William Bensussen, The Gaslamp Killer is polarising. As a DJ he earned his pseudonym as his uncompromising mixes confused the straight hip-hop heads of the Gaslamp District in San Diego.
After making links with the Low End Theory club night he began to put out material on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. His studio material is unflinching, it delves into the darkness, twisting archival samples up as well as embracing middle eastern mysticism winking his third eye at Cali-psychedelia. For the illuminated ones, the light that burns half as long burns twice as bright.
I spent a week in the dark. He was busy with DJing, touring, recording and in meetings, I was struck down with “killer” flu. Finally, it was our time to shine. What follows is an ideas stoked half hour with plenty of stroboscopic effects.
The Gaslamp Killer: Thanks for waiting for me.
Dan Davies: No worries, as I say I wasn’t feeling too well yesterday anyway so… First of all are you able to tell me anymore about what you’ve been up to the last few days, or is it all top secret?
GLK: Well, basically I’ve almost finished my new album, and I’ve been playing it for some people. I still plan on self releasing it – but I got a few phone calls from some major labels who wanted to investigate what I’ve got going on… before I make the final decision to go solo, like I always do. So, it’s been interesting to have some major labels calls me – it doesn’t happen that often. I won’t name names or anything, because I’m not gonna fuckin’ work with them, that’s not my style. I like building up to things – I don’t like some corporation taking me from zero to 60 outside of my safety net.
DD: You have a unique style – I know your name – comes from the fact that you cleared dance floors in the Gaslamp District…
GLK: Oh yeah, that’s me
DD: There’s a kind of contradiction with the hip-hop thing – it’s always been about herd mentality, and being part of a crew. How does that strike when you have to really push yourself out there and ‘being real’ to you is actually off-putting to others. How do you get past that? Or does it make you stronger?
GLK: Well every single thing I’ve ever done has been on my own, except for Low End Theory and Brainfeeder. Low End Theory is run by Daddy Kev, and Daddy Kev has always taught us to never align ourselves with any brand, not for any reason. He says “There’s no reason good enough to align yourself with a corporation,” and he stays firm with that. The only time he ever let up on that was for the Apple commercial – he told me “You have to do it, it’s a great opportunity because they want you to be yourself. They’re not asking you to sell their product by being someone else – they’re asking you to help sell the product that you legitimately use,” and so does he… So I did that, and then we [Low End Theory] are also partnering with a bigger company to help throw our festival, so we don’t have to take a loan out for half a million dollars and fuckin’ risk acquiring bankruptcy on our entire operation. If we have a company that’s a little bigger than us that wants to help us, then fuck it, if they have the integrity we’re looking for then we’ll work with them.
Just to give you some back story, you know, I’ve been doing this shit on my own forever, and it’s stood me very, very, very well. And I think a lot of artists get ground up in the meat grinder of Hollywood, and it’s a shame, you know?
DD: Most of all it’s tragic when it happens to new artists, they sort of get them when they’re young. And they tell them “this is the way they need to be to be a star” they dress them up, push them on stage and they have lost what made them shine…
GLK: Yeah, even artists on labels that I’m friends with, they turn in their masterpiece, and then the label strips it down and says “This song doesn’t go with this and that song doesn’t go with that or we want that one song that has a lot of Soundcloud action… That’s the song we want to start out with. That’s the single!” And then the artist says – “But that song’s five years old!” And they’re like “Well we don’t care! That’s the shit we want. You better make more shit like that.” And they can really fuck your head up. Some of my closest friends are genius artists – but their albums have been stripped apart by their record label because they don’t think it’s a good cohesive project.
DD: Which kind of brings me round to Convergence in a little way- obviously the focus of the festival is this combination of music, technology and art. Those three things that it wants to encapsulate but often these things are incohesive. How do you find your relationship with technology? Do you battle with it? Do you find it empowering?
GLK: I mean it’s a very, very bi-polar view. Because everybody has problems when their computer crashes – it’s the worst experience ever to lose music, if your hard drive fails. There’s so many terrible things that can happen to the musician the way technology is going. When you update your operating system then your Pro Tools won’t work with that operating system then neither will Serato DJ. So then you have to switch all of your programmes as soon as you update your computer…. you want update you computer so that it will work faster… so you do it because the Apple tells you the new programme is so much better and then none of your music shit and none of you songs will open.
But then, on the upside, I can walk on stage with just a laptop and an iPad- and control the entire fucking sound, and I’m using turntables and a mixer the way I always have, but then you throw in a wild card – you throw in the fuckin’ computer which has 10,000 records on it, and the iPad, which controls everything without even plugging it in, totally wirelessly.
So I’m embracing it personally, but it’s also torturing me sometimes.
DD: It also must be much better on the back! DJs having to carry around crates and crates of records. You were a big crate digger back in the day – did you fish out a lot of records from the back of dusty record stores?
GLK: Yeah I still have 13,000 records, I cherish them, I sample them, I listen to them, I stream them through the house, through my wireless system. I still love it so much, but when I first performed with Afrika Bambaataa he had two teenage kids carrying his records for him. And he’s the fucking king of hip hop! But I can’t afford even a fuckin’ tour manager to come on my tours, so thank God for the advent of this technology. I’ve toured the entire planet alone. I couldn’t imagine having to carry more than what I carry now. I don’t even sell merch at my shows – I can’t carry this shit.
DD: Do you find that you do less crate digging now you’ve potentially got it available to stream?
GLK: Yes, because I share MP3s with other DJs across the entire planet, from South Africa to Brazil, all the way to Belgium with LeFtO and Berlin with Kutmah. I share music with all these guys from around the planet, we’re all getting music from different sources and we educate each other, rather than keeping it a secret from each other and making it a competition. We share the wealth… as long as we’re not playing the same show.
DD: Well it actually becomes more about the communal action of sharing the music, rather than “I’ve got what you haven’t got”
GLK: Well, hip hop will always have healthy competition. Healthy competition isn’t bad.
DD: Working in the studio is often as a singular pursuit – does it feel the case with your work, or do you feel that samples can be a shortcut to bringing musical friends with you?
GLK: Yes. Okay. I disagree with the first part, but I agree with the second part. Basically the first part, I make the rhythm tracks by myself, and then I bring in musicians to help me fill it with beautiful melodies and harmonies and rhythms that I would have never thought of on my own. And the musicians love coming in to my studio and working with me, because I’ve got a wealth of world music knowledge that inspires the fuck out of any musician that hears it. When you get to hear so much music from around the world, and so many different rhythms, it gives you a new dynamic and it helps you step it up a notch. The records help me find new rhythms and new melodies and new sounds- we can’t just keep looking to James Brown and Fela Kuti, we can’t keep lookin’ to Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, we gotta look to the fucking Arabs, man! In Iraq in the 60s and 70s, they had funky-ass music and rock and roll, and the government decided that they didn’t want that sacrilegious music to be played in their country any more, but before those times, these people were developing their own rhythms and their own pathways, through music. Same with India, believe it or not the Mahabharata is a ten thousand year old scripture that people still read and still believe, and a lot of scriptures talk about how music is the divine language. Sound can heal. The great pyramids were energy chambers and sound-hearing chambers that were used to heal and share and shape the entire community.
DD: I was thinking about this when I was more ill yesterday, I was thinking about how music really helps you focus and concentrate. And if you’ve got that you can begin to get yourself better. I hate to go over the things you’ve talked about many times but I know you had a serious car accident a few years ago. Did you find that music was your solace?
GLK: Yeah, music and nature. I started going on long walks around my neighbourhood and learning more about myself, and when you face yourself and you face the demons and the darkness, that’s where the most inspirational moments in your life come from. That’s where growth comes from. Growth comes from change and a lot of people don’t want to change because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but if you get slapped around and pushed by the universe, you should learn from those things. You shouldn’t say that it was a coincidence, there are no coincidences. There’s gotta be a bigger reason why I didn’t die. Music was what I was already doing and I feel the best in my heart when I’m on stage with people, playing music and sharing my art with them, and then when I get to put out a record, it’s like, I’m some sort of crazy alien animal that just birthed 17 babies out of my womb and it took me three or four years to birth these things, out of my mind and my heart and my soul. Not psychically out of my womb, but a mental, spiritual, soul womb…the womb of the fuckin’ soul… you’re making music, you’re making babies, you know?
DD: I’ve seen on your Tumblr you’ve been meeting up with distant relatives recently, and talking about the diaspora of your family – it’s pretty broad, isn’t it? Don’t you have roots in Syria?
GLK: Yeah, my Grandmother was from Syria, she moved on the border of Lebanon, before she moved to Mexico City, where she met my Grandfather, who was living on the European side of Istanbul, and he moved to Mexico City as well. Basically they were both Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Jewish families who were getting persecuted by all of the crazy changes in Christianity and Islam, and all of these different pressures were coming down on them. So they took all their family and left to Mexico City, and that’s where they started their new family. So a lot of my Dad’s side lives in Mexico City. And then my mother’s side is Latvian and Lithuanian. But she is fourth generation New York Jew. So they’re Eastern European Jews who were escaping all the persecution, they moved to New York to start a new life, and that’s where the family on my Mom’s side started a whole new world. So Middle Eastern and Eastern European.
DD: I’m gathering that it might not be the case but I’ve got to ask if you’ll be voting for Donald Trump?
GLK: No. Not only am I not voting for Trump. I have a passionate hatred for that sick disgusting putrid waste of a man.
DD: I think, as with music, it’s the same with culture and people- the thing that keeps people healthy and closer to one another, is when people are mixing naturally and not putting up big barriers and restricting themselves.
GLK: Exactly. If there is a God, there is no fuckin’ way he made up all these stupid-ass rules. These rules were made by men, and society, to keep the weak weaker, the sick sicker and the stupid stupider. The universal laws of karma have nothing to do with the laws that these religions push on people.
DD: Shall we talk a bit about what you’re going to do at Village Underground? You’re doing a double – the DJ set and the live experience – I’ve seen you do both of them separately and I know it’s going to take up a lot of your energy how do you prep yourself for a marathon like that?
GLK: Basically I will be very, very, very calm during the day. Soundcheck, I have to keep myself from getting angry or stressed. And I’m gonna try to expend as little energy as I can then I get on stage, do my live show, then I go out for a nice quick dinner, get the strongest coffee I can get and I go in for round two. You just gotta time your day really well, that’s the trick.
DD: Something that always strikes me about your music. A lot of people always think about technology as utopic: being clean, carefully quantised. But with your work it seems to be a lot more disruptive and glitchy, so therefore more human. Would you agree with that? If you make it too clean it becomes just vanilla?
GLK: Yeah, I’m not into clean. Unless it’s meant to be some sexy thing. I’m not into that part of art and music: clean, sexy, well put together. I write rock and roll. And I think the vibrations that come from rock and roll and punk rock are a lot more believable than this fancy shit. You know? And I just think there’s a lot of attitude behind rock and roll, and real hip hop. And I think that type of attitude it what I’m into. I’m not into the three piece suit attitude. I’m into the more naked-on-stage attitude. Not that I go very far in either way – I’m not self proclaiming to be punk rock, but I definitely am more- leaning to more in that direction in life. I think society puts really shitty constraints on all of us, and music and art is the only way to break those chains, and we have to stay vigilant and not conform.
DD: Consumerism wants us to clean up, and it’s our job to make things messy again.