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How Hip-Hop Royalty Found a New Home on Instagram Live

By Jon Caramanica

 
Javier Jaén
 

If March 11 — the date the NBA suspended its season and Tom Hanks announced he’d contracted the coronavirus — was when it became clear that the pandemic would be indiscriminate in demolishing industries and dismantling social norms, it was just over a week later, on March 21, that the new normal began to take shape.

For the fifth night in a row, D-Nice streamed a D.J. set on Instagram Live from his Los Angeles apartment. Things had started small, on a Tuesday, playing songs from his iTunes to a couple of hundred friends. But the United States was changing rapidly. On Thursday, California issued a stay-at-home order. New York followed the next day. That weekend became the first time most of the entertainment industry was sheltering in place, and the scale of what might be lost in the coronavirus crisis was becoming clear.

And there was D-Nice: a genial, charming, nattily dressed onetime rapper who’d become a well-regarded D.J. at celebrity-friendly events. He had a vast Rolodex and a welcoming mien and was spinning unassailable records — classic soul, golden era hip-hop — while keeping a close eye on his comments feed to see who was showing up.

Several celebrities, including Drake, had popped in for a spell Friday night, and D-Nice, 49, began to understand the potential scope of what he was doing. He evangelised for the platform to his friends, “trying to explain to them what IG Live was, that there’s something magical about it,” he said in an interview.

Over several hours that Saturday night, his diligence paid off. The names were gobsmacking — Rihanna, Janet Jackson, Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Joe Biden, Michelle Obama. D-Nice shouted people out smoothly, welcoming them to #ClubQuarantine. Celebrities chatted in the comments, the only way to get noticed. For a stretch, over 100,000 people were watching at once.

Concerts are cancelled. Nightclubs shuttered. Stores closed. People miss restaurants or bookshops or beaches or movie theatres, but what they’re really missing is the chance to gather. Add to that the comfort of memory — few things are more soothing than hearing music that recalls a calmer time — and it’s clear why D-Nice’s party became a safe harbour. Communion plus nostalgia instantly became the building blocks of corona-era sanity.

D-Nice’s Instagram has become a safe space for celebrities to hear classic songs and trade emoji greetings.
D-Nice’s Instagram has become a safe space for celebrities to hear classic songs and trade emoji greetings.

What’s unfolded in the weeks since is a wholesale reshuffling of the nature of celebrity. Without the usual systems of amplification and distribution, the very tools of fame are changing — benevolent magnanimity is out, relatability is in; polish is out, transparency is in.

Unsurprisingly, hip-hop has led the way. Over the past six weeks, no subset of popular culture has evolved more rapidly, or radically. Almost all of these innovations have happened within Instagram, particularly on its Live feature (which activates a livestream with one touch), which in short order has become the definitive medium of quarantine — views on the platform increased 70 percent between February and March, according to Instagram. Every night now offers a panoply of options: Rappers, producers, D.J.s and entrepreneurs have turned that space into a nightclub, a telethon, a variety show, a history lesson, a talent show and much more.

D-Nice’s Saturday night breakthrough was a philosophical advancement in the understanding of how people might gather without leaving home. It was also proof of concept. The following week, two staples of the quarantine era launched: Verzuz, a series in which hip-hop and R&B titans battle hit-for-hit, which was christened with a face-off between its founders, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland; and the rapper-singer Tory Lanez’s Quarantine Radio variety show, a combination of superstar interviews, alcohol-fueled comedy and occasional too-hot-for-Instagram content. Over the following few weeks, these became appointment viewing at a moment when people were truly losing track of time. Soon, significant stand-alone events emerged, too, like Diddy’s Dance-a-Thon fund-raiser.

“Hip-hop as a genre is willing to take risks,” said Fadia Kader, Instagram’s music partnerships manager. “It’s the influencer that influences influencers.”

Social media is as potent an instrument as any keyboard or drum machine, and requires just as much study. There are rules and best practices. And the current circumstances have rewarded — with attention, followers, and perhaps down the line, new revenue streams — those who use it flexibly and fluently.

The new stars of Instagram Live were not, before the pandemic, aficionados of the medium. Previously, Timbaland, 48, had approached Instagram like a consumer, not a creator: “I felt like you have to stay on it, but it wasn’t like a 20- or 25-year-old where you’re just on it constantly,” he said in an interview. The ability to go live, Diddy said, “wasn’t a feature I really used a lot.”

Kader said, “All the OGs were discovering Live in real time.”

One of the people who tuned in to D-Nice that pivotal Saturday was Lanez. A frisky hip-hop figure with a handful of hits, he’d been nudged by his publicist to go check in on the action and announce his presence. “It made me realise people are really home,” he said. “The people who are true entertainers in this time are going to shine.”

A few days later, he put that theory to the test, starting a live feed from his Miami home — playing pop songs, cracking jokes, taking calls from celebrities including Justin Bieber. He called it Quarantine Radio, and in the weeks that followed, it generated the biggest visibility boost of Lanez’s career: He’s gained over three million followers on Instagram since the first episode.

Diddy and Drake hung out during Diddy’s all-day Dance-a-Thon benefit.
Diddy and Drake hung out during Diddy’s all-day Dance-a-Thon benefit.

Lanez, 27, said that the spontaneity of the format forced him out of a bubble he’d created for himself early in his career. “I went through a very rough upbringing, my mom dying when I was 11 years old. ‘You’re not my mom! You can’t tell me what to do!’: That mentality stuck with me,” he said, which led to a confrontational tenor and hard exterior. On Quarantine Radio, all that melted away. He cracked jokes, made nice with his peers, was a bon vivant and a scalawag.

Letting his guard down made him more visible, and relatable, than any music he’d ever released. “I was really bugging,” he said of his old, posture-heavy approach to celebrity. “I’m glad there was this self-reflection time.”

This denaturing of celebrity — the discovery of something long suppressed behind varnish — has been a hallmark of the last few weeks. (As has the opposite: Plenty have revealed themselves to be made wholly of varnish.) It was there in D-Nice’s comments section, where famous people, cut loose from their ordinary obligations, greeted one another with joy and relief. And it’s been there in the ongoing Verzuz series — less battles in the conventional sense than choreographed chest-puffing combined with bows of respect.

“I love to see these greats get their flowers,” Swizz, 41, said. “It’s an educational celebration.” (After a frosty early tussle between The-Dream and Sean Garrett, they decided to focus on battles of mutual appreciation.) This mood of warm nostalgia goes hand in hand with D-Nice’s refrain anytime a treasured famous person appears in his feed: “We love you.”

Verzuz emerged from an old idea Swizz and Timbaland had planned to develop, and possibly tour with, and that they’d already performed a version of once, at Hot 97’s Summer Jam in 2018. Now, it has become perhaps the most powerful quarantine-friendly entertainment franchise going, a yesterday-focused engagement using modern technology to help influence tomorrow’s music-making.

“I get calls from J. Cole, Travis Scott, Kendrick, all of these guys are tuned into Verzuz, they’re learning,” Swizz said. “We’re going to see a surge in music that has these influences.”

A tangential pleasure of the emergence of Verzuz has been how artists who haven’t yet participated have been encouraged to slot themselves among their peers, to earnestly assess their own creative merits and level of celebrity. 2 Chainz ran through some potential opponents and settled on Meek Mill, who respectfully declined the challenge. French Montana went against Lanez in one of the early Verzuz battles, but really raised eyebrows when he was asked in an interview who a better match might be, and he said Kendrick Lamar. The internet, as it is wont, spontaneously burst into flames. Young Thug began taking potshots at him, but French held his ground, tweeting in all caps, “It aint my fault I believe in myself.”

Each battle has had its own tenor. RZA and DJ Premier warmly traded stories about 1990s hip-hop; Teddy Riley and Babyface got off to a technologically inauspicious start, and their battle had to be rescheduled. The resulting affair attracted so many viewers, over 400,000 at once, that Instagram buckled under the weight. In each battle, the celeb commentariat has been vocal and often hilarious, creating a levelling effect between stars and viewers.

The low-tech intimacy of the comments section “took us back to the chat rooms,” said Kader.

Something similar happened during the all-day Dance-a-Thon organised by Diddy, 50, inspired by the Jerry Lewis telethons he watched as a child, and also a childhood health battle. “When I was 8, I was in the hospital for like three months with a super bad case of pneumonia,” he said. “The health care workers became my family.” That memory made him want to prioritise them in his fund-raising efforts — the Dance-a-Thon raised around $4 million for Direct Relief.

The livestream was memorable for several reasons — a bonding session with Drake, a bawdy Lizzo, a reunion for Diddy with his ex, Jennifer Lopez, and her fiancé Alex Rodriguez. But the most striking moment was a conversation with 2 Chainz in which the two men discussed the disproportionate effect the virus was having on the black community. “That’s important for people to see,” Diddy said. “People who have intention and purpose behind their hustle.”

 

 

The Dance-a-Thon took place about one month into social distancing, as Instagram events were beginning to pivot away from improvisation toward more structure and, in some cases, corporate and philanthropic partnership.

From the moment D-Nice’s D.J. nights began to gain traction, brands began offering him sponsorship opportunities, but for the first three weeks, he said, he turned them all down. “It didn’t feel good to me. It would have been their thing — this is my thing,” he explained. Eventually, once he’d established his rhythm and became, in effect, the house D.J. of quarantine, he began working with sponsors, selling Club Quarantine merchandise, and focusing attention on raising money for historically black colleges and universities, or encouraging voter registration.

“I see what my IG Live has become a place for — a place of solace,” he said. “I respect the audience.”

It can also be a place of discovery. Caroline Diaz, vice president of A&R at Interscope, began inviting unsigned performers into her live broadcasts, and organised a talent show for female rappers and singers.

“I was sitting at home like, How am I going to bring my talent and make value of it during these hard times for somebody else?’” she said. Over the past few weeks, she’s hosted informal contests, sending money to winners via Cash App. Hopefuls have received encouragement from well-known rappers like Meek Mill and DaBaby.

Diaz also helped build awareness among hip-hop stars for one of the signature event series of quarantine: the private Demon Time strip clubs, after-hours distractions for the well-connected. Instagram has been playing Whack-a-Mole with these rogue events, underscoring the tensions between how the platform is meant to be used, how it would prefer not to be used and how it is not able to be used. At times in the last few weeks, those lines have been blurry.

Typically Instagram Live streams last an hour, and then have to be restarted, which is an inconvenience for D.J.s. (The Verzuz battles seem to have avoided this fate.) “IG Live wasn’t built for what we’re using it for,” D-Nice said.

Tory Lanez’s Quarantine Radio variety show has greatly amplified his social presence.
Tory Lanez’s Quarantine Radio variety show has greatly amplified his social presence.

Instagram Live is also an area of murky performance rights and song clearances. (None of those involved with the major events of the last few weeks noted any issues with copyright, but other D.J.s have complained of having their streams muted or interrupted, presumably for infringement.)

And then there has been the burden on Instagram’s technology, which has caused a host of problems. “We are experiencing way more usage than normal,” Kader said. “I tell artists, ‘You don’t come to IG for this high production value experience, you come for the direct connection with your fan base.’”

We are currently in that fuzzy time between fixed normals — what’s happening now is the sprouting of unexpected approaches; what will follow is the streamlining and commodification of these new tendrils of innovation. What shape future iterations of gathering might take is a mystery, and Instagram may or may not be a part of it.

“I always said it would be cool to be in the club but not in the club,” Timbaland said, pointing to virtual reality as a possible next step. There are also alternative gatherings happening right now, at massive scale: On April 23, Travis Scott drew over 12 million people to a concert in the multiplayer video game Fortnite.

Unsurprisingly, other platforms — phone-based and linear alike — are looking for ways to bottle some of this spontaneous energy into a more consistent and reliable package. “Those networks have competition with anyone that has an Instagram account,” Diddy noted. D-Nice hosted a one-off return of the “Club MTV” franchise. Lanez said he’d had preliminary interest from MTV and VH1 about the possibility of his own half-hour show.

Swizz and Timbaland were cagey about whether they would continue to run Verzuz through Instagram. “Instagram is great for the start of something,” Timbaland said. “But eventually you have to step it up — better sound, better visuals.

Swizz agreed production values are paramount: “It’s our job to go with the best technology, period,” he said. “It’s not about us. It’s about artists being comfortable with the quality of how they’re being presented.” (At the end of the Teddy Riley/Babyface battle, Riley took a call from Dr. Dre, who said, “I don’t know if I’m interested in it.”)

But once people are free to leave their houses, and detach from their phones, some of these lessons are likely to carry over, and some careers will undoubtedly be changed.

“I’m much larger now as a D.J. than I’ve ever been as a rap artist,” D-Nice said. But when he returns to the real world, he wants to avoid the sorts of nightclubs he used to D.J. in. In those spaces, “Club owners are in the booth like, ‘You’ve got to make it younger,’” he said. “But playing music from the heart is for me. Now I see me playing family-friendly events all over the world.”

The end of quarantine will mean the end of Quarantine Radio, Lanez said. But what he learned in the last few weeks will survive re-entry to normalcy: “The way I’m going to go forward is making sure this personality never gets hidden or isolated again.”