Three Sundays ago, the electronica DJ known as Kaskade flew into Las Vegas to spend a raucous afternoon spinning music at a poolside party at Steve Wynn’s uber-plush Encore hotel.
Pool clubs in recent years have become a prized means of monetization in Las Vegas, and the $70-million, 60,000-square-foot Encore Beach Club, with design and décor redolent of a 1960s Saint-Tropez pleasure dome, aims to one-up its more prosaic rivals that have proliferated like palm trees along The Strip.
For roughly three hours, Kaskade laid down chill house dance grooves, both original songs and remixes, mostly from his own growing six-album repertoire, to a crowd of tanned and toned twenty- and thirtysomethings that swelled to 2,000, in a ratio of 35 men for every 65 women.
Nice work, if you can get it, and the Bay Area-based Kaskade, who was born Ryan Raddon 39 years ago in Chicago, is making the most of his, and electronica’s, moment in the sun — even if he’s not entirely sure how that moment came about.
“Why is it that this is electronic music’s time…? I don’t know,” says Kaskade, who’ll be one of the headliners at Friday’s opening of Electric Daisy Carnival, a two-day electronic music blowout at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and adjoining Exposition Park. Founded by L.A. promoters Insomniac Events, the annual event last year drew a reported 135,000 people.
“I don’t think 20 years ago it was really ready, it was still kind of in its infancy, the sound was working itself out,” Kaskade continues, speaking of a genre that has become ubiquitous.
“But now it’s matured, it’s more sophisticated now, it’s more musical than it’s ever been. So I think people, they can hear it and they can understand it, where maybe 10 years ago it was so bloops and blips and a little too abstract for ‘em. Now it’s kind of come to this more middle side.”
The first thing to know about Kaskade and other velvet-rope-caliber electronica artists is that the term “DJ” is wholly inadequate to encompass the scope of their activities and ambitions. Practitioners such as Moby, Deadmau5 and Armin Van Buren, all booked for Electric Daisy Carnival, are constantly in demand by top pop stars eager to remix their tunes and make them dance-ready.
But besides breaking others’ tracks down into components and reassembling them with Pro Tools — as he’s done for a variety of artists, including Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, among many others — artists like Kaskade also write and produce their own songs. His latest disc, “Dynasty,” was released this spring on Ultra Records, while Kaskade kept up a steady pace of live performances that have taken him from Coachella to Hong Kong.
Another telling measure of a DJ’s artistic range is the quality of his or her collaborators. Kaskade’s include the Dutch DJ-impresario Tiësto and Deadmau5, who teamed up on two Kaskade songs, “I Remember” and “Move for Me,” that you probably won’t fail to hear this summer if you set foot inside an Ibiza resort, a Miami Beach hotel lobby or West Hollywood nightclub. Kaskade is especially well known for working with female vocalists who can transmit electronica’s growing penchant for melody, lyrics and complex emotion over pure rhythm.
“We’ve long surpassed the word ‘DJ,’” Kaskade says. “Do you call Daft Punk ‘DJs’? Of course not. Do you call Chemical Brothers ‘DJs’? Now the people that are getting booked to play in clubs, it’s much more of a performance art.”
That might sound like a highfalutin term. But it fits the impression of Kaskade as he moves his fingers like a concert pianist across a battery of mixing boards and sequencers, or rifles through a plastic folder of CDs, searching for the opportune beat or lyric that will keep the bodies swaying around him.
In Las Vegas, live DJ performances are the new magic shows, and the form’s current wizards attract devoted followings. Chicago Bears star linebacker Brian Urlacher and the inevitable Paris Hilton were among those who reportedly showed up for Kaskade’s Memorial Day set at the Encore.
“It’s like a roller coaster,” says Sean Christie, operating partner of Encore Beach Club and its sister nightclub, Surrender, referring to Kaskade’s live technique. “He builds you up, he drops you back down, he builds you back up. So you walk away at the end of the day having experienced all these different emotions.”
In many ways, Kaskade is an apt embodiment of electronica’s hard-won mainstream acceptance, which is to say its commercial viability. Despite his blooming celebrity, he’s a married man with three young children who retains the amiable, unassuming demeanor of a nice Midwestern boy from the Chicago ‘burbs. As a teenager, he might’ve made a good foil for Matthew Broderick, or an Ally Sheedy love interest, in a John Hughes coming-of-age comedy.
While the sun-worshiping sybarites gyrate around him at Encore, pumping their fists and hoisting their cocktail glasses for refills, Kaskade, smiling behind his sunglasses, waves his hands and sings along to the insanely catchy tempos while taking occasional sips from a Diet Coke.
That’s a far cry from electronica’s popular image in the early 1990s, at least in the United States. Then largely associated with European “rave” parties, electronica was sensationally depicted by much of the U.S. media as illicit sound with nil artistic value, a noisy excuse for thrashing around until dawn in an Ecstasy-induced stupor.
Kaskade remembers those times, as well as the " disco sucks” backlash of the late ‘70s, when a Chicago rock radio station sponsored a dance-record demolition at Comiskey Park. Although he wonders if electronica may be reaching a similar saturation point as disco did earlier, he believes that the availability of cheap technology may spur even more creative innovation in electronica’s future. So too, he thinks, may the stressed-out tenor of our age.
“It’s a very intense time; there’s so much going on in the world,” he says. “It seems like we’re inundated with information constantly. And that’s the entire thing of this music: It’s about celebration, letting go, kind of like embracing the moment.”