Photo courtesy of D-Nice

Why Hip-Hop Heavyweight D-Nice Is Headlining DC Jazz Fest 2021: "To Me, Jazz Is Infused In All Music"

The DJ and rapper famous for "Call Me D-Nice" is about to headline DC Jazz Fest on September 5, sharing the stage with some of the genre's leading lights. What compels a hip-hop legend to headline the largest jazz festival in our nation's capital?
Sep 3, 2021 - 2:27 pm

Ask almost anybody in the burgeoning crossover jazz sphere about the barriers between jazz and rap, and they'll glow about how they're evaporating before our ears. Kassa Overall once called the two "from the same tree as far as where they come from, which is Black music in America." Jon Batiste recently opined to GRAMMY.com, "I don't even think genre exists." 

While D-Nice doesn't take the unity of the two genres quite that far, he can attest to their connections: He's headlining the biggest jazz festival in our nation's capital on Sunday, September 5.

"Growing up, we used to look for jazz records to sample, and jazz records always had the best grooves to them," the rapper, DJ and producer famous for solo hits like "Call Me D-Nice"—as well as hard-hitting works with KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock as Boogie Down Productions—tells GRAMMY.com. "That's part of the way my set is: I'm blending in a lot of those kinds of records, but I'm also blending in songs that were inspired by jazz as well." 

During his headlining set—where he'll step on the same stage as bandleader Maria Schneider, pianist Orrin Evans, violinist Regina Carter and other cream-of-the-crop musicians—expect exactly what D-Nice promises. There will be hints of straight-ahead bebop—he namedrops Thelonious Monk and Dizzy GIllespie—but also music that bears those artists' inescapable influence.

Read on for an interview with D-Nice about what listeners can expect at his DC Jazz Fest appearance, the intersection of jazz and hip-hop and why he's making the most authentic music of his life right now.

How does it feel to be headlining DC Jazz Fest this weekend? It seems like a distinct honor.

To be honest with you, it's been an overwhelming experience just to play the music that I love and to have people receive it as well as they've been receiving it. Whether it was virtually or looking forward to this Sunday, obviously—D.C. is one of my favorite places to be—but just sharing music the way I was able to throughout the last two years, it's going to be great doing this live.

What's your connection to the jazz lineage? How does this music emotionally speak to you?

To me, jazz is infused in all music. Being a hip-hop artist, growing up, we used to look for jazz records to sample, and jazz records always had the best grooves to them. When you go back and listen to Thelonious Monk, we sampled those records. That's part of the way my set is: I'm blending in a lot of those kinds of records, but I'm also blending in songs that were inspired by jazz as well.

Whether it's A Tribe Called Quest or anything that DJ Premier produced, I'm kind of infusing that with songs that have heavy horns in them that were jazz-influenced, like Stevie Wonder. It should be a very interesting set.

Read More: "Loops Of Funk Over Hardcore Beats": 30 Years Of A Tribe Called Quest's Debut, 'People's Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm'

The longer I work as a music journalist, the more genre distinctions seem blurry or even meaningless. Is there that much of a difference between jazz and hip-hop?

I mean, of course, there's a difference, but it just depends on the artist. I was looking at a video clip of Shock G from Digital Underground and he was breaking down the way certain rappers would rhyme. The way Biggie flowed—I can't remember exactly how he described it—but the way the flow was, it was like someone playing trumpet. 

To me, it was just brilliant, because we've all been inspired by jazz music. Like, Miles DavisBitches BrewHeavy D sampled that. Those records that have that groove to them have always been an important part of hip-hop production. I do understand what you're saying that the lines have been blurred a bit, but the influence is what it is. It starts there.

You mentioned your musical output over the last two years. What has this period been like for you?

Obviously, I've been doing my Club Quarantine [Instagram Live series]. But going back even before [that], I was always traveling the road, DJing and playing big venues, whether I was in Vegas or Atlantic City or Miami. Private events for everyone from former president Barack [Obama] to GRAMMY events. When the world was forced to pause for a minute, we couldn't do any of those things. 

I feel like I found myself musically—being able to play what I wanted to hear and not what I thought people wanted to party to.

Was that a big motivator in the past? Making music that would make a crowd turn up above all?

Oh, yeah. Before, you're kind of promoter-driven. It just depends on the night. At times, I would have to play EDM because it was an EDM night. That high-energy, Vegas-style DJing. Or, if I played private events—whether it was a Spotify or GRAMMY event—I would have to play a lot of new music, [like] Billie Eilish. So, I knew all of those records.

But over the last two years of this quarantine, I was able to just play the music that I loved. There was no audience in front of me, yet there was an audience listening to me. What I loved was what resonated with the world. So even on Sunday coming up in D.C., it's going to be heavy jazz, but I'm tying in songs that feel like when you have Dizzy Gillespie on a Stevie record. That's the jazz influence.

I learned to just play from my heart instead of what people wanted to hear, and it just makes my events that much more exciting.

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