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DJ D-Nice gave us a party to remember in the pandemic. But what’s next for live music?

DJ D-Nice is keeping the party going — not despite the pandemic, but because of it.

“I don’t want to think of myself as an essential worker, but I know that there are people out here that truly needed this experience to still feel connected to people,” he told the PBS NewsHour.

Back in March, nationwide shelter-in-place orders took hold in the country and live entertainment came to a halt. D-Nice, who got his start in the seminal hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions in the late 1980s, soon saw his jobs disappear as concert halls, nightclubs and other social gatherings shuttered amid the global emergency.

D-Nice, born Derrick Jones, found himself stuck in an apartment that didn’t feel quite like home. He hadn’t put up any art on the walls, which normally wouldn’t have bothered him because he lives on the road a lot of the time. He wanted to keep himself occupied.

So he turned to Instagram Live, as a virtual way to share his favorite songs and stories from years of making and sharing music.

Soon his DJ sets morphed into a regular digital dance party, known as “Club Quarantine,” that drew the likes of Rihanna, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Drake, not to mention Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who at the time were both seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

His “Club Quarantine” live streams have slowed since the early height of the coronavirus crisis in the spring, but they haven’t completely gone away. Even if you don’t catch a set, you can still hear some of his favorite songs — Boogie Down Productions’ “My Philosophy” appears on a Spotify “Homeschool” playlist of essential tunes that D-Nice has curated.

When D-Nice spins now, he does so to keep the doors open, so to speak, to a place where people can gather safely. He’s seen how his Instagram DJ sets have been a bright spot for many people during the pandemic.

“I really do sign on most times to do it for them, to give them a place, to just have a great conversation, to hear music and to keep their day inspired,” he said of his audience.

But you can also hear him miss the energy of a real crowd.

“There’s nothing like being in front of a live audience. That energy is unmatched,” he said.

Like D-Nice, artists and others in the entertainment industry are contemplating their next steps. How can venues reopen safely? How will anyone make money? The PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown spoke with D-Nice on whether he’d be comfortable with a live show again, if DJ culture is at risk, and what song he turns to during a crisis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your life was one of traveling and working shows — what was your initial reaction when the pandemic came?

My initial reaction was the fact that I spent so much time being on a road, being of service to other people. And I slowly watched all of my gigs kind of fade away. So, my Coachella offers and Miami Music Week, and all of these things were being canceled. And just like any other artist or any other person, I was wondering, “Well, what is life gonna look like after this?” You know, most of us aren’t super wealthy. We earn a living and provide for our families by doing what we love, and when you have no access to shows, it became extremely difficult and stressful, and I was concerned. It was a very scary moment.

And for you, it was even like, “Where do I live? Where do I hole up? Where do I stay?” it sounds like.

Yes. I moved from New York 18 months ago to Los Angeles. And even though I live here, I really didn’t live here. I would pretty much come home, change luggage, back on a road, back on a plane. I did over 400,000 miles last year on one airline. I’m just constantly going. So when we were forced to be quarantined, sitting at home, I looked around this place, I didn’t have any art on the wall. When I moved, I didn’t buy new furniture, I did nothing here other than come and change clothes, so being forced to stay in my own home was kind of depressing.

How did you come up with the “Club Quarantine” idea?

It was a moment of being extremely stressed out, trying to figure out what am I going to do to keep myself occupied. And the funny thing is, I was hanging out with some buddies at a cigar bar, and we’re just talking about how we are going to spend this time. I knew about this feature on Instagram where you could split the screen and converse with people. So I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to interview some of my friends,” you know, like some of my friends in the music industry, but mainly like old school hip-hop guys.

And I sat down and in this moment of, like, calmness and — I don’t want to sound too — I mean, I’m a spiritual person, but there was this feeling of, like, “Maybe I should just be still,” like I heard those words. And I sat down here at home not too far from where I’m sitting now, and opened up my computer, and I just started playing music, I was just playing songs, and I would tell stories about each song. And it was songs that I produced, and some of the songs were songs that inspired me and some of my friends that were in there, which was like legendary rapper Bun B, Black Thought [of The Roots], Al B. Sure!, it was a lot of people that I’d known throughout the years, and I would split the screen with them and I started talking to them about music. And this little party of 200 people started to slowly grow within like five days, which was just insane. And it was just magical.

What does it do for you in terms of reaching an audience? Because it’s a different way of interacting with an audience, right?

Oh, totally. I’ve been in the music industry for 35 years. Initially it was strange. I’m used to interacting with people and feeling energy from people. You can drop a hot record, and you can watch the crowd go crazy. Well, how do you do that online?

I just started reading the comments, and I would pay attention to what people were saying, even if I didn’t respond or interact with them, I would just pay attention to what they were saying and the energy that they were feeling. I just kept seeing hearts flying every time I would play a song, hearts were just flying. And I allowed that to translate into me realizing that even though there’s no audience in front of me, that on the other end of this is someone listening to what I’m playing. And they are interacting.

You were clearly also watching who was watching, and I have seen the reaction when you saw Michelle Obama, Oprah, Drake, you had quite some company there, didn’t you?

I am so used to being of service to other people. I mean, think about it. You know, I DJ’d for the second inaugural ball for [former] President [Barack] Obama. I DJ private events for them as well. I was on the road with [Joe] Biden. You know, I do these events for people all over the world. But it’s their event. This was the first time that someone had to be — you had to want to be there with me. So that’s why I was extremely excited because, you know, a lot of the relationships I’ve kept to myself. I don’t talk about the Obamas. I mean, I didn’t have a relationship with Oprah, but I know Gayle King. I never really talked about that on social media. So to have them all, this one day, just kind of like back-to-back popping into my IG live, that’s an intentional thing, you had to want to be there. It was very exciting. And yes, I was excited to see definitely Michelle Obama, seeing her in IG live, like on her phone listening to me play music and interacting with people. It was beautiful.

When you think about “What now?” or about the future, this isn’t a substitute for a live performance, is it? Do you continue on with “Club Quarantine? Or, what happens?

I don’t think this is a substitute at all because there’s nothing like being in front of a live audience. That energy is unmatched. As much as I love doing this — the virtual events that I have going on — there’s still this level of being in front of people, feeling the low end of music. I can’t imagine me discontinuing any of these performances in the future because I happen to like this, too. I think this is a great addition.

You can’t be everywhere as a performer and to be able to play music for people all over the world, to dig deep into these records that we grew up on and these records that move our souls, these records that when you you start to feel nostalgic when you listen to an old Chic record, or I do this thing where I just play kind of slow song, vibey records — it’s “Club Quarantine After Dark” — so the whole point of it is for you to bring that energy down and just have a glass of wine and relax, and I ended my set playing Dean Martin. You could never play Dean Martin in the middle of Vegas, in like a club, you know. So to be able to curate the playlists of music where there are no boundaries. We’re not confined into like one space or one genre of music or just playing hip hop or just playing R&B or just playing pop, I can play everything. And that’s why I don’t I can’t imagine this whole feeling and this virtual party ever going away. I think it’s just in addition to what I’ve been doing throughout the years.

Can you see a moment when you’ll be comfortable being in a live venue again? What would that be like?

I do see it happening. No time soon. I have no interest in doing that. Obviously, the pandemic is still happening. You know, COVID, there’s no cure for it. So I don’t want to be in a crowded space the way that we used to be. I did one event — it was the first time that I had gotten on a plane and flew to Miami, and it was for first responders. I did a one-hour set in Miami, and it was beautiful. Every one, all of the first responders, were in their cars, with their families.

DJ D-Nice performs at a May drive-in festival hosted by The Roots benefiting first responders and their families in Hallandale, Florida. Photo by John Parra/Getty Images

And we’re working on a tour doing that in different venues around the country. I’m more about doing something like that or performing at a place like the Hollywood Bowl, which I’m totally fascinated with, because they have the space and they have boxes where you can just be with your family or your friends. So I kind of like the idea of something like that. But, nightclubs, I’m not comfortable with that right now.

The first time that you are deejaying, surrounded by people again, have you thought about how you’ll open, how you’ll close your set?

No, no. Because I normally play based on the people that are in front of me, which is actually interesting. I don’t know how I’m going to do that when we’re live because one of the challenges that ended up being something beautiful was: There is no one in here, so I had to strictly play from my heart, and I think I made a larger impact deejaying that way than I did in any other club or any private event by just playing what I feel.

There was one night. It was a great experience for me because I remember, like, “Should I play this record?” But it feels so good to me, and I ended up playing it. And once again, the comments were just flowing, and the hearts were going, and I played in the middle of my set — I played “Mr. Bojangles” by Sammy Davis Jr. — and it just hit people, and I realize the importance of what I’m doing right now. It’s not just about playing what you think will move a crowd or, how we say it in the DJ industry, something that will “rock the party.” It’s about playing from your heart and allowing it to resonate with people. And they will love you long-term for that.

What song have you turned to during this crisis? What’s been important for you?

The song that has kept me motivated during this crisis has been a song called “Thinking of You” by Sister Sledge, produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. There is something about the very first time that I played that record. I was feeling a bit down, and I played it. And Nile’s guitar playing on that song, it just moved me, and then I started listening to Kathy Sledge sing. And then, Kathy happened to pop into my IG, and Nile popped in, and Nile started to tell these stories about Kathy Sledge being 16 years old when she performed that record, and when they were in the studio, and it’s just magical to know like that a 16-year-old can be so brilliant with their talent, and to make a record that could last for decades. And it’s still resonating, and it still feels good.

And the funny thing is, when I turned 50 years old, I think one of our buddies reached out to Donnie [Wahlberg], he reached out to Nile Rodgers, Nile reached out to Kathy, and they re-recorded the song with, like New Kids on the Block, with Naughty by Nature, and Nile playing guitar. Kathy did the intro in the break, Nile started saying “Happy birthday” to me, and that was probably the best birthday gift ever.

I wonder for the whole culture of deejaying, if the venues stay closed for a long time, if people really are afraid to go into them, or performers don’t want to go and perform there, what happens to that whole DJ culture? Is it at risk?

I think right now the entertainment industry is — just my personal opinion on it — it’s a hard time because it’s not just about the DJ, it’s about the bartender, the waitresses, the bar backs, the guy that’s handling the door list, the front-of-house guy. There’s so many jobs at risk by not being able to perform the way that we have been able to in the past. So I think it’s all at risk. I don’t think that the DJ business is at risk. People need entertainment. We love entertainment. We love music. I think just right now, because COVID seems to still be spreading with so many new cases, people are a little reluctant to do shows. I know that there are some places where people have open clubs, and they are risking it, but I don’t personally want to put myself into that because I feel like it’s unnecessary — just for me, I can’t speak for anyone else, I don’t have a desire to be in a club right now.

MORE: A music maker sings the coronavirus blues

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