Breaking Through in Los Angeles County
An Interview w/ The Gaslamp Killer

Words by Bryan Crawford

Los Angeles, CA — Willie “The Gaslamp Killer” Bensussen has a problem. The Gaslamp Killer (GLK) has for years been steadily championing an unclassifiable, and consequently under-appreciated music movement in Los Angeles.

What of the music? It’s both a pastiche of lesser-known recent beat-makers and an amalgamation of truly iconic music – void of any pretension – from classics such as Curtis Mayfield, Hendrix, and The Beatles, to NWA and J-Dilla, icons of a different age.

Now by musicians’ standards this may seem customary and comes with the territory. Being misunderstood, or patently dismissed, has been the badge of honor for countless progressives in all forms of art. But as we sit on the stairs outside the Echoplex and talk about music culture in LA, Gaslamp Killer seems far from misunderstood. Numerous times he stops to talk with an appreciative fan. His hair is larger than life (the better for head-wrecking you with) and he has a mustache that commands respect. Yet these caricature-like features belie his boyish awe; an unceasing perceptivity and appreciation that are fitting for an audiophile such as himself. Aside from our back and forth banter about the general state of affairs, he seems fascinated with how things have evolved, even in just the last 5 years.

In 2006, GLK moved to LA and started a collective called the Low End Theory (LET), after the eponymous Tribe Called Quest album. GLK recalls, “the first few months of LET were 25 men in a circle bobbing their heads. 6 months after that we had some girls; we had some crowds; it started getting awesome.”

And five years later, the problem exists not with those who have already heard the set, it’s with the people who want to know what it is before they go to a show.

Readers unfamiliar with The Gaslamp Killer, might have guessed that his problem has to do with frightening mothers, young children and other would-be listeners by offending their gentle sensibilities. They’d be wrong, but not far off: the problem is the people shy away from LET because of words like ‘dubstep’, ‘electronic’, or ‘glitch’ in the description. But this mainstream bottle-necking seems to be a dissipating issue. “Now it’s a lot more appreciated. The kids are more open-minded, are more supportive. They’re just coming out in droves, man. They have no false pretenses, or any weird ideas about Low End.”

And with the recent guest-dj-ing of indie/immortal Thom Yorke (3/9/11) it seems that LET may well have turned a corner.

“Everybody’s happy that Thom Yorke played and that he played hard techno too. Kraftwerk, Jaylib, Squarepusher, Mad Villian.”

Yorke’s recent surprise DJ set brought out both enthusiastic LET regulars, excited to see such nobility spin, as well as first-timers, enticed by the mere mention of his name. I ask if GLK has any fear of people flocking to LET and diluting the base that supported them the last 5 years. “Nah”, he says.

“You know LET is a specific niche, and not as many OG’s come out as they did before, but we appreciate the evolution of this whole thing.”

GLK’s approach of combining disparate ideas, along with a healthy mix of west coast progressive artists – Stones Throw artists, folks at Dublab, Plug Research, Art Don’t Sleep, (yes, the list goes on) create an undeniably infectious sound. Says GLK, “we’re blessed. We all recognize the significance and the propulsion form ’06 to ’11.”

Now, I get it: people generally overestimate how distinct their art (and certainly their own lives) can be. But avant-garde anything tends to garner criticism from those unwilling to understand. And purists reserve particular derision for dj’s ‘simply sampling others’ works. But there are bigger implications here. I don’t want to get too esoteric; I’m not in the habit of making mountains out of musical molehills. But in order to understand what is going on in Los Angeles, it’s necessary to understand that there is an influential, innovative beat-driven music scene that is populist-agnostic, genre-transcendent, and totally exploding. | Los Angeles