In an electronic scene where music has been reduced to the letter M and DJ booths have become DJing optional, Canadian-born, San Francisco-bred ill.Gates cuts an unusual figure. Over his nearly 20 year career, .Gates has preferred the term respect to rage, IDM to EDM and music production to theatrical stage production. Yet though he plays Burning Man and Shambala instead of Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra, .Gates’ influence on today’s electronic music is undeniable, counting collaborations with Bassnectar, Datsik, and VibeSquaD among his extensive discography. He’ll be making his way to Madison for the first time on Saturday and caught up with The Badger Herald for a little getting-to-know-you.
“I’m trying to make just the weirdest shit I can,” .Gates said, a feat that he often accomplishes to surprising results. .Gates has taken the term experimental to new heights, winding up with a truly varied discography and an equally diverse fan base. His story is just as unique as his sound.
“I started DJing when I was a young lad of 13, and basically everyone listened to house music and trance in the EDM scene,” .Gates said. “But I was a lot more into experimental IDM stuff and hip-hop.”
Too experimental for the hip-hop scene, .Gates wound up in EDM. “I would end up DJing at raves because I was far, far too young to get into any event where they sold alcohol,” he said. “I would sit there with my records and wait until the house music finally stopped at like 6:00 in the morning.” With a set that was neither house nor trance, “I would end up playing at like 10:00.”
Yet .Gates soldiered on, and in the mid-90s found a break dance crew in Ottowa that fully embraced his experimental sound.
“I had this great dance crew that would focus on doing really, really weird things,” .Gates said. “Rather than just wearing, you know, sideways baseball hats and Adidas track suits they would show up in animal masks and tutus. All the other break dance crews hated us, because we would always win, and we were very, very silly about it.”
Though not humble about the crew’s winning record, .Gates recognizes that novelty may have been a factor in their success.
“I think that when you judge break dance competitions again and again and again for 20 years and you’re from the 80s, there comes a point where you’ve seen the head spins, you’ve seen the flares, and sometimes you just want to see people in animal masks and tutus do crazy sequences of freezes and weird stuff that you haven’t seen before,” he said.
“The judges all recognized that we were pushing the art form both musically, stylistically, and in terms of dance, but all the other break dance crews totally hated us.”
Unaffected by the animosity and armed with a growing following, .Gates and the crew began throwing parties.
“We started this crew where we would set up giant robots at parties and do live graffiti and break dancing and I would DJ,” he said. “That started to get people out of listening to just house music and into more experimental stuff.”
After several years of making graffiti art and spinning with the crew, .Gates moved to Toronto, where his music career quickly took off.
“I very quickly ended up getting picked up by a record label and putting out records and playing at various breaks events, because there’s actually a scene for breaks in Toronto,“ he said.
When .Gates first began to tour (at that time under the moniker of The Phat Conductor) he was working as a graphic designer.
“I thought that that would be a good career move for me at that point because everybody always tells you that music is a totally unrealistic way to make a living,” he said. “It is an unrealistic way to make a living, I would definitely not recommend it to anyone who wants gainful employment. But after touring for a bit and after seeing how completely lame it was working for wedding magazines and Irish pubs and stuff doing graphic design, I thought, you know what, fuck it, I don’t care if I’m poor, I don’t care if I can’t have a kid, or a car, or any of that stuff, I need to create what matters to me. And what mattered to me was creating bass-infused, glitched out hip-hop.”
After deciding to ditch graphic design for full-time touring, there was one issue left.
“I had kind of fallen into the break scene just because there’s a lot going on it that, but I had never really considered what I did breaks, that was just the closest genre to what I was doing” he said. “At that point I was like, you know what, I’m just going to create my own genre, and just stop trying to follow the established track and just try and forge my own path. And that was really the best decision I could have made.”
Though .Gates says it took him many years to take the leap into the unknown, he has never looked back.
“The doors started flying open,” he said. “I changed labels, started going to the West Coast and working with Muti Music in San Francisco and from then on things really started popping off for me. I got a work visa, moved to San Francisco, started touring the U.S., Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa, and it’s just, it’s been more than I can keep up with ever since.”
Since first getting signed to Muti Music, .Gates has toured the globe multiple times, released a few hundred songs, worked as his own VJ and created a production workshop for aspiring musicians. And though his career began shortly after many of us were born, he remains incredibly relevant today.
“I think that if there was one direction that electronic music is going now, it’s the direction of individual expression, “ he said. “I really see myself fitting into that trend.”
For .Gates, that trend has been more of an ethos.
“I really try to create as unique a sound as possible,” he said. “’I’m trying to do my best to sound like myself and to create and explore my own world.”
While many DJs have opted for a narrow definition of their world, .Gates has made his as massive as possible, actively trying to create music that sounds unlike anything he’s created before. Though this presents the risk of alienating a fan base, .Gates has found the process rewarding.
“Electronic music is kind of like playing with Legos,” he said. “When you have your little habits and your little specialized Lego pieces that you’ve made, it becomes really easy to just build a different version of the spaceship that you built last week, whereas to create a whole world, it’s a lot more of a challenge.
“I think that at first people were a little weirded out, because my tracks sound radically different from each other,” he said. “But I think that over time people watch producers that are the flavor of the week just beat that flavor of the week to death. When you just keep beating a dead horse again and again and again without moving forward, people lose interest.”
Though .Gates is unafraid to experiment and welcomes the challenge of breaking new ground, he admits he may have a “classic ill.Gates voice.”
“Pretty much every track that I do involves glitched out bass,” he said. He also has a standard method of creating a track.
“I typically start with a very distinct emotion expressed in terms of a chord progression,” he said. “Once I find a set of chords that gives me a feeling that I like, I’ll expand that emotion and try and make it as intense as possible, and then usually it resolves into a very kind of strong, glitchy bass section. So whether I’m making a dubstep song or a glitch hop song or some genre that doesn’t exist, usually that’s how I go about things, where I find an emotion in terms of instruments, in terms of chords, create that core emotion for the song, and then resolve it into just tons of bass and party time.”
Many if not most of .Gates’ tracks, from his pure glitch-hop to his collaborations to his more experimental work and remixes, are available both for free at illgates.com.
“Most people don’t pay for music, and that doesn’t mean that they’re assholes,” he said. “People buy music because they want to feel good about supporting the artist and they want to have that kind of connection with the artist, they don’t buy music because it’s impossible to pirate.”
.Gates did an experiment with his Church of Bass EP, putting it both up for purchase and online for free. So far it has been selling well, even though a free download is a link away. But the Church is more than a clever title and tour.
“I have always felt that music is my religion,” .Gates said. “It’s there for me when times are tough, it gives me community, morality, my friends, and, I don’t even think I could date a girl that has bad taste in music.
“Every religion has a core of music,” he added. “I don’t think there’s a religion in the world that music isn’t involved with. So why is it then that we persecute musicians and music lovers for their beliefs, and why is it that this persecution often comes from the people they care about the most? So I just thought that is was time that society recognized music as a legitimate religion and stop persecuting people for having music serve as the cornerstone of their lives.”
While naming the tour the Church of Bass and spreading the gospel through music may have been enough for some musicians, .Gates has taken it a step further.
“Really what I’m trying to do on this tour is start my own church,” he said. “So I’ve become a minister and I’ve been gathering people who’ve been signing up for this church. At the end of this tour basically we’re going to file paperwork with the government and become a legally-recognized religious organization.”
Though .Gates stressed that music is the religion and his church would be merely a subset, even if religion isn’t your thing the Church of Bass Tour has something for every bass fan.
“I play all my own music or remixes I’ve done or remixes other people have done of my music,” he said. Also acting as VJ, “I basically have created videos that are meticulously matched up to all the sounds in the music, all the different sections and all the different emotions, and then I’ve developed a system where I can perform the song and the video together and then also be able to improvise.
“I basically am picking and choosing between all of those songs and videos that I’ve prepared and then performing them and remixing them live for people both on the speakers and on the screens.”
Though this will be .Gates’ first time in Madison, he is excited to play for a new crowd.
“With the college crowd I tend to try to win people over with the more fun stuff and a little bit less serious,” he said. “I’ll probably be leaning more on the fun end of things and less on the serious end of things, but then also dropping the heavy bass.”
Whether your goal is to get religious or ridiculous, ill.Gates is ready to convert you.
ill.Gates will bring his Church of Bass Tour with Stephan Jacobs and Jay Fay to Segredo Saturday. Doors open at 9 P.M. and tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. For more information, visit segredomadison.com. To download ill.Gates’ music, check out illgates.com/music.