This summer, Newsweek published an article with a headline that reads, “Nearly a Fifth of Americans Admit to Not Having a Post-Graduation Plan.” Understandably, most college students don’t know what they want to do with the rest of their lives at the young age of 21 or 22. However, DJ Cassidy is not like most people. From his tender toddler years, the New York native has been infatuated with Hip-Hop. It was just a matter of what he would do with his passion. Fortunately, his loving family fed his passion by recording Hip-Hop centric films on VHS for him to watch over and over and buying him a set of turntables for his 10th birthday.
As time went on, his infatuation became a career by way of DJing. After graduating from high school, he began spinning records at all of New York’s hotspots from uptown to downtown. However, the trajectory of his career didn’t truly change until he met Diddy at Lotus in Manhattan while playing at a GQ party. Impressed by DJ Cassidy’s song selection, the entertainment mogul wrote his number down on a napkin and told him to call him. That encounter and those seven digits provided DJ Cassidy an opportunity to DJ Jennifer Lopez and Chris Judd’s wedding at just 20 years old.
DJ Cassidy didn’t stop with just one celebrity. Over the last two decades, DJ Cassidy has spun records for two U.S. Presidents, Jay-Z, Oprah, Diddy, and many others. As a man of the people, the New York native doesn’t just offer his talents up to the biggest names in entertainment. During the pandemic, DJ Cassidy launched Pass The Mic, a platform that allows fans to sing along with their favorite artists and favorite songs. In just two years, the platform has gone from being an online sensation to a TV show, traveling show, and much more. Ahead of his 10th Pass The Mic special on BET, DJ Cassidy chopped it up with Def Pen Culture Editor Ryan Shepard about his career, love for New York, and passion for Hip-Hop.
Ryan Shepard: Did you think that Pass The Mic would become what it has become or did you believe that it would be something that would exist primarily during pandemic lockdowns?
DJ Cassidy: Neither! I thought I would create one episode and never create anymore. I conceived the idea of Pass The Mic on a Facetime call with my friend and mentor, Verdine White of Earth, Wind, and Fire. It was April 2020 at the start of COVID-19 and I was Facetiming with Verdine late one night. He was sitting on his couch in red, silk pajamas, and by pure coincidence, “That’s The Way Of The World” by Earth, Wind and Fire began playing on my Sonos speakers. As the song began playing very low in the background, Verdine began to casually sing along to his own song.
This is such a chilling song on a regular day. Then, you factor in the world being in flux. Then, you factor in the creator of the song singing along and I get chills down my spine. At that moment, I said, “How fortunate am I to have relationships with so many of my musical heroes? To be able to experience their music in this personal way, it’s special.” As I said that to myself, I began thinking if it would be possible to bring that moment to other people. I immediately began envisioning what is now Pass The Mic. It was like a light bulb went off. I quickly hung up with Verdine and I called my editor, Ian Park. I said, “Ian, I have the most brilliant idea, but you’re going to tell me that it can’t be done. Still, we have to figure it out.”
Forty-eight hours later, we came up with a technology hack that we thought could make this idea possible. We found a way to drop a record so that someone else could hear it on the other end and sing along in real time. Then, of course, we found a way to piece it together in segments, so that it felt like it was continuous. Then, I just never go up from my chair. The result of this was Pass The Mic Vol. 1. I must be honest. Although I did call it volume one, I never really anticipated creating more episodes. Even if I did, I maybe anticipated creating maybe one or two more episodes. I certainly never anticipated Pass The Mic becoming a television series or it being a segment on Joe Biden’s globally televised inauguration. I also never envisioned it becoming the foundation of a Tommy Hilfiger campaign and I certainly never envisioned it becoming the basis of my live concerts.
It’s interesting that you say that. I was watching an interview that you did in 2018 with Hot 97 following the release of your record, “Coolin’ By My Side,” with Justine Skye. As you were talking about the record, you said, “I had a vision of capturing the dance music of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I would get all the legendary musicians from that era to play on these records. I want to unite them with all of the artists I love today.” I’m paraphrasing, but that feels very much like what you are doing with Pass The Mic now. You’re bridging gaps between generations. Growing up, was there an adult, a DJ, a musician, etc. that bridged generational gaps in music for you?
Well, first…thank you for listening to that interview. I love when I speak to people who actually do the research and not obvious research at that. I want to come back to that because what you mentioned alludes to more than just the song I was there to promote.
When I was a kid, I was very close-minded. I asked my parents for two turntables and a mixer for my 10th birthday and when I turned 10, I received the greatest gift of my life and DJ Cassidy was born. I was a Hip-Hop kid, but not one who embraced other forms of music. I only wanted to play Hip-Hop and I only wanted to know about Hip-Hop. Along my journey, I discovered who many believe to be the forefathers of Hip-Hop — Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash. I became fascinated with them and I wanted to learn more about them, so I researched and watched as much footage as I could. As I did that, I realized that they weren’t playing Hip-Hop while creating it because it didn’t exist. They created a new form of music by playing other forms of music and combining them in interesting ways. That concept fascinated me and opened my mind to a whole new world of music. So, you could say that I was, in a very misguided way, close-minded because of Hip-Hop. Then, I was, in a perfect way, open-minded because of Hip-Hop.
To answer your question, it wasn’t necessarily a person in my life who bridged the gap between my generations and those who came before me. It was really those three icons.
“Hip-Hop, thank you for uniting the world through your powerful music and inspiring culture. And thank you for making me…me. Without you, I certainly wouldn’t be who I am today.”
You mentioned the forefathers of Hip-Hop, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash. You also mentioned Diddy, Jay-Z, and others. Not to mention, you grew up in New York. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I read that you left New York for a short period to attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C. With that in mind, I had two questions. What made you leave New York and then come back? Also, how important has it been for you to be in the birthplace of Hip-Hop for your growth as a DJ?
I went to GW for my freshman year of college because my mother was very adamant about me experiencing life outside of New York City. She wanted me to attempt to have a traditional college life on a college campus and meet fellow college students. She just wanted me to leave the nest and use that opportunity to grow from a child to an adult. What we didn’t take into consideration is that my actual career as DJ Cassidy had just begun in high school.
By the time I went to GW, I had started DJing at hotspots around New York City and I was on the brink of developing some kind of notoriety around town. So, I went to GW and found myself almost auditioning to DJ at frat parties. In reality, I was becoming something in New York. I ended up staying at GW from Monday to Friday. Then, I would get on either a Delta Shuttle or an Amtrak to New York and DJ on Friday and Saturday. From there, I would just go back to school on Sunday. As the year progressed, I would book a private event here and there and I ended up leaving during the week as well. Eventually, it became clear that Washington, D.C. was not the place for me to be, so I applied to transfer to NYU. I’m so grateful I got in because I actually don’t know what decision I would have made if I didn’t. But when I got in, I quickly transferred to NYU and the rest is history.
To answer your second question about Hip-Hop in New York, sometimes it’s hard even to understand the influence that New York had on me because it’s been my reality for the entirety of my life. You almost need to step back and ask me like you’re asking me now to begin to analyze it. Would I have been inspired by Hip-Hop to the extent that I was if I had been born in Kansas? Honestly, I don’t know. I grew up in New York City, the birthplace of Hip-Hop and I was inspired by it at an early age. There’s no way of knowing to what extent that would have held if I had been born somewhere else.
With that said, one of my first Hip-Hop memories, oddly enough, is not a distinctly New York memory. My grandmother used to take me to the playground when I was a little kid. When I was maybe three or four years old, I vividly remember being in the stroller as she took me home and put me in her bedroom because I was starting to fall asleep. So, she’d put me in there to sleep it out. One day, I remember waking up and watching a movie on TV that turned out to be Breaking. I don’t know exactly how it played out, but my grandma realized that I was infatuated with this movie and she recorded it. At some point, she realized there was a sequel and she recorded Breaking II. Oddly enough, this West Coast breakdancing cult classic became one of my first, if not the first, memories of Hip-Hop.
Wow! Who would’ve thought? For full transparency, I felt like I had to ask about your time in Washington, D.C. because I went to American University and I’ve been in the city ever since. However, I did want to pivot back to Pass The Mic real quick. We’ve talked about your experience DJing at hotspots, private events, and even the inauguration. Now, you’re taking this special to live festival stages. How are you making that transition with Pass The Mic?
Throughout the last two years, it was always a given that this format was screaming to transition to a live stage at some point. To be honest, I never struggled with finding a way to do that. The vision was always obvious. I first unveiled Pass The Mic live, so to speak, on January 29th in Miami at the culmination of the Pegasus World Cup. The Pegasus World Cup is a horse race similar to the Kentucky Derby. Every year, they have a big concert after the final race. In previous years, Post Malone and Snoop Dogg were headliners, so I knew that I had to go hard or go home.
Before I even thought about surprise guests, I thought about how I could create a visual interpretation of the series that would personify the experience of the television show. So, I designed a Hollywood Squares-inspired set of six LED screens, split into two rows of three. Behind each of the squares, I designed a DJ Cassidy-inspired decor. In other words, behind each of these massive LED screens, there was a paradisal-like wallpaper with palm trees and ostrich feather lamps. Then, we set up cameras behind each of the LED screens, so that an artist could be filmed and projected onto all six screens if they were to stand in front of the decor backdrop. When I dropped one of the artists’ songs, they would appear on all six screens in front of the backdrop, but you wouldn’t know which screen they were standing behind. When I dropped the second song, the screen they were standing behind was lifted and the crowd could see where they were standing. As I dropped the third son, the artist would come down the steps to the main level and perform with me for the rest of the show.
Using that set design, we produced a continuous, two-hour show with DJ sets and live performances from guest artists. I brought out Jadakiss, Lil’ Kim, Mase, and Ja Rule at different points during the two-hour show. Then, I brought out El Debarge for the finale and he performed “Rhythm of the Night” to close the show.
In May, we did it again for the grand opening of the Hard Rock Hotel in Times Square. This time, my guests were Nas, Busta Rhymes, and Fat Joe. My third Pass The Mic live pop-up, as I’ve been referring to them, will take place on October 21 in Austin, Texas at Austin City Limits for the Grand Prix Formula One. I’m bringing Robin Thicke, Wyclef Jean, and Shaggy. That was just announced. All these mini pop-up shows are a foreshadowing of what’s to come and Pass The Mic live is only one of the future chapters of Pass The Mic.
As you take Pass The Mic live on the road, you are also preparing for what will be the 10th and final edition of Pass The Mic on BET. In the description of the special, there is an allusion to the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop that we will celebrate next year. As we’ve discussed, you’ve grown up on Hip-Hop and love this music and culture as much as anyone in the world. If Hip-Hop were a person turning 50 years old next year, what would you write on their birthday card, or what would you say in their birthday toast?
Wow, what an amazing question. What would I tell Hip-Hop? That’s one of the greatest questions that I have ever been asked. I would say, “Hip-Hop, thank you for uniting the world through your powerful music and inspiring culture. And thank you for making me…me. Without you, I certainly wouldn’t be who I am today.