Interview by Josiah Titus Photos by Eilon Paz
illiam Bensussen is lucky to be alive. In the summer of 2012, the Los Angeles-based producer and DJ, better known as The Gaslamp Killer, was riding his scooter home from a friend’s house when a gust of wind threatened to take his hat. Reaching for it with one hand and braking with the other, he flipped his scooter, catching a hard blow to the gut on the way down. Internal bleeding meant emergency surgery, which left him with a scar the length of his abdomen and no spleen. But he walked away with his life, and you won’t catch him being anything less than grateful for that. Bensussen grew up in San Diego where the downtown Gaslamp district became his proving ground. When the neighborhood went commercial, Bensussen pushed back, triggering his nickname, The Gaslamp Killer. After moving to Los Angeles in 2005, The Gaslamp Killer became a central name in the underground beat-making scene. He could often be found DJing at Low End Theory, a weekly hip-hop and electronic night that he helped organize. In 2012, after a string of EPs and mixes, he joined the Brainfeeder label, run by friend and fellow producer Flying Lotus, and released Breakthrough, his debut full-length album. His tours have taken him around the world, offering up his unique blend of psychedelia, world music, and hip-hop to the masses. Two months after his accident, Bensussen invited Eilon and the Dust & Grooves crew to his Mount Washington home for an afternoon of looking at favorite records and telling stories. With a new lease on life and a creative plan to match, he made sure one thing was clear: “I will always be The Gaslamp Killer.”
The Gaslamp Killer is a nod to the neighborhood in San Diego where you regularly hung out. What kind of neighborhood was it? And how did you end up with the name?
When I was young, my family lived by the beach. I was always dealing with skateboarders and surfers. Everyone was too cool for school and I never really felt like I fit in. Then I started hanging out in the Gaslamp neighborhood in downtown San Diego. No glamour, no glitz. You could get away with anything—sidewalk ciphers, rapping, battling, b-boy jams, breakdancing. Anywhere and everywhere. It was a wild-ass neighborhood and I loved it. Processions was this weekly hip-hop party—the only one in San Diego. Dave Kinsey did amazing old-school art for it. Everything was coordinated by these two guys who were into astrology and ancient religions and had crazy, awesome ideas about things.
“We were doing this pretty advanced b-boy circle, opening the turntables up so people could jump on and do mini sets. It was incredible and raw, but at the same time, all around us, they were turning everything into a Sunset Strip-style neighborhood.”
Suddenly, we couldn’t get away with anything. Cops would come in and shut down our parties and we DJs were pushed into this weird zone, where our only option was to play in fancy bars. Not only that, you had to be friends with a promoter to get booked. No one cared about hip-hop. It was all about expensive drinks and talking to girls. They started telling me, “I’m sorry, but you need to play what people can dance to,” which meant playing music that everyone knew. I wouldn’t change and eventually I didn’t have any jobs. I made a mixtape, but I still didn’t have a name. My friend who was doing the cover art was like, “You’re fucking Gaslamp killers.” I was like, “That’s genius.” In a hip-hop sense, we were killing it, but with the way things were at that time, we were also killing the dance floor. The Gaslamp neighborhood used to be a rugged-ass homeless zone, and then it got gentrified and turned into a fucking surfer boy refuge where everyone had slicked back hair. They took our home away from us and turned it into a plastic fairy tale. Years later, after I was on the cover of LA Weekly, I got some calls from San Diego promoters saying clubs in the Gaslamp wanted to book me. I quoted them so high that they had no chance of breaking even, but they booked me anyway. I hated the whole experience and I swore them off forever. My community is not there anymore. It’s been ripped apart by the squares.
What were you listening to back then? What about early on, before you started DJing?
In the early days, when I switched from private to public school, everyone was listening to Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Because of my older brother and sister, I was getting into Bay Area hip-hop and metal, and when I showed up at public school with things like Too $hort, E-40, Metallica, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, everyone was blown away. Then I started getting into trip-hop—Portishead, Massive Attack, stuff like that. Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle, Dr. Dre – The Chronic, J Dilla – Donuts
“David Axelrod was a big influence right from the beginning. Also DJ Shadow and Q-Bert Mix-Live!! Q-Bert re-edited all of Shadow’s best stuff and put it on a live mix. I learned from those guys how to cut something up and make it into a mix.”
What about your parents? Did they have records?
My parents never had any records, but my dad did teach me to love music. He was born in 1935 in Mexico City and he and his brothers played guitar and sang. He could also play just about any tune on the piano. Not a musician, per se, but he had a good ear. He was always singing and whistling. My mother never did anything artistic that I knew of except standup comedy. And I don’t mean just at home. She was an actual standup comedian, and before that, back in New York in the ’50s, she did beatnik open-mic poetry and worked at Columbia Records. She got to hang out with Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Miles Davis, and Monk. A real socialite. When I was young, my dad took me to Mexico City to visit family. I asked to go to record stores, where I found some Mexican pressings of Hendrix and stuff, but I should have bought actual Mexican records. I didn’t know to look for them. My dad has been a big presence in my life. Since my accident, he’s been staying with me and taking care of me through all of this. He’s my mentor and life coach.
What was the first record you ever purchased?
My first record was probably The Specials “Ghost Town.” My parents thought I was smoking drugs. They couldn’t believe I was listening to this kind of music. I bought it on cassette originally, and got the 12 inch later. I eventually did a cover of it with an afrobeat band from Amsterdam called Jungle By Night. The Specials – “Ghost Town” 12-inch Jungle By Night X The Gaslamp Killer – Brass Sabbath
Did you have a mentor when you first started collecting? What about as a producer and DJ? Who have been some of your inspirations?
I’ve been lucky to have some real sages in my life. Brandy Flower has been a sort of guru for me, a life coach. Daddy Kev of Low End Theory was a big influence. He stepped into my life and made some great things happen. Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, J Rocc… they all taught me how to collect, how to make a sound, and how to DJ. Cherrystones, Egon, B-Plus, Gilles. In the early days, it was 10shun, Adam Manella, Ricky Isabella, Mike Russell, and DJ Demon. Those were the first guys to teach me shit in San Diego. They were my age, so we were all peers. Mike Russell, Ricky, and 10shun are taking what we started working on to a whole new level. They are old-school friends of mine, but are relevant in today’s music world and are still really important to me and my growth. They influence me a lot, still, and I run everything I do by them. Egg – Self Titled. “It inspired my sound a lot. There’s nothing quite like it.”
What was Dilla’s influence on you?
He’s the best that ever did it. The way he sampled, looped, rearranged… it’s so raw, so dirty. He showed me that I could utilize the tools hip-hop gave me rather than just a straight drum machine and synth. His example pushed me to evolve. He had the Moog Voyager and would add a nice drum break, and make something that sounded smooth. His entire beat was synth and drums. That was his sound. He had live percussion, live drums. The Shining was made with just a couple of tools. I always thought that was so incredible. In my opinion, he was the best producer that ever lived. Les Mogol (Moğollar) - Danses Et Rythmes De La Turquie D’Hier À Aujourd’hui. “Dilla’s ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’ intro was looped from this LP.”Dilla LPs. “I’m obsessed. There’s no one better.” Jaylib – Champion Sound and Kalyanji Anandji – Dharmatma
What about influential albums?
The Fonit C 364 record by Mario Molino is one of my prized Italian library records. There’s a beat on this record that sounds like it was made yesterday. For my style of music, this influenced me a lot. Also Moggi’s Tra Scienza E Fantascienza, Daniela Casa’s America Giovane N.2, and The Group’s The Feed-Back, which is this fucked up Italian album with a Morricone-style sound. Ennio Morricone is one of the greatest composers of all time. The Feed-Back is a bunch of guys making the weirdest sounds they could possibly make. It’s a mix of gross human sounds and some of the hardest drumming you’ve ever heard, with trumpets and brass all over the place. The crazy thing is, they didn’t have subwoofers back then, and yet, they have subs in their record. It’s so dynamic.
Tullio De Piscopo’s Suonando La Batteria Moderna would be another one. It’s a drum instructional record that has some of the most amazing, best recorded, best played drums I think I have ever heard. DJ Shadow lifted this break on “Drums of Death Part 1.” I thought he had someone play it. Then I heard this and I was like, “Whoa!” I couldn’t believe the break was built in, that it had been made that way. When I look at these records, it’s easy to be like, this is all so different than what I’m playing now. But it’s not.
“These albums are the history of instrumental electronic music. The Italian stuff is what I’ve always been looking for—the library sound.”
What’s your relationship to Flying Lotus? How did you first meet?
I opened for MF Doom on the West Coast. At the LA show, Flying Lotus was there to videotape the entire gig for Stones Throw. After the show, he came up to me and was like, “I shot your set and I loved it. Let’s be friends.” He was the first guy my age to really blow me away. His work ethic alone was an example to me. He has given me every test pressing of every record he has ever done since 1983. Most of them are in graffitied white sleeves. Definitely among my prized possessions.
Sound in Color played a big role in launching your career. Can you say something about what they did for you?
They were the first label that paid for me to go international, and they put out my first mix CD. They brought up some of my friends, too. It was John Ancheta who made it all happen. He got investors to back me, and he’s the one who got me to Berlin. He still works in the community, doing great stuff.
You have a lot of sealed records. Is there a reason you haven’t opened them?
I used to work at a record store, and I accumulated several copies of each record. I thought maybe I’d open my own store one day. I’ve thought recently about maybe opening a one-week store—incense, two turntables, sell a bunch of records fast. I also worried I would maybe wear out a copy or break one, and I wanted to be sure I always had at least one extra copy.
You’ve started using Serato when you DJ. Can you say something about why you made the switch? Do you miss doing vinyl sets?
As a DJ, vinyl is limiting. I like being able to use different things at once. With Serato, I can do almost anything, and all I need is my two turntables, a mixer, my Serato box, laptop, and iPad. I’m still a vinyl enthusiast, but in terms of DJing vinyl, for the most part, I’ve moved on. Funny thing is, I bought Serato when it was still fairly new, but my computer crashed when I hooked it up, so I sold it to another DJ and forgot about it. Eventually, I was the last of my crew still spinning vinyl, so I was like, “Let me give that another shot.” I bought a better computer and a new box. Vinyl is what shaped me and I will keep my records forever, but there’s just so much you can’t do with vinyl.
Favorite comfort album?
Indian music. Ravi Shankar. That’s my shit. That’s what gets me in a good mood.
What do you want to have happen to your records when you’re gone?
I will give them to my children, if I end up having any. If not, then a hip-hop museum.
What does the road ahead look like for you?
Work less, create and enjoy more. I might not be able to afford the lifestyle I’ve been living, but my goal is to be able to supplement the hours I’ve spent touring with more time making music. My albums are going to tell my life’s story better than anything. I’m trying to let the moment I’m in be reflected in the next album. Some of it might sound more like meditation music than hip-hop, but it’s still me. I will always sound like The Gaslamp Killer, even if I’ve added a new dynamic to my style.
Mahmoud Ahmed – Ere Mela Mela. “I sampled this for Gonjasufi‘s A Sufi and a Killer.”Romanowski/Doze Green – Aromadozeki Therapy. “Doze Green is the artist who drew the cover. It’s hand drawn. Only 25 exist.”
What do you look for in a record?
As a DJ, it just doesn’t get more exciting than finding a great break. I look for records with a band of three guys. You know they’re focused on the rhythm section, and that’s how you get the break you’re looking for.
How has record collecting affected other areas of your life?
“When I was in school, my parents would give me lunch money and then I’d mooch lunches off friends and spend the money on records.”
I bought so many records, my parents actually worried. They’d ask me, “Are these going to be worth anything in a few years?”
You’ve sampled mp3s of rare music that you found through bloggers and friends online. Where does vinyl fit into this process?
People have dedicated their life’s work to digitizing rare, hard-to-find music. They just want to share it. I don’t put track listings on my mixtapes, which might be hypocritical of me, but I lean on these guys, and I think it’s only natural for the record community to bring this music to the public. If there are only a handful of copies of a record, there’s no other way. Sharing the music is what it’s about.
Records have experienced a renaissance, but DJs continue to move away from vinyl, including yourself. Did vinyl shape you as a DJ? Do you think digging for records, building a physical library, finding the sources of samples, etc., is part of cutting your teeth as a DJ?
I’m grateful to be a part of my generation of DJs. We did it with vinyl before there was another way. For me, the love for vinyl goes hand in hand with wanting to be a DJ. You find a record and you get frothy at the mouth, wanting to have a party. The values instilled in me are in jeopardy and I hope that I can be an example to what music is and can be.
How has the DJ and music community shown their support since your accident?
I’ve gotten more love than I could have ever imagined. People have stepped up in all kinds of ways. A friend of my mine made a synthesizer “get well” mix, people have brought me cold-pressed juice. They fixed my computer, set me up with Pro Tools, and let me borrow different machines. Basically, everyone has been committed to getting me back to work. John Wyatt, a good friend of mine, dropped off a box of library records for me to sample. All he said was, “Give ’em back whenever.” Flying Lotus let me borrow his TC-Helicon Voicelive. I could go on and on. All of my close friends have been here for me, making sure I have what I need and that I’m getting fed.
What is it about records? What makes them special?
What I love about vinyl is that even after the apocalypse you could still get vegetable oil and run two tables and speakers off of a generator and have a fucking dance party! That’s what I hope to be doing at the end of the world, spinning all this wonderful music, dancing, and being in love.
Records are time capsules. They’re emotional, spiritual, energetically-bound pieces of vinyl. They were cut with force and energy, not by a programmer.
Visit The Gaslamp Killer on the web
This interview with The Gaslamp Killer was originally published in the book Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting .
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