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nn Arbor is not Detroit. For anyone who knows the area, it’s a truism. For those new to Ann Arbor, it’s a phrase that gets at all the things that make the city so accommodating, inspiring, and deflating.
It’s that tension—the tightrope between the metropolis and the wilderness that each suburb walks—that gives Ann Arbor artists their edge. Poet Robert Hayden took the seething rage of Detroit’s post-industrial African-American community and turned it into history-driven, moving, restrained verse while in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor native James Newell Osterberg, Jr.—Iggy Pop—took the guts-and-groin legacy of Motown and Detroit black rock, injected suburban ennui, and made the Stooges.
For producer Dave Shayman, known professionally as Disco D, the Detroit/Ann Arbor circuit was a lifeblood for his music, juxtaposing white suburbs with black city, cyclic, almost baroque drum and bass compositions with filthy words, and the traditional black pop roots of Detroit with Ann Arbor’s international, experimental core. That cultural and professional balancing act made Shayman a production wunderkind, getting him on multi-platinum rap albums and chic electronic imprints alike. Though Shayman was talented, energetic, and hugely successful before reaching thirty, he struggled with deep clinical depression. Shayman gave in to that struggle on January 23 and took his own life. He was 26.
Shayman was born in St. Louis, raised and educated in Ann Arbor, and cut his artistic teeth exploring the famed Detroit electronic scene. Inspired by mid-’90s Miami bass and Detroit DJs like Gary Chandler and DJ Godfather, Shayman helped popularize (and reportedly name) “Ghettotech,” a narcotic slurry of wound-up bass, house music, glitchy drums, and unapologetically crass lyrics (see DJ Assault’s touchstone “Ass ��N’ Titties”). He wasn’t the first to attempt that specific musical polyglot, but for the past few years he was its name and face.
Shayman signed his first record deal at 17. He founded his own label, GTI (Ghettotech Institute), at 19. At an age where most of his peers were adjusting to college or life after high school, Shayman was a DJ on the Ann Arbor club circuit, releasing his own records on his own label (2001’s Straight Out Tha Trunk) and receiving national press exposure, all while earning honors grades at the University of Michigan’s highly touted business school.
In 1999 he co-produced (as Daisha) Mathew Dear’s first single, “Hands Up for Detroit,” one of the first songs released by Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International, a label whose rise from regional-to-national notoriety paralleled Shayman’s own story. The all-important “scene” of Ann Arbor was primed for an explosion. A new circle of DJs, musicians, producers, and their requisite support staff of hipsters, club owners, students, and journalists gave the sleepy academic town a new layer.
Rob Theakston, former label manager at Ghostly and Detroit-area DJ, recalled seeing Shayman at work in Ann Arbor:
I met him while he was playing at a club called Solar. I had no idea who this skinny kid on stage was. I hated him at first, this awkward white kid doing DJ Assault impressions. Then I actually met him and couldn’t help but like him.
Between his [Shayman’s] label, Interdimensional Transmissions, and Ghostly, Ann Arbor was going to be the next big thing.
Sam Valenti IV, owner and founder of Ghostly International, and close friend of Shayman recalled first meeting him:
It was 1998 and I was in Ann Arbor writing an article for a small local newspaper and heard about this local renaissance man, producer, and DJ. He was doing his own thing. It was something that owed a debt to the Detroit scene but it was also detached. Ann Arbor [electronic music] pays homage to Detroit, but Dave helped morph it into something else.His skills were visible to others as well. Shayman’s friends and colleagues were bowled over by his talents and raw personality: professional hunger and ambition blended with irreverence, an impulse for experimentation mixed with a trained business acumen. Shayman could be both an energetic, demanding artist and a humble counsel to friends and younger artists. Even better, Shayman’s business knowledge made him one of the rare artists who could make prodigious amounts of interesting art and manage to effectively market it to the public.
“I remember I’d see him in the studio, his laptop would have about fifteen AIM windows open, he’d be emailing someone, talking on his phone, and mixing something all at the same time. His eyes would close, he’d stick out his tongue a little, just this cyclone of energy doing everything at once,” Valenti said.
After his graduation from Michigan in 2002, Shayman left for New York. To the people who knew him, the move was simply another step in his career.
Valenti explains: “He came to New York to produce for commercial rap, to get his name out. I think he may have seen Ghettotech as kind of a blind alley. It gave him a lot of confidence to be able to produce songs for major rap acts. It was part of his career path. He was a game-plan kind of guy.”
By 2003 Shayman had released his first major label album, A Night at the Booty Bar, on Tommy Boy. Within months he was producing songs for Nina Sky, remixing B.G. tracks, and working with Princess Superstar. Shayman’s aesthetic flexibility and constant desire to “rep ass-shaking music” kept him busy. He was actually doing what so many young, talented artists promise: getting work, making his name, and producing music with any partner willing to work with him.
The hustle paid off. When crafting his second album, rap juggernaut 50 Cent bragged that he was going to ignore offers from A-list production suitors (Kanye, the Neptunes, Just Blaze) and simply listen to dozens of discs of shuffled instrumental tracks from unknown producers. 50 Cent stayed at least partly true to his word, plucking Shayman’s “Ski Mask Way” for his sophomore album, 2005’s multi-platinum behemoth The Massacre. In a few years Shayman had gone from local Michigan DJ to sharing album space with Scott Storch and Dr. Dre.
“Ski Mask Way,” as many have pointed out, does not sound like the typical Disco D composition of lurking, decadent Miami hydraulics. It creeps along with a smoky momentum: a barely recognizable vocal loop of a woman cooing a single syllable (a brilliant aesthetic nod to Ghostface’s “One”) over a winding, almost-voiceless bass line.
“Ski Mask Way” ended up being one of the few songs from The Massacre that acquitted itself well with the critics, “the street,” and Shayman’s fellow beat-makers. But despite his chart success, Shayman remained hungry. In the immediate months before his death, was beginning to explore the music of Brazil—Baile funk and all its clattering power, first and foremost. For a man who said he grew up holding GWAR in equal esteem as Earth Wind & Fire, forays into Brazilian funk and Baltimore club while tending to a surging commercial rap career were just new balancing acts for an already accomplished young man.
Shayman never held back about his difficulties with mental illness. As reported in The Michigan Daily, he even opened up on the Low Budget message boards (a DJ resource for remixes), sharing his family’s history with bi-polar disorder and depression and his own burden in grappling with the disease.
Shayman’s death rocked the tight-knit circle of DJs, producers, and other artists who were close to his life and career. Message boards and websites surged with memories of a young man who charmed strangers with his gumption and wit and inspired younger musicians with invested, specific advice. The Detroit Metro Times ran the most heartfelt pieces of all: two personal tributes from men who knew him better than any of us.
For those who were close to him, no words or memorial gesture can ever ease each person’s specific, singular pain in losing him. And for outsiders, the power of a young man emerging from a personal darkness with passionate art and actually getting it out to people is the only solace we can take. That, and the reminder that we have to be dogged in our efforts to protect the ones we love. As Theakston said, “You have to take an interest in the health of your friends. Mental illness is a serious condition, it’s a medical, physical disease. You have to look out for each other.”
Note: In lieu of flowers or gifts, Mr. Shayman’s family has asked that donations be made to Ann Arbor’s Neutral Zone, a local center for teens that provides art and music instruction.
By: Evan McGarvey
Published on: 2007-02-12