The Death of Disco

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

But many of those people had met Disco in person only once or twice. "Everyone wants to say that they knew him, but no one really knew him," Cheadle says. "He really hid his dark side. Bipolar suicidal people blame everybody else for their problems. Disco was different. He almost took too much responsibility. He really beat himself up over things, which is why, I think, he actually went through with it."

The gift of scoring a record like "Ski Mask Way" at 24 was also a curse. His frustration with spending two years trying to climb back to that pinnacle set off his self-loathing. "He still had all his regular things that he was doing," says long-time friend Aaron Deakins. "He just wanted that big 50 Cent thing again. He thought it was going to keep going forever, and it didn't."

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

Even at 16, David Shayman possessed star quality. Deakins met him a decade ago at a Halloween party in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The kid was rocking his customary Halloween get-up: a cow suit, which he accessorized by placing condoms on the nipples. They bonded instantly. Deakins was already a DJ, Shayman a talented inline skater. They promised to teach each other. Shayman chose the nickname Disco, a nod to a Travolta-esque pose he once struck while grinding a handrail.

Disco was a natural DJ, and with his knack for music (he already played both sax and piano), he soon eclipsed Deakins. His mother ferried him to gigs in Detroit, where he helped conceive ghetto-tech, the bastard child of Miami bass and Detroit techno. An especially catchy genre, it was typified by records like DJ Assault's "Ass N' Titties," in which a minimal electro-porno groove competes with a simplistic call and response of "Ass and titties, titties and ass." As he entered the University of Michigan, the dichotomy between super-DJ Disco D (his best-known ghetto-tech record, committed to wax while he was still a virgin, is called "Dick That Bitch Down") and David Shayman, mild-mannered business student, just added to the hype. It made sense: The son of a college professor and a social worker in utopian Ann Arbor, Disco defied categorization. At live shows, he augmented his turntable acumen by spontaneously creating beats and playing kung-fu sound effects during floor-clearing brawls.

By the time he graduated in 2002, he had released several 12-inches, launched two record labels, toured the world, and been profiled in Details. He was ready for New York. And after releasing the ghetto-tech mix tape A Night at the Booty Bar in 2003, he also yearned to break out into new genres.

Disco's gregariousness eased his transition to hip-hop and reggae. A tireless networker, he asked a colleague at the commercial production house where he worked for reggae producer/DJ Max Glazer's IM name. "Literally half a second later, Dave was shooting off questions about reggae and dancehall," says Glazer, laughing at the memory. A couple of weeks later, Glazer returned from Jamaica with some verses from Beenie Man. He flowed them into a remix for Indo-British rapper Panjabi MC. Afterward, Disco assembled reggae artist Cham's bootleg remix of Beyoncé's "Crazy In Love." The remix eventually caught the ear of Atlantic Records head Craig Kallman, who later cited it as a factor in signing Cham.

Glazer hired Disco to edit and mix the song in the audio program Pro Tools. They worked until 5 a.m., and Disco's proficiency in Pro Tools impressed Glazer. "He was a bit of a crazy guy," Glazer recalls, "but very good on the technical end, compared to what I knew." Pro Tools allows producers to record whole songs on a digital multitrack and burn the session to a CD. A rapper can record vocals to the instrumental remotely. Disco's Pro Tools knowledge made him an indispensable addition to Glazer's reggae DJ/production crew, Federation Sound.

Along with Glazer's partner, Cipha Sounds, Disco began producing for Nina Sky, a set of twins from Queens who blended pop with reggaetón, eventually scoring their single "Turning Me On." It was a standard arrangement for newbies. "Basically, Disco was making the beats, and they were getting the artists to jump on them," explains Federation's then publicist, Michelle Lin.

By the time Lin brokered Disco's major break in late 2004, he'd already fallen out with Cipha Sounds and was ready to fly solo. Utilizing her relationship with 50 Cent's partner, Sha Money XL, Lin brought him Disco's beat reel—a CD of completed instrumentals for sale—and introduced Disco to him. "Sometimes you get new guys who come around who have that excitement," Sha recalls. "And this guy, he was a rocker. He was bouncing off the wall with energy. It was easy to remember his name."

One of Disco's instrumentals was built on a sample of the O'Jays' "What Are You Waiting For?" Disco cycled a memorable keyboard riff in and out of the track, utilizing a mournful vocal snippet in the chorus. Jay-Z had previously borrowed sections of the song on a relatively obscure album cut, but his producer, Ski, had just looped the sample. Disco's rendition was far more intricate. "The way Disco did it, the drums was crazy," Sha Money recalls, "and he just chopped [the sample] real tight." Fifty envisioned a lush robbery anthem called "Ski Mask Way," widely considered the most street-credible track on his sophomore album, The Massacre.

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