The Death of Disco
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.
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 suicideit 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 friendswho'd heard him spin, chatted with him over IM, or responded to one of his ubiquitous message-board postswondered why someone with so much going for him would check out so early.
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."
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 reela CD of completed instrumentals for saleand 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.
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.
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 manufacturedwould 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 shithe 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."
Disco, whose aggressive stance was shaped by an unfavorable contract he signed early in his career, was unwilling to compromise. His desperation was exacerbated by his troubles making the rent on his dream loft. "At the end of the day, they made a shitload of money off it, and they paid him not even a month's salary," says James Johnson, who lived a floor below Disco in Williamsburg. "That was hard to swallow."
The "Ski Mask Way" situation might have been more tenable had other prospective G-Unit projects like those with rapper Tony Yayo and singer Olivia actually materialized. And it wasn't only G-Unit. "There were always five mainstream projects maybe going to happen," Cheadle says.
Disco's anxiousness to find the next "Ski Mask Way" frequently landed him in trouble. He composed Trick Daddy's "I Pop," an infectious ode to ignorance, for the Miami rapper's seventh album, Back by Thug Demand. "We were considering it for an underground buzz single, and we were going to do an underground video for it," says Atlantic A&R vice president Mike Caren. "During the mix process, when D found out that it was going to be his buzz single, he leaked the song and sent an announcement that he produced Trick Daddy's first single." In an era in which entire albums are freely available online before the release date, labels like Atlantic are increasingly concerned about their MP3s floating around the Net. "Any producers/songwriters that leak records and don't stay in line with me on our plan, I shy away from working or at least trusting them with music," Caren says plainly.
Unable to properly set up and promote "I Pop," Caren responded by dropping the song from the album. ("I Pop" was eventually included as a bonus cut on a special Best Buy album edition.) "It upset me and hurt our friendship for a while," Caren admits.
The incident eventually spurred a conversation in which Disco told Caren that he struggled with mental illness. Still, the damage was done.
As Disco became more manic, his indiscretion grew. On low-bee.com, the message board of the Philadelphia DJ crew Hollertronix, he gushed about a session with Lil' Jon protégé Lil' Scrappy. The faithful congratulated him. But other postsespecially his spirited, hyper-intellectual defense of the Federline projectwere frequently disparaged.
"Yes, 'PopoZao' was all a big joke, just to see if I could pull it off," Disco wrote. "Enjoy the show."
But to the hypercritical adherents of low-bee.com, Disco's attempt to play off his work with the music biz's favorite whipping boy as irony didn't stick.
"I just don't buy this," a poster replied to Disco. "Sorry."
"I also don't see you buying the album, physically or digitally," Disco replied. "This product wasn't intended for you to consume. It was intended to consume your opinions. I don't see someone like you ever choosing to monetize a relationship with 'pop' culture in a traditional way. However, there are tons of other 'brainwashed analog computers' that will monetize that kind of relationship, or convince their parents or other fiscally influential 'humans' to 'pay' for it."
Offline, Disco's stance shifted. When charscalex100 King magazine interviewed him for a K-Fed feature, Disco seemed genuinely upset that Federline's record company didn't properly promote the baile-funk single in Brazil. Disco even continued to defend the project to Caren, who was dead set against it. This further complicated their already strained relationship. (Federline was unavailable for comment, but Disco's neighbor James Johnson says that after an argument, many of Disco's contributions were chopped from K-Fed's widely panned album. Johnson also alleges that Disco wasn't fairly compensated for the Federline project.)
By the time Disco connected with Cheadle and Selter on low-bee.com in the summer of 2006, he was at his "most manic," Cheadle recalls. His low-bee.com profile signature listed all of his business ventures: Braza; aLeda, a clear rolling paper from Brazil he'd begun importing; the Hustle Harder documentary; and discod.com. And he had more schemes on the boards. Inspired by Brazil's move toward energy independence, he announced plans to import sugar ethanol, describing his distribution plans in byzantine detail.
In his 700-square-foot loft, the confluence of these interestsalong with Moses, Johnson's 175-pound English mastiffformed a surreal scene. "I'm sitting there chilling," Emile recalls, "and he's got the video camera, and he's doing a million things, like, 'Let's go play this video gamewait, let's go make this beat! Look at this!' Then these people start showing up. He's got this crazy skunk weed, and he's rolling these clear joints. And then this dude comes in with this massive horse of a dog. He's got like 16 interns running around, and he's ordering them around: 'Go fix me some soup!' and 'Mail this out!' It's like, 'Dude, your life is crazy.' "
As the summer wore on, the interns multiplied. First came Ben Levin (a/k/a Benny Blanco), who'd MySpaced Disco and told him that "Ski Mask Way" inspired him to make beats. Donny "Goines" Scott, an aspiring rapper, started working for Disco the same day he placed an ad on a music-industry website. (Disco handed him keys to his loft on the spot.) Donnie and Bennie begat more interns: Doobie, Benny Blanco's childhood rap partner; Grocery Man, a teenage producer from Westchester who shared insomnia and inspiration with Disco; and Mike Tons, a friend from Ann Arbor. There were even interns in other countries, engaged in online promotions. Most of his non-virtual volunteer force crashed on his floor.
Even for Benny, his most prized intern, working for Disco grew challenging, especially when the wiry producer critiqued his work. "He'd be like, 'That's horriblethrow all these beats away.' He'd crack CDs over his knee," says Benny. "It was intense."
In Disco's better moments, he took special pride in guiding his interns through the business. "I remember he was like, 'Donny, come here. Tell these kids what you do,' " Selter recalls. "And this kid comes in and is like, 'I'm a rapper. I've been using MySpace for about six months now, and I'm getting successI've been in these offices and now I'm here working for Disco.' It was like it was a presentation."
But almost as frequently, relations with the interns went horribly wrong. Disco met a young producer from Alaska on low-bee.com. The kid shared both his passion for music and his bipolar disorder. Along with Cheadle and Selter, Disco resolved to "adopt" him. But when he and Disco clashed, the kid wound up on Cheadle and Selter's couch, refusing to return to Disco's loft. Soon the adoptee began threatening Cheadle and Selter and their cat. They called in a local rap group and had him forcibly removed. In another instance, two interns from the neighborhood stole a sampler and demanded a ransom. (They eventually returned it unharmed.)
As relations with the interns frayed, Disco grew increasingly isolated. He sent for Joe Hahn, an old friend from the ghetto-tech scene who also battles bipolar disorder. Disco wanted to hustle beats, and the two set off for rapper Rick Ross's release party in Miami. Hahn drove straight through, stopping only for pancakes and a nap at Disco's mother and stepfather's Washington, D.C., home.
Shortly after they returned, Disco's mania turned to depression. "Think of a circle above your head, and you have 10 positive thoughts and 10 negative," explains Hahn. "Every time that circle goes around, one positive thing will drop out. Eventually, the only things he would focus on were the negative things."
Selter recalls that period: "We'd be on IM and sense shit. We'd be like, 'We're coming up to your neighborhood,' and we'd just bring him food. He'd be up there shivering away, having not taken a shower in I don't know how long. It was just like, 'Damn, to me on the outside, you have all this talent, you have these connections, you have this crazy energy.' The depression just overrode all that shit."
In one instance, Benny ran into the rapper AZ, with whom Disco had previously collaborated, on the street near his apartment. He called for Disco, who wandered downstairs in his pajamas. "AZ is, like, ordering a burrito," recalls Selter, who was also present. "So Disco comes out, and AZ's like, 'Hey, man, how you doing? You got to come by the studio. I want to hear more music. I need to get a beat from you. You got anything?' Disco's like, 'I don't have anything right now. I'd have to come up with something special for you.' " He never followed up.
By December, the interns were history. "They realized their dreams weren't being accomplished and they all went home," neighbor Johnson says. "Right before Christmas, he was alone, and he went through some pretty bad shit upstairs by himself. He came down to my room very emotional." Disco sat with Moses, taking solace in the massive dog's gentle company. "He basically didn't leave me and my girlfriend's side for 48 hours, until Joe came up and his father came to get him. We sent him home to his mother's to regroup."
At first, there were hopeful signs. "He hung with us a lot," says his mother, Deborah Amdur. "We got him a membership to our gym. We spent a lot of quality time together." But, she adds, "I think it was also difficult for him to feel so far removed from his music community."
In mid-January, Disco received some encouraging news: Chamillionaire had selected one of his beats, and Lil' Wayne would appear with him on the song. "He was happy when he found out Lil' Wayne was going to be on the track," Chamillionaire recalls. "He was like, 'You and Lil' Wayne are two of my favorite Southern rappers right now. I'll be honored.' "
Disco discussed the good news with Benny via IM in late January. But something about the conversation gave Benny pause. "For some reason, I suspected something was up," Benny says. "We were talking like it was the last time we were going to speak.
"I told him, 'You've always been a big influence.' I have no idea why I said that. He was like, 'Yeah, man, you're going to be really big soon.' It just ended on a real brotherly thing. We started pouring emotions out about each other. I was like, 'I love you, man.'
"And he just said, 'I'm going to bed.' Now, D was a late-nighter. This was pretty early."
On January 23, Benny tried to reach his mentor: "I hit him up on the phone. He didn't answer. I hit him up on e-mail. He didn't hit me back. As the day went on, I found out more and more." The news spread quickly on IM, e-mail, and message boards: Disco was gone.
Disco's death reverberated throughout the dance/hip-hop worldduring his manic periods, he maintained an impossible number of friends and associatesbut it struck the former inhabitants of his loft particularly hard. Benny avoided speaking to reporters, Grocery Man shut down his MySpace page, and Hahn just needed to talk. It's a month after Disco's death, and he's gotten wind that a story is being written. He's located the writer. "I did something very stupid," he blurts out almost immediately. "You know what Dave did? I tried something similar. . . . Dave's death took a toll on me that I can't even put into words."
Hahn isn't alone. "I have lived with the fear of David dying because of this disease for several years now," his mom admits. "I guess there was a part of me who knew that there was potential for him to end up this way. We always kept hope that somehow you can change that."
To steady herself at his funeral, Amdur clung to childhood pictures of David and his older sister, Becky.
A couple of months later, though, Disco's parents were forced to deal with their son's unfinished business. Chamillionaire was putting the finishing touches on his sophomore album and needed to finalize his song lineup. He loved Disco's contribution, a rock-flavored number called "Rock Star."
"The situation was so hard because of all of the people involved with it," Chamillionaire says. "His estate has to go to a parent [for approval]." His father hired a lawyer; negotiations became contentious. "So it's like a very, very touchy and tricky situation, and it just got too hard for me to deal with. I'm not trying to do nobody wrong, so I will back out of it and be like, 'Look, let's just let Disco D rest in peace.' " He decided to drop Disco's contribution from the album. Even in death, doing business with Disco D seemed a bit too complicated.
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