For weeks, the legendary DJ D-Nice's parties, featuring guests like Rihanna, Michelle Obama, and Drake, have been causing FOMO everywhere. But, instead of catching the A-Listers in VIP, they're partying right there with you and about 100,000 other people in the comment section of D-Nice's Instagram Live, stuck in their house because of COVID-19. Hip-hop has always been rooted in the community, and it still is—even during social distancing.
History often repeats itself. In 1973, Clive Campbell, also known as Kool Herc, hosted the block party that never ended. Herc mastered the turntables skillfully, manipulating breakbeats so dancers and rappers could fit in the spaces on the record. Hip-hop was the rose that grew from the concrete of the South Bronx, and as the genre nears its 50-year mark it seems like the effects of COVID-19 are forcing the rap community to adapt yet again. If the gathering at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue was "the first hip-hop party that would change the world," the virtual party held in D-Nice's living room is the next iteration of progression.
"They say August 11, 1973, when Kool Herc threw the very first party, is the birth of hip-hop," said Miami-based DJ A Fly Guy. "The day D-Nice got the hundred thousand attendees [on Instagram Live], that’s also going to be considered history. So many DJs are going live because of the inspiration of what D-Nice did. It’s not even about trying to get a hundred thousand viewers. It’s about being able to inject feel-good energy and positivity during these dark times."
With tours and festivals canceled or postponed to prevent spreading the virus, DJs are also feeling the blowback of losing their gigs. We talked to five DJs about how COVID-19 is affecting them, the movement sparked by D-Nice, and the challenge of continuing to keep people's spirits high—without being around people.
A Fly Guy
Miami-based, DJ and Creator of The Fly Guy Show Podcast
There are a lot of DJs who kind of do this as a side hustle, but it’s tough for me. DJing is my livelihood. There’s a big festival here in Miami called Jazz in the Gardens, and we had The Roots, Mary J. Blige, H.E.R., and so many artists on the bill. This year was the 15th anniversary, but it was going to be my first year playing the opening night. Once they told us it wasn’t happening, I felt crushed—and not just from a monetary standpoint. That would've been a big milestone for my career. I was doing a deal with the City of Miami Beach where I was DJing on the actual sand of Miami Beach for the duration of spring break. I got the first weekend done, but then the quarantine started. Then, Miami Music Week got canceled too, so it was a blow.
Before, for DJs, your repertoire was only as deep as your finances. The more money you had, the more records you could buy and the broader your selection. But now, we all have the same equipment. It’s about how you take that music and how you weave those songs together to tell your story that’s going to separate the good ones from the great DJs from the bad ones.
Philadelphia-based, DJ for Janet Jackson and Common
[D-Nice] brought artists, politicians and the world together in the living room of his house. Not too many people were DJing on Live and getting paid for it, but D-Nice has changed the dynamic of DJing right now. History is being made as we speak. Let’s say your flight got canceled, you could bring your set on Live remotely. You probably won’t get paid the same price for not being there, but it's possible if they really value your work.
Last week I was supposed to be in New York and Los Angeles with Alicia Keys, and that got canceled. I'm supposed to DJ Janet Jackson's Black Diamond tour this summer. They have not announced that it’s canceled yet, but that may get pushed back. The cancellations put a hurting on me now because I have to sit at home. When you’re in this business, it ain’t really no 401K or nothing like that unless you’re making it yourself, so you really have to be out hustling.
I’m just going to keep putting out music. I just dropped a song called "The City" with Common, Bri Steves, and Freeway. I’m just going to try to keep doing these animated videos to keep people entertained.
DJ Diamond Kuts
Philadelphia-based, DJ for Power99
What [D-Nice] is doing is brilliant because it kind of gives the DJs that power back in music. He’s not doing it for any other reason but to make the people that are at home feel good. It makes me think like why didn’t I think of that? [Laughs]
I had events lined up for every weekend—sometimes for three times a week—from April to June. Everything has been canceled. Even if they didn’t cancel it, I probably still wouldn’t do it because my health is more important than anything. We just have to find different ways of income. I do music as well, so those music checks don’t stop. Those things keep me afloat. Then there’s radio, because we are an essential business, so me doing that, I still get compensated. But for DJs who don’t have that luxury, I really feel for them because they can’t work right now.
To me, a great DJ is about making sure that everything is running smoothly. The old argument that people used to have about people not knowing about vinyls. When I started DJing, Serato came a year or so later, so I had a taste of the crates and playing vinyls. It doesn’t matter what you use. It's about what you’re doing with the tools that you have.
DJ Miss Milan
New York-based, Saweetie's official DJ
The coronavirus has done a lot of damage for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and creatives who depend on freelance checks. Me being a DJ in this economy right now… we’re basically facing a recession. This affects our pockets because artists that we’re touring with can’t get booked because concerts, festivals and venues are closing down because of this pandemic. It does hurt us creatively because at the end of the day, we’re not able to express ourselves and truly do what we love to the masses. We kind of have to get in our creative bag and find different ways to reach our supporters.
That was one of the things that I realized would be a challenge— not being able physically see people and feel their energy. I consider myself a Fairy VibeMother, I’m introduced to your spirit before I’m introduced to you.
On a Live, we're not able to see if people are actually dancing but these are the moments that make or break us as a DJ. We feed off the people, but at the same time we feed the people. I went into my live set not comparing myself to others because it can be easy to look at D-Nice's 100,000 views. That’s cool to reach for that, but it’s important to remember your own audience that’s supporting you. I just wanted to enjoy the vibe.
Producer, Travis Scott's official DJ Back in the 70’s, it was literally the DJ who brought the speakers, his equipment, the physical crates, so the DJ was always the epicenter for the whole community to kind of come together. It just kind of translates to D-Nice because he comes from that era and he also was a rapper, so now, he's translating it to a digital platform.
[When it came to curating my set] I just really wanted to play a whole bunch of shit that came out last week. People haven’t had the chance to really enjoy those songs outside yet—especially with Don Toliver. He’s about to have a whole concert run, and the day his album came out was the day everything got shut down.
Ninety-eight percent of my income comes from playing gigs like a lot of other DJs. When I signed my deal with Columbia my main thing was that I wanted to sit down and lock myself in the studio and come up with the exact direction I wanted to make an album. I've never really had that opportunity so now God is really forcing all of us to just sit down and create. It's exactly what I needed when it comes to being a producer and a DJ.
When you get to a certain point as a DJ you don't really get to practice. It's not like you're making mixes daily. A lot of times, you're playing extremely similar sets, night in and night out. Instagram Live allows you to go back to the drawing board and try shit out. It's a lot less pressure and you're doing it for free. The numbers of your viewers directly reflect what you're doing. The first night I was playing a bunch of Cactus Jack shit and then I played some Earth, Wind, & Fire and a bunch of kids left. They came to me to hear new shit. If you play some weak shit, everyone will just leave and you can see it. There’s instant gratification with that. That's kinda fire.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.