One night in 1997, while high on crack, DJ AM recounted, he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. “I felt like I was someone else, like I was wearing a crackhead costume,” he said. “What am I doing in this body with this film on my face?” He decided life was no longer worth living, put a .22-caliber pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
DJ AM: His Life, Times, Shoes
PERCHED on a dimly lighted stage at Studio B, a nightclub on a desolate block in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, DJ AM was spinning a retro-flavored soundtrack on a recent Thursday evening. Hopscotching across genres and decades, he mixed ’80s freestyle (Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts”) with Baltimore club music (“Do the Wu Tang” ); ’60s girl group sweetness (“Baby Love” by the Supremes) with raunchy R&B (Ginuwine’s “Pony”) .
Then he threw the theme song from “Rocky” into the mix, which prompted one young woman in sunglasses and a striped turtleneck to giddily exclaim: “Oh, my God! I can’t believe he’s playing this.” But even more impressed than the patrons on the packed dance floor was the coterie of D.J.s hovering around his booth.
“He is ridiculous,” said Drew Hall, who spins under the name Goofy Whitekid and had flown from Pittsburgh to hear the hourlong set. “I’ll learn stuff from here watching him, take it back home and kill it in the club.”
DJ AM, 34, has grown used to the attention, although he says he is still a bit mystified by it: “Back in the day, I’d be playing in a corner, and now I’m on stage and people are staring at me, but I’m not a performer. This ain’t Kool and the Gang.”
“I don’t want to be on the stage,” he added with a cock of his head. “But I want that stage money. I’m not going to say no to that.”
His name has become a mainstay in gossip columns; his boyish face, usually snuggled against a starlet’s, appears regularly in the celebrity weeklies. It would seem easy to write him off as another playboy who has managed to date his way to B-list stardom in the sketchy tradition of pampered heirheads like Paris Latsis, Brandon Davis and Stavros Niarchos. Except that in the world of D.J.-ing, he is the real thing, celebrated for far more than being Nicole Richie’s former boyfriend.
“There is a lot of questionable talent in the world of celebrity D.J.s,” said Nick Barat, a music editor at Fader, a magazine that covers emerging music and fashion. “I’m always consistently amazed at how awful they are. But AM is not the product of nepotism. He’s someone who has grinded all the way to the top, and he deserves all the attention and money he is getting right now.”
Born Adam Michael Goldstein, DJ AM is enjoying the perks of top-guy status in the club world: money (he spins Fridays at Pure in Las Vegas, earning hundreds of thousands a year, he says); girls (once engaged to the gossamer-thin Ms. Richie, he’s been linked to the actress Mandy Moore and, most recently, the model Jessica Stam); and lucrative side projects (he’s opening a Las Vegas outpost of LAX, a Los Angeles club that he is a partner in, and has been hired to design a new Diet Pepsi bottle, of all things).
An indisputable testament to cultural relevance is that his obsession with sneakers (he owns 1,000 pairs) figured into an episode of “Entourage” on HBO last season. When the character Turtle sought a rare limited-edition pair of kicks, he was told DJ AM had bought the last ones. Turtle was distraught.
Although he has been a fixture on the Los Angeles club circuit since the 1990s, DJ AM would probably not be enjoying such fame were it not for his much-chronicled relationship with Ms. Richie.
“He’s an amazing D.J., but there are a lot of amazing D.J.s,” said Janice Minn, the editor of US Weekly, which charted the couple’s three-year romance and brief engagement. “The difference is that there’s only one who dated Nicole. It put him on the map.”
DJ AM declined to discuss his romantic life, past or present, and he shot down any suggestion that he dates high-profile women to attract publicity. “I’m a straight man and I like beautiful women, whatever their profile may be,” he said. With a shrug he added: “I work hard at what I do. I don’t have anything to prove.”
His style on the turntables is what they call “mash up.” He has become as known for excavating obscure songs as he is for seamlessly blending tracks with unlikely partners. Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” with the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.” “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las spliced with the rapper Lil Jon’s signature call, “O-kaaay.”
“He’s your favorite D.J.’s favorite D.J.,” said Jus Ske, a party promoter turned D.J. who used to hire DJ AM to play at events in Manhattan. “He’s the man technically, when it comes to scratching, and he’s really raised the bar creatively.”
Steve Davidovici, an owner of Pure Management Group, said that of the 15 D.J.s he has on retainer, DJ AM is the highest paid and most requested. Club owners say he’s well worth his fee, which runs $10,000 to $25,000 an event. Mike Satsky, an owner of the meatpacking-district club Stereo, said, “On a Saturday night we typically have 600 people, but if people catch wind that he’s coming, easily 1,200 or more people will show up.”
One brisk afternoon earlier this month, DJ AM browsed at Nort-Recon, a Greenwich Village sneaker emporium. He appeared to know the provenance of every shoe and reminisced fondly about his first pair of sneakers, $60 Nikes, a birthday gift from a grandmother in 1984.
Later that evening, over tea at a nearby diner, he spoke about how he first became fascinated with spinning records in elementary school. “Herbie Hancock was performing ‘Rockit’ on the Grammys and his D.J., Grandmaster D.S.T., was scratching, and I remember thinking: ‘I need to do this. I need to make that noise,’ ” he said. It was hard not to notice the product placement on his left wrist, a tattoo of the name Technics, his turntable brand.
Growing up in Philadelphia, he listened to everything — pop, hip-hop, punk — but his home life was far from harmonious. His father, he said, served time in prison in connection with a real estate fraud. Upon his parents’ split, he and his mother moved to her hometown, Los Angeles. He was 14. By 10th grade, he was smoking marijuana, ditching school and stealing cars, he said, an account confirmed by friends from those years.
He eventually dropped out of school and spent time in a boot-camp-style rehab center for juveniles. He returned home the day before his 18th birthday. A year later, he said, his father died of AIDS. Around this time, he began drinking heavily and doing drugs — mushrooms, ecstasy, cocaine. “During the last two years of my using, from 23 to 25, I started smoking crack,” DJ AM said. “That was the hell express.”
After years of playing for friends and at private parties, he scored his first job as a professional D.J. when he was 21, at an illegal after-hours spot in Los Angeles called the Boiler Room. His nightly pay was $40 and a six-pack of beer. “That’s where he really began developing his skill,” said Alchemist, an urban music producer who has been a friend since high school.
His career began to take off, but his personal life remained a mess. One night in 1997, while high on crack, DJ AM recounted, he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. “I felt like I was someone else, like I was wearing a crackhead costume,” he said. “What am I doing in this body with this film on my face?” He decided life was no longer worth living, put a .22-caliber pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The gun jammed. “I remember thinking I’m such a failure, I can’t even kill myself,” he said. “I sat there and bawled my eyes out for hours.” The following morning, Scott Caan, a son of the actor James Caan and the close friend who taught DJ AM how to scratch records, persuaded him to clean up his life. “I remember showing up to his apartment and he looked pretty bad, and I said enough is enough,” Mr. Caan recalled.
DJ AM said he has been sober for nine years — “my sobriety birthday is April 1” — and he has cleaned up in other ways, too. Once weighing as much as 324 pounds, he underwent gastric bypass surgery three years ago. Since then, he’s lost nearly 150 pounds; he now eats six small meals a day. “At my core I am a glutton, so I’ve had to learn everything in moderation,” he said.
With the help of a hypnotist, he gave up cigarettes last month, having been a two-pack-a-day smoker. “All that’s left is caffeine,” he joked.
After nearly 15 years of playing professionally in clubs, he finds them changed. To him, most places are no longer about dancing and having fun. “They are a tangible representation of what I like to call the universal lie,” he explained. “It’s a place where people pull up in their Porsche, show off their new Marc Jacobs bag or jewelry or, ‘Hey, look at me in V.I.P. with five bottles on my table.’ All this stuff means I’m someone in God’s eyes. But that’s the lie.”
Though he is part of the machine that keeps club life humming, he perceives it with a clear head. And he says he’s not tempted to hop back onto the hell express. “I get to watch people fall down and puke on themselves,” he said. “Or watch the liquid-courage guy who weighs 120 pounds try and beat up the bouncer, or the coke girl who’s like” — he worked his jaw and slipped into a Valley Girl lilt — “ ‘AM, can you play this song?’ ”
“No,” he said dryly, “I can’t play that song.”