It was a tragic and ironic send-off: “New York, New York. Big city of dreams, but everything in New York ain’t always what it seems.” The Grandmaster Flash-inspired Twitter message, posted at 2:57 p.m. Aug. 25, 2009, was DJ AM’s final public performance.
The Palms’ Friday night headliner, anti-drug advocate and host of MTV’s new substance-abuse reality show, Gone Too Far, had, in fact, gone too far. After being clean and sober for more than a decade, the 36-year-old Adam Goldstein relapsed, overdosed and was found dead in his New York City apartment on Aug. 28 with nine OxyContin pills in his stomach and a crack pipe by his side. The coroner later determined his death was caused by the combination of cocaine and several prescription drugs.
Yet DJ AM was and remains far more than an addict who met an untimely end. A year later, AM’s influence—and the void he left—remains palpable.
“You [still] hear his mixes, and you hear his style in a lot of mixes, too,” longtime friend and colleague DJ Vice says. “He was a DJ’s DJ. He was a DJ that every DJ would get up to go see.”
AM was not only a superstar but a survivor who endured a plane crash, a resilient soul who overcame a troubled childhood, and a talent who achieved fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams. He led an amazing and tumultuous life, and he also changed Las Vegas’ nightlife industry and what it means to be a DJ.
“He didn’t just change the game, he was the game,” says Las Vegas Nightlife Group executive director of marketing Jonathan Shecter, a friend and associate. “He worked harder than any DJ, before or since. He was constantly adding something, constantly scratching, constantly mixing, constantly working—he was never just letting the record play. … If it wasn’t for him, the whole business and creativity of DJing would be totally different.
“There are so many aspects of the DJ, nightclub experience that we now sort of take as the norm. But if it wasn’t for Adam Goldstein, it wouldn’t have happened that way.”
AM’s influence went beyond his business savvy and open format mash-ups. “He opened up the door for West Coast DJs to play in New York,” Vice says. “Even though he was born in Philly, he was an L.A. DJ; he came up in L.A.” Vice, who is doing two high-profile residencies in Las Vegas, at Tao and Lavo, credits AM for getting him started. They played parties in L.A. together, and when AM was too busy to play a gig, he gave it to Vice. Later, when AM signed his first Las Vegas residency at the Hard Rock Hotel, he convinced management to bring Vice into the mix, too.
“Me and AM held down Body English,” Vice recalls. When AM went to Pure, he took Vice with him. “He looked out for me, for some weird reason,” Vice says, “and it wasn’t about money.”
Still, AM and Vice got their fair share of cash. Shecter helped negotiate AM’s deal with Pure, which resulted in a million-dollar deal and what he calls a “shift heard around the DJ world.”
“He set the standard for being paid for what you deserve,” Vice says. “He set the standard for celebrity DJs.”
AM became rich and famous, but never he lost touch with reality. His e-mail signature served as a constant reminder of his humility: “Feed the soul, starve the ego.”
“You were at the center of the world when you were next to him,” Shecter recalls. “There will never be another DJ AM because there’s never going to be anyone else with that combination of talent, charisma, uniqueness and fame.”
Vice echoes Shecter’s sentiment: “When an artist like Bob Marley passes, [no one says], ‘Oh, this is the new Bob Marley.’ That gap will always be there, because there is no one who can emulate what he did, because that was him.”
Goldstein’s death came four months after he left Pure to become the Friday night headliner at Rain. When he arrived at the Palms, he was welcomed by an incredible level of fanfare, with his name appearing on everything from billboards to blackjack tables. Then, on the fateful night of Aug. 28, Goldstein missed his flight to Las Vegas, and TMZ broke the sad news: DJ AM was dead.
“Today is a sad day in the nightlife community, and an especially somber time for DJs across the world,” AM’s friend and frequent opener at Rain, DJ R.O.B., said as he addressed the shocked crowd at Rain that night. Along with Palms owner George Maloof and R.O.B. (whose real name is Robert Hathcock), both called AM their “brother in music.”
Two months after Goldstein’s death, Rain announced DJ Z-Trip as the new Friday night resident, and on Oct. 16, he assumed the awkward position inside the booth where his friend and former contemporary once stood. “A year later, it’s still hard for me to wrap my head around it,” Z-Trip (whose real name is Zach Sciacca) says. “It’s a heavy head space. … I can’t believe that it went down like it did, and it bums me out, still.”
Z-Trip says he and AM enjoyed a friendly, symbiotic rivalry. “I inspired him to do a lot of things, early on. And, in turn, he was inspiring to me. That’s kind of what hip-hop has always been about—trying to one-up the other person, even if you’re friends.”
He says AM’s death came far too soon, before the veritable superstar reached his true potential.
“At the time of his passing, he was really on such an incredible upswing,” Z-Trip says. “Had he kept going, who knows where he would have ended up.”
Vice agrees: “He wasn’t even close to his peak,” he says. “It’s crazy—he wasn’t even close to it.”
“He had so much going for him, he really was an unstoppable force,” Z-Trip says. “The sad thing was that he was the one who stopped himself, ultimately.”