DJ AM, I Hardly Knew Ye

In this long, slow march of the Summer of Death, we’ve been hit by losses across the spectrum: from newsmen (Walter Cronkite) to musical superstars (Michael Jackson) to art world stars (Dash Snow). But the one that was the closest to our lives in some ways is the passing of DJ AM on Friday. It was unexpected and sad in that he’s already cheated death at least once, surviving a plane crash with Travis Barker that four others did not; and it was surprising because early reports, yet unconfirmed, have pinned it as a drug overdose. AM, a.k.a. Adam Goldstein, was a recovering addict who was publicly trying to help other addicts in an upcoming MTV show Gone Too Far; it’s not clear yet if the show will ever see air. I reached out to some people to get their DJ AM memories. No doubt people are still stinging from the loss, so responses were slow to trickle in. If you have a memory to share about A.M., email {encode=”” title=”here”}.

After hearing the news via Twitter, I was struck by the difference in the tone of the reactions to AM’s death, when compared to the reactions to Dash Snow’s overdose. They were close in age and ran in circles that might have crossed over, but in many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Dash Snow’s persona was less sympathetic, in part because of a New York profile where he came across as a spoiled rich kid, throwing away the silver platter handed to him, and still getting rich and famous anyway. AM’s mythology is that of a self-made man, once very chubby, and who with the help of gastric bypass surgery got very skinny and handsome. He moved in the upper echelon of mainstream young Hollywood, dating Nicole Richie and Mandy Moore. He was a regular guy who made good and seemed to savor it. When he nearly died in the plane crash, people rooted for him. The fact that he succumbed to an old demon seems sad, and not selfish like in Dash Snow’s case.

In the end, they were more similar than any of us would like to admit. They were human beings with weaknesses that killed them. I admit I wasn’t very familiar with AM’s music. He played in clubs I wouldn’t normally go to, for a crowd I don’t really roll with. I come from the dance music underground — a child of raves and electronic music — and I always assumed AM was a celebrity DJ playing corny stuff for corny celebrities. A little prejudice on my part goes a long way. If someone was trying to sell me a party with DJ AM, I assumed it was not my sort of thing.

It turned out that was my loss. A quick listen to the last mix he put up on his Facebook page reveals a thoughtful take toward music — an ability to pair Fiona Apple in the same space as Massive Attack (the latter I snobbishly assumed he wouldn’t even know about).

A closer inspection of his career and musical taste reveals far more commonalities than I had naively thought. There on his Facebook page is a flyer for an Ed Banger party — that’s the French crew associated with Justice and Daft Punk, a crew with serious underground cred, and one I will gladly stay up late to hear. The remarkable thing about this party is that AM is not top-billed; he’s one of several DJs, standing side by side with far lesser-known jocks … and for this crowd, he’s perhaps not the most interesting. That a DJ like AM, who has played for major superstars and who made more money in a gig than most of the underground DJs on that flyer combined (at least in America), would be humble enough to be listed third or fourth was telling. It was about the music and not about the ego. I also didn’t know that he was a huge fan of Daft Punk and had dressed in Thomas Bangalter’s outfit and “punked” the Hard Fest crowd on Halloween last year wearing the whole mask-helmet get up, before revealing it was him. (That’s him in the picture making the Daft Punk symbol at another gig.)

There’s also his contribution to DJ culture: a DJ maven friend of mine pointed out that AM was a high-profile adopter of Serrato Scratch, the digital DJ mixing tool that most hardened vinyl diehards scoffed at when it first appeared on the scene; she also pointed out that his style, quick shifts between short snippets of songs across genres (including 70s and 80s rock), was hugely influential. This was particularly true in the mainstream bottle service clubs, where, like it or not, DJ culture has far more influence than any underground DJ has. That style was also perfect for our generation, with our short attention spans.

Then I read this quote on his website (it’s not clear where the interview comes from originally). It gives you some insight into how he developed his style.

Well I like all kinds of music… I was very much a “Hip Hop and Soul (rare groove)” DJ when I first started. Then one night I decided to play George Michael’s “Freedom.” I saw how loud the crowd sung along to it and I was hooked on making people sing, not just dance. That is how I started reaching for the different kinds of records. Then, I think a lot of DJs caught onto this and do something similar now.

While the party he did with Steve Aoki, Banana Split Sundaes, has been canceled, no doubt there will be more opportunities to celebrate his life and music in coming weeks.

Nic Adler, the owner of the Roxy, a venue AM has DJed, wrote me about AM’s passing. Perhaps, he says it best”

To this generation AM was our bridge between genres of music and culture that had not yet been brought together. He made it cool for the metal rockers to listen to hip hop, the bboys to bang their heads and the electro kids sing a long to a 70’s ballad. I think it will be years til we truly understand how he shaped the way that we see and hear music. AM made music fun again. DJ AM FOREVER!


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