Hippie to hardcore

The Gaslamp Killer’s evolution

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Theo Jemison

Public Enemy’s Chuck D once told The Gaslamp Killer he looked like Jim Croce. Maybe it was the long hair and bushy mustache he was rocking at the time, but either way, he had no idea what Croce looked like, so he had to look him up. Sure enough, they had a slight resemblance, but that’s where the similarities ended. The type of music The Gaslamp Killer creates is the opposite of the folk music Croce was known for making. The Gaslamp Killer constructs heavy-hitting, electronic brilliance that bursts with elements of hip-hop, funk, rock and everything in between.

Growing up in the San Diego electronic scene, The Gaslamp Killer (born William Bensussen) initially adopted the name DJ Willow, but after playing so often in the Gaslamp district of San Diego, he decided to change it to The Gaslamp Killer, a move he sees as crucial to his success. He relocated to Los Angeles in 2006 and was able to completely reinvent himself.

“My sound stopped matching with my name,” Bensussen says. “Willow was the rare groove, hip-hop sampling, mixing, matching beats, scratching and having dreads guy. Willow was about being this happy hippie hip-hopper. Then I started getting serious about the bass and the heavy beats. I started feeling like I didn’t have as much of a con nection to the name as I used to. I left San Diego and wanted to start fresh. I felt like, ‘OK, nobody knows me in Los Angeles and nobody knows me in San Francisco.’ It was a really awesome opportunity to start over under a new name and see if I could start again in a new city. Nobody had heard of me and nobody knew who I was. I was just one kid with skills who was willing to take everyone on and take on the fucking world.”

Luckily (or not, depending on how you look at it), he received little to no press as DJ Willow. There is almost zero evidence he ever existed. Right when he was about to break out into the Los Angeles music scene, he took the plunge and emerged as The Gaslamp Killer.

“When I felt the wave coming, I dumped my old name and got my new name right before I got on the surfboard and started riding that fucking wave,” he says. “It was perfect timing. That’s why I chose my name. That name was destined for me.”

In 2006, Bensussen co-founded the now infamous experimental hip-hop and electronic night Low End Theory at The Airliner in Los Angeles. Along with his musical peers Flying Lotus, Daddy Kev, DJ Nobody, D-Styles (Beat Junkies, Invisbl Skratch Piklz) and Nocando, Bensussen had finally found a home for all of the crazy music he was making. It all began with a serendipitous van ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

“DJ Nobody and I were booked for this party called Space Invaders in San Francisco by one of my closest friends, Art Don’t Sleep,” he explains. “He rented some vans for us to get there. Daddy Kev hit up DJ Nobody out of the blue and told him he had a gig in San Francisco and needed to hitch a ride. So Kev was riding with us in the van.

“We went and did our separate gigs that night,” he continues. “The next week, Kev hit me up saying he got a venue. I went to the Airliner and fell in love with this dive bar that was a totally untouched, untapped LA resource. We all loved it so much. It was such a weird, shitty, quirky place that we felt we could flip. That was the inception of it, just one van ride talking about all of these amazing producers nobody gave a shit about.”

Low End Theory has exploded with popularity in the past seven years and in the interim, the prolific producer has been churning out albums, EPs, compilations and mixtapes with the speed of a ninja. His most recent, 2015’s The Gaslamp Killer Experience: Live in Los Angeles, boasts eight incredible tracks of his signature sound.

“My drums are always live and they’re always a little bit on the distorted, compressed side,” he says. “They sound pretty funk or rock oriented. I definitely think my drums have a lot to do with my sound. I use a couple of modular synths and a 303 Dr. Sample for all my delays and echoes. Now I use a space echo. It’s crazy. You hear heartbeat drums, and then you hear echoes coming in. That’s the signature Gaslamp Killer sound.”

ON THE BILL: The Gaslamp Killer with Real Cosby and Proper Motion. Doors: 8 p.m. June 5, at The Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. 720-645-2467. Tickets are $20. visit www.foxtheatre.com for more information.