When David "Disco D" Shayman took his life in New York last week, his death shocked and saddened his thousands of fans, friends and colleagues. And those who remembered the Ann Arbor kid the one who went from DJ'ing ghettotech at raves to making beats for 50 Cent are hit particularly hard.
Shayman wasn't a music industry tragedy waiting to happen; rather, he was a professional and a businessman with a vision and talent that transcended the underground scene that had nurtured him. When I first met D in 1998, he was still in high school. It was his prom night, but he was tag-team DJ'ing (as his date looked on) with veteran radio mix jock Wax Taxin' Dre at a rave in Detroit.
Soon after, he made his first record with a name almost too dirty to mention "Dick That Bitch Down" while he was still a virgin. He pitched the vocal down so that the chant became its own hook. Simple, but ingenious. But I had to ask, why would a 17-year-old saxophone prodigy from Ann Arbor be drawn to the big, bad Dee-troit booty bass scene with its DJ Assaults and Godfathers? It was the pain from his parents' divorce that sent him into the party scene, he told me; the electro and bass music kept him there. "It was the first music I heard that I could really feel," D said.
Nearly a decade later, he had gone from making bootleg ghettotech remixes of Trick Daddy cuts to actually producing beats for Trick Daddy. He had graduated from University of Michigan's undergraduate business school with honors. While other jocks smoked their weed and tapped their bottles waiting to go on at raves, D would bring his econ textbook and study in the car. His keen sense of how the music business functioned drove him as much as his urge to create music. He served as a mentor, inspiration and friend to Sam Valenti IV and the Ghostly International label, where, outside his family in DC and Ann Arbor, the pain of D's loss is most palpable.
He started his own label from his dorm room, used his status as ghettotech's college kid prodigy as a stepping stone to navigate the New York scene, and promptly used his place there to set up shop, doing work for commercials and making hip-hop beats. He was the first hell, the only jock to come out of the Detroit scene who looked beyond the regional success to see what was out there. And he was the only one to see that ghettotech a term he helped coin to make "booty" sound less tacky was great and all, but too musically limited to break bigger nationally. Not with all the dirty chants and super-fast electro beats. So he reinvented himself as a hip-hop producer in New York and Brazil, where he met a girl and fell in love. He worked and lived in both places, launching an underground hip-hop label in Brazil, touting his street-tough rappers as "the real Children of God" (after the Brazilian movie) while hitting it big in New York, making beats for 50 Cent and Kevin Federline.
He was a perfectionist in a music world filled with imperfection, a gentleman and a businessman in a business that didn't often honor either. So when he decided the pain was too great to go on he had split from his fiancee, admittedly suffered from bipolar disorder, and as anyone who's been there knows, January in the grayer pastures of New York City is brutal I can only conclude that it was part of his bigger plan. He had done things no one else had or could. He built a nice little place for himself at the intersection of art and commerce, and as comfortable as that address could be for some people, there were other things that made him unable to enjoy the view. When the pain became too great, he did something about it. When it was his parents' divorce, he joined the party. This time, he chose to leave it. Rest in peace, David. You've earned it, my friend. Hobey Echlin
To his last breath, James Brown was the hardest-working senior in show business. But, as they say, "If you can't beat 'em, sample 'em." And in my mind, Dave "Disco D" Shayman deserved his generation's "hardest-working" honor.
Shayman wrote club hits, but rarely went out unless he was the DJ. Instead, living in New York, he buzzed about his Williamsburg loft-turned-studio that saw a rotating cast of interns, music biz mercenaries and emcees stay up crazy hours, helping David plot his next move. People were drawn to his talent for turning smoke into fire.
On Tuesday, Jan. 23, Shayman, 26, committed suicide, leaving friends and family stunned. He'd suffered through depression and bipolar disorder, and the pop music grind didn't help.
Inspired by Detroit DJs Wax Tax 'N Dre, DJ Godfather, Brian Gillespie and Gary Chandler, Shayman cut his first record at 17, and bushwhacked his trail between gritty techno and sex-crazed hip hop. With Metro Times scribe Hobey Echlin, Dave coined the "ghettotech" genre.
It takes chutzpah for a skinny Jew from Ann Arbor to market Detroit's cabaret sound for his own, but Shayman didn't care. Besides, he was the only ghettotech DJ who proved any good at it marketing, that is. Nearly a decade before producing beats for Lil' Scrappy, Trick Daddy or Nina Sky, Shayman's DJ skills inspired slander and respect from his peers a sure sign you've made it in Detroit.
In 1998, Details and XLR8R magazines ran lengthy features on Shayman, jumpstarting an international DJ career despite a heavy University of Michigan load. Before earning his undergrad business degree, he started a label, GTI Recordings. Shayman's pushy fearlessness inspired Matthew Dear and Sam Valenti to form Ann Arbor's renowned Ghostly International imprint. Shayman taught them everything about licensing, pressing, distribution, booking and promotion. He even produced their first record.
I met Shayman in Ann Arbor in 1998. Only 17, he was practically yelling on his cell phone, just so I'd know he was cutting a deal. He was that punk I'd seen scratching too much when he DJ'd the Blind Pig's "Solar" Wednesdays. He was flashy, but damn, was he good.
By 2004, I'd written three Disco D stories at that point I was no longer objective. Interviews with Disco became deep conversations about aspirations and spirituality. His relentless, if not transparent, skills at self-promotion became charming. Suddenly, we'd been friends for years.
In 2005, when G-Unit purchased one of his beats for 50 Cent, Shayman flew me to Manhattan. I told him straight-up that I couldn't pitch an honest story, but he likely figured my big mouth was ample media coverage.
I'll never forget Dave's face in that office, hearing "Ski Mask Way" for the first time, how 50's tortured rhymes and smooth cadence mirrored a lush, nuanced beat a track he'd written while estranged from his Brazilian model-actress fiancee. (He visited her often, and even taught himself Portuguese in two months of racking up long distance bills to São Paulo.)
At that precise moment, Disco D became an A-list producer (See video).
Chemical imbalance aside, Dave Shayman was extraordinarily positive. But, man, was he intense. The room any room ebbed and flowed with his energy. Doing one's best meant nothing; it was about showing the world your potential.
His potential was boundless, and his life too short. Robert Gorell
Dave Shayman's family is requesting that his friends and fans donate to Neutral Zone (www.neutral-zone.org), an Ann Arbor teen center that gives workshops in digital art and music production.
Robert Gorell and Hobey Echlin are freelance writers. Send comments to [email protected]