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DJ Cassidy: Inside the 'Paradise Royale' Recording Sessoins

June 30, 2014
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In the video for the first single from Paradise Royale, a character played by DJ Cassidy, discouraged after a BREAK-up, wanders into a hat shop, where the proprietor offers him a straw boater. With the magic lid on his handsome head, the DJ is instantly transported into a pastel Miami-style fantasy, where young musicians play shiny ’70s funk in a flamingo-colored nightclub, and superstars Robin Thicke and Jessie J sing “Calling All Hearts.”

This is Cassidy’s idea of heaven: where chart-topping performers like Cee-Lo Green, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, Estelle, Ne-Yo, John Legend, Kelly Rowland, Usher, and more front a band that echoes the DJ’s favorite funk and disco sides from the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Cassidy’s great love of bands like Earth Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang, and Chic stemmed from his early fascination with hip hop.

“At that point in my life, I was closed minded,” he says. “I thought that to fully embrace hip hop, I had to hate everything else. But my saving grace was my heroes. I looked up to Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. These were the godfathers of hip hop culture, and they were my superheroes. I thought, in order to be like my heroes, I had to play like my heroes, and I realized they were creating a new kind of music by playing all forms of music.”

Cassidy built his DJ career on what he calls an “#ff0000” foundation, at times playing 30-year-old music for 20-somethings, and hot new songs for celebrities from Puffy to Jay-Z to Oprah. He even counts Barack Obama among his fans; a short film about the making of the song “Calling All Hearts” includes a shout-out from the president.

“No matter where I went, the classic records of the late ’70s and early ’80s not only worked, they killed,” Cassidy says. “They put a spirit and emotion and energy in the air like no other kind of music. This isn’t just because we’ve heard these songs our whole lives; it’s because when dance music is made by real musicians with real instruments, it affects our souls differently. It moves our bodies differently. And I thought, wouldn’t it be great if people from my generation could have music that sounded like this, that felt like this?”

Cassidy fixed on the idea of bringing vintage dance music to a new generation, and he decided to find those sounds at the source. His Paradise Royale project started four years ago, when he made an iTunes playlist of 25 favorite songs from the ’70s and ’80s. He found that, not only did they all fall into a pocket of four years—between ’78 and ’82— but also a lot of the same musicians played across multiple tracks.

“If you made a list of similar songs from today, you might see Pharell’s name over and over, or Timbaland’s name over and over. And in that era as well, it was clear that the artists and producers of my favorite records were essentially recruiting the same musicians. These were the architects of the sounds. I’m talking about people like Verdine White, Philip Bailey, and Larry Dunn of Earth Wind & Fire; Nile Rodgers; John “J.R.” Robinson and Bobby Watson of Rufus; Jerry Hey conducting horns and strings; Ndugu Chancellor on drums; Marcus Miller and Freddie Washington on bass; Ray Parker Jr. on guitar.”

Parker—famous for the “Ghostbusters” theme as well as for playing with Raydio and on other artists’ hits, such as Cheryl Lynn’s “To Be Real”—turned out to be a gatekeeper for Cassidy, who visited the guitar legend at his home in Calabasas, Calif. When Parker heard the DJ’s playlist, he phoned longtime collaborators Freddie Washington (Herbie Hancock, Anita Baker, Lionel Richie) and Ollie Brown (Michael Jackson, Rick James, Debarge) and got them involved. One musician led to another, and player by player, Cassidy assembled his fantasy session team.

Meanwhile, Cassidy and his production partner, Greg Cohen, were also writing and mocking up arrangements for a collection of new songs. By the time they went into their first recording sessions, in engineer/producer Bill Schnee’s Schnee Studios, they had clear guidelines for the musicians to embellish.

“I’d leave New York with what we called the ‘machine tracks’ and say, ‘we’re going to bring it live.’” Cassidy says. “We’d have the chord structure, the bass chart, the drum pattern, and the musicians would make it their own. Then Jerry Hey would arrange the horns and strings.”

Cassidy asked that, whenever possible, musicians come with the instruments they’d played on those ’70s and ’80s hits. “Nile Rodgers always uses that one guitar,” he says. “It’s called the ‘hitmaker.’ It’s a Strat, and I think he bought it at a pawn shop. Freddie Washington also used the same bass he used on Patrice Rushen. Ndugu Chancellor used the same drums he used on ‘Billie Jean,’ Marcus Miller used the same bass he used on Luther Vandross’ ‘Never too Much.’”

The DJ also turned to studios and engineers that had some history connected to the 25 inspiration songs. Engineer Steve Sykes, for example, has not only been recording this style of funk and R&B since it was new, but he also played guitar with Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn before they joined Earth Wind & Fire.

“We were in a band in Denver called Friends and Love,” Sykes says, recalling the period when he was gradually making his way west from Philadelphia in a VW bus. We opened for Earth Wind & Fire, which consisted at that time of Maurice White, Verdine White, a sax player, and a girl singer. Our band was smokin’, and Maurice White, being the shrewd businessman that he is and seeing the talent, asked Philip and Larry if they would join his band.”

While in Denver, Sykes re-set his sights on an engineering career and ultimately traveled to L.A. in 1979. His engineering and mixing credits include albums with Stanley Clarke, Isley Brothers and Al Jarreau, as well as music for two seasons of the TV show Miami Vice.

DJ Cassidy in the studio with (top to bottom): Freddie Washington, Ray Parker Jr., and Ollie Brown; Cee-Lo Green; John Legend; and Verdine White, Larry Dunn, and Philip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire.
Sykes’ first sessions for Cassidy’s Paradise Royale were on rhythm tracks recorded in LAFX in North Hollywood (lafx.com). “It’s one of the best-sounding control rooms in L.A. They have a magnificent API console that has been modified by Steve Firlotte,” Sykes says. “It’s also a rental house, so any piece of gear I can imagine that I might want, they’ve got it in the back room and I can drag it out. Cassidy brought his charts and prerecorded tracks—the machine tracks—and then I loaded those into Pro Tools.”

The drummer all of Sykes’ sessions was J.R. Robinson, who counts Chaka Khan and Rufus, Madonna, the Pointer Sisters, and Daft Punk among his telephone book of credits.

“I set up J.R. with my standard miking scheme,” Sykes says. “Inside the kick was a Shure Beta 52. On the outside, my normal favorite is a FET 47, but theirs was out on rental that day, so I used a Soundelux, which I also love. Snare was the old 57, top and bottom, then a [Neumann] KM84 on the hat, and across the toms, Sennheiser 421s. Overheads were two Neumann 67s. For the room mics, I used two Royer 121 ribbon mics.

“The kit was situated to my left in the main tracking room,” Sykes continues. “The room is on the smaller side for a drum room, but it gets a really punchy sound. That’s one of the reasons I really like it for dance music. There’s something about the compactness of that room that makes the drums jump out of the speakers.”

Bassist Bobby Watson played live with Robinson. His instrument was taken direct, through a Neve 1073 outboard mic pre and a Tube Tech CL1B compressor, into Pro Tools. Later in the day, Sykes captured some of Paul Jackson’s guitar parts. “Paul is the easiest guy in the world to capture guitar from,” Sykes says. “I just put up a pair of Royer 121s ribbons. A lot of people use a Royer and a 57 together, and I’ll do that if I’m making a rock record, but in this case, the warmth of two ribbons on his cabinets was preferable for a fat rhythm part.

“Paul comes with 10 or 15 different electric guitars, and something like eight different heads and two refrigerator-size racks with multiple power amp heads and multiple cabinets, and you never really know what he’s running through at a given time,” Sykes continues. “Depending on the part and the song, he’ll switch something on his own little patchbay, and all of a sudden I have a totally different amp sound even though I’m still miking the same two cabinets in stereo. His rig is so set up, you can just throw two mics in front of it, get a level, and push Record. It’s almost like cheating.”

Four months later, Sykes was called to help bring more of Cassidy’s machine tracks to life. This time, he headed to Capitol Studio B (capitolstudios.com) to record music for the single “Calling All Hearts” with Robinson, Verdine White on bass, Larry Dunn on keyboards, and Philip Bailey on percussion and backing vocals.

“The Capitol session was like a band reunion in a way, except now I’m the engineer and not the guitar player,” Sykes says. “That was so much fun.”

A delightful aspect of “Calling All Hearts” is the way Cassidy’s reverence for vintage funk shines through. There’s a quintessential Nile Rodgers guitar riff. (Check out the making-of video at emusician.com to see how it developed.) And the horns, keys, and backing vocals on this track celebrate the classic lush and powerful orchestrations of Earth Wind & Fire.

“Philip played congas and cowbells—lots of percussion instruments,” Sykes recalls. “I think I used a stereo Royer 122, and some [AKG C]451 on most of his instruments, and a C12a on congas.”

The making-of video for “Calling All Hearts” shows Bailey and Valerie Davis singing “Ooh yeah”s together into a single mic: “I was using one of Capitol’s classic [Neumann] U47s, like they used to record Frank Sinatra,” Sykes says. “That went into a very simple dbx 160vu—one of the old 160s. And of course in Capitol B they have a vintage Neve 8068 that’s to die for, so every single mic pre in there is something you’d pay great money for on its own. You don’t need much outboard in the chain at a place like that!

“The dbx we used is one of the most invisible compressors that’s ever been made. Sometimes you want a compressor because of the color it imparts, but on background vocals I just want as much purity as I could get. A lot of times, I’ll just go with no compressor at all and just ride the fader, but for this song, it added smoothness—just to cut the peaks a tiny bit.”

Larry Dunn played Minimoog and Fender Rhodes on the session. “I took the Rhodes DI,” Sykes says. “A lot of times—this is the old-school way to do it—I used to mike the speakers in that suitcase below. There’s nothing like the sound coming from the speakers in a Fender Rhodes piano. But in this case, that keyboard wasn’t a featured part of the song, so we kept it simple.”

Sykes also engineered a few days in Studio D at The Village. “We worked on a few songs in there with J.R. Freddie Washington played bass on some of it, and Marcus Miller came in as well,” Sykes says. “The Jerry Hey horn section came in, too, but it was a mock session. They weren’t available for the original video shoot, so even though they had already played the track, the horn section came in. I fed them the audio, and they played the parts just so they’d have it for the film. There’s an earlier part in the video showing one of the other engineers, Mike Stern, recording them. He’s the one who deserves the credit for getting the wonderful horn recordings.”

By the time Cassidy was ready to add lead vocals to the tracks, he had a lot of completed music and a very clear vision of the vocal arrangements.

“Cassidy was extremely thorough,” says Mark “Exit” Goodchild, who recorded Usher’s vocals on the title track, and Jessie J’s parts on “Calling All Hearts.” “He came in with split stems and instrumentals; I had every file of every version I could possibly want to record her with.”

Goodchild has worked on several Jessie J albums and he’s the go-to engineer for Claude Kelly, who co-wrote “Calling All Hearts.”

“We were just finishing an album for release in the UK on her [in KMA Studios], and Claude and Cassidy took the opportunity to let her know about this record,” Goodchild explains. “So, the vocal-recording chain I used on her is the same as what’s on her album: a vintage C12 into a John Hardy M1 mic pre and a Tube Tech CL1B compressor.

“Jessie almost makes me mad,” Goodchild continues. “She’s one of the only artists I know that actually likes to be in the vocal booth. She just goes in and when she opens her mouth and starts singing, she has so much raw talent, with a mixture of technical skill. There are lots of times when I’m working with her, and Claude and I look at each other like, how is it possible?”

Not surprisingly, capturing a great vocal sound from artists like Usher, Mary J. Blige, Estelle, etc. wasn’t a huge challenge. The harder part was tracking them all down, and taking time in their busy schedules.

“That journey was as much, if not more, of a journey than recruiting the musicians,” Cassidy says. “I was literally chasing musicians around the country, and I refused at any point in four years to email a song. I always wanted to get in the room with the artist so they could look me in the eye and hear and see the inspiration for this music. Sometimes those meetings took a day to happen, and sometimes a year.

“To recruit R. Kelly, I flew to Chicago eight times over the course of 20 months. I went to five shows on his tour, and finally I went to Barnes & Noble and bought his book and waited in line for seven hours to get to the front to talk to him. To recruit Cee- Lo, I crashed a 25 thousand-dollar-a-plate black-tie gala in New York. I never gave up in my mission to bring the greatest and most universal dance music of all time back to nightlife, back to the airwaves, back to the dance floor.”

“[On Paradise Royale], you get the best musicians of that era—of the ’70s and early ’80s,” observes Robin Thicke in the video about making “Calling All Hearts.” “To have Earth Wind & Fire involved is amazing, and this record with Cassidy and Jessie J is really just a culmination of great music, great musicianship and great singers coming together to make fun music. It’s a great project to be a part of.”

Barbara Schultz is a contributing editor to Electronic Musician and Mix magazines.

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