With the recent passing of the rapper DMX, I reflected on how the pandemic brought new attention to the importance of music to get people through tough times. I recently spoke with El Da Sensei of the 90s Hip Hop group, Artifacts. I asked him what he thinks about the state of Hip Hop today. He responded simply, “I don’t”. Well said, but I should expect nothing less from one of Hip Hop’s finest golden-era lyricists. He went on to say how most Hip Hop music nowadays sounds the same and lamented the lack of originality. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Hip Hop. With few exceptions, my digital Serato crates are crammed with Hip Hop music prior to 1999. I also love original records, cds and cassettes that take me back to the moment I first fell in love with the music. In the 90s, some might have called my favorite sub-genre “underground”. I centered up on groups like: Nas, The Artifacts, Black Moon, Jeru Da Damaja, The Pharcyde, and The Boogiemonsters. For me on the South Side of Chicago, Hip Hop was my window to the world – a Black urban CNN in my headphones. The variety of styles from West Coast street life storytellers rapping over long samples that sounded like the instrumental versions of funk grooves and felt like the breeze along the Pacific Coast Highway; to East Coast microphone masters spitting lyrics of fury over boom bap beats from Queensbridge to Long Island and everywhere in between. The music was fresh – the music was original – the music felt good.
With everyone stuck at home during the pandemic and so much of today’s music sounding the same, DJs and old-school Hip Hop artists provided the soundtrack for the pandemic. With everyone stuck at home, a lesser known Hip Hop producer from the late 80s into the 90s, D-Nice, used the captive global audience to stage a house party for the world on Instagram called “Club Quarantine“. This virtual party attracted over 100,000 people, including Michelle Obama, Quincy, Jones and Joe Biden. The brilliance of the event (and the fact that he DJed for more than 9 hours straight) was so remarkable it was reported in news outlets like Forbes which rarely mention urban music. His joy for the music was infectious (like an antidote to the virus) – just what we needed at the right moment. His improvisational creativity and delight at the sounds coming from his own hands made you feel like he was having more fun than anyone and playing each track for the first time. Along the way he told stories and gave shoutouts to friends and celebrities as they entered – punctuating the music with shouts of “Oh, my God, Quincy Jones is in here!”. This blend of elements made you feel like Doug E. Fresh and Michelle Obama were on the virtual dance floor next to you in your kitchen – my only disappointment was that he didn’t get around to giving me a shout during the night – come on D.
D-Nice created the biggest party you were ever invited to. This virtual pajama jam redefined what a party could be – maybe what it should be – by boldly entering a new rhythmic solar system that sent sonic vibrations of love through hearts and homes around the world. Even though people couldn’t be “there” in a physical space, “there” was wherever you were – one nation under a groove (or perhaps for those who were outdoors – one nation under a grove). Even though a deadly pandemic lurked, the music literally took away the pain and made us forget our problems and just dance.
D-Nice was a scion of Hip Hop’s golden era of the 1980s and 90s. A former member of the Boogie Down Productions crew with KRS-ONE, he produced the Hip Hop classic, Self Destruction, a song that brought together about a dozen rappers, including MC Lyte, Public Enemy, and Heavy D. to promote peace and unity. He had a rap career of his own with the album, “Call Me D-Nice” in 1990 and was a part of various other projects. D-Nice pulled from his Hip Hop roots for the playlist for Club Quarantine. Rather than focus on the music of today, D-Nice mainly blended golden-era Hip Hop with Disco, RnB and Soul (elements that were the foundation of Hip Hop) to create a refreshing starburst of sound. As I listened, I wondered when was the last time over 100,000 people grooved to Chaka Khan, Naughty by Nature, El Debarge, and Prince together. The March 2020 event was just the beginning for D-Nice, who has dropped Club Quarantine events seemingly hourly on his Instagram page ever since.
Likewise VERZUZ, the brainchild of producers, Timbaland and Swizz Beats, offered live Instagram concerts that combined similar artists in a format that was less of a battle and more of a homage to the other’s musical catalogs and a tribute to music itself. The program celebrated not only Hip Hop but soul music and paired together artists and groups like, Earth, Wind, and Fire and The Isley Brothers, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, E-40 and Too Short, and my favorite, Raekwon and Ghostface of the Wu Tang Clan. DMX appeared with Snoop Dogg on Verzuz for one of his past public performances. I, like many others around the world, got chills when Patti Labelle and Gladys Knight got together with Dionne Warwick and sang, “That’s What Friends Are For”. At the risk of sounding like an old man, performances like this laid bare that today, the music just doesn’t feel the same. While television and the internet was filled with news of death counts and hospital capacities, The “Aunties” reminded us to “keep smiling, keep shining” – just what the world needed to hear.
It’s hard to find a lot of good things to say about 2020 but one thing’s for sure – good music won during the pandemic. While we were all locked-down, great DJs and producers selected the best of Soul and Hip Hop music and consistently filled our hearts with enough joy to keep us smiling and two-stepping during the biggest health crisis of our generation. We all want to get back to “normal”. Yes, we need to get back to seeing real people and celebrating special events together, but as restrictions get lifted and more people unplug from technology, I hope that the return to quality music stays. I’m not expecting everyone to be like me and still play their old-school cassette tapes like its 1988, but I hope that people will continue to be inspired by the love, the joy, and the good vibrations that we were blessed with during the pandemic. Let’s also not forget to support the artists who gave us so much fun and smiles by supporting them online or when they come through our towns as things open up. For all that they’ve done for us – that’s what friends are for.