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DJ Cassidy’s ‘Pass The Mic’ to Host R&B/Hip-Hop Legends of ’70s, ’80s in BET ‘Soul Train’ Special

Rap pioneers Kurtis Blow and Melle Mel will be among the verse-trading guests.

bet soul train awards
Jerritt Clark

DJ Cassidy, the host with the most classic R&B and hip-hop stars in his contacts book, will return to BET Thanksgiving weekend with another in his series of “Pass the Mic” specials, this time devoted to the dance-based music of the late 1970s and ’80s.

“DJ Cassidy’s Pass the Mic: BET Soul Train Edition 2021” will immediately follow “The Soul Train Music Awards,” which airs on BET Nov. 28 at 8 p.m. ET. It’s the fourth in a series of after-party specials Cassidy has done for the network, the first having been after last year’s “Soul Train Awards,” with “Pass the Mics” subsequently following BET franchises like the Image and BET Awards. Steve Rifkind and Jesse Collins are the producers responsible for bringing Cassidy’s mic-passing series from the web to television.

Although the host is keeping some of his guests under his hat, the direction of the special is evident in the stars Cassidy is initially revealing, including Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel,  Stephanie Mills and Charlie Wilson — “two undisputed R&B icons and two undisputed hip-hop icons who all came to prominence at a similar and very transformative time,” he says.

The years of the songs on the show span from 1975 to 1985, Cassidy tells Variety. As usual with “Pass the Mic,” the stars will come on camera to sing or rap a verse or two of their prominent hits over the host’s beats in a continual medley (interrupted only for commercials, of course, since the show made the transition to television).

“The conversations I had filming this edition, I never wanted to end,” Cassidy says. “I listened to surreal first-hand stories about a time in the very early ’80s when the fledgling hip-hop culture of the South Bronx merged with the art world and punk-rock scene of downtown New York City. I’ve always been fascinated by this widely influential intersection. If I could go back in time to live through another era, this would be the time that I’d put on my DeLorean’s flux capacitor.”

Even though “Pass the Mic” is filmed at his home and those of the participating stars, Cassidy is particularly happy that his special will follow the first “Soul Train Awards” to be broadcast from the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

“I always look up the artists when we shoot and learn things I didn’t know,” he says. “I always discover ties that the artists have to the particular theme of the show. And Stephanie Mills won amateur night at the Apollo at age 11 six times in a row, before becoming the Grammy-winning international R&B icon that she is.”

Of the Gap Band singer, Cassidy says, “Since I started filming ‘Pass the Mic’ a year and a half ago, I have always dreamed of having Charlie Wilson on the show. He defines living legend. This is something we kind of know, but that I didn’t actually compute till we put this all together, that Charlie has released music in six decades. I don’t know how many living artists can say that, besides Smokey Robison. He shaped the era of music I celebrate on this edition in so many ways, and he continues to do so today.”

Of the two hip-hop originators, he says, “Kurtis Blow, who was raised in Harlem, was the first hip-hop artist on Soul Train. I’ve thought a lot about what that means since I filmed his segment, and it’s chilling to think about how immense of an impact Kurtis had on global pop culture with that one television appearance. When you think about the exposure that gave to a new culture and a new music, it’s kind of surreal. … And then Melle Mel, who was born in the Bronx, performed what is widely regarded as the most important hip-hop song in history, ‘The Message,’ as part of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. I said this to both Kurtis and Melle when we shot, ‘There is no doubt that without you guys, the world would be a different place.’ I would certainly be a different person, that’s for sure.”

Cassidy calculates that since he began the series on the web as a reaction to quarantine in May 2020, he’s passed the mic to 190 of his R&B and hip-hop favorites.

Perhaps most famously this past year, BET specials notwithstanding, he was invited by the Biden/Harris inaugural committee to do two versions of “Pass the Mic” for virtual inauguration festivities, one for the “Celebrate America” concert and another for the “Parade Across America” special. These followed in a presidential tradition, as Cassidy was the first DJ to participate in a presidential inauguration, doing so two times in a row for Barack Obama, the second of those being at the White House.

This year he also put together the music for a Tommy Hilfiger “Pass the Mic” global campaign dedicated to celebrating up-and-coming artists, including Jack Harlow, Anthony Ramos and others.

Although “Pass the Mics” are intended as nostalgia trips, some are closer to the present day than others, as “the last show, the (post-) BET Awards show, was basically the hip-hop and R&B of the 2000s, with Nelly, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Sean Paul and others. This show has now spanned four decades of music. And I’d like that to continue to grow.”

Coming after a “Soul Train” special has particular meaning to him, as he grew up a “Soul Train” junkie. “Throughout its 50-year history, ‘Soul Train’ has brought soul and hip-hop music to the world like no other platform, no other brand,” he says. “I think this era in particular speaks to the legacy of ‘Soul Train’ in a unique way because the era was so transformative. It was a time when dance music was spawned from almost every musical genre. And one place they all came together was on the ‘Soul Train’ line. When you think about that ‘Soul Train’ line by the way — tangent! — think about how global that is, that people form a line at nightclubs, parties, celebrations around the world, and many people don’t even know its origin. That’s how powerful it is. But I think this period was a very game-changing time for music and for pop culture, and it was so clearly represented on the ‘Soul Train’ dance floor.”

DJ Cassidy isn’t devoting all his work to TV now. He has a song with Snoop Dogg and Mary J. Blige on Snoop’s new album, “Algorithm,” coming out Friday on Def Jam. The song, “Diamond Life,” marks Snoop and Blige’s first collaboration and was produced by Cassidy with D’Mile, who produced the new Silk Sonic album.