Tucson DJ breaks out on national stage

2014-01-23T00:00:00Z 2014-10-15T10:46:54Z Tucson DJ breaks out on national stageBy Cathalena E. Burch Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Duhamel Cassell was on stage working the turntables, getting the crowd of 4,000 pumped up on that Wisconsin summer night in 2012, when someone whispered in his ear.

“Jason Aldean is sitting at the bar right there watching you right now, and he wants to come on stage and do this DJ set.” It was Aldean’s manager, and he pointed to Aldean dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt.

“He doesn’t know how to deejay, so you’re going to have to kind of walk him through,” he told Cassell.

That moment at Country Thunder in Twin Lakes, Wisc., transformed Cassell’s career from little-known Tucson DJ to emerging star.

“It was the night of my life,” said Cassell, who goes by the stage name DJ Du and is best known to Tucsonans for the dozen-plus years he spent at Cactus Moon before being fired four years ago.

Last week, Cassell boarded a tour bus for a month of dates opening for Aldean, one of country music’s biggest stars. If all goes as planned, Cassell will stay on the road through the fall, hitting 50 cities, including stadium gigs.

“I literally go from being unemployed to now going on the biggest tour,” Cassell said. “Probably going to be before 1.7 (million), 1.8 million people in the next couple months. It’s just insane.”

The Aldean tour caps a wild ride that started in a New Jersey basement more than 30 years ago.

The family basement

Cassell was 10 or 11 when his dad gave him a turntable and speakers for Christmas. Arnold Cassell, who still makes his living selling women’s clothing, converted the basement of the family’s East Windsor, N.J., home into a performance studio.

On one side, he installed a dance floor with a rubber base, a wall of mirrors and a ballet barre for Cassell’s brother, Yo-el, an aspiring dancer. (Yo-el is now a Tony Award-winning dancer and choreographer in Boston.) He also set up the DJ station for Duhamel on the other half of the room, and built a bar in the middle.

“I would sit there and deejay all day long, and my brother would dance to what I was deejaying, and my buddy Larry would bartend for all of us. And we would sit there on the weekends and have big parties,” said Duhamel, 43.

Mother Edna Cassell, a Puerto Rico native and retired schoolteacher, limited her son to five hours a day behind the turntables. He spent the time creating club mixes of everything from rock and hip-hop to Spanish music, which Cassell’s grandfather played when he stayed with the family, then perform his mixes for friends and family.

“This was a way that we could make sure that he would take up his music, but at the same time make sure that he was home,” Edna Cassell said.

Throughout high school, Cassell deejayed parties and at a few clubs. When he graduated, he went into the Air Force, where he served aboard transport and refueling planes for almost 10 years, including tours to the Middle East.

He left the service in the mid-1990s and went to Rowen University by day, and deejayed at clubs in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia at night. At a New York club one night in 1996, a representative of the Texas-based Graham Brothers recruited Cassell to deejay at the company’s Rockin’ Rodeo country night club in Tempe. At the time, Graham Brothers also owned Tucson’s Cactus Moon.

“It was a culture shock for me,” recalled Cassell, who had never really paid any attention to country music. “I didn’t know who Mark Chesnutt was, who Garth Brooks was. I was listening to Coro and dance music and disco and hip-hop and Snoop Dogg. I told them I didn’t know anything about country music, but they said, ‘We want you to bring the energy that we saw in New York.’”

The Graham Brothers made him a tempting offer: $500 a week and they’d throw in tickets to the Super Bowl, being played that year at Sun Devil Stadium.

Cassell went home to pack, and was in Arizona two weeks later.

“I couldn’t believe I did it. It was like the riskiest thing in the world … but years later, it transformed into this magnificent run I went on,” he said of his leap of faith, which included moving to Tucson a couple months later to deejay at Cactus Moon.

Cassell became the club’s face, deejaying high-energy shows with original electronica-influenced mixes of country and dance music. He was also the talent buyer, bringing in national artists, including Brad Paisley and Eric Church.

In 2010, the club’s owner, Gary Graham, who was related to the Graham Brothers but was not a part of the company, fired Cassell for reasons that Cassell says he is still not entirely clear about. (Cactus Moon closed in summer 2012.)

“And then it stopped,” he said of his DJ run. “It came to a complete halt, and I had to reinvent myself.”

Mixing a new life

Sitting in his home studio early this month, Cassell recalled the dark period that followed his firing.

“I lost my house. I lost my car. No one would hire me,” he said.

It took Cassell nearly two years of doing one-off parties and corporate gigs before he found himself working private events, clubs and corporate gigs in Las Vegas, including a party for Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert in 2012. April Harbour, operations director for the behemoth Country Thunder music festival, saw one of those shows, and was convinced Cassell would be the perfect DJ for the festival’s new Electric Thunder after-concert party tent at the 2012 festivals in Florence and Wisconsin.

Harbour recommended Cassell to the festival’s owner, Troy Vollhoffer. After listening to Cassell’s mixtapes and seeing video of his performance, Vollhoffer agreed to give him a shot at the 2012 Arizona festival. The response was electric, Vollhoffer said.

“Du is a high-energy act. He really does have it going on,” he said. “He keeps the party going. For three hours after the show, it’s a full-on nightclub environment, and Du rages with those kids. It’s a fantastic vibe.”

Cassell joined the festival in Wisconsin that July, and on the second night of the four-day festival, Jason Aldean stormed into his life and changed everything.

A few minutes after Aldean came on stage, fellow festival artist Luke Bryan showed up. Then came Texas singer Wade Bowen and Big & Rich sidekick Two Foot Fred. Popular Nashville DJ Storme Warren joined the party, and Vollhoffer had workers pack the stage with 17 cases of beer.

Aldean whispered to Cassell, “‘We’re going to have a party up here tonight,’” Cassell recalled.

“They went over there, jumped on stage, had a few beers, and interacted with Du, interacted with the audience,” Vollhoffer said. “It was like a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the patrons to have this experience. It was probably the one and only time they got to party with Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan at the same time.”

By the next morning, cellphone videos of the night cropped up on the Internet, and Cassell went from obscure DJ to star.

“We got this crowd in such a frenzy that it made waves in the country-music community,” he said, looking around his studio at dozens of autographed photos, including of Bryan and Aldean. “I got a call from a manager I knew in Texas that said, ‘Hey man, there’s a rumbling down in Nashville. We got to get you to Nashville.’”

Fifteen months into a two-year plan ...

In the ensuing weeks, Cassell met with agents at Creative Artists Agency in Nashville, who inked him to a representation deal. In October 2012, he signed on with his longtime friend Gino Genaro of Texas-based Unrest Music, whose artists Cassell had booked into Cactus Moon.

Genaro had been toying with the idea of a country music DJ act long before the buzz started swelling over Cassell’s Wisconsin adventure.

“I kinda told Du in the beginning, ‘Look this all makes sense to me on paper. You never know until you take it out,’” Genaro said.

He figured it would take Cassell two years to build the relationships and create the catalogue to take his career to the next level. But things moved much faster than they anticipated:

  • Last May, Cassell joined the lineup for the Nashville Grammy block party with Kip Moore and Will Hoge.
  • In August, he jetted out to Michigan at a few-hours notice to open for Carrie Underwood.
  • In October, he and his wife
  • Kristin
  • , a Tucson native, jumped on a cruise ship with country supergroup Alabama for the band’s 40th anniversary Festival at Sea event.
  • In early December, he shared the American Country Music Awards stage at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Vegas with Moore and his band for a live performance that was broadcast on national TV.

“When they opened up the clamshell, you see the audience at the Mandalay Bay Event arena, and in the front row was Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban. They were all looking at me like, ‘Who’s this guy up there?’ never thinking that a couple of months later, I might be out with those guys,” Cassell said.

And then came the call from Aldean’s camp.

Shot at the big time

Every few minutes on that recent Friday morning in his home studio, Cassell played with his new iPhone. Whenever it buzzed, he would check it to see if it was the call.

“They could call any minute now,” he said, looking around the room at the “All-Access Artist” lanyards tacked up on the walls and hanging from guitar stands. “We’re just waiting for one more signature.”

The call came a couple hours later, and Cassell had less than 24 hours to fly to Nashville to finalize plans for the Aldean tour.

“They have me on a plane going to Nashville in the morning. My wife doesn’t even know,” he said, as his 130-pound king golden retriever Chesney bounded underfoot and 4-pound Yorkshire Shish yapped from the living room.

“This is the biggest tour of 2014,” Genaro said. “I think that we knew that something good was going to happen, but the fact that we landed probably at the top of the mountain was equally surprising.”

Cassell said his life is about to dramatically change. By March, he plans to move to Nashville to surround himself with the best people in the business who can help him move his career forward. He hopes to land a record deal and start recording original material. He can even daydream that he will one day become country music’s answer to Swedish DJ Avicii, who headlines arena shows and has topped the Billboard charts in recent years.

And those pulling for him can see that happening.

“The sky’s the limit. ... I have full confidence that he will take this thing to the next level,” said Country Thunder’s Vollhoffer. With the Aldean tour, “he’s getting the opportunity. He’s getting the shot and he’s out there banging it hard.”

“It’s been a struggle. I have had as many failures as successes, probably more failures. But you learn from that and you move on,” Cassell said. “Here we are 18 months later. I am on the biggest (country) tour in the world.”

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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