The Grand Resurrection of The Gaslamp Killer

William Bensussen

William Bensussen: The Gaslamp Killer. Photo by Philip Cosores for Bandcamp.

It’s been a little over three years since William Bensussen—better known as The Gaslamp Killer—almost died, but his recollection of the event is so vivid that he starts shouting whenever he talks about it. “I’m sorry I’m screaming,” he says, slowly calming down. “It’s just a really intense memory. I haven’t spoken about it in so long.”

On July 9th, 2013, the DJ and musician was returning to his home in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles via scooter when a gust of wind blew his hat from his head. He tried to grab it as it flew away, accidentally squeezing his front brakes. The combination of the wind, the winding roads, and the speed of the scooter had disastrous results: the vehicle flipped, landing directly on top of Bensussen and pinning him to the ground. Despite the severity of the accident, according to Bensussen, the paramedics who came to pick him up didn’t even want to admit him to the hospital.

“I have a lot to do with me being here,” he says, his blue eyes locked in and opened wide. “I was a fucking savage in the hospital. I talked shit to the ambulance drivers who were being lazy. They told me I didn’t have a scratch on me, but I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t lay back.”

Bensussen was suffering from massive internal bleeding, something the doctors and nurses who cared for him didn’t immediately notice.

“When they finally did see me, they said, ‘You’re so full of blood internally, and we don’t know what’s wrong. We have to explore.’ I asked my friend Brandy to tell my parents I love them and to tell [my girlfriend] Allison I love her. Then I gave her the password to my phone, and I was out.”

He woke up under a heavy dose of morphine with 40 staples running from his pelvis to his chest, from where the doctors had removed his spleen. And though the LAC+USC Medical Center—where he was admitted—is visible from the living room window of his multi-level home where he now sits, he doesn’t get squeamish thinking about the procedure. Thanks to the morphine, he doesn’t remember most of it.

Bensussen remained sober for six months after the surgery, but has since returned to smoking weed, casually puffing a joint for the duration of the interview. Even when he’s stoned, his cadence and exaggerated body language doesn’t slow. He swings his arms wildly while speaking, and ends up spilling a Pamplemousse-flavored La Croix all over his white desk. He doesn’t pause his story for a second while cleaning it up.

Anyone who’s seen The Gaslamp Killer perform knows about his kinetic, untamed energy and his frantic stage demeanor, and he’s not much different in the comfort of his own home. His long beard and voluminous hair are perfectly suited to his larger-than-life personality.

Despite his accident, the months spent healing in his home, and the worry that his career could be in jeopardy, Bensussen hasn’t let his circumstances get the better of him.

At the time of the crash, he’d already begun working on ideas for what would eventually become his sophomore album, Instrumentalepathy; while the injury may have slowed down the process, the resulting album wouldn’t have been possible without it.

The Gaslamp Killer

Speaking by email, longtime collaborator Daedelus recalls the initial news of Bensussen’s accident; he knew it was severe from the way the news was broken to him. “When we’ve played shows together, his fans often just call him GLK, or maybe a familiar ‘Willie.’ But I remember when I first heard about the accident, it was ‘William is in the hospital.’”

Daedelus, who did mixing and engineering work on the LP, says Bensussen’s recovery provided inspiration for the project. “The journey from that place to this collection of songs wasn’t just recording,” he says. “It was Willie’s attempts to document his vision from near-death.”

Bensussen is just as blunt when he talks about the album’s importance. “I found an inner peace and clarity that I’d never experienced before,” he says. “I wanted to do anything in my power to keep that peace.”

***

It’s not surprising that young Bensussen was, in his own words, a bad kid. But his parents, a Mexican father with Turkish and Syrian heritage and a New York mother with Lithuanian blood, never resorted to outside intervention to handle their wild, youngest child. Rather, Bensussen credits them with recognizing his creative energy and helping find ways to harness it, whether it was through dance class, piano lessons, vocal coaches, or children’s theater in their home city of San Diego.

It was acting, not music, that first caught Bensussen’s interest. He attended the San Diego School of Creative & Performing Arts, and soon, one play turned into another, and he was scoring lead roles without even auditioning. He landed an agent, and was considering a role in a television pilot, but three pivotal events altered his fate. The first was puberty, when a change in voice and appearance drastically limited the roles that were available to him. The next was his discovery of the San Diego rave scene.

“The rave scene hit me like a sledgehammer of inspiration,” he says. “It opened my eyes to this other universe where you didn’t have to abide by society’s laws. You could just be yourself, which was something I was looking for my entire childhood. I never had a good group of friends, and was always getting picked on because I was into the arts. Raves really changed the course of everything.”

The third event happened when Bensussen went to an audition for a small part on a television series and introduced himself to the woman in charge of casting, and she refused to shake his hand. “We don’t shake hands. Didn’t you read the sign on the door?” she told him. “You guys bring in bugs from your schools. We don’t want to catch your disease.” Bensussen walked out without completing his reading, mortified by how he had been treated. It was an arbitrary rule put in place to make the children feel small, and to let them know who was in charge. “I realized what a sick world this can be,” he says. “I just wanted to be myself, I didn’t want to play a role.”

Bensussen quickly decided he was going to become a DJ, spending all of his money on records and equipment, and engaging with the San Diego music scene. Going to raves soon turned into throwing them, and working as a DJ led him to a San Diego neighborhood that provided his stage name.

The Gaslamp Killer

The Gaslamp District is home to San Diego’s biggest stretch of bars and clubs, the place any local DJ would go to start a career. But Bensussen wasn’t interested in appealing to casual tastes; instead, at his gigs, he spun his favorites: J Dilla, MF Doom and Madlib. “I got banned from clubs,” he recalls. “People would throw gum in my hair, a beer bottle flew by my face once.” So Bensussen fled the scene, netting some high-profile gigs opening for local hip-hop and dance shows. But gigs for the likes of Deltron 3030, Amon Tobin, and DJ Shadow were scarce, occurring just a few times a year. All the money from promoters went into the tame but lucrative Gaslamp District. When a friend bemoaned Bensussen’s absence from the scene by saying that he and his associates were “the only ones killin’ the Gaslamp,” Bensussen took note of the phrasing.

From that one sentence came the title of his first mixtape—Gaslamp Killers—and a period of straight hustling. Bensussen would play art shows, surf competitions, and shoe company events. Shepard Fairey caught wind of Bensussen’s mixtape and would book him, under his name DJ Willow, to play his parties. Slowly and surely, Bensussen’s reach began to expand to Orange County, Long Beach, San Francisco (where he lived for a period) and, most importantly, Los Angeles. It was in L.A. that Bensussen formally adopted the name of The Gaslamp Killer, abandoning the DJ Willow handle at a gig opening for Digable Planets at the El Rey Theatre. With his name slated to be on a marquee for the first time, he asked promoter Jason Swartz to list him on it as “The Gaslamp Killer.” He was disappointed when he arrived at the venue to discover his name listed simply as “Willow.” It wasn’t until a second El Rey show, opening for MF Doom, that The Gaslamp Killer was properly born—but not without a few labor pains.

“I got heckled, got shit thrown at me, and got ripped to shreds on that stage because MF Doom was two hours late to his show,” Bensussen says. “I took a beating no DJ should ever have to take. I finally snapped. I said, ‘Guess what motherfuckers, he’s called the motherfucking supervillain for a reason. He’s probably getting his dick sucked by a girl backstage and doesn’t care about any of you.’ Mic drop. I got off the stage, and there was crazy feedback, just tearing the audience’s ears apart. The sound guy was out to lunch at that moment and it took him a good five seconds to hit mute.”

Swartz found Bensussen backstage and apologized for the crowd, before urging him to get back onstage. Luckyiam of local hip-hop group Living Legends even jumped onstage and grabbed the mic to try and calm the jeering. When Bensussen returned to the stage to resume his set, he was met with a quiet audience.

Then, he did the unexpected: He carefully placed a record on the turntable, eased the needle onto the vinyl—and he played an MF Doom remix, breaking the unwritten rule that openers should never spin work by the headliner.

“I knew what they wanted to hear,” he tells me. It didn’t matter to him that MF Doom walked in at that instant, angry to hear his own music playing. What mattered was that he followed his gut.

“Everyone after that was like ‘This motherfucker is a street-minded, hip-hop-tested, battle-approved guy. This guy stood up for his shit in front of a thousand people.’” Beyond building a reputation and solidifying relationships—he met Flying Lotus for the first time at that show—the performance set the wheels into motion for Bensussen’s eventual move to Los Angeles. The Gaslamp Killer as we know him was beginning to take shape.

The Gaslamp Killer

It’s a Wednesday when I meet Bensussen at his home, which means that, in addition to speaking to me, he’s wrapping up the last of his preparations for Low End Theory, the club night he founded nearly 10 years earlier. It’s close to showtime, but Bensussen is calm, checking his phone periodically, relieved that colleagues are leaving him alone.

When he spins the first of his two sets that evening, he knows what the crowd wants. These days, it’s A$AP Ferg and Kendrick Lamar, and Bensussen stitches the songs together with his trademark dirty drum beats, Middle Eastern instrumental samples, and outer space-meets-vintage arcade sound effects. The night also features a performance by the Texas producer Rabit, as well as a surprise appearance from Nosaj Thing. That, plus the fact that bona fide superstars like Thom Yorke have been known to drop by, gives the weekly sessions an air of anticipation. Unsurprisingly, there’s a line outside club for most of the night.

Remarkably, Low End Theory hasn’t had to sacrifice its initial vision in order to keep up with the longer lines and increased demand. The night is still always a $10 cover and 18+, and has maintained a long-standing residence at the Lincoln Heights club The Airliner, conveniently located near GLK’s home. But over the years, that vision has expanded, making room for events like the yearly Low End Theory Festival, hosted in nearby Echo Park, and Low End Theory Presents, in which the club partners with the promotion company Goldenvoice to present events too large for The Airliner.

“Lincoln Heights was fucked up when we started our party,” Bensussen recalls. Even neighborhoods like the more desirable Mount Washington, where he now lives, were plagued by gang and drug-related violence. “The first time we had a line [in front of the venue], some homies from the neighborhood showed up and said, ‘You’re going to let us all in for free. This is our hood and our street.’ And we said ‘Yes sir, enjoy your night, thanks for coming.’ No argument from us. The next few times they came around, we were ready. We hired a big security team and started upping our shit.”

These days, the tensions in both neighborhoods have subsided, but Low End still feels like a local event steeped in the culture and history of the surrounding area. After a decade, its basic infrastructure is well-defined, which means Bensussen can spend less time planning and more time honing his skills as a musician.

And he is a musician—there’s a drum kit and a keyboard in the living room at his house, and a recording studio downstairs. Bensussen’s first songs were developed during jam sessions with his friend Computer Jay, and the experience taught Bensussen how to get the best out of his collaborators. He’s since worked with Gonjasufi, Flying Lotus and Daedelus, and those collaborations have served to sharpen Bensussen’s musical skill.

Gonjasufi compares his partnership with Bensussen to the chemistry between Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, or Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “I feel like our chemistry is otherworldly,” he says. 2012’s Breakthrough, which featured Gonjasufi, as well as Shigeto, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and Samiyam, was a critical success. But four years later, Bensussen’s own opinion of the record has dimmed.

“I wasn’t ready,” he says of the album. He was nearly 30 years old when it came out, but as a musician, he still had a lot to learn. “My heroes make 100 beats and choose the best one,” he says. “I was making 10 beats and choosing the best five.” The upside of the experience is that it pushed Bensussen to create. The manic DJ running around the stage had become a studio rat.

The Gaslamp Killer

Breakthrough was a surprise to those who only knew Bensussen through his DJ sets, but Instrumentalepathy is a revelation. Opening track “Pathetic Dreams” directly references Bensussen’s recovery—which makes sense; the track was conceived, when he was still confined to a bed in his home. On the track, Bensussen shakes a bottle of morphine pills, and the voice of his mother—the first thing he heard when he came out of his surgery—says, “I love you.” His own deep baritone hums a melody, which Bensussen recorded lying on his back while bedridden. Tying the track together is an orchestral arrangement from friend and collaborator Miguel Atwood-Ferguson; the result is a piece that is simultaneously full of mourning and full of hope.

“‘Pathetic Dreams’ is my favorite thing we have ever recorded together,” Atwood-Ferguson says. “The music that I am most interested in inspires my spirit and helps me get in touch with the essence of my life itself. That particular track, and the process of working on it, definitely inspired me.”

Throughout Instrumentalepathy, Bensussen pushes himself on a purely technical level. He doesn’t play drums on the record, as he had on Breakthrough; instead he focused on playing synths, pulling the songs together beneath a single overarching sonic template. “Residual Tingles,” “Warm Wind,” and “In the Dark (Part Two)” demonstrate a more optimistic worldview; it’s full of warm tones and moments of unflinching beauty—indications of that deep inner peace.

But there are smaller gestures that also reflect Bensussen’s new state of mind. He removed the phrase “I will tear your fucking face off” from his Twitter profile, started following more than 666 people, and stopped making jokingly satanic posts. “I’ve had a great life,” he says. “I don’t know shit about evil.”

He’s also wary of contributing to the negative energy to the world. There are still moments of darkness on Instrumentalepathy, but they mostly serve as counterweight, rather than focal point. The entire experience has caused Bensussen to re-examine his musical identity.

The Gaslamp Killer

The Gaslamp Killer. Photo by Philip Cosores for Bandcamp.

“A lot of this album is uplifting,” he says. “And that’s because the accident gave me this clarity, and raised me out of this low vibration I was in. I had this negative, skeptical, self-pitying attitude. And you shouldn’t put that kind of shit out into the universe over and over again. You have to be positive. The accident shoved me so hard to slow the fuck down and look at my life, look at all that I’ve created and all these people who admire me. I was disappointing them all with my behavior and needed to get my shit together.”

He pauses, gathering his thoughts, then concludes.

“An album is a project that identifies your heart in that particular moment of your life,” he says, “at that point of your journey. This album encompasses my journey so perfectly. It’s more than I’ve ever shared of my own self, even during my sets. And during my sets, I’m down on the ground, I’m covered in my own sweat. But it’s still not as personal as this album. Because a set is gone as soon as it’s finished. An album is forever.”

Philip Cosores

2 Comments

  1. Posted September 17, 2016 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Shared this on my fb page. Inspiring.

  2. benjamin nature
    Posted October 12, 2016 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    incredible read, bandcamp just getting stronger

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