DJ Cassidy Talks Playing for Obama, Jay Z and Oprah; and Making Music for ‘The Get Down’
DJ Cassidy is a busy man.
One of the most sought-after DJs in not just hip-hop, but music, Cassidy's resume runs long and deep. After all, how many people can say they're services have been called upon by everyone from Oprah, to Jay Z and Beyoncé, to President Barack Obama?
In addition to his high-profile DJing gigs, Cassidy has released hits of his own, including his 2014 debut single, "Calling All Hearts" featuring Jesse J and Robin Thicke and "Make the World Go Round" featuring R.Kelly.
We caught up with Cassidy hot off the recent release of his new single "Honor" featuring Lil Yachty and Grace, which is featured on the Get Down soundtrack. He talks partying with Bey and Jay, delivering tunes for President Obama and the importance of celebrating the legacy of legends like Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc.
What was it like working with Lil Yachty and Grace on your new single, “Honor?”
Whitney Phillips wrote the song and she sang it with such conviction that I knew it was gonna be hard to find someone who could take it to another level. And in thinking of who could take this to another level, Grace was at the top of my list.
When I heard her cover of the classic record, “You Don’t Own Me,” I immediately became a fan. It’s hard to cover classic records, very few people do it right. Her voice is powerful, her voice is soulful. I was extremely impressed by her. My intuition was dead on and she killed it. She took it to another level.
After she recorded, I felt like it needed a male perspective and I wanted it to be delivered through hip-hop. I was immediately attracted to Yachty when I first saw him just by his aesthetic, his sense of style. Like me, he’s bold, he’s bright, he’s colorful. What I loved about his style of rapping was that it felt effortless, playful, fun, and I loved the tone of his voice as well.
I played him the new track and he wrote a verse that replied to her very insightfully. I think everyone is hearing a new side of Yachty on the record and I could not have been more pleased.
How do you select songs to play for huge memorable events like Beyoncé and Jay Z’s wedding, a presidential inauguration, or a Diddy or Oprah party?
You might be surprised to hear this but I don’t plan what I’m going to play, with very few exceptions. My way of planning is through experience. My years and years of experience is how I plan.
Picture a Rolodex, I have this enormous Rolodex in my mind, and instead of phone numbers and addresses on each card, there are songs. Imagine when I put on a song, that Rolodex spins in my mind, and that’s my way of planning.
It doesn’t matter if I’m walking into President Obama’s inauguration, or Jay-Z and Beyonce’s wedding, or Oprah Winfrey's school opening in South Africa, or just a nightclub in New York, L.A, or Miami. When I walk in and see who’s standing in front of me, whether it’s 200 people, 1,000 people, or 10,000 people, when I feel their energy and feel their vibe, I can immediately determine what I want to play to create a certain emotion.
What artists currently have a star next to their name in your Rolodex?
The Weekend and Bruno Mars are simply my two favorite artists and their albums are my two favorite albums of the year. I’d really loved to work with either one of them. I also love this new artist, Khalid. He has his own brand of R&B, and I love how over the past five years we’ve seen so many new R&B sounds.
A kind of re-emergence of R&B music but from so many different perspectives and with so many different sounds. So from a new artist perspective, I’d love to work with him.
The Netflix original series, The Get Down, celebrates the emergence of hip-hop. What was it like to learn that your single “Honor” was selected for The Get Down Part II soundtrack?
First off, I’m a huge fan of the first installment. I met Baz Luhrmann for the first time when he and Jay Z hired me to deejay the premiere of The Great Gatsby. Years later, cut to me staying at Russell Simmons house in L.A., where I’m at right now. He also has another frequent houseguest who's a renowned writer and journalist, Nelson George.
Nelson is a friend of mine and told me that he was working on a new show that Baz Luhrmann was doing about the emergence of hip-hop and disco in the South Bronx. He said I needed to meet Baz because I'd be perfect to create music for the show.
I met with Baz and I had just been recruited to do a record for Vinyl on HBO. This was particularly exciting because hip-hop is my first love. I’m known for making this music that’s kind of inspired by the dance records of the late 70’s and early 80’s, but hip-hop is what drew me to that music.
He turned the story of hip-hop into this almost fantasy like musical. He turned Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa into superheroes. I got my turntables when I turned 10. I looked up to Flash, Bambaataa, and Herc— they were my superheroes. That’s how my story starts. I was not into sports, and I was not into comic books. They were my Michael Jordan; they were my Superman.
Anyways, long story short, Baz heard my new song, “Honor,” wanted to include it in the show, and of course, I was honored—pun intended.
You are known for your swanky boaters, gold microphone, and dapper clothing. How would you describe your style?
I have always liked things that were classic and I used the word “things” on purpose because I’m not just referring to fashion. I’m referring to music and places around the world. I’ve always appreciated those things that are timeless, that are iconic, and that are classic.
I started wearing fedoras about 10 or so years ago and it took me several years to stumble upon the boater hat. I experimented with all different kinds of fedoras. One of my favorite fedoras before the boater was a coconut fedora made of coconut.
I stumbled upon the boater and it was something very distinguished about it. Something very classic, something very timeless, something very iconic about it. I rarely saw someone wearing it, and to me, it was the kind of thing that you could put on with a tracksuit or a tuxedo, and it would totally bring what you were wearing to the next level. I loved that. I loved that quality about the boater, and I started wearing it. It stuck, it became my signature. It was totally an accident.
What are the most memorable events that you’ve deejayed?
Certainly President Obama’s 50th birthday party at the White House, where I jammed with Stevie Wonder. I was basically cutting up the famous Billy Squier breakbeat from his song “Big Beat” while Stevie Wonder played “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered” on top of it. While Jay Z and Chris Rock stood in the front row nodding their heads with enthusiasm, and the President danced on the dance floor with the first family. That is for sure a memory I’ll never forget.
Deejaying the opening of Oprah Winfrey’s school in South Africa on New Year’s Eve in a room that included Oprah, Nelson Mandela, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, Tina Turner, Ashford and Simpson, and Spike Lee [was another big moment].
On New Year’s Eve a few years ago, I played at the Barclay’s Center with Coldplay and Jay Z. Coldplay went on first for 90 minutes, from 9 to 10:30, and then I went on from 10:30 to 11:59. And at 11:59 I introduced Jay, who came on right at midnight and played for 90 minutes. It was incredible to share a stage with two iconic acts.
And a little less headline-making but equally significant to my career was the first night I met Puffy. It was just your average night at a nightclub in New York City at a club called Lotus. I was playing the dance music of the late 70’s and early 80’s, the soul, funk, and R&B of that era. Puffy danced all night and came up to me on the way out and said, "Where is the DJ?" I was 18 and looked like I was 8. He couldn’t believe someone so young was playing all these classic songs. He said, "Call me tomorrow." The next day I called him. I was a freshman at NYU, and he said, "I’m throwing a party next week for the VMA’s and I want you to play it.''
Although I went on to deejay many more nights that made headlines, that was a headline in my life that I will never forget.
I’ll give you one more which I actually don’t talk about as much as I should. When my first single “Calling All Hearts” came out, it hit first in the UK. I didn’t realize how big the song was until I went to London and performed at the Capital Summertime Ball. Jesse J had a one hour set and she brought me out. We performed “Calling All Hearts” and there were 90,000 people at Wimbledon stadium singing the words to the song. And at that moment, I knew that my music was affecting people, and that felt great.