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Gaslamp Killer at the center of the L.A. beat

The Killer, a.k.a. William Benjamin Bensussen, may be riding a wave of popularity on L.A.'s 'beat' scene but he's still the outsider from Low End Theory.

November 20, 2010|By Joshua Glazer, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • COLLECTIVE: Gaslamp Killer says L.A.'s beat makers are a communal bunch. "We all feed off each other."
COLLECTIVE: Gaslamp Killer says L.A.'s beat makers are a communal… (Theo Jemison )

At 4 p.m. on a stereotypically beautiful Saturday afternoon in downtown Los Angeles on the rooftop pool of the Standard Hotel, the Gaslamp Killer was already midway through his second DJ set of the day — playing a mix of challenging dubstep and crowd friendly Southern hip-hop to a crowd of sun-kissed hipsters.

His first performance had begun at the crack of noon in Chinatown at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, where the Mount Washington resident, whose mailbox reads William Benjamin Bensussen, played an opening set at the Hard Summer music festival. He'd return to Hard later in the evening to jump onstage with fellow electronic music explorer and current underground "it" boy Flying Lotus before packing up his laptop to go play one final set at a late-night after-party. Four gigs in one day, not bad for a boundary-pushing DJ who got his name for clearing dance floors in San Diego's notoriously mainstream Gaslamp District.

"It was a fun-filled day," proclaims the GLK when recalling that particular midsummer afternoon. Currently though, most weekends follow a similar trajectory. Saturday night the self-proclaimed Killer will return to perform at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip after a year spent touring Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America. In fact, the show will highlight an entire roster of L.A. producers pushing at the boundaries of instrumental beat music.

Seated in his living room a few weeks after his Hard performance, Bensussen was trying to focus on the conversation at hand while mentally preparing for the European leg of the tour. The house itself has the décor of someone who is spending more and more time away from home, which is why the living room lacks any real furniture aside from a shelf filled with vinyl records; the walls feature a gallery's worth of street art.

"I'd rather have one of the illest library of analog music, so in case [of trouble], anything can power a turntable," insists the wild-haired and wild-eyed musician, pointing out that the records behind him are a mere sample of his full collection. "We'll always be able to listen to vinyl, even if computers get too smart and take over or something. These are like safety nets for music and culture and human life."

Bensussen's library just got a little bigger via the release of his latest EP, "Death Gate." The record was issued by Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label, the imprint that has become synonymous with L.A.'s rapidly emerging "beat" scene. The sound — which fuses vintage SoCal experimental hip-hop with European-flavored electronic experimentation and a healthy dose of free jazz and psychedelic history lessons — has gone global over the last 18 months. And as the "Brainfeeder general," Bensussen has been propelled into the spotlight in a way few, including himself, might have expected. And though he eagerly accepts the new-found fame (moderate as it may be), he admits to an unexpected challenge faced when people are suddenly paying to see you spin.

"This whole crowd is excited to see you because of one three-minute clip on YouTube," Bensussen says. "It's like, 'Bro, that was three minutes of an amazing night. I was in a great mood, at a great party, with a great crowd. That's three minutes, that is not my life."

The uncertainty is part of what makes a GLK performance so exciting. He talks about losing his cool and insulting an entire Eastern European country onstage after one rowdy customer tossed a beer in his direction. But while the globetrotting DJ circuit can take some getting used to, Bensussen knows he can always come home to Low End Theory, the weekly club night that has acted as an incubator for the scene's sweaty, local audience over the last four years.

In that same time, the club night at the Airliner in Lincoln Heights has grown from a few friends playing esoteric music for each other to a packed party, the likes of which is spoken about with reverence around the world, even by those who have never attended. It's a seismic shift that the Gaslamp Killer is very aware of.

"[There is] the attitude of 'this is sacred, this is our [work], you fools don't know.' But then you become those fools with your nose up," Bensussen points out defensively when addressing his club's success. "I think a much bigger crossover is happening, but I think there's a lot of kids that are still so attached to that hip-hop mentality or that raver mentality of, 'We built this from the ground up, and that moment it gets popular it's not gonna be cool any more.' Get off that. We want Low End to be publicized, we want Low End to be popular."

But how popular artists such as the Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus can get — along with cohorts Samiam, Ras G, Daddy Kev, Daedelus and a dozen other L.A beat artists — is still very unknown. Though the community may branch out while letting lots of new blood in, the underlying ideal behind Brainfeeder, Low End Theory and the killer of the Gaslamp remains one principally about being an outsider — albeit an outsider who has joined with others like him.

"L.A. has so many great beat makers because we all feed off each other rather than feeding off the outside world," Bensussen theorizes about the success of the scene he's helped construct. "We pride ourselves in the musical knowledge that we have, our tastes. We want people who listen to our stuff to feel comfortable in their skin. We want to let people know, you can be a nerd, and you'll be cooler than everyone in the end; we're on the verge of that."

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