I never met David Shayman, the 27-year-old producer who called himself Disco D and who committed suicide yesterday. But we knew a few of the same people, we probably went to some of the same parties, and I always felt a sort of weird unacknowledged kinship with him. We’re the same age, and we come from similar backgrounds (white, middle-class, went to college). The big difference: I’ve turned a love of music in general and rap in particular into something resembling a writing career, and he turned it into an actual creative calling, overcoming his own otherness to work with a lot of the people I write about constantly in this space. When Shayman and I were both in high school, Shayman was signing his first record contract. When we were both in college, he was forming a record label. When we were both 25, he was producing “Ski Mask Way,” the best track on 50 Cent’s The Massacre. Through sheer talent and energy, he became a part of what I write about. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s, but if someone had offered me a chance to switch places with Shayman, I’d at least have to sit down and think about it for a few minutes. From where I’m sitting, he was living the dream, so his suicide came as an absolute shock. Some people have a lot more going on than we’ll ever know.
Shayman grew up in Ann Arbor, and he came up in the Detroit ghettotech scene; there’s some speculation that he even coined the term. He also had a ton of connections in the whole Hollertronix axis. Most of his productions, even his straight-up rap ones, had an fun sort of ADD jerkiness learned secondhand from Miami bass and dancehall and Baltimore club and Brazilian baile funk. They were hard and simple, resting on a few drum-machine clacks and synth bloops, but they managed to pack hooks into their uptempo twitches. The most famous song Shayman ever produced was probably Kevin Federline’s “Popozao,” and I don’t think anyone imagined that song would ever gain anything like a tragic context. And Shayman is the reason that “Popozao” is a better song that VH1’s army of talking heads probably realizes; its airy synth hook floats over its chaos of percussion with a sort of otherwordly grace, and I have to wonder what might happen if an actual rapper had gotten his hands on it instead.
A real rapper did get his hands on “I Pop,” one of the better songs on Trick Daddy’s Back By Thug Demand. It’s a bit weird that it took a Michigan hipster kid to take Trick back to his Miami-bass roots when he’s mostly just talking about thug stuff on the rest of the album, and it’s even weirder that Shayman’s itchy, minimal drums sound completely at home in the album’s context. On “Turnin’ Me On,” one of Nina Sky’s two good songs, those drums take on a Latin freestyle lilt and suggest that Shayman’s real calling might’ve been straight-up teenpop. But “Ski Mask Way” is probably the best Disco D track I’ve heard, and it’s a straight-up classic rap track with none of his usual twerked-up energy, a slow, lush lilt with a softness that makes the hard shit 50 mumbles over it that much more resonant. Over the next couple of months, a lot of posthumous Shayman tracks are probably going to emerge; he apparently had a track on the next Chamillionaire album, for one. Other than “Ski Mask Way,” I don’t know if Shayman ever made a sad song, so it’s going to be weird hearing new celebratory party-rap tracks from a guy who just decided to end his own life.
I don’t know how or why Shayman decided to kill himself. Apparently he’d battled depression for his entire life and he’d just broke up with his fiancee; I imagine more news will come out later. I first heard of Shayman in this irresistibly great story that Julianne Shepherd posted on her blog a couple of years ago, and secondhand evidence would have to indicate that this guy liked to have fun. So this is one of those cases where happy people aren’t quite so happy after all.