Turn the lamp down low

Los Angeles-based producer/DJ Gaslamp Killer is reinventing club music along with his partner-in-crime Gonjasufi.

GASLAMP KILLER (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Contrary to his outrageously bushy appearance and his ominous stage moniker of the Gaslamp Killer, enigmatic American club DJ Will Bensussen possesses an unusually serene, scholarly demeanor.
“A lot of people I meet tell me that when I speak, I remind them of a rabbi,” Bensussen said from London last week, where he was on tour with his pal from his hometown of San Diego, iconoclast rapper/poet Gonjasufi.
“When I’m on the microphone in a club and I’m giving my little spiel, I’m almost like a rabbi giving his drasha,” he added with a laugh.
“My Jewishness plays a huge part of who I am and will always be.”
Indeed, shows by the Gaslamp Killer and Gonjasufi are almost like going to a free-form, strobe lit, bass-thumping synagogue where the two musical masters decode the DNA of every kind of music they can get their hands on to an audience eager to be transformed by the spiritual and physical experience.
“I try to teach the audience that it’s OK to be yourself. And it’s OK to show your soul and wear your heart on your sleeve and be honest with yourself,” said the 32-year-old Bensussen, calling his indemand set an “eclectic exorcism.”
“I express the fact that being a nerd is OK and being an intellectual person is OK, not that I’m the most intelligent or well read, but I feel very proud of who I am and what I do. I try to educate the audience and bring eclectic sounds to them as well as entertain them and hit them hard with bass as well as good rock and roll with guitars, some real heavy electronic distortion and some funky beautiful music created everywhere from Israel to Brazil to Turkey and LA. It’s entertainment and education rolled into one – that’s my goal!” And Bensussen’s been moving in that direction ever since he first decided to DJ, back when he was 17, a move that didn’t set well with his Jewish parents.
But they likely saw it coming, as their son spent most of his youth rebelling against societal conventions.
“My mother’s family is from Lithuania and my father’s family is from Turkey and Lebanon, and when I was little, they enrolled me in a Chabad day school,” he said. “At some point, I decided I wanted to go to a public school, because I realized at an early age that the rest of the world wasn’t made up of Hassidic Jews.
But even in public school, I knew right away that I was different - not because of how I looked but because of how I thought., and how I felt.”
Bensussen’s sense of not belonging only began to change after he dropped out of college following the death of a close friend.
“He was an artist, and his death made decide that the only important thing was being happy. And the only thing that made me happy was my creative abilities. School was for my family, I was working in college so hard to make my parents happy, they had dealt with so much when I was growing up I wasn’t the best kid, I was kind of a troublemaker,” he said.
“I realized that if I didn’t take the bull by the horns and chase my dream down that I would regret it for the rest of my life. So I took on music full time.
Of course, my parents told me I was a complete idiot. Now I’m helping to pay their bills and they’re can’t thank me enough and they’re more proud of me than I could ever have imagined.
They’re my heroes and I’m their hero, and it feels very good.”
BENSUSSEN’S DJ career didn’t feel so great at the beginning, where his acquired name The Gaslamp Killer, derived from the downtown Gaslamp district of San Diego, took on two meanings – sometimes he was slaying the crowd with his inventive blend of hip hop and psychedelics and sometimes he was just killing their good time.
“For years, I had to play in this neighborhood and people just booed me and threw things at me.It was not fun,” said Bensussen, explaning that the Gaslamp district was “where all the rich people go, spend their money, drinking their fancy drinks, wearing their fancy clothes, listening to their same generic music.”
“Those people wanted to hear their pop music – Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. They didn’t want to hear hip hop or underground electronic music. So we were fighting with the audience unfortunately. And sometimes it was great. So in the hip hop sense of the word, I was ‘killing’ the Gaslamp.
That means ‘you did a great set, an amazing performance, you killed it.’ “But in another sense of the word, I was killing the good time of these trendy rich kids, I was ruining their nights and clearing dance floors. I was making people unhappy. The club owners would come up to me and say ‘what are you doing? This isn’t what we brought you here for.’” The times, and tunes, have changed, and today, Bensussen is recognized as a trail blazer in the performance DJ world.
Instead of driving audiences away, they’re arriving in droves to hear his remixes, forays into dubstep and segues from Black Sabbath to Bollywood soundtracks.
Local audiences will get a chance to feel the bass inside their guts tonight when Gaslamp Killer and Gonjasufi take the stage at Comfort 13 in Tel Aviv.
Bensussen credits his longtime hip hop collaborator (whose real name is Sumach Ecks) for enabling him to express his creativity through his music.
“Sufi and I met in 1999 in San Diego, I worked at a hip hop record store, Sufi used to bring his albums in and ask to put them on consignment. I would see him at hip hop shows, and house parties and he’d always be free styling,” said Bensussen.
“One day, I played him what I was doing with my re-eds - taking world music and re-editing it into instrumentals.
And he said ‘I love this vibe, I would love to try and take this and make some songs. So I gave him some of my stuff to sing over and rap over.
The next thing you know he sent me some incredible music, and I was amazed.”
No novice when it comes to Israel, the Gaslamp Killer pointed out that his arrival in on these shores this week marks his fourth visit to Israel, the most recent one being his debut performance in 2008.
“I was here for the first time when I was 12, for a family wedding, and returned on a school program when I was 15,” he said.
“I remember being on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and seeing all the kids walking around and the young beautiful soldiers mingling with them, and the energy of these awesome people – it was very open minded, relaxed and so cool, it reminded me of California in a way. can’t wait to come back.”
Delighted that people no longer run for the exits with their hands over their ears, Benmussen is treating his underground success with the cautious respect it deserves, and not taking anything for granted.
“I’m a realistic person and I realized that this is not the most solid work to be doing as a man, but I’m going to work my ass off to try and make this career as long and fruitful as positive as I can,” he said.
“In the sense of helping my family, touching people all around the world, and trying to bring a little happiness, fun and light into peoples’ lives, I think I’ve done a pretty good job so far."