The Death of Disco

The frantic rise and fatal fall of hip-hop producer Disco D

Dave "Disco D" Shayman loved Instant Messenger. He frequently broke day in front of a Mac in his loft/studio in Brooklyn's hipster capital, Williamsburg. The ascendent hip-hop producer often rocked a blown-out Jewish Afro, wire-rimmed glasses, sweatpants, and muscle T-shirts showcasing a tattoo of an AKAI MPC 60 sampler with the caption "In Beats We Trust." Drawn by celebrated hip-hop tattooist Mr. Cartoon, it made him feel like he'd made it. If he was feeling really spiritual, he might shed his clothes altogether. Spending up to 20 hours a day in his studio, IM'ing kept him connected. From three different screen names, he blasted out far-out existential theories, passionate missives on alternative energy, and updates on potential big-name productions.

But his optimistic IMs, e-mails, and message-board posts didn't always square with reality. By the summer of 2006, it was reasonable to expect he'd be further along in his career. Three years earlier, 50 Cent had selected Disco's layered, intricate reworking of an O'Jays classic for his ode to armed robbery, "Ski Mask Way." It was a major coup for a then-unknown producer. Just 24 when the song was released, Disco saw his stock skyrocket. He'd moved past the throng of anonymous producers toiling in home studios, desperate for one big record.

But nothing was guaranteed. Unlike hip-hop's previous generation, which found producers pledging allegiance to specific crews, Disco was a sole proprietor. Even if an artist snapped up one of his compositions (placing it "on hold"), it might not fit the mood of an album; the price for clearing the sample might be too high; or the project's A&R might nix it. Still, he held out hope that potential projects like Lil' Scrappy, Lil' Eazy E, and Trick Daddy would be approved by their respective label brass. By fall, though, those projects had fallen through, and his collaboration with Kevin Federline, for whom he created the oft-derided Brazilian baile-funk-flavored "PopoZão," had come apart. Songs slated to be can't-miss singles were either included as bonus cuts or scrapped altogether.

Disco D photographed in Williamsburg 2005
photo: Tatiana Arocha
Disco D photographed in Williamsburg 2005

As autumn approached, Disco grew profoundly depressed. He had told friends that depression ran in his family. His maternal grandfather, the late Brandeis University physics professor Stephan Berko, had been afflicted. Albert Einstein had sponsored Berko's green card after he survived the Holocaust. Berko, who'd been in Auschwitz and Dachau, returned to Europe nearly half a century later for a visit to one of the sites of his internment. Shortly after returning to America, Disco told friends, Berko grew despondent and committed suicide. (A New York Times obituary notice in 1991 said only that Berko died in his sleep. Asked about it, Disco's mother, Deborah Amdur, agrees that he died in his sleep but declines to discuss it further, and wouldn't say whether Berko, her father, suffered from depression.) At the time, Disco was just 10.

Disco's bipolar disorder first emerged when he was in his early twenties, his mother says. During his manic periods, he was intensely productive. But his creativity dried up when he became depressed. He would take his meds for a while, but after complaining that they numbed him, he would stop and try to regulate himself with weed.

By January 2007, things seemed hopeless. Unable to afford the overhead for the studio and his various business ventures, he'd moved in with his mother and stepfather in Washington, D.C.

Heaped onto his debilitating depression, this final humiliation compounded his sense of failure. In mid-January, over IM, he told his friend Jared Selter, "I was hot in 2004, but now I've lost it." He was so sure he'd lost his ability to make music, he even had his ears examined. The doctor assured him his ears were fine; Selter told him he was making the best music of his career. But Disco still confided that two years earlier, when he'd fallen into a deep depression around the time he scored "Ski Mask Way," he'd attempted suicide—it wasn't his first attempt.

By the time Selter's girlfriend, Isla Cheadle, logged on the next day, his condition had worsened. The conversation, she recalls, went something like this:

Isla: "How is DC going?"
Disco: "Not good, not good."
Isla: "So what are you going to do?"
Disco: "I'm thinking asphyxiation."
Isla: "Disco, please."

"We were on for a little longer," Cheadle says. "I logged off. At this point, it was hard for me."

Only days later, on January 23, 2007, Disco was found in his mother and stepfather's basement. He had hung himself. He was 26.

To outsiders, David Shayman seemed close to joining the rarefied world of the super-producer. In the wake of "Ski Mask Way," Southern stars like Miami wildcard Trick Daddy and Atlanta-based Lil' Scrappy, an acolyte of both 50 Cent and Lil' Jon, recorded vocals to his instrumentals. Even the region's two most popular stars sought his touch. Houston's Chamillionaire (who scored 2006's anti-racial-profiling anthem, "Ridin' ") and Lil' Wayne (widely considered one of the best rappers alive) recorded a song called "Rock Star" to one of Disco's beats.

Disco also had a helluva backstory: He'd pioneered a dance-music genre as a teenager, spun records globally, and almost wedded a Brazilian soap star who was a Playboy cover girl. Like Moby, he understood that the paradigm for a successful producer had shifted. Commercial work was not only acceptable, it was expected. After composing theme songs for VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Best Buy, Nike, and Xbox, he was even able to land a CNN feature. So in the days after his death, his online friends—who'd heard him spin, chatted with him over IM, or responded to one of his ubiquitous message-board posts—wondered why someone with so much going for him would check out so early.

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