|The Gaslamp Killer: His troubled mind
With one of the most energetic live shows in electronic music, this California-based producer has made his mark in the crowded Los Angeles beat scene. As RA's Jeff Weiss finds out, though, he's still fighting to be understood.
The Gaslamp Killer calls himself an angry psycho, but he's not crazy. It's a crucial distinction to make, particularly for a guy that has released EP's entitled My Troubled Mind and Death Gate—plus the mix Hell and the Lake of Fire are Waiting for You! Crazy people usually aren't very productive. And for the last year, the Los Angeles producer and DJ has been a beat mercenary, jet-setting from Serbia to London's South End and back to his Mount Washington base in Los Angeles—rarely missing a Wednesday night at the Low End Theory, where he's one of the famed weekly's five residents.
Were you to catch one of his DJ sets, however, you'd be well-served to project your neck. The name is no joke, conjuring Victorian visions of crepuscular shadows and sharp knives. The Motherfucking Gaslamp Killer (or GLK if you're into brevity) plays like he's out for blood. Classify him at your own peril. His mixes scan from Louis Armstrong blowing bronze dirges about St. James' infirmary to Flying Lotus dubplates, to dilated-eyed psych-rock, to Dr. Dre's "The Day the Niggaz Took Over." He's an ex-b-boy re-engineered and plutonium-powered, playing the filthiest beats culled from his 10,000 platter-strong collection.
But in the Internet-era, any amateur with BitTorrent and facility-surfing blogs can dig without leaving their den. And though he has competition, no one can top the kinetic nature of his live sets. The 27-year old William Bensussen is pure voltage, the third rail instantiated, a whirling dervish covered in a curtain of corkscrew curls and the mustache of a Baltimore saloon-keeper circa 1920. His dance moves resemble Frankenstein staggering off the operating table and Jim James of My Morning Jacket letting loose guitar pyrotechnics on his Flying V. Like the Wu-Tang said, "if it ain't raw it's worthless." The Gaslamp Killer is raw.
Most recently, he's gained notice for his own beats and his collaborations with Gonjasufi, the dreadlocked and warlock-voiced Warp Records signee. GLK's forthcoming Death Gate EP drops next month on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder Records and promises a continuation of the aesthetic birthed on last year's My Troubled Mind: A voodoo potion of obscure Ethiopian soul and acid-addled Turkish rock, tinctured with science fiction synthesizers and off-kilter percussion laced by LA linchpin Computer Jay.
First question: when did "motherfucking" get added to the name Gaslamp Killer?
[laughs] That's [Low End Theory resident DJ] Daddy Kev's fault—no one knows that story. Basically, two years ago, I was in a bad way and I would be at Low End Theory talking very loudly and crassly, dissing people and saying all sorts of crazy things. I was very unnecessarily angry. So Daddy Kev came to me and said that he thought I should tone it done. It was a sensible and wise decision to make. Kev was trying to look out for the rep of the club. So, of course, that night I went home and added "Motherfucking" to my name on Myspace.
You got the name from playing in San Diego's Gaslamp District, by killing dance floors right?
Yup. Basically, I grew up San Diego, and it had an awesome rock & roll scene, which was nurtured and it would go never get broken up. Yet every hip-hop and rave would get broken up by the cops, so as a DJ, I was forced to go to the clubs, even though I'd way rather play art shows and underground parties and concerts. But I was forced there, because there was nowhere else to go.
I started playing wherever I could, and the promoters were always very forward-thinking. They were often DJs themselves, and they loved my stuff. They would always book me and the patrons would hate it. There wasn't one time where I remember impressing anybody in the Gaslamp District. I wasn't getting any fucking love, just hate from the community. Not the inner community, but the people, the fucking people I needed to pay to get in, not the people I could put on the guest list. The people I needed to just be there. I was beating my head against a brick wall trying to please those morons and it wasn't working.
What did they want? Nelly and Ja Rule?
Exactly. I like Dirty South stuff, but back then, it was all about beats. I was playing Company Flow and Dilla. It wasn't what they wanted to hear.
How did you get your style? Was it inherent?
I ran with battle DJs. We were digging, but for shit to do routines with. So we'd look for drum breaks to juggle, and everyone was using two scratch records to do their routine. My friend DJ 10shun was like, "I'm going to do the opposite." He was the first one I saw doing whole routines with old records.
I had seen how the X-Executioners used hip-hop 12-inches—that's the O.G. shit, but once the battle records came out, that's how everyone started doing their routines. I was like, "No dude, that's cheating." Basically, it made routines more complex, but less creative. My friend Tension was so ahead of the curve, so I begged him to let me come over to his house everyday, and I'd be like "teach me." And he did.
How old were you at this point?
16. I'd already been collecting records for two years. I had my turntables, and had an idea of what I wanted to do. But then I met Mike Russell when I was 16, and I started learning from him and my other friends who were all really dope artists. As for the performance and energy levels, I'd always been a b-boy and had always been a dancer. So that's why I dance onstage. I've always liked to dance and have a lot of energy. I can't just stand there focusing on the one song I want to play. I'm trying to have a good time.
It's funny to see the kids now using your dance moves.
Yeah, I know.
Does that piss you off?
It's just weird as fuck. People have been hitting me up in different places in America, being like, "Kids are doing your dance in the crowd." I'm like, "That's not 'my dance,' homie, there is no GLK dance." I'm just moving. You can't own a move, unless you're like James fucking Brown or Prince. It's all about enjoying yourself. If you're not feeling it, who the hell is?
Have you ever considered playing to the crowd, or is it always about what you want to hear?
I've been playing exactly what I thought was dope right out of the gate. I've had beer thrown at me, water bottles thrown at me, gum put in my hair. I've had people come up to me and literally lift the needle off my record.
Do you get into fights when this happens?
I'm small. I just take it. I hope the promoter or the staff will have my fucking back. I'm not a violent person. I am an angry psycho, but I'm not a violent person and I've been like that since the sixth grade. I use words and I usually get out of it, with just some words.
A lot of people seem to perceive the Low End Theory as a dubstep spot, but it's sort of unclassifiable. If you were going to try to, how would you describe it?
It's a fucking beat movement. It's just like the jazz scene, the beat movement. It's about instrumental shit, like in jazz. People went to see the singers, but it was more about the real raw shit. The real raw shit for jazz was three pieces in New York, where they'd be doing improv and crazy shit. That was the beat scene, and that's what that was. It wasn't the jazz scene, it was the beat scene. Downbeat Magazine.
It's the beats man. That's it, it's the same as it was back then, as it is now—the craziest, freakiest music. We play beat music, and that includes rock and funk and soul and jazz and hip-hop and jungle and trip-hop and Dirty South, and a little house every now and then, and it's happening. Shafiq Husayn came and played a bunch of disco and house records. Prince Paul rocked a hip-hop set. Mixmaster Mike came and just flipped a set that you couldn't even classify.
Who were your favorite acts when you were coming up?
Massive Attack, Portishead, DJ Shadow and I still think Jimi Hendrix's music is some of the hardest shit of all time. The Beatles. Led Zeppelin. Pete Rock. DJ Premier. J Dilla. Dre.
How did you meet Gonjasufi? When I interviewed him, he told me that you didn't like him at first, and that you stole his girls.
[laughs] He didn't like me. He just came into the record store I worked at, selling his weird ass hip-hop, and I thought it was genius. No one else agreed with me, but I was a fan. Basically, he heard some of my re-edit beats and was like, "Yo, send me some." So I did. He was always DJing at the local vegan eatery called Pokez, this Mexican spot. He would play all this dub and hip-hop. I saw him rap a few times in Masters of the Universe. But basically, we just had the same friends.
How did you get into African and Turkish psychedelic music?
Hanging out with Mike Russell in San Diego. Egon and Cut Chemist started finding those. Egon found the first Turkish stuff that I heard. He'd open up the Funky Soul night they did with obscure shit and close it with obscure shit. Miles Tackett and Cut Chemist played the bulk of the night. They invited me a few times, and they influenced me a lot.
Do you still dig for records?
I have over 10,000 records I need to use. I dig in my own collection now.
What's the new record like?
The Death Gate EP is a little 16 minute slab. It's like My Troubled Mind Part 2. Basically my troubled mind led me to the death gate, where I see myself coming back from hell.
How has Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma changed everything for the everyone in the LA beat scene?
He definitely set the bar way, way high. It's not even high really, it's to the left. He set his own bar and every piece of attention he gets, he deserves. I think he's helping elevate Samiyam and I, and Ras G and all of LA. The way that he lives up to the hype and the way he does it is awesome for LA and the Low End and Brainfeeder, and us as his friends.
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music?
When I have free time, I like to chill with my girlfriend, read rock biographies and watch music documentaries, and Planet Earth and nature programs. I love conspiracy flicks and Kurt Vonnegut. I love hanging out with my friends even more than performing with them. I know people who love being alone, but I'm not one of those people.
What biographies have you been reading lately?
I've been reading the Miles Davis biography. It had some crazy stories. Now I'm reading When Giants Walked the Earth, the Led Zeppelin book. My favorite is Acid Dreams, which is a retrospective on the '60s and the effect of acid in popular culture.
You've been touring almost non-stop for the last year. Does it get hard to sustain that high level of energy?
It's hard. I don't know how I do it. Everyone does it their own way. I try to sleep at all costs, and if I don't sleep, I try to smoke a lot of weed to stay balanced. As hard as the traveling is, it makes you feel a little bitter. Two of my heroes, Madlib and J Rocc, both have hook-ups in whatever city they're in, where they can have weed ready for them as soon as they step off the plane. That's what I aspire to have.
That can't be that hard to get to happen.
But it doesn't always happen. It didn't happen in Serbia. It happened in Poland and Japan.
How was Serbia?
The scenery was gorgeous, but the crowd didn't quite get it.
Does that still happen a lot?
I don't get many beers thrown at me lately, but it happens. It happened in Serbia. It pissed me off, but I ducked it.
Published / Wednesday, 08 September 2010
Photo credits / Header photos - Theo Jemison
DJing - Rene Passet
Low End Theory - Barbara Talia
With blue inflatable - Benoit Florencon