How Hip Hop and Soul Music turned a Pandemic into a Soundtrack

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 told me 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 a few exceptions, my digital Serato playlist is crammed with Hip Hop prior to 1999. I also love vinyl and original analog cassette tapes that take me back to the moment when I first fell in love with the music. Back in the day, some might have called my favorite sub-genre “underground” – before artists like Jay-Z, Nas, and Common became world famous. I centered up on groups like: 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. East Coast microphone masters delivered lyrics of fury over boom bap beats while West Coast rappers told tales of street life over soul samples that felt like the breeze over the Pacific Coast Highway.

Good music won during the pandemic

D-Nice

With everyone stuck at home quarantined waiting for a virus to passover us, DJs and producers provided the soundtrack that kept us uplifted. A Hip Hop producer from the late 1980s and early 90s, D-Nice, used the captive audience to stage a global house party on Instagram called “Club Quarantine” that 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 pay attention to urban music. His joy for the music was infectious (like an antidote to the virus itself) and was just what we needed to raise our spirits. His improvisational creativity and delight at the sounds coming from his own hands made you feel like he was hearing the music for the first time with you. Along the way he told stories and gave shoutouts to friends and celebrities as they entered – punctuating the music with “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 must have overlooked shouting out my name with such a large crowd – come on D!

This global celebration delivered through social media redefined what a gathering could be – maybe what it should be and created the biggest party you were ever invited to in a bold new rhythmic solar system that was all brand new. Even though people couldn’t be “there” in a physical space, we were all “there” – one nation under a groove (or perhaps for those outdoors – one nation under a grove). Even though a deadly pandemic lurked in the air, the music literally took away the pain and made us forget about our problems and just dance.

D-Nice’s “Club Quarantine” Instagram party when he reached 100,000 views, March 2020

D-Nice was a scion of Hip Hop’s golden age of the 1980s and 90s, long before Instagram. 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 these influences for Club Quarantine. He stayed true to his roots by blending classic Hip Hop with Disco, RnB, and Soul to create a refreshing starburst of nostalgia. As I listened, I couldn’t help but think, when was the last time over 100,000 people grooved to Chaka Khan, Naughty by Nature, El Debarge, and Prince all at the same time. The March 2020 event was just the beginning for D-Nice, who has dropped Club Quarantine events seemingly hourly on his Instagram page since then (he’s live on Instagram now as I write this).

Self Destruction album (1989) produced by D-Nice to promote non-violence (collection of the author)

VERZUZ

Likewise VERZUZ, the brainchild of producers, Timbaland and Swizz Beats, offered live Instagram concerts that combined complementary artists in a format that was less of a battle and more of a homage to the other’s catalog and tribute to music itself. Some VERZUZ battles included: 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 last public performances. VERZUZ celebrated not only Hip Hop but Soul music and RnB as well. 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. As the television and internet were filled with daily body counts and escalating positivity rates, the “Aunties” of Soul reminded us that music is supposed to make us “keep smiling” and “keep shining” – just what we needed to hear.

Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, and Patti Labelle perform “That’s What Friends Are For” on VERZUZ Set. 13, 2020
Raekwon x Ghostface of the Wu Tang Clan “VERZUZ” on March 20, 2021

It’s hard to find a lot of good things to say about 2020 but one thing is certain – good music won. We all want to get back to “normal”. Indeed, we need to get back to seeing real people, celebrating special events, and enjoying good music together. As restrictions get lifted and more people unplug from technology however, I hope that the return to uplifting quality music stays. No, I’m not expecting everyone to be like me and still play their cassette tapes like its 1988, but I hope that people will cherish the love, joy, and blessings imparted by music during the pandemic and remember how it sustained them in their hearts for years to come. Let’s also support the artists that spread so much love and gave us so many smiles during the worst of times by supporting them online or when they come through our towns as things open up. After all, one thing’s for sure – that’s what friends are for.

Old school cassette tapes (collection of the author)

Published by Kelwin Harris

Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.

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