How DJ D-Nice’s endlessly spinning journey grew to legendary status

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“Ballet this way and D-Nice this way,” announces an usher herding the tuxedos and ball gowns crowding the Kennedy Center’s red carpet.

No shade to the folks heading right, but the place to be on a recent Saturday night was to the left, where DJ D-Nice, the turntablist who’s made a new name for himself in every decade since the 1980s, turned the historic theater into a swag-surfing dance party accompanied by a twerking orchestra.

“My name is D-Nice,” rapped the 52-year-old as he strutted onto the stage of the Opera House (the first hip-hop artist to do so) as the sold-out crowd got up from their velvet seats and rarely sat down again. This is “Club Quarantine Live” — part karaoke night and part comeback.

To understand how far Derrick “DJ D-Nice” Jones has come since 2020 (or 1990 or 2000), just scroll through his call log two weeks before the most infamous Academy Awards ceremony in recent memory.

“Oscar night 2022 was life-changing for me,” said Jones, 52, whose pandemic-era Instagram dance party, affectionately dubbed Club Quarantine, catapulted the hip-hop pioneer from celebrity DJ to celebrity (no qualifier).

Sure, he’d played at the Obama White House and velvet rope parties across the globe, “but they weren’t coming to see me,” he explained. Then, as covid-19 spread, the world stopped, the music stopped, and Jones managed to do that thing DJs are supposed to be famous for — saving lives, one song at a time.

The first call came from Christine Simmons, then the chief operating officer for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Simmons, the first African American and first woman to hold her title, wanted Jones to play the Governors Ball. “The Oscars after-party? The official? Done deal!” said Jones.

Two days later, Will Packer, the Hollywood heavyweight who was producing the ceremony, called Jones from his car.

“Yo, you’re playing the Oscars,” announced Packer.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I know, I’m playing the Governors Ball.’”

“Governors Ball? No, I want you to play the Oscars. There’s no DJ that matters to the world right now like you,” said Packer. For the first hour of the live telecast, Jones commanded the ones and twos in a bedazzled tuxedo. But his night was far from over.

Jones had also gotten a call from Guy Oseary, the legendary talent manager, who co-hosts an annual VVIP after-set referred to as only “the party” with his client Madonna. Oseary wanted DJ D-Nice to spin for the A-listers at his Beverly Hills mansion, which he assured Jones would fit into his busy schedule because “our party is late.”

With three gigs on his plate, it’s not surprising that he’d get yet another call. This time from Vanity Fair. He was the one who played “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” when Oscar winner Will Smith, hours after the infamous slap, walked into the magazine’s storied after-party with his entourage.

“That was next level,” said Jones of his work that night. “And the thing about it that was so beautiful is I didn’t have to change. I was able to just be myself and play the same exact music that I love.”

Just two years before, Derrick Jones was done with DJing. Well, almost. The Year of Our Lord 2020 was supposed to be the hip-hop head’s last hurrah at the turntables. He’d spent years trying to prove that mix-masters like him — Black, with eclectic tastes that range from hip-hop to rock-and-roll — deserved to be on the same global stages as the one-name EDM DJs. He was getting somewhere (hello, White House) but not where he wanted to be.

“I felt exhausted,” said Jones. Approaching 50, with 30 years in the game under his belt (having started as a member of the legendary hip-hop group, Boogie Down Productions in 1986), he was ready for a shift. So Jones moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at producing television and film projects. Then the pandemic hit, and another “life-changing moment happened.”

At first on Instagram Live, he wasn’t even DJing in the traditional sense. He was just telling stories — the man has been a rapper, a producer, and photographer — and playing records in between. Then a thousand folks showed up, then 10,000, then 100,000. When the world opened up again, Jones brought the vibe offline. His first Club Quarantine Live was the Hollywood Bowl in August 2021. The event sold out in less than two weeks, which was a relief to Jones, who’d been worried that his moment had passed.

During the height of his online party, Jones was scrolling through the comments, mostly virtual high-fives from his famous pals, when one comment almost stopped the music.

“There was one person that was like, ‘Yo, you think you’re hot now, but when the world opens up, no one is going to care about you,’” he recalled, word for word. That affected him. Sent him back to a moment in 1994 on the streets of New York when a fan didn’t recognize him because his fade wasn’t sharp enough. And again in 2000 when he couldn’t get into Manhattan clubs despite the bouncers knowing who he was. Was Club Quarantine just a blip? The question remained. Do I matter?

When the Hollywood Bowl sold out, Jones relaxed. “Wow, this is actually real.”

Back at the Opera House, nothing could be realer than blasting Atlanta rap group Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” with a live orchestra and 2,000 fans throwing bows.

This is what he’d been trying to do before the pandemic, prove that his style and musical tastes translate. It just took the world shrinking for him to blow up. To think, he almost quit the turntables. “Three years later. And what I am now? I’m still a DJ,” he said. But the stages are a lot bigger.

“The venue changes the experience that everyone will have,” said Jones, but not who he is. “Because I play the same music — hip-hop, R&B, funk, rock-and-roll and jazz. But there’s something about when you’ve never had an experience in a certain room that just makes it magical.”

Jones got his first taste of that kind of magic at the White House — and how not to let the weight of a room affect what songs he chooses.

As Barack Obama’s second term was winding down, Jones played one of the president’s farewell parties at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The DJ walked into the East Room and the “energy” of the place had him a bit shook. He took in the portraits of Very Important People on the walls and it almost felt disrespectful to play anything other than Michael Jackson and Madonna. Everyone was dancing, but it wasn’t popping.

It was Naomi Campbell who got him all the way together.

“You’re not being yourself,” said the supermodel, who instructed Jones to play what he’d played the week before, when they were both in Ohio hanging with comedian Dave Chappelle.

“She was right, though” he said. “You shouldn’t allow that room to intimidate you. It shouldn’t change who you are. You’re just in a different building but really, the music shouldn’t change.”

For his next record, Jones took his pal’s advice and proceeded to throw on one of the hardest hip-hop songs in the genre’s arsenal: “Ante Up” by MOP.

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