Like many of his dance music peers used to spending 200-plus days of the year playing to packed, sweaty crowds, DJ-producer Dillon Francis turned to virtual DJ sets to stay productive. and employed, during quarantine.

But even for an artist used to playing multiple festivals a week, the impact on his output outside of DJ gigs began to take its toll. “It took a lot of productivity away from me actually making music,” says Francis, whose latest mixtape, “Magic Is Real,” dropped last year.

So when he was approached by Pernod Ricard’s Malibu Rum to put his own spin on a remix of the viral hit “The Coconut Song (Da Coconut Nut),” the assignment helped re-spark his musical drive. “Something that puts me in a confined area helps my creativity go full-force. I know a lot of people say they hate being confined to create, but I love it because it forces you to think in different ways.”

The result is “The Coconut Nut Malibu Remix,” a 2020 party-anthem take on the classic song which dropped on Tuesday (August 4) to inspire a viral dance routine, dubbed #TheCoconutChallenge.

In addition to Francis, the dance challenge will be supported by more than 30 artists and influencers across seven different countries, including comedian Hannah Stocking, singer and radio presenter Fleur East and creative director Ashley Banjo, who will encourage their followers to join in the challenge by performing the dance moves created by choreographer Matt Steffanina. Francis will also select certain submissions to be part of the song’s official, 100% crowd-sourced music video, due for release September 15.

“The song has been around for a long, long time and has had lots of plays and downloads, so we thought it was a good fit with Malibu Rum and our coconut spirit,” says Troy Gorczyca, Malibu’s brand director. “It’s a great way to bring the brand to life and make the song more contemporary and inspire our target audience to dance and have fun and enjoy the summer fun in a situation that’s a little bit different than normal.”

Indeed, summer 2020 has been anything but normal for the world at large, and particularly the small businesses, bars and restaurants who make up the backbone of Malibu’s distribution. According to MarketWatch, 55% of businesses on Yelp in the U.S. have shut down for good during the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 41% of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. — some 440,000 enterprises — have been shuttered by COVID-19.

That heavy stat inspired Malibu to pledge $150,000 to the National Urban League, and the company will donate an additional $1 per post tagged #TheCoconutChallenge on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for a maximum contribution of $250,000 to Black-owned businesses August 4-24. The delicate balance of community-based philanthropy with summertime fun was an important tone for the brand to strike. “Yes, we’re a brand that’s all about summer, but we wanted or recognize what’s going on around the world and figure out how we can do our best to make the world a bit better,” adds Malibu’s Gorczyca.

For Francis, the “Coconut Nut Remix” has helped spark his biggest creative tear since quarantine, and prompted him to scale back his regular DJ gigs on the virtual dance party circuit to focus on new music and collaborations. Songs for Screens caught up with the musician from his home in L.A. (in between cooking sessions to prepare brussels sprouts and chicken on his air fryer) to learn more about his approach to the remix, a Meghan Trainor collab years in the making, and why you won’t see him play a drive-in show anytime soon.

What made you want to get involved in this new partnership with Malibu and this update of “The Coconut Nut”?

FRANCIS: Malibu hit me up, and they presented a song that’s always been about the fun spirit of summer. And I’ve always been about fun spirit of summer, especially with my music. The fact that they let me have my creative freedom and really pushed for that was amazing. We wanted to make something that was gonna be played at every single pool in the world. Sadly, we’re still in quarantine, so that’s why we got #TheCoconutChallenge. We can still have people dancing by the pool, socially distanced for an important cause, listening to our song and make it the song of the summer.

How familiar were you with the song prior to creating this remix, and what unique elements did you add to put your own spin on it?

I was somewhat familiar with it; I had seen the meme version of it that I think had 170 million views on YouTube when they sent it to me. At first it was like someone saying, “Hey, can you remix Blink 182?” I’m such a fan of Blink 182, it would be hard for me to do that. And then when you see how big a song this is, you just want to make sure you make something on that level just in a different zone. I kept the original intact and just added the quote-unquote summer vibes part. When I was making it I was just imagining people cannonballing into their pool constantly, or being at the beach and just flying into a wave. So it was that and just inspiring people dance to it. That’s why we have the 4/4 part at the end. It’s so much fun — dance music was heading in that direction before all the shutdowns started happening, so I’m glad that we can dance to this part since nobody can dance inside. I’m especially excited that anybody will be able to do it, because I am so bad at dancing. I want people to be like, “I can have my funny spin on it.”

How have you stayed productive during quarantine — are you still doing lots of virtual DJ sets?

I was doing weekly DJ sets for a while, and I was having so much fun and it really was a blast. It helped me find so much newfound love for DJing throughout this whole thing, and discovering new music. It’s been a deep dive into genres that I’ve fallen in love with. The one thing I noticed though was it took a lot of productivity away from me actually making music… so I’ve kind of slowed down on the virtual DJ sets and making a lot more music. I think last week I had my biggest inspiration spurt — I finished around four really fun house songs that I think I’ll hopefully get to the final version of soon. But it’s definitely tough to be making music right now. Inspiration goes in and out.

“Underwater,” your new collaboration with Meghan Trainor, just came out on the deluxe edition of her album “Treat Myself.” Was that a song you finished during quarantine?

 

The story on that is so funny. [About two years ago], I was legitimately sitting on a plane about to go back to L.A., I think, and she was sitting two seats ahead of me with her husband and she turns around and she goes “Dillon Francis!” I’m like “How is Meghan Trainor talking to me right now? How does she even know my name” And my old tour manager had been playing her my music, which I wasn’t even aware of, so there and then I said, “We gotta make a song. I’m gonna send you this thing I’ve been writing, let’s work on it.” So I worked on this track for six months and I sent it back to her and she said, “Awesome, this is great. I gotta write a second verse. I’ll talk to you soon.” And then literally a year later I get a text back from her that says, “Hey, I did the second verse, it’s gonna be on my deluxe album! Are you stoked?” And I’m like, “Hell yeah, it’s been a year later but let’s do this!” The story is just so weird and funny. I didn’t know it was gonna come out but it was really awesome that she wanted it to be a part of it. That happens a lot in pop music, where you gotta wait a long time. But her writing is so incredible, that to be able to do a song like that with her is such an honor.

Even though you’ve scaled back your DJ work, have you had any offers or interest to do any drive-in shows or other COVID-compliant live events?

I don’t want to do it unless everyone is super-safe. I haven’t felt really comfortable with the drive-in shows just because I get really scared of that domino effect that I feel like a lot of young kids don’t think about. I want to help as much as possible to get rid of it so that once it’s done I can go full force back into live shows. I miss live shows so much, but I would not want to jeopardize at all for a live show. I’m just gonna wait until I really know it’s the right time to go.

Is there anything you don’t miss about road life and touring? Any pet peeves you’re glad to be on hold from?

I do not miss the 5 a.m. flight from Vegas to New York, or anywhere on the east coast that has to do with early mornings after playing shows. That’s the worst part of touring, where you say, “Aww man, we can only get that 8 a.m. flight that’s a layover because there’s literally no flights to Boise, Idaho.” I do not miss that. But I will go through that; I don’t even care anymore. I want to go back out and tour so badly I will go through all those early mornings. And once I can tour again, I’m also not gonna ever sleep. I’m gonna be out there, climbing on rocks, hiking, just getting out there in the world. I feel like I took my touring for granted, albeit that I was very tired at certain times. But now I’m gonna be focused on really going and ingesting the city and seeing what it offers. I’m not saying I didn’t do that before, but now I’m gonna do that to its fullest and say, “All right, let’s go.”

 

Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Hampp on Twitter at @ahampp.

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