By Joshua McCoy
D-Nice was the sole entertainment on the Emmys main stage, but underneath the signature brim and beaming smile lies a familiar story. Once a broke and irrelevant young artist, his curated DJ sets have become a bright spot in a grim time of isolation and despair. 50 year old Derrick Jones created “Club Quarantine” as a way to share his love of music and the happiness it brings with an Instagram live virtual party full of VIPs and hundreds of thousands of people who just wanted to feel good.
Attendees from Drake and Justin Timberlake to Patti Labelle and Michelle Obama popped in to share their joy with hundreds of thousands of people through music and connection. His personal “Club Quarantine” Renaissance is in the same tradition of Harlem Renaissance artists like Duke Ellington, who were celebrated for using music to bring light to otherwise dark times. Beginning at a young age, the story of Derrick “D-Nice” Jones is a familiar story of Black ingenuity, resilience, and joy.
At 15, Derrick joined Boogie Down Productions and helped produce the landmark record “South Bronx.” He became the outfit’s DJ after the death of Scott LaRock. D-Nice and KRS-One continued to release music, including the seminal “Self-Destruction” posse cut from the Stop the Violence mixtape. As BDP’s success continued, D-Nice left the group to explore his career as a solo artist most noteworthy for the hit song “Call Me D-Nice.”
Within a couple years, D-Nice was forced out of the rap industry because of his nonconformist practices. His refusal to adopt the then-newly popular gangster style lyrics led to an exile from music that ended with him living with his girlfriend in her parents’ house. In less than a decade, he went from a producer and artist with two #1 records and millions of units sold to what he described as “old school at 23.” D-Nice had to find his way outside of the music business.
Jones tapped into his curiosity to teach himself computer programming. He formed a company that helped create two of the most important projects of his career. The first was an innovative website for The Diary of Alicia Keys which allowed fans to leave notes, long before brands created campaigns for user-generated content. The other being a website for an underwear company that became his first professional photography gig, where he consistently delivered noticeably better visual assets.
He described his approach in a Fast Company Q&A: “It’s not about solving one particular problem for one person–it’s about how are we going to do something that everyone can use?” Derrick continued to grow his portfolio and network which eventually brought him back to his first love: music.
After hanging out with hip-hop legend Q-Tip at a private party, D-Nice realized he wanted to return to music as a DJ. Since 2003, he’s been hired by high profile clients at star-studded events, including a party in the White House’s East Room where attendees celebrated former President Barack Obama’s eight years in office by swag surfin’ through the night. Popular festivals and exclusive parties made up many of his bookings until pandemic cancellations halted his momentum.
COVID-19’s impact in early 2020 did not spare Derrick of the isolation and depression that many of us have experienced. Not even a roster of A-List clients could survive a worldwide health crisis, as event-based revenue streams all but evaporated. D-Nice responded to this challenge by inviting about 200 friends to Instagram Live for music and storytime in March 2020. Others found the gathering, and D-Nice decided to make it a show labeled Homeschoolin’: Social Distancing Dance Party. He continued hosting for the next several nights, including some instances where he spun for over 9 hours. The initial #ClubQuarantine drew the likes of Bernie Sanders, Janet Jackson, and Stevie Wonder and a potential Covid couple who met virtually and exchanged information at the party. He knew the importance of his streaming sessions: “I see what my IG Live has become a place for — a place of solace.”
That weekend jumped off a string of record-breaking Instagram lives and glossy media features including GQ, Forbes, Entertainment Tonight, CNN, Maxim, Refinery 29, Black Enterprise, The New York Times, and Essence Magazine. Instagram became the pandemic king’s inadvertent marketing channel that secured partnerships and bookings with Will Smith’s Bel-Air Athletics, the NBA, a nationwide HBCU graduation party, NAACP Voter Mobilization efforts, and a mutlitiude of private affairs.
It’s fitting that the Emmys became a bright spot within D-Nice’s stormy year. In American culture, awards season is when we recognize the “best of.” Jones’ career represents the best of the Black Renaissance spirit and shows us the regenerative power of creativity and generosity. As LinkedIn News Editor in Chief and VP, Daniel Roth, noted: “[Derrick’s] advice for those suffering from unemployment or underemployment was to leverage their own curiosity to learn from those around them and to just try — or re-try — new projects. Even in terrible times, there are ways to build something that makes people happy.”
Joshua E. McCoy is a writer and photographer based in East Point, GA. His work examines structures and status quo aiming to find the seams and bare the threads.