The Death of Disco

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

Landing on The Massacre, 2005's highest-selling album, quickly cast Disco as hip-hop's next big thing. He was soon the toast of the mainstream media ("50 Cent Takes the L Train," trumpeted New York magazine, noting Disco's Billyburg address) and hip-hop publications (in tribute to "Ski Mask Way," XXL devoted its producer's column to him). Even the notorious, hard-to-please, rock-critic website Pitchfork identified "Ski Mask Way" as the moment when "the tide shifts" on the otherwise half-assed Massacre.

"It gave Disco that urban stamp," Lin says. "We got so much press out of it that it helped him go from ghetto tech to dancehall to hip-hop/urban. He was completely psyched." His move to the more mainstream hip-hop world also meant a bump in salary and recognition. He had crossed over.

"I'm going to be the biggest hip-hop producer," Disco told Lin excitedly.

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

With a burgeoning reputation and a sonically perfect home studio in Brooklyn's trendiest locale, Disco's future looked promising. "Right now, I'm just entering that caliber of A-list producer where everyone is just starting to find out about Disco D," he told CNN. When the hip-hop producer bible Scratch profiled him, the outlook seemed even brighter. "I've got a third of my beat reel on hold," Disco cooed, "Nothing firm yet, so I don't really like to speak on it, but I've got a lot in the works."

A dogged self-promoter, Disco enlisted friends in his guerrilla marketing campaigns. Deakins, teaching English in Japan at the time, stickered and promoted "Ski Mask Way" in Tokyo. Disco also released a DVD. He began filming Hustle Harder, a madcap travelogue/instructional video aimed at aspiring super-producers and titled after a message that Sha Money left on Disco's answering machine. (The video was released in May through Seattle-based Kagi Media.) The YouTube trailer for Hustle Harder shows Disco touring London, Spain, and Australia as a DJ, flying in helicopters, and outlining the finer points of music production.

Having absorbed his social-worker mother's sense of social justice, Disco was troubled by Brazil's savage inequalities: "It's fucked up, and I'm doing what I can to bring some exposure to the wonderful talent down here," he says in the YouTube clip. In baile funk, the Brazilian gangster dance music that he spun, he also saw a purity lacking in commercial hip-hop. He later turned his attention to Brazil's nascent hip-hop scene, assembling the supergroup Braza. Their single "Welcome to Brazil" outlined the realities of life on the margins of the world's sexiest society. "Disco was just constantly mixed up between the high ends of [Brazilian] society and the absolute dregs," recalls Andrew Luftman, who managed Disco for the first six months of 2006 but resigned after failing to place any of his beats. "He couldn't have been more comfortable in both environments, 'cause he was so purely himself."

Disco's love affair with Brazil had begun a couple of years earlier. At a 2004 DJ gig in São Paulo, he locked eyes with Luciana Vendramini, a blond soap star with bedroom eyes and a voluptuous body. He didn't realize the enormity of her stardom until paparazzi circled them as they emerged from a limo. When Deakins wondered where he was, Disco told him not to worry; he'd met an "amazing woman," he explained via e-mail. A weeklong visit stretched out for several months.

But Disco and Vendramini, 10 years his senior, endured a complex relationship. "Luciana loved him," says his mother. "[But] she certainly has her own issues. I'm not really sure she understood the magnitude of David's illness." Disco made "Ski Mask Way" during a particularly trying patch in their relationship. The song's chorus, in which he looped the words "no more," voiced his heartache.

"Ski Mask Way's" painful genesis also foreshadowed trouble. Excited about appearing on 50 Cent's album, he surrendered the song's Pro Tools files without a fully executed contract. The song was recorded and mixed before both parties had divided future publishing royalties. As a rookie using an easily identifiable sample, the deck was stacked against Disco. The owners of the O'Jays' published music wanted their chunk of the potential six-figure royalties. Fifty, an established superstar, wasn't about to forfeit his piece. "If you don't sample, 50 percent is yours, 50 percent is the artist's," Sha Money explains. In other words, the publishing royalties (formally known as "mechanicals")—parceled out when a record is manufactured—would go to 50 Cent and the O'Jays, both of whom are considered, for the purposes of money, the song's writers, not Disco D.

Disco was upset, but even trusted colleagues disagreed with his stance. "He just felt like he was entitled to the publishing, and I was, like, 'Dude, you're bugging,' " says Disco's friend Emile, a noted hip-hop producer who has lost publishing royalties to far more obscure groups than the O'Jays. "It's pretty standard that when you sample one of these old soul groups, they are going to take 50 percent of your shit. It's probably 'cause he worked on so much original shit—he was used to getting his fair share of publishing [royalties]."

But Disco persisted. He met with attorney Jennifer Justice, who also represents Jay-Z, to explore a possible lawsuit. She disagreed with his position, declining to take his case. "It didn't help his reputation," she says. "It was like he was committing career suicide."

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