When William Bensussen was cutting his teeth as a DJ and producer in San Diego, he had a tough time getting noticed. Police would shut down his parties and shows. People didn't seem interested in the music he and his friends were making. At clubs in the Gaslamp Quarter, he'd regularly clear the dance floor with his obscure, eclectic selections.
But everything changed when Bensussen—now dubbed The Gaslamp Killer—moved to Los Angeles in the mid-'00s.
"As soon as I came to L.A., there were hundreds of people that were telling me I was dope," he says. "Soon as I came here, hundreds of people going, Whoa! What the fuck? Why don't I know about you yet?' And I go, Well, I'm from San Diego.' And they're like, Oh, well that explains why I never heard of you.'"
These days, The Gaslamp Killer is celebrated across the globe for his gritty, wildly eclectic style. As a resident DJ at L.A.'s famous Low End Theory showcase, he's helped pioneer a forward-thinking style of electronic music that transcends the bounds of the dance floor in favor of gritty textures, off-kilter beats and genre-hopping vibes.
Bensussen says he couldn't have gotten to where he is today without leaving his hometown. But he emphasizes that he isn't bitter about his experience in San Diego. Indeed, he credits the local scene for playing a crucial role in his development.
"San Diego was my training ground," he says, name-checking friends like Tenshun and Gonjasufi. "There were tons of people in San Diego that were doing such amazing shit, and those were the people training me—training me so I could bring that style to the world. And that's what I did."
Bensussen, 29, has extraordinarily broad taste in music. He reportedly owns more than 10,000 records, and his songs and DJ sets find him plunging into anything from Turkish psych to Ethiopian jazz. But you can always tell a Gaslamp Killer production when you hear it: It's murky, borderline disturbing and often features the kind of raw, broodingly funky beat you might hear in a cyberpunk opium den.
Of course, the result isn't typically nightclub-friendly. But he wouldn't have it any other way. On his new album, Breakthrough—his debut full-length, which came out via Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label—he caters to no one but himself.
"I made a record that just would reflect what's in my heart. It had nothing to do with the dance floor," he says. "I didn't think about how it would sound in big speakers or any of that."
Bensussen grew up in University City. He got into San Diego's underground rave scene while in his teens, and his view of the world changed when he started going to the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts in Paradise Hills. Exposed to hip-hop culture and the hard-bitten atmosphere of Southeast San Diego, he soon got into break-dancing and DJing, playing gigs across the city under the name DJ Willow.
Even at an early age, his friends say his eclectic taste matched an outrageous personality. His breakdancing style "was like this fusion of Thai hard-stepping aboriginal African fucking free-form arms all over African tribal shit, mixed with robo b-boy," says Justin Smith, a friend and collaborator of Bensussen's who also attended SCPA. "It was like this upside-down octopus writhing. Shit was flying all over."
In the early 2000s, Bensussen worked at Access Music, the well-known Pacific Beach hip-hop record store, and collected tons of vinyl—as much to listen to music as collect samples. Armed with turntables and an MPC sampler, he and his friend Michael Raymond Russell started a beat-making crew called MHE, or Machines Have Emotions. Later, Russell played in the astounding, underrated psych-soul group MRR-ADM with their friend Adam Douglas Manella; Bensussen culled from his vinyl to provide break-beats for them to chop up.
"We weren't necessarily digging for a sound; we were digging to see if we could find a drum break in a song," Russell recalls about their vinyl hunting. "And when you did find a drum beat, it's like your heart stopped, and it just started pumping really fast because you got so excited just to hear a dry drum break."
In the early 2000s, they released a trip-hop DJ mix titled Gaslamp Killers, the first official Gaslamp Killer release. But Bensussen got frustrated with the San Diego scene—getting people to come to shows felt like pulling teeth, he says. He left San Diego in 2004, spending a year in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles.
"I couldn't devote my life to a community that wasn't giving back, so I had to leave," he says. "That's what I felt like I needed to do to take [my music] to the next level, because I feel like the world needs it. As crazy as that might sound, I really do feel that way."
Bensussen still collaborates with current and former San Diego friends—singer Gonjasufi appears on Breakthrough twice, and you can also hear Russell's influence on the album. Lately, he's been collecting vintage drum equipment to make live break-beats; The Gaslamp Killer does the same thing on the album, recruiting various drummers to deliver muscular, loose-limbed rhythms. In "Dead Vets," Bensussen teams up with Russell and L.A. producer Adrian Younge to conjure ominous, tripped-out soul.
"I felt like I didn't want to sample anymore. I wanted to just do it live if I could," Bensussen says, noting that he's also been inspired by local musician RSI, who plays on the track "Meat Guilt." "They made me want to do that with my time and try and get real-live sounds and make music from scratch, like real musicians."
These days, San Diego's electronic scene is a lot more vibrant than it used to be. Bensussen cites El Dorado, Kava Lounge and even a Gaslamp club, Voyeur, as welcoming spots for underground sounds. But he still feels wary about the Gaslamp as a whole.
"I don't feel like it's a very forward-thinking place, unfortunately," he says. "If I went anywhere else than those three places, I'd probably get booed off the stage."
The Gaslamp Killer plays at Voyeur on Thursday, Oct. 4. thegaslampkiller.com