Flashback to 1985: Three teenage boys from New York by the names of DJ Scott LaRock, KRS-One, and D-Nice are trying to get their rap group Boogie Down Productions off the ground. Founding member LaRock must have sensed something special in 15-year-old D-Nice (aka Derrick Jones) when he advised him to become adept at not only rapping, but producing, beatboxing, and more, in case anything happened to one of the members. No one could’ve guessed LaRock’s suggestion would be so sadly prescient: La Rock was murdered just two years after Boogie Down Productions formed, in turn giving birth to D-Nice the DJ. Being part of a rap group at such an young age proved the foundations on which D-Nice’s career was built: his love of music and the hunger to be a jack of all trades and a master of all.
Since D-Nice’s BDP days, he’s established himself as a premier DJ, spinning at events including the Inaugural Ball for President Obama’s second term, the Oscars, and the Super Bowl, as well as becoming a sought-after photographer, landing clients like Reebok, serving as a guest photographer on America’s Next Top Model, being a brand ambassador for Leica Camera, and stacking his portfolio with striking shots of famous faces from events he attends (like those in the slideshow above).
D-Nice’s sharp business acumen allows him to cull the bits and pieces of what some may call hobbies and focus them into building his brand. And even though he’s packing an enviable resume now, what he’s done in the past will be like a slow burn compared to the firestorm he has planned: establishing his full-service creative agency, Brand Nice.
He’s tried to build a creative agency before–United Camps, in 2000–but now he’s rebranding and rebuilding it into Brand Nice; early ventures include his first film production credit with Idris Elba attached to the project.
D-Nice recently spoke with Fast Company about navigating a career pivot, why he wants his employees to leave him, and why patience is more than just a virtue.
“By the time my second album [To tha Rescue] came out, I became frustrated with the music industry. You have the CEO telling you what type of music you should make. I was never a hardcore dude, although I was from the Bronx. At the time, rap music started to shift from conscious music into more street. You had B.I.G., Snoop, and these guys coming out. They wanted me to switch my style, which would not have been believable. So I became frustrated and didn’t want to make music anymore. I had to figure out what was next. I tried a series of things: started a record company and after a year that went under, I was back at square one trying to figure out life after the clapping.
“My finances were extremely low–I was living royalty check to royalty check. There was an opportunity to get involved in my buddy’s web development company called Trendsetters. I was always into technology. I understood how to build bulletin boards but I didn’t know how to fully build a website. There wasn’t that much money coming in but it was enough for me to be motivated to feel like I was a part of some sort of system and not standing alone by myself.”
“After two years of working with [Trendsetters], we had internal conflicts and people not understanding what my value was. But at the time I was very confident that I provided enough cachet for that business to get work. I knew that people were coming not because of these amazing programmers–they were coming because they trusted me. We had a big falling out and I ended up leaving the company and starting my own business.
“What I wanted for myself was to be a part of a business that mattered–to have my vision respected. So I started my own creative services company called United Camps in 2000.”
“I picked up a small men’s underwear company called Dug–for ‘down under gear’–as a client, and that was something that was extremely important to my evolution as a photographer. They didn’t have a huge budget and I didn’t like the deliverables, so I told them I would pad the budget with an additional $500 to hire a photographer to shoot images I thought would be great for the website. I then took $400 and bought a camera and hired a model for $100 and we went to Central Park. They ended up using those images on the website, and because I started to love photography even more at that point I decided to work by day with United Camps and at night take classes at the International Center of Photography. I did that for roughly nine months until I felt I was comfortable enough with being able to be creative and shooting my vision. That was so important because it was like my vision of this creative services company was starting to come together between the development of websites and adding photography to it.”
“I had a gig recently and Alicia Keys was there. Swizz [Beatz], her husband, was like, ‘Alicia, you know D, right?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, I know D-Nice.’ I was like, ‘You’re not going to believe this but we actually worked together.’ (D-Nice’s agency, United Camps, built the website for the 2003 album The Diary of Alicia Keys.)
“The Diary of Alicia Keys was a very important project to me and it’s part of why I love technology so much and I feel like sometimes we have to learn to think on a broad level. Websites that were being built at the time were these static websites that didn’t provide enough information for fans. Yes, you update it with a little news and you have your tour dates on there but what’s going to keep people coming back on a daily basis?
“My buddies and I decided that we wanted her website to actually be her diary, and for her to be able to update that anywhere while she was on the road. We bought a server so if she sent an email to this certain address it would then post it on the website. When I told her the story she looked at me and she was like, ‘Yo, that’s Twitter!’ We’ve always had those ideas but we didn’t think to do it on a bigger scale. So this is where my mind-set is: It’s not about solving one particular problem for one person–it’s about how are we going to do something that everyone can use?”
“So many people that I started working with recently are young and fascinated by the fact I’m still around. I’m not trying to have a team of people who are looking at me in awe, but a team of people who know when I say, ‘Listen, this may not work’ they know I’m saying it through experience–it’s not from ego or because I didn’t do it. I’m trying to build a business where I want people to feel like they’re 100% a part of it. I know what it’s like to be on the outside of a business. I don’t want to build a business where I’m the sole owner–I want people to have equity and contribute because you’re contributing to your own future.
“I want people to go off and start their own business. I don’t want them to feel like you’re only helping me build my business. There’s nothing greater than watching someone come into the business and help them develop their own ideas. At the end of the day, why not say Brand Nice could start out as a creative services agency and then we become a holding company where now we’re offering deals to these young entrepreneurs to help them get their vision off the ground and we own part of it? I’m trying to get to that point. It’s no longer about D-Nice the DJ–it’s about me being a brand consultant so, it’s no different that what Steve Stoute (founder and CEO of Translation) is doing.”
“I now have the Rolodex I wish I had when I was doing my first business with United Camps. I had the vision, but I couldn’t call someone and get them on the phone. I always feel like you only get one shot–I got one shot to present something to someone like Idris. If it works, you’ve not earned multiple shots.”
“I vowed I would never rap again, but I do miss it. I’m older–my life is different now than it was when I was rapping. My experiences are different, so what am I going to rap about now? Hip-hop to me was always about being honest. My recordings were different from KRS’s [in BDP]–KRS lived in a shelter. I never lived in a shelter. When I got involved with the group, I was 14 or 15 and the only thing I cared about was girls, so that’s what my music was about! But there are times when I miss music. I received a deal from a major record company that’s not based on D-Nice the rapper–it’s based on a DJ album similar to a album that features a lot of artists. I’m 95% there. The 5% is me trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between who I was then the last time I made a record to who I am now as a DJ–I’m totally different.”