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Kaskade continues to break down walls between electronica, pop

As Kaskade, Ryan Raddon is at the forefront of an electronica wave that’s sweeping pop music and upending underground dance culture. But after a year when he did almost everything right as a DJ and producer, he’s still trying to shake the one concert that went wrong.

The San Clemente-based artist was among the biggest stories in dance music this year, reportedly commanding up to six figures per gig and conquering the global circuit with a double album, “Fire & Ice,” that redefined his near-decade-long career and landed in the Billboard Top 20 (with its iTunes release hitting No. 4 on those charts). DJ Times deemed him the best DJ in the world, and he headlined global festivals, including the groundbreaking IDentity dance tour. He’ll cap the year with two headlining New Year’s Eve performances, jetting between sets at the White Wonderland rave in Anaheim and at Marquee in Las Vegas, the site of his popular year-long monthly club residency.

But in July, at the L.A. premiere of a documentary film on the Electric Daisy Carnival, things went awry. Raddon tweeted that he would be spinning atop an ad-hoc mobile stage on Hollywood Boulevard. Promised “ME+BIG SPEAKERS+MUSIC=BLOCK PARTY!!!,” thousands of fans swamped the street, leading to a confrontation with police, a shutdown of the boulevard and the media calling it a “riot.” Fearful theater chains canceled subsequent screenings of the film, and a public debate flared anew about whether dance music attracts a volatile audience.

For an artist who prides himself on clean living and a relentless work ethic, it was a low moment that, he believes, missed the point of his music.

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“It was disappointing on so many levels,” he said. Raddon admits that he “didn’t anticipate the draw. But it was a bummer how it got played in the media. I always get angry when people make dance music out to be something cheap, where they think it’s all about drugs or no one would come.”

That such a mishap didn’t faze his career is a testament to his demand as a DJ and to the rising tide of dance music worldwide. This coming year may be when Kaskade obliterates the last walls between orthodox rave music and mainstream pop. And despite the Hollywood incident, it might also be the year he helps change the genre’s decadent reputation into something more wholesome and maybe even spiritual.

As his recent album title suggests, Raddon’s career as Kaskade has been defined by seemingly incompatible elements. Raised in the Chicago suburbs, Raddon was brought up in the Mormon faith, attending Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, where he refrained from the stereotypical dance-culture staples of drugs and drinking. He traveled to Japan for a Mormon mission and speaks fluent Japanese.

After school, he began releasing singles upon taking a job with the San Francisco dance label Om and released his first full-length in 2003, putting out albums roughly every two years and moving to the influential Ultra label in 2006. As he entered the top flight of global DJs, however, the 40-year-old snowboarder and married father of three kept strong ties to his faith. He cites the atmosphere and emotion of religious music as one of his chief influences as a dance producer.

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“There are real similarities. Listening to music is such an uplifting, spiritual thing,” Raddon said. “It’s far-fetched to some, I understand that. But the way dance music brings people together, it’s not a big stretch from hymns.”

Incantatory, melodic vocals are what sets his tracks apart from the morass of dance peers. Pop has thoroughly accepted dance music sounds, and artists like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga (Raddon has remixed for both) have deployed them for huge hits. But the reverse has been slower to take hold — orthodox dance producers usually structure songs around micromanaged samples and long-simmering bass drops rather than verses and choruses.

Raddon’s sound has been arcing in a songwriterly direction for years, and on “Fire & Ice,” he fully settled into a template where he uses the inventiveness of dance and the hit-making aspects of pop.

He collaborated with rising artists as disparate as the ADD-dubstep producer Skrillex, peacocking rock band Neon Trees and the Eminem and Dr. Dre vocalist Skylar Grey, alongside dance-scene singers like Haley Gibby and Becky Jean Williams. His forthcoming single, “Room for Happiness,” rides big washes of synths and Grey’s whispered encouragement — “Don’t be fooled by your emptiness, there’s so much more room for happiness.” “Lessons in Love” has the seductive sonic energy needed on a packed dance floor but with the lyrical self-doubt of an angsty rock band.

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“In the beginning, I was so hung up on production, tweaking perfect sounds and spending hours getting the right snare drum,” Raddon said. “Now I’d rather be involved in a song where the words and melody mean more. It took Lady Gaga to really put a light on that, where you can have artistry in a fun dance song. She made the underground pay attention.”

That growing underground may be the biggest development in the live music business.

Dance music has long been the default mode of European pop, and in the last few years American stars have caught up sonically. But the more interesting aspect might be the sweep of festivals like Electric Daisy (which played in Las Vegas this year to bigger daily crowds than Coachella) and young artists like Skrillex and Deadmau5, who became amphitheater-filling stars. Kaskade’s Marquee residency heralded not just a major artist growing his reputation but an entire business model in which dance music is a self-sufficient entertainment attraction in the U.S.

“He was a top priority for us to join the DNA of what Marquee was all about,” said Jason Strauss, co-founder of Strategic Hospitality Group, which manages Marquee and other popular Las Vegas and New York clubs including Tao, Avenue and Lavo.

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Marquee, which opened in January, invested $3 million in an LED screen to showcase visuals for Kaskade’s sets, which regularly sold out its 3,000-guest capacity and became an international destination.

Strauss notes the sex appeal of a Kaskade set, citing his singles’ sultry vocals and his “fierce female fan loyalty.” Promoters know that where the women go, money follows. Thus, Raddon can now reportedly demand up to $200,000 a night for tour dates, which require few of the logistical trappings and financial outlays of a touring rock band.

But what about that mission? Dance music is America’s most important new sound and scene, but it’s also still battling a rowdy reputation. The kind it might take a God-fearing, bass-dropping teetotaler to undo.

“It’s still shocking to me to see this acceptance,” he says of electronica’s popularity. “I love this music so much, and I didn’t think this day was coming.”

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august.brown@latimes.com


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