‘AS I AM’: Understanding the Complexities of DJ AM
Director Kevin Kerslake discusses the legendary DJ's tumultuous life and beyond-impressive career
Known to his friends and family as Adam Goldstein, DJ AM was arguably the first hip hop DJ to truly ascend to rockstar status—sex, drugs, and no-fucks-given attitude included. He redefined the live mash-up, defying traditional genre boundaries without losing site of what really moved people on the dance floor, forever changing how DJs present themselves in an open format.
On August 28, 2009, DJ AM was found dead from an apparent drug overdose in his SoHo apartment. The initial outpouring of grief was to be expected, as was the overwhelming praise he received from peers within his immediate circle. Yet, his life and legacy have seemingly remained unheralded by the music industry at large.
Famed music video and short film director Kevin Kerslake aims to remind us all how impactful the man born Adam Goldstein was for DJ culture with his new documentary, As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM. Featuring interviews with Diplo, Stevie Aoki, Mark Ronson, A-Trak, Jazzy Jeff, and many more, the film captures the impressive milestones and the emotional rollercoaster that was the life of DJ AM.
From 11-year-old Adam’s introduction to drugs to DJ AM’s meteoric rise—local bar DJ to casually spinning at private parties for Jay Z, Madonna, and Iron Man, as well as being one of the first DJs to secure a $1 million residency in Las Vegas—each victory is matched by an equally, if not more powerful, struggle. AM was constantly battling inner demons, ones that tempted him to risk it all and devolve back into a drug-abusing hermit. His life was inescapably fraught with extreme circumstances that would crush most other artists—hell, he survived a plane crash.
We caught up with director Kevin Kerslake via email to discuss the new documentary and DJ AM’s unfathomable career.
Mass Appeal: Why did you decide to take this project on?
Kevin Kerslake: In certain respects, the story of DJ AM is the DJ version of the American Dream: meteoric success through raw talent and sheer determination. AM made the hero’s journey several times over, accomplishing more in his short time here on earth than most people do in an entire lifetime—in fact, more than a dozen people do in a lifetime. Tragically, the darkness that engulfed him was a relentless force all its own. And beyond his extraordinary accomplishments, the tenuous truce between those two forces throughout his entire life is what makes the story of DJ AM so alluring and endlessly cinematic.
Obviously, DJ AM’s battle with drugs was a known aspect of his life that you had to cover. Do you think his addictive nature fed into that, or did his early addiction to drugs lead to his tendency to do everything in excess?
AM had his foot on the gas his entire life. The roots of AM’s addiction trace back to his childhood, which was filled with various forms of abuse and neglect. Many doctors and scientists will tell you they trace back a lot further than that, to his genes—his father was an addict—so AM got it double-barreled. Whether AM’s ADHD and OCD were inherited or not, they certainly didn’t help tamp down his addictive tendencies. However, these characteristics were also a huge factor in helping him become a monster DJ. ADHD is also called the Hunter gene and the Edison gene. Without it, Thomas Edison would have never discovered the lightbulb, and AM would likely never have been able to master his craft. AM had a restless spirit and a restless mind. He was the first kid on the block to try new things, drugs being one of those things. Where experimentation and recreational use turns into substance abuse, however, is still somewhat of a mystery in the world of science and medicine, although you see much of its complexity laid out in As I AM in human terms.
Were you able to find his actual biological father?
AM’s biological father died in prison when Adam was in his late teens, from AIDS. He was doing time for fraud.
The majority of the audio of DJ AM sounds like it was from an AA meeting. Is that true?
Yes! It was recorded on his 11th sober birthday. The recorder was in his pocket.
What was one of the hardest parts of the film for you to get done?
The grief resulting from the loss of anyone close is always a force to be reckoned with, but the shock of DJ AM’s death still resonates with an immediacy that is in no uncertain terms intimidating. The fact that it also involves a fair amount of controversy makes the situation even more volatile, and required navigating through territory that would test anyone’s faith. While making this film may have reinforced some very negative stereotypes about certain types of people within the entertainment industry, it also reinforced my faith in the artist’s capacity to move people towards a higher consciousness.
The film was edited so that many of the interviews you conducted have visuals of something else without the actual speaker on-screen. That gives me the feeling of what AM felt like when others would give him advice or try to steer him in one direction with his life—hear one thing but picture another thing in his mind. Is that a deliberate effect that you wanted?
Stylistically, a film that featured a bunch of talking heads was going to be at odds with my desire to put you in the driver’s seat of a vehicle (AM’s brain) moving a million miles an hour, so that fed into the decision, as well. Plus, although a lot of important historical and anecdotal information came in through the interviews, I found the actual footage of those same stories much more compelling. This all helps create a pinball effect in the edit, where we careen through different stories and different worlds with a velocity that the traditional documentary world might find too transgressive, but in my mind, it’s the only way to tell AM’s story—as a mash-up.
There are several messages in this film about AM’s life, from fighting addiction to helping others to his being a pioneer for DJs. What’s the main message that you want people to walk away with?
AM’s life was so explosive that you can’t just tell one side of his story—his life as a DJ, for instance, without getting into addiction and recovery, especially because he managed to integrate them all so thoroughly into his life. That capacity to be honest about his demons and acknowledge their power with grace and humility while also being awake to the entire spectrum of possibilities at every moment is incredibly inspirational. A single traumatic event can upset that equilibrium, however, whether it’s something minor like a back injury or major, like surviving a plane crash, often with fatal consequences, even with someone on such high alert as AM. So you just never know. In the meantime, he made the most of his time here, and left the world a better place than when he arrived.
What do you feel is his largest impact on the world?
AM moved the needle in so many ways. He overcame all sorts of adversity throughout his life, such as outlasting an abusive father, living through a suicide attempt, getting sober, earning the respect of other artists, surviving a fiery plane crash that killed four others…and I think anyone can relate to the story of an underdog prevailing against all odds. But if you are responsible for inspiring thousands upon thousands of people across the world to dance, you are doing something right. While not everyone is invested in music and nightlife on these terms, I’m inclined to see things like nightclubs and music festivals in ritualistic terms, dating all the way back to tribal gatherings, in which case AM was the high priest of a ceremony that brought people together to celebrate the power of music.
You can purchase tickets for a screening in a city near you on the documentary’s website. The first screening is slated for the Village East New York tonight (6/27). You can also make a donation to the DJ AM Memorial Fund HERE.