into a Cardi B record. I didn’t think they would understand that it may seem random, but it’s all based on the rhythm. It’s based on the way it feels and the way it makes you feel as opposed to when that record was made.
During the darkest time we experienced, where we all quarantined and the world—everything—was dark, people came to me to listen to music the way that I wanted to play it, and it resonated with people. So I feel extremely happy and ecstatic that I was able to do something like that to bring people joy through this experience of music.
MONARCH: It’s not only genius but it really helps us cope with this pandemic. So kudos to you for having that call and listening to that inner calling.
D-NICE:Well, that was the important part too—listening to it. I’m God fearing as well. Not to freak anyone out, but I heard those voices when I was frustrated in the beginning, trying to figure out what my plan was going to be. I just kept hearing, “You should be still. You should be still.” In that moment of clarity, I got up and went into my living room, opened up my laptop, and started playing music.
It was really about listening. It was about listening to that voice and following intuition, being obedient. That’s a major part of why I still go on—because I still feel the need to play music for people. There are still thousands of people. There were 50,000 people listening to me last night. The world is somewhat open, and people can do whatever it is that they want to do or go wherever they want to go, and everyone has an IG life now. But people still find enjoyment in listening to me provide this audio experience.
MONARCH: Amazing. You mentioned your setlist. You said it varied depending on the duration. What I want to know is, how do you develop your setlist for a show?
D-NICE: I don’t have a setlist. I’ve never had a setlist. I play from the heart. There are times when you can look into the crowd, and you know that this is a crowd that’s going to lean in one direction. Some crowds lean more toward that classic experience; you can just tell by the way people are dancing.
Obviously, I would play events for every age, except for young kids; that was never really my thing. When I would play a party for people in their 20s and 30s, I knew that you got to go heavy new and still bring in some Luther Vandross. If you’re in a mainstream American party, don’t be afraid to drop David Bowie. If I was doing something for a lot of older people, as you get older, you love the old school but you don’t want to admit that you’re a little older; you probably don’t want to tell people that you love Cardi B. I somehow mix those older records in and still give them the younger flavor so everyone can just feel good.
Now, with the experience that I’ve had with Club Quarantine and this whole CQ vibe, I realize that music is just music. It doesn’t matter the age. People just want to feel good, and they want to hear records and songs that make them feel inspired, keep them dancing, and make them smile. Somebody could’ve had a terrible day, and that set that you played from your heart just totally changed their mood and changed the way their day was going.
So I take it seriously. I love music. I love people. I like watching people dance. In this case, when it comes to virtual, for someone to sit there and constantly press on hearts as you play a song to show how much they’re in that vibe, I pay attention to all of those. Those are the signs that I see and that I read, and it gives me the energy to keep going.
MONARCH: You are hip-hop royalty, coming out of a crew led by, arguably, one of the best MCs who picked up a microphone, KRS-One. With that said, what’s your take on hip-hop now, in comparison to the ’80s and early ’90s?
D-NICE: Well, I tend to not compare. For me, I like old school, and that’s just because that was my experience. I lived in those moments. I lived during that time. I was part of the people who were creating music then. But sonically, I like what’s going on right now. I know a lot of people complain about some of the music not having any real depth in terms of storytelling or feeling, but for every one of the artists that we have out now, there were similar artists back in the day. For every Public Enemy and KRS-One, you had 2 Live Crew, you had NWA.
You had people who were making fun records. You had Dana Dane. It’s just about what you seek. There are a lot of artists out now that are making some incredible music that may not get a lot of light, because no one is playing them in the clubs. That’s just not the lane that they’re in.
I love popular music. I love what’s going on today. Also, from a business perspective, to be quite honest with you, a lot of people from our generation weren’t in a position to own masters, to own their label, to own the studio. Now, because of digital and social media, artists are able to record music, put it out, and promote it themselves. You can find your audience, and your audience can find you. You can own your work. I think the younger generation is brilliant for understanding the importance of ownership.
MONARCH: I think artists nowadays are realizing their value and worth. They’re like, wait, I want to be able to own my craft, own my ideas, and own my music. Owning masters is extremely important.
D-NICE: I agree with you. It’s an important thing. I only talk about things from my personal experience. I ty not to involve other people. So from my personal experience, coming into the music industry in 1986, we had hit records with the group, and then I went solo. I had two solo albums and had hits; Self Destruction sold a million records.
I lost everything a few years after making records because the budgets weren’t the same. The shows weren’t the same. I didn’t realize all these people that you have to pay in order to make it work, in order for that machine to keep rolling. So I walked away with pretty much not owning anything from my days as an artist.
I also believe in living in the moment. I don’t live in the past, so I have no regrets.
When you fast forward now to what happened in my career within the last 17 years of deejaying and constantly building, I’ve had amazing success prior to Club Quarantine. All of the things that I went through during my decades in the music industry kind of prepared me for this experience of not allowing it to go to your head. That’s a major thing. Don’t get caught up with the fame of it.
When the world stopped, I was probably the only DJ that everyone talked about, but I never let it go to my head. I felt like my mission was to provide music for people that really needed it—and not just music but to provide a community, because that’s what it became. Most people weren’t just there to listen to music. They were also there to read the comments because the comments were hilarious, and people built friendships based on what we were doing for the last 19 months.
That was important to me, but [I needed] the experiences that I had in the past of having fame and losing it, then having success again as a web developer and a photographer, and jumping right into deejaying and giving all of that up because I was following my intuition. It’s important to always share that story.
It’s important to understand the importance of the story to people who look like me, to other black and brown people that may need a little bit of inspiration. That 50-year-old artist who may feel like his career is over and doesn’t know what to do. Once you turn 50, you feel like you age out of whatever that thing is that you’re doing that you love. I feel like I serve as proof that no matter what age you are, if you know what your purpose is and you stick to your purpose, you will find success and that audience will find you.
MONARCH: That entire perspective…I wish many DJs even understood their value or their value to their audience. I love that, and I love that about you.
D-NICE: Thank you.
MONARCH: How has the world of being a DJ evolved from when you began?
D-NICE: It’s been multiple levels of evolution. When I first started as a DJ back in the mid-eighties, I was 15 years old when DJ Scott La Rock of Boogie Down Productions taught me how to play records. After Scott’s transition, I ended up being KRS’s DJ. So I was the DJ for the group. That didn’t necessarily make me a DJ. That meant that I was just playing the songs that we were performing that night.
So it wasn’t about rocking a party or reading an audience. I didn’t have those kinds of musical sensibilities. That skillset wasn’t there at that point. This was just about me playing records that we produced. It wasn’t until I returned to the scene in the early 2000s as a DJ that I had to learn those things. Although I had success as an artist, I had to learn how to DJ for six hours because I didn’t have a name as a DJ. I was gone. I was away from the business, and I’d had no records in over a decade at that point.
Most of the people who were in positions of power in terms of having the ability to hire DJs in the clubs didn’t know who I was. I had to start at the bottom. I started literally throwing my own party at a famous hotel called the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. There was a club downstairs, a little bar lounge called Serena. They graciously gave me a night. They gave me Wednesdays, but they weren’t paying me. They were literally giving me drink tickets and tendering tickets on top of that. They gave me a budget of $150 if I wanted to hire another DJ to come on board.
At the time, I was building websites that were costing $200k to $300k, and those were from my site. So although I wasn’t struggling for anything, it was still crazy for someone who had the kind of history in hip-hop that I did to accept an offer of $150 and a couple of drink tickets to be able to play music. That’s how passionate I felt about it.
So you look at going from there, which was the early 2000s, to figuring out my lane, leaving my web developing business, and just focusing on deejaying because it was something I felt like I was being drawn to. By the time 2005 hit, I was playing movie premieres.
By 2007 I was playing the Super Bowl in Detroit with Sports Illustrated. Then I ended up doing those events for seven years in a row between Sports Illustrated and ESPN and became well known in the private event space.
I still felt like I wasn’t being treated the way non-African Americans or EDM DJs were being treated. At that time, there was an explosion of open-format DJs and DJs playing EDM and these big dance parties, but I was just in the background. Not to knock the events that I was doing. I was playing private events, and they were all big.
Fast forward to 2013. I played the Inaugural Ball for President Obama. The Inaugural Ball. Not a side party but the Inaugural Ball. Obviously, people that were fans of mine back in the day as a recording artist didn’t know anything about all of this.
Fast forward to 2020 when the world stopped, and I felt like this party was becoming something. Because of all of that history and all of those moments of being in service to people, it was me calling people and asking them to come in and inspire. It was me calling Michelle Obama’s assistant. I called this person. I was like, yeah, there’s something magical happening right now. I feel like people need to be inspired, and this may be the way to do it.
For people to come—all of those people I had worked with for three decades, for all of them to come at the same time to do something with me—was beautiful. That’s another evolution of deejaying. Now, when you fast forward to when the world opens up, I’m doing these shows, and my shows are the same type of show that I had imagined, that I had seen other big EDM DJs doing. I have the CO2 and the fireworks and the stage now.
It was hard work. It started with me accepting $150 and a couple of drink tickets to get to this point in this journey. It’s been beautiful.
MONARCH: Definitely a journey or reinventing yourself more than once.
MONARCH: In your twenties, did you think that you would be rocking parties across the globe at this age?
D-NICE: No, because in my twenties, hip-hop was still in its infancy, so you didn’t have the option of playing Vegas. Vegas was the Frank Sinatra vibe. We didn’t know what hip-hop was going to become. I’m 51 years old now, and I’m more popular now than I’ve ever been in my entire career. There’s no way to be able to predict something like this.
MONARCH: I often say music is the echo of the current generation, whatever is going on. Music is going to reflect that, whether it’s social-emotional or socio-economically.
D-NICE: Exactly. Another thing that’s been important about my evolution is the respect of the newer generations. From when I started making music, we’ve had generations now. I’ve been in this music industry game for over 35 years.
I’ve always had a love and respect for just people, no matter how old you are. And coming from the music business, I have a love and respect for anyone that’s doing anything creative, whether it’s visual or audio driven. I have nothing but love, respect, and appreciation. I show that to people. It’s crazy after all of these years of pouring into me.
MONARCH: I love that. So you have a favorite period of music.
D-NICE: My favorite period of music or era would be the ’80s. I love everything about the ’80s. I love ’70s soul and I love ’90s hip-hop, but if I had to choose one era, it would be the ’80s, where people were experimenting with everything in terms of music: Rick James, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Prince…you think about the fact that he was 26 years old when he made Purple Rain. I love everything about the ’80s.
For me as a DJ, when I play those records, for every one of those songs, there’s an individual experience that I have within me while I’m playing those records. No matter what day, what set when I’m playing something from the ’80s, I see it. I feel it. I live it at that moment. It’s just beautiful to be able to hear music that way.
MONARCH: I think the style of music in the ’80s told a story. So, mentally, you can picture it, and if you can mentally picture it, you can physically and emotionally feel it.
MONARCH: I think my favorite period is the ’40s. I’m obsessed with the Harlem Renaissance. That’s my favorite period of music.
D-NICE: That’s your vibe?
MONARCH: I love it. I’m 33, and that’s my era of music—the Harlem Renaissance and, I would say, going into the ’60s.
Because our people were going through so much. We still are, but it was extremely forefront. There was a turn of events in the sixties for African Americans. I do want to ask this: Who are you listening to nowadays? Who are some of your favorite artists now?
D-NICE: I love Anderson Paak. I think he’s awesome. It varies on the day. I can listen to Little Baby; I think Drake is amazing. I can’t relate to all of Cardi’s music. A lot of it isn’t for me, but I can appreciate the rhythm of it. I can appreciate the groove. I love the classic stuff too.
I love Jhene [Aiko]. I can’t even pronounce her last name properly. I love her music. I love Solange.
MONARCH: It’s vibe music.
D-NICE: It’s just vibe stuff. I even love Teyana Taylor. There’s music that she makes where it’s sexy but there’s still some soul to it. That’s usually what’s in my rotation right now.
What am I talking about? I just totally forgot about Whiz Kid, totally forgot about all of that too. I’m listening to Whiz Kid. I listen to a lot of Burna Boy. I’m so used to playing so much R&B that when you asked me the question, I’m just thinking about R&B. There’s a whole vibe going on right now.
MONARCH: The movement that you launched is proof of the cultural impact hip-hop has had on the world. You have everyone tuning in, grooving along with you. Do you have any plans to use your influence politically?
D-NICE: I’ve always been involved in politics. That’s the thing. Deejaying the Inaugural Ball for President Obama didn’t start with me getting an offer to DJ the Inaugural Ball. Most people don’t know I was also a [campaign] surrogate during that second run. I grew up without healthcare. I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have healthcare until I was able to get it in my 20s, and then I lost it because I lost everything.
When they asked me to be involved and what resonated with me—what were some important topics—healthcare was everything to me. I believe everyone should have healthcare. I was a surrogate for Obama, and then I was also a surrogate for the Hillary Clinton campaign—even during the Biden/Harris run. On my IG Live, Michelle Obama and I registered a lot of people to vote. We did these couch parties from my IG Live with her in there and inspiring people to make sure they got out to vote and registered to vote.
For the election in Georgia for the Senate race, that was one of the times when I got on a plane and flew down to it and did three cities with Biden and Harris. I do believe that it’s important to take part not just in the general election but local elections, to be involved.
That’s the thing. What I used my platform for was to raise awareness for multiple things, whether it was voting rights or whatever was going on with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters movement to raising money for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Before COVID, I was always involved in these things. I just felt like having a platform amplifies everything, and you can do more now. That’s always going to be an important thing for me.
MONARCH: I was a national surrogate for Tom Steyer. I totally get the surrogate role. It can also get emotional sometimes too, especially with potential constituents when they resonate with you personally.
D-NICE: It is personal, and it’s emotional. All of this is draining. Even after getting Biden/Harris in office, we still want them to do good work and to be focused. Sometimes you get a little disappointed. You just try to do what you can to make sure that you create this space where everyone’s voice matters. That’s really important to me.
MONARCH: Tell us what is next for D-Nice.
D-NICE: At this point, if no one knows that my social media is—@DNice—after Club Quarantine, we got a problem. My social media handles are @DNice.
What’s next? I got a couple of television projects that I’m working on now, not as a performer but on the production side and the creative side.
We started creating this documentary on how music saved lives during a dark time. We started that project in mid-2021. So I’m excited about that after three successful shows doing CQ Live and seeing if what we were doing in the virtual space would translate live; it was successful and selling out.
We have a 17-city tour I’m doing in the first quarter of 2022. Then the festival happens in August of 2022 in Los Angeles. So I’m excited that we’ll be making those announcements soon.
I’ve been releasing music. My single is out with Kiana Ledé. I’m trying to complete my full-length project and have that out for the second quarter of 2022. Honestly, it’s also about balance. I’m spending more time with my family, spending more time with my kids.
In the last month, I’ve been extremely busy, but I think it’s important for anybody. For a lot of us, the importance of family and the importance of doing things together should have been something that people learned. I know that was a hard lesson for me to learn. I enjoy spending more time with family as well as work. Hopefully that will be it, just doing good things, sharing music, spreading some love, doing my shows, smiling, and vacationing with family.
MONARCH: I want to thank you for taking time out to join to us here at Monarch magazine.
D-NICE: Thank you.