DJ Cassidy: The Man Behind the All-Star ‘Pass the Mic’ Passes On His Love of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s R&B and Early Hip-Hop

New Edition & DJ Cassidy. DJ
Courtesy DJ Cassidy

DJ Cassidy has been your new quarantine best buddy in 2020, if you have any affinity at all for the classic R&B that came between the Motown era and the turn of the century, or for early hip-hip. In only three episodes — the most recent of which aired Tuesday night — his “Pass the Mic” series has become a much-anticipated go-to for fans who love hearing vintage hits enveloped in blink-or-you’ll-miss-it medleys of about a half-hour each in which a shocking lineup of stars proceeds through Cassidy’s Twitch broadcast. (It’s not so surprising if you catch up later, or endlessly review, as the shows live on on YouTube and his social platforms.)

After a hip-hop episode in September that included everyone from LL Cool J to Salt-N-Pepa to Doug E. Fresh to Chuck D., DJ Cassidy returned to R&B this week with an episode devoted to the New Jack Swing era and all the related and unrelated stars who turned the late ’80s and early ’90s into another golden era for the genre. Cassidy talked with Variety about what went into the episode and his vision for the series.

VARIETY: How did the idea for Pass the Mic come about?

DJ CASSIDY: Volume 1 was the great R&B of the ’70s and early ’80s, and this idea came to me in the most natural way. It was in late April when people were still scared to leave their house to take out the trash. I was FaceTiming with my friend and mentor Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire. He and I go to dinner once a month at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. It’s like his spot. He has a table, you know, he knows the menu by heart, waiters know what he wants. I was FaceTiming to check on him, and the Earth Wind and Fire song “That’s the Way of the World” (coincidentally) came on the speakers, and I got a chill, thinking, “How fortunate am I that I know so many of my musical heroes.” I started DJing at age 10, and all I wanted was for my favorite rappers to know my name, so for any of my musical heroes to be my friends is crazy to me. I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if I could figure out a way to get this feeling that I have right now to other people, connecting with their musical heroes in their home in a unique way? I said, I’m going to put on black silk pajamas and sit in front of the fireplace, and I’m going to call all my legendary friends of the ‘70s and ask them to sing along to a song and somehow weave it together. We got all the R&B classics — “To Be Real,” by Cheryl Lynn, and Shalimar’s “Second Time Around,” and Ray Parker Jr., Deniece Williams, Kool and the Gang…. In fact, Ronald “Khalis” Bell, who’s Kool’s brother, the sax player — him playing his solo on “Too Hot” on Volume 1 was the last thing he did before he died a month ago. But no one had any idea what I was doing, then. I called Phillip Bailey and he was like “Cassidy, you know I love you, but I don’t understand what you’re explaining.” I said, “Philip, just trust me, and I will send you your clip to approve, and if you don’t like it I’ll remove it.” He wrote me back five minutes after he got it and said, “You were right. Keep it.” And their co-sign really set it off.

After Volume 2 premiered, which was hip-hop from the ’80s and ’90s, I got an email from Chuck D of Public Enemy — in between him doing CNN panels on the election, he writes me, “You are king, DJ Cassidy.” Run from Run DMC called me that night and said, “Cassidy I’m proud of you.” Richard Weitz of WME, who runs the online RWQuarantunes events, saw it and loved it so much he called me and said, “Could we make this the centerpiece of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s (“The Evening Before”) Emmy party?” But it means as much to me when I go to my email on my website and a man has written me — and I’m not making this up — “My son was murdered last month. And the only 30 minutes I have found to smile was when I discovered this video.”

How did you settle on the era you did for Volume 3?

It was always in the back of my mind once I started this. I haven’t left my house in over four weeks, working on Volume 3. It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever assembled in my DJ career. What I wanted to hone in on for Volume 3 was the R&B of the late ‘80s, early ’90s, particularly 1987 to 1992. R&B music changed in 1987. Many people would credit Teddy Riley with the transformation; certainly he was right at the foundation of it. And hip-hop —its sound, its style, its swag, its flavor, its culture — transformed the way R&B sounded and the way R&B looked. Those songs that resulted became in many respects mega, mega, mega pop hits. As a DJ, Iit’s always been a sure-shot party moment, any time I touch on that era. Whether it’s at Puffy’s birthdays throughout the years, or J.Lo’s birthdays throughout the years, or Jay-Z and Beyonce’s birthdays throughout the years, or the White House parties I did for Obama… one of the last great parties I did (pre-quarantine) was Puffy’s 50th birthday, and I remember my New Jack Swing set — and again, I say the term New Jack Swing loosely; not everything fits perfectly into the phrase — to me, that was the peak of that party, when the dance floor erupted. That’s what brought Beyonce and Jay-Z to the dance floor. That’s what brought Puffy and Usher to the dance floor. People really hold this era — the era of Bobby Brown, “Every Little Step,” New Edition, “If It Isn’t Love” — to heart, and it’s not just people from hip-hop and R&B culture. These were pop smashes.

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DJ Cassidy Courtesy DJ Cassidy

Are you running out of volumes to do now, having covered these three eras and genres that were so crucial to you growing up?

As I produce these episodes —which sounds so professional; it’s just so kind of odd for me to say, because it started so homegrown — but as I’m working on these episodes, I always have in the back of my mind what I want to do next. And I have 20 plotted out in my mind.

We have this photo of you with New Edition that dates back to 2011. Was that the beginning of something that culminated with this Vol. 3 of Pass the Mic, somehow?

At my 30th birthday in 2011, I threw a huge party on the Intrepid in New York, the warship parked in the Henry Hudson River on the West Side Highway. I used to throw these epic birthday parties from age 20 to 30. I also had one at the New York Public Library, but what made these birthdays special from age 20 to 30 is not these lavish places, but who I had perform. There was always a surprise performance. So I had Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh and then Naughty by Nature and then Big Daddy Kane, and then Rakim and then KRS One, and then I had Bell Biv DeVoe and then I had Bobby Brown. And after having Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown, I said, “Well, there’s only two members left of New Edition — the greatest R&B band of the past 30 years.” Of course they were all stars by themselves: Johnny Gill, star. Ralph Tresvant, star. Bell Biv DeVoe, star, Bobby Brown, huge star. I didn’t know Johnny and Ralph at the time. When their band members called them, I remember Michael and Bobby calling me together and telling me, “All right, we’re explaining it to them. Ralph and Johnny were like, ‘DJ Cassidy —who? Like, why are we doing someone’s birthday as the first show in years?”

So I have all the members of New Edition on Pass the Mic 3. It’s hard for me to say this is the most special part for me because I could keep going down the list. But Bell Biv DeVoe does “Poison.” Bobby Brown does “My Prerogative.” Johnny Gill does “Rub You the Right Way.” Ralph Tresvant does “If It Isn’t Love” — all back to back. They always show up for me, and I feel not worthy of how often they come through for me. Everyone has a few bands and a few artists that hold that special place. New Edition is that to me. They’re just the greatest, the coolest. Every song, so feel-good. Every outfit they ever wore, the coolest outfit. And everything they did outside out of the group, equally great. Bobby Brown, “Don’t Be Cruel”: one of the greatest R&B albums ever made. That was the R&B of my childhood. I had dance routines to “Poison” and“My Prerogative.”

Do you go back with Teddy Riley, too?

I had no relationship with Teddy prior to this. We’ve met on occasion; I’m not even sure he knew much about me. He was one of the last people that I got on board for this. And I’d like to say he’s a new friend. … We were on Zoom, talking over each other, like you do on Zoom. He kept starting, I kept starting, he kept starting and I stopped and I go “Teddy, you first.” And he said, “Oh my God, you sounded like Michael (Jackson).” And I was like, tell me more. He said, “Me and Michael would talk over each other and he would go, ‘No, you, Teddy, you first.'” And I’m like, Oh my God, this made my day. And when he was recording his part to “Rump Shaker” — that’s the song he did, which he produced, and he raps on; “Rump Shaker” was kind of one of the few rap records of this era that gets played with all these songs — he was stomping his feet. And I said, “You might hear that on the recording. So try to stomp less.” He goes, “Michael always used to stomp like that. Listen to ‘Remember the Time’; you can hear the foot. Michael used to slam so hard that the music sheets that were on the music stand would go flying.” When Teddy produced most of Michael Jackson’s album “Dangerous,” that was the ultimate: the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, recorded essentially a New Jack Swing album.

Much of the magic of “Pass the Mic” is the behind-the-scenes talking, which no one has seen yet. And I do envision doing an offshoot of Pass the Mic called Behind the Mic. I’ve never told that to anyone, actually, but what the hell. Because I record all these Zooms, and hearing Teddy compare the way I said, “No, you, Teddy” to Michael is interesting and it’s fun. And hearing Teddy talk about me telling him to not slam the floor so hard, and him saying Michael did it is so dope. After Volume 3, do you know how many artists I’ve done this with? It’s a crazy number: 92. I have 92 discussions about R&B and hip-hop music from, say, 1975 to 1992. And I could stay on with these artists for hours. I mean, you have to pull me off them.

How do you sequence something like Volume 3?

The first song on this one was I set it off with Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever.” And Teddy’s “Rump Shaker” is the last song — but then there’s kind of an encore which goes to Boyz II Men “End of the Road,” and it’s the most epic ending. But the bookends are basically Keith and Teddy, and then an encore from Boyz II Men. And Teddy produced “Make It Last Forever,” and Keith was such a pivotal person of this era as well. His first album came out in ’87, and one could say it’s the first New Jack Swing album, or one of the first. So when it works out to tell a bit of a story with bookends, it’s beautiful — and it always ends up working that way, always. So Keith wasn’t first because I wanted Keith first; it was because “Make It Last” sounded like the beginning.

You have a lot of groups on. Does anyone ever say no?

Groups have been very enthusiastic about calling their bandmates. I don’t know if you remember them, but there was a group in the early ‘90s, Portrait, and they had a very big hit song, “Here We Go Again.” There was a show, “Family Matters” — you remember Steve Urkle? I believe it was the prom episode, and Portrait performed on it. I have all these random pop culture memories of all these songs. I was probably in the sixth grade when it came out. And the lead singer at that time, Philip Johnson, no longer performs with the group. I don’t know at what point he left the group or why, but he came back to do this. He hasn’t done shows since the early ‘90s with them.

What are some of the secrets of how you pull this off, technically?

I have no techs at my house and I have no techs at any of the artists’ house. So everyone that I get on with, I have to teach how to do this. That’s one thing I don’t reveal. I have a few tricks of the trade that I’ve developed. Some people are extremely tech-savvy and know their way around a computer and a phone more than I do, and some know nothing. And I knew nothing before this. I had never been on a Zoom. … And you have to teach someone in five minutes, because you don’t want them to think it’s a tech class either. So with the 43 people who were on Volume 3, it’s all me. And it’s not supposed to be about lights. It’s not supposed to be about a computer. It’s not supposed to be about a big file. It’s just supposed to be fun, and quick. And so it’s been a huge technical learning process for me. Everyone thinks, Oh, you’re a DJ. I’m like, I don’t know how to program an alarm clock! But what I did with this hadn’t been done before, technically. There really are no platforms, including Zoom, that can have people from a band or a group sing or play along together in unison in sync. There is no platform where you hit record and that just happens. So you have to figure out how to manipulate existing platforms and programs to how to make something happen that’s not really supposed to happen.

Who was hardest to get?

Philip Bailey was the only person who didn’t want to do it that I called — even though we have a great relationship. In 2013, I was recording my first DJ Cassidy record. I was signed to Columbia Records for my first major record deal. The vision for my record was I was going to produce songs that channeled the sound and spirit of the R&B and dance records of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — what I think the greatest and most universal dance music ever created. So I wanted to recruit the legendary musicians who played on those records and literally went through all the liner notes and made a list of who they were. Of course, Earth Wind and Fire falls in their own category. They weren’t session musicians; they were their own musicians for their own band. So I got a meeting with Verdine White and Philip, and we hit it off and they played and sang backgrounds on my first single, ever. It was “Calling All Hearts,” featuring Robin Thicke and Jesse J. It was the first and I think only song that Earth, Wind and Fire and Nile Rodgers ever played on together. Nile played guitar, Verdine played bass, Philip played percussion and sang backgrounds, and Larry Dunn — also a founding member of Earth Wind, no longer in the group, but still  their friend — also played keyboards. And I went on to have a personal and professional relationship with them. We’ve done shows together. They’ve played on other things of my mine. I’ve played at benefits with them, and they’ve become friends. Philip didn’t quite get the vision at first… but he’s Philip Bailey! He has every right to tell me, “I don’t get it. This is all new to me, Zoom, streaming.” It was all new to all of us.

I can never talk about favorite moments, because all 93 people were special to me. But when you hit play on that Volume 1, and you hear see Philip and (the late) Maurice White (on the original recording) sing that song together… Seeing him sing along with Maurice, singing from the heavens, is chilling. And it’s not only chilling, but fascinating, because you see how intricate the song is. I don’t even want to admit this in a publication, but I didn’t even realize what parts Philip was singing to the extent I did until he did this. It’s so intricate. It’s not like Phillip sings the first four bars and Maurice sings the next four. And of course Verdine, my friend and mentor, is playing bass, and there is no performer where you can see them feeling it on their face like Verdine White. I guess a lot of people say Bruce Springsteen’s face when he sings — i’s less my forte, but I know that people think that about Bruce. But it’s like: Do something in your life that makes you look like Verdine White when he plays bass, and you’ll be a happy person.

You pay tribute to your friend Andre Harrell.

He passed away two days before Cheryl Lynn and I were Zooming. He was a very important person in my life. He was the cousin of my best friend, but a mentor to me. He came to my house often for dinners, and when he (promoted) a mixtape that I had when I was 23 and new to the scene, that was an incredible co-sign. So I said to Cheryl, at the breakdown of “To Be Real,” “I’m going to do this rap that Andre always did in this part.” She said, yeah! And she caught on so fast, and she adlibbed literally like we rehearsed it, and we had n’t. And so that was an important Andre Harrell moment in Volume 1.

Andre Harrell was really the godfather of New Jack Swing. His label Uptown Records  put out Teddy Riley’s group, Guy. He put out Al B. Sure, put out Christopher Williams, put out Father MC, put out Heavy D, put out Jeff Red, put out all these iconic New Jack Swing acts. And even though of course there were acts on other labels, his label was the center of it. Like Barry Gordy and the Motown sound — there were other labels in 1965 to 1970 with that sound, some using the same musicians, some trying to copy and emulate, some doing their own thing in their own way, but the base was Motown. Uptown was the base for everything I described to you. So I felt often in the past six weeks that Andre had his eye on it. Every time an artist who I didn’t have a relationship with at all, or not a strong relationship with, said, “Yeah, I’d love to do this. I saw the first two,” I thought it was Andre who was making that happen. And I mean that less spiritually than you might think. I mean it in a sense that my association with Andre might have influenced people to want to be involved. That’s the kind of stamp Andre gave you, so whether he was looking down pulling strings or not, it was his actual physical, concrete stamp of approval throughout the years that many of these artists were probably familiar with.

And although every artist on Volume 3 was not signed to Uptown, in many senses, many of them were descendants of what Andre did. And there was a moment: Christopher Williams was an Uptown artist and he’s on Volume 3, and he has a song “Don’t Wake Me, I’m Dreaming.” And there’s a moment where a rapper that was signed to Uptown, Father MC, one of the only rappers of like the New Jack era… there’s a part in Father MC’s song where he said, “It’s Mr. Uptown himself, Andre Harrell,” and tand then I go into Christopher Williams’ “Dreaming.” And that’s where I kind of have a moment for and a dedication to Andre. So although not every act is Uptown Records, Volume 3 channels the spirit of Uptown.

What’s an example of where you could go with Pass the Mic going forward?

I would love to do a Quiet Storm edition. For those who might not know what it sounds like, “quiet storm” was a kind of category of R&B music named after the Smokey Robinson song “Quiet Storm” that became a radio format. It was, like, not necessarily ballads, but downtempo R&B songs. It was sexy, and romantic — and vibey. Some of them I would refer to as rare grooves, kind of not so known cult classics and some were huge hits. I’d love to do a Quiet Storm episode, but I have over a dozen ideas. I also imagine going back to the era of Volume 1; I haven’t even begun to exhaust the possibilities of classic R&B of the ‘70s and ‘80s.