Industry Insiders: DJ Cassidy, Celebrity Choice

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DJ to the stars Cassidy Podell started on the turntables in fifth grade. Since battling club owners for entry into venues (to work, of course) as a teen, the UES-born mixmaster now works with a list of clients on the level of: P Diddy, Jennifer Lopez, Jay Z, Kanye West, Oprah, Barack Obama, and Mariah Carey. And if that’s not enough, the 27-year-old has recently discovered and produced new club-track sensation O’Neil McKnight (the album drops later this year). Cassidy acquaints us with humble beginnings, a first meeting with P Diddy, and his rom-com guilty pleasure.

Were you a club-hopping New York kid at a young age? I was not. I didn’t really go to clubs until I DJed at them. The first real club I went to was called System, and I DJed there when I was in 10th grade.

How’d you get that gig in 10th grade? I got my DJ equipment when I was 10 years old for my 10th birthday. By the time I was in 5th or 6th grade, it became known around school that I was the man to go to for music and for all of your party needs. As I progressed into high school and kids started to throw parties and promote parties around town, I was always the go-to guy to have DJ. Once I was in the 9th or 10th grade, it just kind of snowballed from there. One party led to the next.

Any unfortunate mishaps when you were working as a teen? There were many times the clubs didn’t want to let me in. New York City was a different place back then, and clubs weren’t as strict with the IDs as they are now. But not only that I wasn’t 21; I looked extremely young for my age. It didn’t really matter what kind of fake ID I had, it just wasn’t going to work. Every time I went to a club to DJ, it was almost a battle between the promoters and the nightclub owners. The promoters were trying to sneak me in the back door, and the owners were trying to catch them and say, “Hell no, he’s not coming in.”

When did you start doing A-list party circuits? The summer after my senior year of high school, I met a promoter named Jon Lennon. Jon Lennon was — and still is — a very hot promoter in the city, and he hired me to do a Friday night party at Float, which was then on 51st and Broadway. I did the VIP room upstairs. He liked me, and he gave me a chance, and I remember he paid me $150. That Friday night at Float was really my first hot party. Right at that time, I went away to college to GW in Washington DC, where there were no opportunities for me to expand my now-blossoming DJ career. Quickly I realized that I had to transfer and come back to New York. NYU accepted me, thank God, and I came back to New York as soon as the academic year was over. I spent all of my year at GW scheduling my classes for the middle of the week so I could fly back home every weekend to play at Float. By that time, I had jobs on Saturdays and Sundays and flew back on Monday. So thank God for the people in the admissions office at NYU, or I wouldn’t be talking with you right now.

When did you start producing? Producing came much later on. While I was in college, I bought my first drum machine and my first keyboard, and they pretty much stayed in the box in the living room of my mother’s house. She’d always scream at me to take the stuff out of the box and put it in my room and threatened to throw it out. When I graduated college, I said to myself, I think it’s really time to take producing seriously. I’d been a DJ since I was 10 years old, I had been making money as a DJ since I was maybe 13 years old, and the career is still continuing to grow every day, every year. Creatively, I thought now is a good time once I finished school. It was hard to go to class every day and do my work and do well while having my gigs five, six, or seven nights a week.

What’s going on with O’Neil McKnight’s career now? O’Neil and I met through Puffy. I was doing all of Puffy’s parties, and he was a stylist working for Puff. One night, I came home from the studio — at this point, I had a studio and a partner [Dub-L] — and O’Neil came over and we started playing some beats. O’Neil just started to hum, and I said, “What is that?’ and he said, “I don’t know, I’m just humming,” and then I said, “What is that?” and he was like “I don’t know, I’m just free-styling.” I just told him to keep going and got my iPod recorder out. That song — which we finished writing that night — became the first single that we ever put out, which was “Check Your Coat.” That quickly became the hottest song in the clubs in New York and was on the radio every five seconds. O’Neil wasn’t even signed. That occasionally happens with a rapper, but for someone like O’Neil, who was really kind of like a genre-less artist where you couldn’t really place what it was, it was very rare. We quickly got signed to Universal Motown, and his album, Prom King, is coming out later this year. Dubs and I produced the entire album. It was all so natural. O’Neil never planned to be a singer, he was kind of a jack of all trades, and I never planned to get him to sing. It just happened one night and really became something very special.

Is this something that you want to continue and expand on? Absolutely. I’ve spent the vast majority of my studio time in the past two years producing O’Neil and working on all things related to him. We just finished the album, and now Dubs and I are certainly going to get working on some other projects. It’s a very exciting time in that sphere of my life.

What, in your opinion, is the difference between a good DJ and a great DJ? I think a great DJ knows what to play, when to play it, and how to play it. I really can’t say it any better than that. It’s a skill you either have or don’t have, and when you have it, it can be honed only through experience. I don’t know if I had it when I was 10 or when it developed, but I certainly feel I have it now.

Did you ever have an epiphany moment when you realized that you had the skill? There are many moments where I’ve been reminded why I do what I do and why I love it. A very significant moment in my career was when I met Puffy.

Where did you meet him? I met Puffy DJing at Lotus one night. I was downstairs, and it was empty on an off night. Around 3:30 in the morning, when I was counting the minutes until 4am, I see Puffy and Kim Porter walk out from a dark corner of the room. I hadn’t even realized they were there. They apparently liked what I was playing and came to the center of the dance floor and just danced by themselves for about an hour and a half. I was 18 at the time, and on his way out he came to the DJ booth and said, “Where’s the DJ?” and I said “I’m the DJ,” and he said, “No really, where’s the DJ who is playing all this old shit?” I was playing all these soul classics from the 70s and the 80s. He asked me how old I was, and got a napkin and a pen and he wrote down his number. I procrastinated calling the next day for the whole afternoon, I was so nervous. Finally I got out of class, took my cell phone out, called him, got his voicemail, which said “God is the greatest, leave a message.” So I said, “Hey, it’s DJ Cassidy, met you last night …” He called me back himself the next day, and a week later I was DJing his party for the VMAs, and I’ve DJed every party that he’s thrown since. He was the first celebrity to really take an interest in me, and it was before I was getting props from anyone else. That was definitely a big break in my career.

Where do you hang out? Sushi Seki. Sushi, as much as it kind of sounds like a cliché, is my favorite food. I’m a sushi snob for sure. Sushi Seki is open ’til 3 in the morning, which is not why I love it but it certainly helps me out. I go there after gigs a lot. I also go to 69 Bayard, which is a cheap, hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant on Bayard and Mott that is open until 5 in the morning, which also helps me. My third favorite restaurant is Pink Tea Cup, which is a soul food restaurant. It’s home cooking with a jukebox full of soul, so it’s perfect.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure? Upper East Side JAPs.

Any DJ’s you look up to? Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, Jam Master J, and Funkmaster Flex. Since the day I got my turntables and mixer, those four have been the people I’ve looked up to. They’re all from slightly different eras, and all were reasons why I asked my parents for my equipment.

Best summer party you’re looking forward to? I’m most looking forward to my birthday party, which I don’t perform at. Every year — this will be the ninth one that I’ve thrown — I throw a huge birthday party. All my friends come and DJ, and it really is — with the risk of sounding easily self-indulgent — the most fun party of the year. It’s highly anticipated and by far my favorite night of the year. I have amazing things in store for this year that I cannot reveal. July 8th.

What are you doing tonight? Tonight, to be honest, I am probably going to get the movie He’s Just Not That Into You on demand. I’m probably going to be watching that alone on my couch.