Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009 | midnight
Editor’s note: Jonathan Shecter grew up in Philadelphia, moving in the same hip-hop circles as the young Adam Goldstein, later to gain fame as DJ AM. The two later became friends.
Adam Goldstein is a musical genius who lived life in the fast lane and died too young. But the DJ AM story is not your standard rock star flameout. His is a complex tale of pain absorbed and pleasure deferred—of creative triumphs amidst personal tragedies.
The life and times of DJ AM are a study in duality. He is the troubled, drug-addled kid who contemplates suicide, but somehow finds a path to fame and fortune. He is the obese glutton of self-destruction who becomes a svelte, sober superstar and a model for clean living. He is the “celebrity DJ” splashed on the covers of gossip magazines, appearing to gain fame through trophy girlfriends but actually earning it through hard work, innovation and dues paid.
It’s the tale of a quick-thinking, self-effacing prodigy who experienced lower lows and higher highs than most of us will ever come close to. Witness the first DJ to reach the pinnacle of the entertainment industry, the first to combine exceptional technical skill with a diverse knowledge of music and a superstar persona—elevating his craft to an art form and transforming the nightclubs of Las Vegas and the entire world forever. Ultimately, his is the story of a man who cheated death time and time again, who rode his own talent to the top of the mountain, until finally, tragically, his demons caught up with him.
"Feed the soul, starve the ego"
That's the way DJ AM would sign his e-mails. On the surface, it may have seemed phony, a put-on, something a celebrity would say to make people think he was deep. But Adam’s friends understood his true depth and saw how these words offered a window into his complex chemistry.
For the past 11 years, DJ AM spent most of his free time helping addicts—giving them advice, driving them to AA meetings, coaching them towards recovery. He had adopted a technique of performing at least one totally kind, selfless act per day, never bragging about it or even mentioning it. In this framework, he was as generous and kind as a person could be. In his final days he had been filming these experiences for a new show on MTV.
If anyone seemed committed to sobriety, if anyone knew about the perils and pitfalls of the recovery process, it was DJ AM. Night after night, he performed in packed clubs, surrounded by drinkers and drug takers, temptation on all sides. For over 11 years, he never gave in, never took a sip of alcohol, never ingested an illegal substance. Eventually, he even relinquished the cigarettes and Red Bull too. It appeared to all that he had the thing licked, that he was on the verge of a new level of superstardom never before seen. So why did he end up dead, with a crack pipe nearby and a stomach full of OxyContin?
To understand DJ AM, to come to grips with the tragedy that has befallen him, we must trace the transformative arc of his life and career. We must understand where he came from to enlighten where he ended up. It’s a trajectory that reached its zenith right here in Las Vegas, where DJ AM reigned supreme as the undisputed king of nightlife.
I was lucky enough to be a passenger on that amazing ride, first as an observer, then as a fan, a friend and a business associate. When I was standing next to AM at the peak of his game, watching him work his magic from within the DJ booth, it felt like we were at the center of the universe. Here in Las Vegas he was a superstar in every sense: The money he made, the talent he displayed, the fans he attracted. Yet despite the limelight of megaclubs, the fancy suites and paparazzi, he never lost his humility, his humor, his realness.
I love Adam like a brother, which is why this entire denouement has been shocking and difficult to digest. But I feel it is my duty to be as honest as he was about his life, his success, his challenges, his amazing breadth of experience.
Adam Goldstein was born into an unstable Jewish family in Center City, PA in 1973. By his own account, his father was verbally abusive and “unbelievably cruel” during Adam’s childhood. Much of the tension in the home stemmed from his father’s secrets: He was bisexual, carried on affairs with men on the side and had become addicted to drugs. As a coping mechanism, Adam would overeat, stuffing his face with super-sized fast food orders. He would begin to experiment with drugs. And he would consume music.
By the mid ’80s, hip-hop music had taken hold in Philadelphia and the appeal was too strong for a young city kid to resist. I know this because I, too, was a Jewish kid from Center City, PA, about five years older than Adam and immersed in rap music myself. Philly is a city with a large black population, and hip-hop was all around us. We were drawn to the energy, the language, the style and the power of this edgy new expression.
At the time, the dominant groups were all from New York—Run-DMC, Whodini, Kurtis Blow and the Fat Boys—but Philly had a burgeoning rap scene, mainly based around its superstar DJs, Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money. To our young ears, rap music held promises of excitement and thrills, and for a troubled kid like Adam Goldstein, fantasies about being a hip-hop star offered an escape route.
Adam’s introduction to the art of music came through another Jewish DJ from Philly with present ties to Las Vegas: Milo Berger, known as DJ Mighty Mi, the resident DJ for Blush nightclub at the Wynn. Around age 13, a young Adam went over to a young Milo’s home and for the first time in his life, he saw an actual turntable setup and held an actual microphone.
Milo remembers that Adam had a “New York aura” about him, meaning he was a rebel with no restrictions, seemingly no parental guidelines, like a character in the movie Kids. Still, he was outgoing and funny in his manner, hyperactive but fun to be around. Creatively, Adam took on the initial role of a human beatbox, and aligned with a third young Philly hip-hop fanatic—a rapper named Mr. Eon (Erik Meltzer)—the trio set out to be the white version of the top Philly group at the time: DJ Jazzy Jeff, Fresh Prince and Ready Rock C.
Apparently, Adam was born with the funk in him. He was pretty good as a human beatbox, but that arrangement didn’t last long. He tried rapping and proved to have command of the mic and skill at freestyling. But once he saw Herbie Hancock perform “Rockit” on the Grammy Awards in 1984, Adam found his calling. He became obsessed with mastering the turntables and began the long process of acquiring equipment and learning the craft. None of us would have ever guessed that this fat, troubled, weed-smoking, wild kid would become the greatest DJ of all time.
This part of the story, the dark years, DJ AM has told in numerous interviews. A daily drug user by his mid teens, Adam suffered through years of ineffective rehabs followed by relapses. During an extended stay in rehab, he was visited by his mother, who told Adam his father had been diagnosed with AIDS: He died soon after.
By age 20, Adam had spiraled into chronic drug use, particularly crack cocaine. For several years he smoked crack almost daily and struggled as a low-paid DJ at small venues around LA. In his spare time, he begged, borrowed and stole to feed his addiction. He arranged robberies of drug dealers and drug users. While on a drug binge, his pattern was to isolate himself, often in a seedy motel room, and keep consuming drugs until they were all gone.
Even in this unstable state, Adam had a network of friends who were making moves in the music business. He hung with Neil Manan and his brother Alan, who was beginning to make strides as the hip-hop producer/artist Alchemist. He befriended Shifty Shellshock, another wild kid in the throes of drug addiction, and joined the group Crazy Town. They produced a hit single “Butterfly” which Adam contributed to before quitting the group to escape its drug-oriented dysfunction.
His addiction became desperation until one fatal night Adam put a loaded .22 pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The gun did not fire. Adam Goldstein was alive but he had reached rock bottom. In his utter desperation he was finally ready to accept the slow, painful lessons of rehab and recovery.
When I re-connected with DJ AMG in 2001, he had been clean and sober for a couple years (his original stage name—the initials for Adam Michael Goldstein—was later shortened by one letter). He weighed about 330 pounds and was massively self-conscious about his size (he jokingly called himself “Girth Brooks”), yet he was DJing at bigger, hipper clubs around Hollywood. Through his sobriety struggles, Adam had formed a friendship with LA-based promoter Brent Bolthouse, which had led to higher-profile gigs.
But Adam had not been “put on” via a shortcut or as a favor. Despite his drug haze, he had logged years of practice, compulsively perfecting the technical aspects of DJing, teaching himself the finer points of scratching, blending and mixing. He had a natural gift for rhythm, a surprising dexterity and an ever-increasing knowledge of music. He had earned the right to headline at hotspots like Garden of Eden, where I first witnessed his rebirth.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, DJs would specialize in one style of music, such as hip-hop or house. When you went to a party, you would be quite certain what to expect. There were a few American DJs who combined technical skill—real hip-hop training—with the mixing of multiple musical genres, namely DJ Spinbad in New York and DJ Z-Trip in LA. But none of them were playing major nightclubs.
The reaction I had watching Adam DJ that first night would be experienced over and over by many thousands of nightclub patrons, executives and fellow DJs for the rest of his days. It was a paradigm shift, a new framework for what a DJ should do and could get away with. Classic rock songs by AC/DC and Joan Jett were seamlessly blended with current hip-hop beats; dramatic scratches freely sliced through the speakers; tempos were sped up and slowed down, but the mix was always sharp, always on point.
House music, disco, pop, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s—it was all finding a place in AMG’s relentless musical blender. Like his wild youth in Philly, there were no boundaries, no restrictions. It was a fresh, innovative approach, a dramatic combination of technical skill, musical depth and cut-and-paste wizardry. The bar had been raised, the dance floor did not miss a beat.
Finding his niche, Adam began recording guest scratches for major names like Will Smith and Madonna, and booking private parties for Tom Cruise, Melissa Etheridge, Jim Carrey and many more. His confidence building with his sobriety, friends were getting a taste of how quickly his abstinent mind worked and how dedicated—even obsessive—he was about things that he liked.
Of course he loved music, and he built a collection of records to rival any DJ in the game. He loved sneakers, and he amassed dozens of classic Nikes, expanding to more than 600 pairs. He loved his cat, Mugsy. He took pleasure in his newfound ability to make money, and that pursuit proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now sober for several years, Adam’s primary hang-up was his weight. After trying several radical diets, he elected to undergo gastric bypass surgery. The effect was dramatic and almost immediate. Before we knew it Adam had trimmed nearly half his previous bulk, but lost none of his funkiness in the process. He was ready for his spotlight.
With DJ AM’s star rising in LA, and myself now residing in Vegas amidst the upscale nightclub explosion, the time came to connect the dots and bring my friend’s abundant talent to the Strip. Not surprisingly, nightlife pioneers the Light Group were the first to officially book DJ AM in Las Vegas and working with Sean Christie, then a high-ranking employee of the company. We booked DJ AM in October of 2003, for a fee of $1500. His set was masterful, igniting the dance floor and sparking interest amongst major nightclubs around town.
After several one-off gigs, and a number of offers for a permanent slot, AM settled into a residency at the new Body English at Hard Rock, partnering once again with Bolthouse to launch the new venture. By now his fee had reached $3500 per night, more money than he had ever earned previously. Adam was a tough negotiator, recognizing his uniqueness and holding firm to what he felt he was worth.
The Hard Rock residency lasted two years, through the Peter/Harry Morton era, and AM established his status as a major draw (Hollywood boldfaces on the regular) and a trendsetter who pushed musical boundaries. A new technology called Serato had taken hold, allowing DJs to spin mp3s on special pieces of vinyl that stayed on the turntable, replacing bulky crates with a single laptop. AM took to the change readily and effectively, and the result was more freedom to create bolder mega-mixes each time he performed.
DJ AM’s eclectic style became known as “mash-up,” borrowing a term that originated in England to describe a new generation of homemade, cross-genre remixes. As more DJs and nightclub owners heard AM’s mash up style, it became more influential in Las Vegas, eventually becoming the norm.
By now, AM had begun his iconic relationship with Nicole Richie, and he became more “Hollywood” than ever before. Friends liked to say he was a “closet” Hollywood guy. As much as he projected an air of humility and hip-hop realness (he loved to say “Aww Yeah”), he secretly obsessed over pictures of himself on WireImage and news in the gossip press. By the conclusion of his Hard Rock residency, Adam had announced his engagement to Nicole (they later split) and his rate had increased to $5000 per night.
The turning point towards being massive in Vegas came in the form of a small piece of paper in the hands of Stevie D, then head honcho at Pure Management Group. With DJ AM appearing in the press daily, and the mash-up phenomenon which he started now in full swing, Adam correctly believed it was time to go for the gold. So alongside his newly-appointed manager Lawrence Vavra—a sharp, careful Persian fresh out of law school—Adam convinced me to ask for an unprecedented sum of money for his next residency.
I sat in Stevie D’s office feeling excited and nervous, gathering the strength to recite the obscene fee request. We discussed Adam’s unique talent and his unprecedented reach in the pop culture zeitgeist. I knew Stevie D to be a tough, no-nonsense guy who would not hesitate to pay top dollar if it meant an exclusive commitment to his venues. I told him DJ AM was requesting $18,000 to $20,000 per performance. Without hesitation, he scribbled something on a small piece of paper and said, “I can pay this much.” The paper said $17,500. I nearly gulped, but I kept my poker face on and quickly countered with $19,000. Stevie thought for about ten seconds and said, “You have a deal.” Within minutes DJ AM was on the phone planning his first appearance at Pure.
It’s tough to estimate the effect that this deal had on the Las Vegas nightclub industry and DJ business around the country, but nearly everyone in the industry will agree that it changed the game. A million dollars a year for working once a week. Up to this point, only superstar dance DJs like Tiesto and Paul Oakenfold commanded the serious bucks. Never had an “open format” DJ like AM, a weekly resident, received this kind of payday. The deal cemented AM’s ascent to the pinnacle of the DJ business, while his creative influence continued to grow.
At Pure, DJ AM was in total control of his destiny, playing whatever he wanted and entertaining a growing list of Hollywood friends including Paris and Nicky Hilton, Lindsey Lohan and Danny Masterson. It was no longer shocking to read about Adam on Page 6, or see him hugged up with Mandy Moore or hosting a red carpet at the MTV Awards. He had a T Mobile Sidekick and a Pepsi bottle designed with his name and likeness. He filmed a guest spot on Entourage and a big budget sneaker commercial for Nike. He had become a genuine celebrity, and he continued to dazzle on the turntables.
So much of DJ AM’s routine has now been incorporated into the nightclub canon; his influence is remarkable. His whole approach, his whole sensibility has become the norm, though nobody does it as well as the originator. Every time you hear “Sweet Child Of Mine,” “Back in Black” or “I Love Rock N Roll” in a club, you can trace that to Adam Goldstein. His iconic mixes forever stay in the mind, like when he would blend Oasis’ “Wonderwall” with a funky breakbeat and rhythmically cut the words “backbeat,” or his amazing scratch routine on Michael Jackson‘s “Billie Jean.” He invented the notion of scratching out of a record using its last vocals, seamlessly blending into the next song - a funky fadeout. Like a magician, Adam offered one amazing trick after the next, and he kept the dancefloor packed.
With his new plateau of success, AM began to accumulate the trappings of a wealthy artist. He upgraded his primary residence to a lavish Beverly Hills home with an amazing view, and he purchased an expensive condo in New York City’s swanky Soho district. He drove an ever-more impressive series of cars, culminating in a top-of-the-line Audi that cost six figures. Even his poker bankroll got bigger, as he sometimes played a big cash game at the Bellagio during down time in Las Vegas to blow off steam.
By now, his musical repertoire had expanded to include the growing “hipster” movement of underground electro, new disco and danceable rock music. He became a massive fan of Daft Punk, Justice and MSTRKRFT, and was a key figure in the development and acceptance of this new sound, devoting a regular night in LA to it strictly “for the love,” known as Banana Split. For his own pleasure, AM would often play completely unknown records to large crowds at the peak of the night. Sometimes, if I was there in the DJ booth, he would throw on an old school hip-hop classic that we both knew was completely unfamiliar to everyone in the club except him and I.
These were the times that made knowing DJ AM so much fun. Behind those wheels, working his magic, he had the world at his fingertips. It felt good just to bask in his presence and watch him work. He was the hardest working DJ in history, never allowing a record to just play, always cutting, mixing and blending to keep the energy flowing. Women would gather around the DJ booth, vying for his attention and begging for a picture. When he was in a relationship, he was always loyal to his girl and refused the easy temptation. But in his single moments, he did indulge in the company of select ladies that struck his fancy.
Sometimes after the gig we would grab a meal or retire to his suite and talk about music and life for hours. It became easy for him to transition from “superstar DJ” to “regular guy.” If he was around in the daytime, we would grab a matzoh ball soup and corned beef sandwich from Canter's Deli inside Treasure Island—his favorite—somehow connecting us to a long-standing tradition of Jewish entertainers.
Adam’s love for music was infectious, and he thrived on analyzing both new and classic music of many genres, figuring out what part of the song he would incorporate into his nightly musical collage. His mind was as quick as his wit, and we would challenge each other in a modern version of “Name That Tune” involving back-to-back laptops. He always beat me. Adam spoke to other DJs daily, both prominent and obscure, keeping the pulse of what was heating up and making them feel good with his respectful approach. For most of us, Adam was the most famous person we knew, and he seemed to thrive on keeping a humble face while impressing us with his newest triumphs. He enjoyed the company of his friends and hosted gatherings in his screening room for True Blood.
Still strong in his sobriety, Adam would even tolerate mild substance use in his presence without feeling any urge to participate. When friends would ask if it was okay to light a joint, he would declare, “Of course, I want you to do it! I just want to smell it!” It was as if he had an impenetrable suit of armor preventing him from ingesting any drug. Frequent calls to his therapist, his sober brothers, his sponsors and sponsees would keep AM grounded and brutally honest at all times. “I’m not like you guys,” he would say. “I am an addict. If I take one sip of liquor, if I take one hit of a joint, I cannot stop. I will be smoking crack within a week, tops.” At the time, it seemed like that scenario was impossible.
When, after many successful nights, the Pure deal had run its course, AM once again sought a nightclub partner in Las Vegas that could accommodate his massive fees and super-sized draw. After a lengthy courting process involving George Maloof and N9NE Group president Michael Morton, he settled on The Palms and its Rain Nightclub. The new set-up was bigger than ever before, with a massive marketing campaign announcing DJ AM’s newest residency. From the opening night, the DJ AM show at Rain was larger than life, involving custom-made video segments, graphics and lights to accompany his advanced DJ skills.
With his fee still rising, DJ AM had come further down to Earth. He frequently arrived alone for his Friday night performance at Rain, by car, without a manager or entourage of any kind. We would joke that a giant menorah would light up the sky when he crossed over into Nevada territory after the long drive through California. I would meet him at the Palms valet, where we would enter and immediately take the stage. These seemed to be his most grounded times, and I was blissfully unaware that trouble was brewing deep inside him.
While the music industry struggled to reinvent itself after being decimated by illegal downloads, DJ AM was thriving. In recent years, the only aspect of the music business that’s gotten stronger is live performances, and that was DJ AM’s specialty. He rarely recorded himself and almost never produced original material, despite a promising deal with Interscope that he never allowed to get off the ground. Instead, he embarked on a new venture, a collaboration with drummer and media favorite Travis Barker, known as TRVS-AM.
Barker is as prolific and talented a drummer as AM was a DJ, so the duo combined forces for a new kind of live entertainment. They would reinterpret classic music of all genres, with Travis tirelessly banging out a wide variety of beats while AM manipulated sounds and melodies. It was an immediate hit, commanding even higher performance fees from nightclubs in Vegas and around the country. In its most recent incarnation, they added massive video screens and a complex light show, creating a diverse platform that, like AM himself, would reference a wide selection of musical genres.
Through The Fire
It was while returning home from a TRVS-AM gig in South Carolina that tragedy struck in September of last year. The tiny Learjet with six people aboard caught fire during takeoff and crashed back onto the runway. Upon first hearing the news, we thought we had lost our friend Adam, but it soon became clear that a remarkable miracle had occurred within the tragedy.
Four of the six passengers aboard the jet were killed, including two pilots and two of Travis’ crew, but somehow, unbelievably, the two most famous people on the plane, DJ AM and Travis Barker, had escaped death. It was almost too freakish to be true. The survivors were transported to a top burn center in nearby Georgia, where they embarked on a painful recovery, both physical and emotional.
News of the crash sent shock waves through the entertainment industry, but nobody was more shocked than DJ AM. His response to the tragedy would prove to be as complex as his life to that point. On one hand, he was brave, strong and lucky to be alive, proclaiming his thankfulness and humility to the world. On the other, he was deeply in pain on the outside and inside, silently suffering a “survivors guilt” that others could never understand. Perhaps evading death for the second time would be too much of a burden for even Adam Goldstein to absorb.
It didn’t take long for DJ AM to get back behind the turntables—too soon in the opinion of most who knew him. He could have taken months off, even years, without suffering any loss in his status or his fees. But within weeks of the fire, he was back on stage, first alongside Jay Z for an L.A. performance, and then behind the decks in Las Vegas.
I remember Adam expressing how weird it felt to DJ after the accident, that he didn’t really feel like himself. Of course this made total sense to me, as anyone who had been through that kind of emotional and physical trauma would not feel like their former selves. But AM soldiered on, performing with Travis several more times and launching his new residencies in Las Vegas and at a new club he co-owned called Dusk at Caesars Palace in Atlantic City.
On the positive side, AM was proud of his new girlfriend, a young and beautiful blonde model named Hayley Wood. They were clearly attached at the hip and enjoying each others’ company, showing up together nearly every time he played. And business-wise things couldn’t have looked better. Adam had created the Deckstar DJ management company along with Lawrence Vavra and Paul Rosenberg of Eminem fame. They represent many top names, including his childhood hero DJ Jazzy Jeff, with whom AM now performed side-by-side.
DJ AM was set to appear as the star of DJ Hero, a new video game from the makers of Guitar Hero that will be a huge hit this fall. During a massive launch party for the game in L.A., AM shared the stage first with Travis, and then with Jay Z and Eminem, surely a highlight of his career. DJ Hero represented an exciting new medium for the superstar turntablist to conquer.
As the weeks passed, AM may have seemed a bit more preoccupied than he had been in his glory days, a bit less carefree. Still, those close to him saw no need for alarm. In retrospect, we should have been concerned. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and an understandable fear of flying, Adam had been prescribed Xanax to help him deal with longer trips. Many now feel that this prescription started a chain reaction that drove Adam back to his darkest demons, an addiction that still lived in the corners of his mind.
The Final Countdown
What happened during the final weeks of DJ AM’s life? While there is no way to know everything clearly, some revealing details have surfaced among friends and close associates.
The MTV show AM had been filming had taken him to some scary places, following addicts as they “copped” crack from street dealers. Adam described to friends how he had to purchase a crack pipe for the show, and how his hands were shaking with all the anxiety he felt just from holding the smoking accessory. Did close exposure to his former drug of choice accelerate Adam’s relapse? Some friends are convinced this is the case.
Other tales have emerged of Adam appearing incoherent and possibly high weeks before his death. When pressed for an explanation, he would explain that he was prescribed Xanax, which presumably he had become addicted to even when not flying. It is clear from addiction experts and Adam’s own therapist that the Xanax was a trigger or gateway, awakening addiction patterns in him that had been dormant for some time.
Close colleagues in the sober community have revealed some of AM’s recent, disturbing confessions. He was fantasizing about using drugs again, about being deep in a cave where nobody could stop him from smoking crack. He was fantasizing about buying enough drugs to last forever, now that he could afford such a thing.
What is clear is that he arrived in New York on the weekend prior to his death and started a week-long isolation in his upscale apartment. Some think he may have immediately begun using drugs, but there is no way to know for sure. He did travel down to Atlantic City on Tuesday night, August 25th, to perform a set at Dusk. Witnesses say he was not at his best, not as friendly as normal, though nobody had any idea he was under the influence of drugs.
Adam, always brutally honest, had confessed to his AA sponsor that he planned to use drugs following his performance. The sponsor did his best to talk him out of it, but there’s only so much one can do to stop a very intelligent, very wealthy adult from doing as he wished. In his skewed thinking, Adam felt he had “earned” the right to smoke crack after his years of stone cold sobriety.
The drug binge continued for approximately 72 hours, during which time Adam was likely alone, replicating the behavior of his previous drug dependency. When he was unresponsive to friends and missed a flight back to Vegas, several close colleagues appeared at his door and demanded entry. Adam would only admit his AA sponsor, who after a time was forced to leave so Adam could continue his drug feast.
Adam Michael Goldstein was found dead on the late afternoon of Friday, August 28th, the precise time he should have been arriving in Vegas to perform for his Rain residency.
As I contemplate this tragedy, the saddest part is imagining the mental anguish my friend must have felt in his final hours. I do not believe he committed suicide, as some reports have suggested. I think it was an accidental overdose, carried out by a man who was painfully self-aware of his own weaknesses.
How do I remember DJ AM? A music lover, a good friend with a lightning-quick mind. A genius with technology, hilariously funny, often humble, sometimes egotistical, always honest and always a gentleman to the core. I like to say he is the funkiest white man of all time. As far as the art and business of DJing, AM didn't change the game, he was the game. As far as his qualities as a man, there will never be another like him. I will love him and miss him always.
Jonathan Shecter, aka Shecky Green, is a media entrepreneur and hip-hop and rock historian residing in Vegas since 2002.