After hundreds of passes, DJ Cassidy’s mic is about to be set down, at least as far as TV specials go. His celebrated “Pass the Mic” series — which started online as a pandemic phenomenon bringing together classic R&B and rap stars, before moving to BET as a succession of post-awards specials — will have its final installment Oct. 4, directly following the BET Hip-Hop Awards.
The half-hour grand finale on BET next week will feature rappers who debuted in what DJ Cassidy calls “the second golden age of hip-hop,” which he marks as taking place roughly between 1993 and 2003. Although he typically keeps the lineup for the “Pass the Mic” specials under wraps so the guests are a surprise to the audience, Cassidy is giving Variety a representative sample of four of the 20 stars included in the finale: Swizz Beatz, Busta Rhymes, Method Man and Ice Cube.
“Pass the Mic” was started up by the celebrity DJ in 2020 as a pandemic-era means of bringing together R&B and hip-hop stars, almost all of whose initial heydays date back to a specific three-decade period that is Cassidy’s sweet spot, from the early ’70s to the early 2000s. Cassidy has filmed the musicians one at a time to edit together into epic audio-visual medleys that appear to run seamlessly from one artist and song to the next, although he uses his usual DJ bag of tricks to segue between songs that obviously don’t all share the same tempo.
The first three installments were strictly online, but the last seven have been on BET, serving as an after-party following each of the network’s signature awards shows for the last two years, with the partnership of top TV producer Jesse Collins, hip-hop entrepreneur Steve Rifkind and BET’s Connie Orlando. He said he always had 10 individually themed episodes in mind, and wrapping the series up with an episode that was a dream of his to follow an awards show celebrating the modern stars of the genre made sense.
“I’ve celebrated 220 legendary artists and 166 iconic songs in these 10 episodes,” Cassidy says. “I’ve always admired people like Michael Jordan who went out on top, and I feel like 10 is a nice, round number with which to conclude an epic run of musical celebration. And this episode being the final dream episode that I envisioned from the beginning, it seemed like the right time to close the curtain on the first generation of ‘Pass the Mic’ before I continue to expand the brand into new endeavors of celebration.”
The 10 full, official installments of “Pass the Mic” don’t include some mini-editions or partial excerpts he presented, as with his appearances on WME co-chairman Richard Weitz’s private “RWQuarantunes” series of virtual fundraisers, or the ultimate offshoot, when he was invited to do a shorter “Mic”-pass as part of the TV programming for the Biden presidential inauguration.
Cassidy sees this episode of “Pass the Mic,” with its concentration on 1993-2003 hip-hop, as a sequel to the second episode back in 2020, which focused on the original outbreak of the genre in 1983-93.
“Vol. 2, which was still one of the homegrown episodes, was a celebration of what many people regard as the first golden era of hip-hop, which brought hip-hop from a bubbling subculture out of the South Bronx onto the nationwide stage as an established new genre of music. That episode featured every definitive artist of that era,” including Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane, Doug E. Fresh, Naughty by Nature and Salt N Pepper. “There were roughly 40 individuals on that one show. And after that show premiered, LL Cool J went on Instagram Live, spur of the moment, impromptu, to talk about the show. And watching him talk about that edition was one of the greatest moments of my life. Immediately thousands of people signed on because he was simply so excited by what he had not only seen, but taken part in. One of the things he said was, ‘This is a capsule of the culture that will last for hundreds of years.’ And LL brought on Doug E. Fresh, who actually made a tear come from my eye when he said, ‘What I realized watching that for 40 minutes was that we were all just a piece of a puzzle. And when Cassidy put together that puzzle, it was beautiful.'”
He says the forthcoming tenth and final edition “represents a prolific era when hip-hop began selling millions of records, transforming global pop culture from music to fashion to film. Music that would’ve typically been considered music for the streets became music for the mainstream, and rappers became pop stars, designers and actors. And I think this show represents the enormous influence of New York and Los Angeles during this definitive time.”
Bringing the TV iteration to a close doesn’t mean DJ Cassidy is done with “Pass the Mic” as a trademark: He’s doing occasional live shows under that umbrella. His third “pop-up” live “Pass the Mic” will take place Oct. 21 in Austin for Formula One, with guests thus far unrevealed. The first of these was at the Pegasus World Cup in Miami in January, where he had a “Hollywood Squares”-type set of LED screens featuring the pre-taped performers, before some of the squares opened up to reveal Ja Rule, Lil Kim, Mase and El DeBarge in the flesh. The second live “Pass the Mic” was for the opening of the Hard Rock Hotel Times Square in New York City.
And he’s not giving up his day/late-night job, as a DJ whose sets aren’t so narrowly themed as all of the “Pass the Mic” episodes have been. Indeed, he was calling into Variety from Milan, where he was DJ-ing a Dolce & Gabbana/Kim Kardashian Fashion Week event.
“Solo DJ sets lie at the heart of who I am and what I do, and honestly, as crazy as it sounds, have been since I was 10 years old, but specifically my late teens when my career really started. I don’t envision ever letting that go. Whether I perform more frequently or less frequently, which goes in waves depending on what else I have going on at the time, I think everything I do is similar to how Kevin Hart is always gonna do standup, no matter how many movies he does. He never gets to a point where he think he’s above the standup club, and I think that’s what makes the great comedians great.”
Bringing the BET specials to a close brought some plaudits from those who’ve worked with Cassidy over the entire series as well as those who are new to working with him — like Ice Cube, who tells Variety, “It’s great to be a part of the ‘Pass the Mic’ legacy and work with the one and only DJ Cassidy, who still respects the OGs in the game.”
Says Swizz Beatz, also featured in next Tuesday’s finale, “‘Pass The Mic’ is something we never knew we needed until Cassidy showed us we did. The work and time it takes to organize such events is beyond words.”
Weitz, who took on Cassidy as a client after their charity work together for “RWQuarantines,” says, “DJ Cassidy created the most culturally significant viral music series during the pandemic connecting iconic artists to communities of all ages and walks of life. It is no wonder it quickly became a hit television series, solidifying its place in history. … He is a modern-day music maestro.”
“‘Pass The Mic’ has been a game-changing part of the musical landscape since Cassidy created it in 2020,” says the super-producer Collins. “It continues to evolve and showcase timeless music in an innovative way for us all to enjoy in these ever-challenging times. It was an honor to be part of seven iconic editions that aired on BET. ‘Pass The Mic’ will surely continue to break ground and unite people through music for years to come.”
Says Rifkind, “I met Cassidy when he was a little kid coming up to the Loud Records office for vinyl. I was impressed with him back then when he was just 13. Ten years later, he brought an artist to SRC and I gave them their first record deal. His creative vision and knowledge of music is truly amazing. When he sent me the first volume of ‘Pass The Mic’ in July 2020, I told him I wanted to be his partner. I also told him the show would change his life and it did. He created something very special for the culture and he’s really just begun.”
Looking back on the beginnings of “Pass the Mic,” Cassidy traces the way he was able to break down the 10 individual episodes back to how he literally separated genres and subgenres of hip-hop and R&B as a young DJ.
“Immediately after Vol. 1, I envisioned all the possibilities and I really did see all the episodes that followed in my head,” he says. “These episodes are like in-person manifestations of record crates that I used to carry to every DJ set before computer technology took over DJing. Before the Serato software was invented, DJs carried crates of vinyl wherever they went. I would carry eight crates of records to every gig in New York City. And I chose the number eight because only six crates fit in the trunk of New York City taxicabs, and if the driver was nice enough, I could put one in the front and one in the back. So the most crates that I could ever bring to a gig in New York City was eight. When I traveled by plane to a gig, I tried to lower that eight to six. But those crates were divided into categories, often by genre or era of music. And these shows are very much an outcome of those crates.”