By Phoebe Reilly | September 29, 2015 | People
With multiple Grammy nominations, a much-anticipated new album, and a fan base that numbers in the hundreds of thousands, Chicago native Ryan Raddon—also known as Kaskade—rules the electronic dance music scene.
Kaskade's route to the DJ booth is unconventional in more ways than one. For starters, he literally can’t pass unrecognized through the 8,000 revelers gathered in Las Vegas at the Wynn resort’s Xs nightclub, even though “unrecognized” is exactly how most DJs are supposed to pass. (Be honest: did you really know what Calvin Harris looked like before he started dating Taylor Swift?) dressed in a crisp, short-sleeved blue shirt, rolled-up jeans, and sneakers, Kaskade, 44, could be mistaken for just another preppy partier more than a decade younger—except for the fact that in order to get to this very spot in Las Vegas, you need to drive by multiple billboards featuring his likeness, all of which loom large over the strip, advertising his two-year residency.
Thus his procession to XS unfolds like the Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas: We wind our way down the casino’s expansive corridors and take a secret shortcut through a dark and empty restaurant that leads to a narrow walkway along a back wall. Some of the fans hoping to hear music from Kaskade’s new album, Automatic (Warner Bros. Records/arkade), or anything from his eight previous albums, stretch their arms across the velvet rope to snap a quick picture. A security guard whose resting face practically screams “don’t mess with me” keeps us moving.
It’s 1:20 in the morning. Many in attendance are already drunk and wobbly. Kaskade, on the other hand, is completely sober. Which brings us to the other way he defies convention: The Chicago native is a practicing Mormon. He will spend at least two nights of every week for the next two years traveling from his home in the Pacific Palisades, which he shares with his wife, Naomi, and their three young children, to Sin City to play electronic dance music (or EDM), a catchall shorthand for everything from jungle to dubstep, which has become so linked with ecstasy usage that overdoses around the world periodically make for alarmist headlines—and he won’t so much as take a sip of beer. “Sure, there’s a lot of extracurricular activities that go on,” he observed earlier, on our ride from the Michigan Avenue photo shoot to the hotel. “In entertainment, there’s a level of this, no matter what you’re doing. I live my life, they live theirs. For me, this scene begins and ends with the music.”
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And truth be told, tonight’s bacchanal is nothing young Ryan Raddon could have envisioned for himself back in Chicago, long before he became Kaskade. Then, he was just messing around on some turntables that a friend had stolen. (“He will go unnamed,” Raddon jokes.) It was the late ’80s, and house music was practically synonymous with the Windy City. “I was just a kid growing up in the right place at the right time,” says Raddon, who as a teenager would take the train from his home in suburban Northbrook to legendary ’80s- and ’90s-era 16-and-over Wrigleyville club Medusa’s. “There was a coffee shop called Scenes, and there was a quarter-pipe ramp shoved into the corner of the parking lot,” he recalls. “So this is kind of my area that I was hanging out in. I went to Medusa’s, and I heard this stuff and I was like, What is this? Oh, cool, you can go to Gramophone [Records], one of the best indie music stores in the world, and buy it? Part of the magic was just the neighborhood.”
Growing up, Raddon would listen to legendary DJs Derrick Carter and Mark Farina on Northwestern University station WNUR, then go over to his friend’s mom’s house to mess around on the contraband turntables, eventually learning how to segue and match records himself. His parents supported his interests, though he adds, “I am sure they were not thinking it would turn into any kind of profession. They are way too practical for that.”
It would be another decade before the dust settled on the grunge movement and electronic music rode its first big wave of popularity, with artists like The Chemical Brothers, Moby, The Prodigy, and others enjoying a brief ubiquity. During this time, Raddon bounced around, first to Provo, Utah, to attend Brigham Young University, then to New York, before finally returning to Salt Lake City to enroll at the University of Utah. By then he had his own set of (legitimately purchased) equipment and a collection of records that numbered in the hundreds. “There was a club called Club Manhattan,” says Raddon. “I just went to the owner and asked, ‘What’s your slowest night?’” The following Monday, the entrepreneurial undergrad asked his friends to pack the club, a completely anachronistic art deco basement joint that had likely never seen anything remotely resembling a rave. “It was a hobby,” says Raddon, with a shrug. That gig lasted five years.
In 2000, Raddon moved to San Francisco with Naomi, a fellow snowboarder whom he’d met at college and later married. Techno and its sibling electronic styles were once again losing ground to rock, as acts like The Strokes and The White Stripes were showered with attention. “I think the reason it didn’t really stick back then is because the sound and the art hadn’t really incubated,” says Raddon. “It wasn’t totally ready.” Seeking out local pockets where interest in deep house reigned, Raddon worked in record stores and as an A&R rep for a label, all the while experimenting with and releasing his own music. Instead of relying on samples, he created elaborate soundscapes—dreamy, seductive beats amplified by vocals from friends, cousins of friends, and basically anyone who was willing.
“My career really mirrors what’s been happening with electronic music in general,” says Raddon. “As it’s gotten bigger, I rose with it.” The first major turning point was the Electric Daisy Carnival in 2009, when about twice the number of expected attendees showed up for the LA festival. “I’m up there playing my music, something I wrote sitting in a basement three years ago, broke, eating Top Ramen, and 90,000 people are singing along with me on the chorus,” remembers Raddon. “Like, this has finally matured so that it’s more than just city kids. The bridge-and-tunnel kids found out about this. It was extremely exhilarating.”
Around the same time, the Wynn approached him about playing a couple of summer dates at its newly opened clubs. Raddon had another idea: He wanted to import from Ibiza the idea of the DJ residency. (Up until that point, residencies were reserved for more mainstream pop acts, anyone from Mariah Carey to Rod Stewart.)
So he and Sean Christie, a managing partner at the hotel’s Encore Beach Club, sat at the back of an on-site café coming up with plans. “We were fully throwing it against the wall [asking], ‘Is this going to work?’” says Raddon. “And we were kind of rubbing our hands like, ‘Yeah, I think people are ready to hear electronic music in Vegas.’”
On Memorial Day 2010, Raddon made his way—not as stealthily as he did tonight—through a crowd of 5,000 people to an unassuming booth in the middle of the crowd for the first of many times that summer. Thousands more lined up to get in. “That will forever go down in my mind as, okay, my life’s different. Everything’s changed from this moment on,” he says. What started as an off-the-cuff pitch soon turned into a cottage industry: Today most of the best-known names in the business have Vegas residencies, from Skrillex and Diplo to Avicii and David Guetta. Reputable sources estimate some of them command salaries of at least $250,000—per gig. Rival hotels constantly try to poach talent to keep up with the craze. “There’s a competitive nature there because we’re trying to differentiate ourselves,” Raddon adds.
Kaskade briefly defected to another hotel before returning to the Wynn, but as if to mark his triumphant homecoming, the XS club recently finished a $10 million renovation to create a more immersive experience. Tonight, confetti still pours regularly from the ceiling, but in addition, a giant LED screen projects colorful, mesmerizing images of celestial orbits and flocks of birds from behind the booth while a massive pyrotechnic system fires flames from the rafters timed to every drop (the part of the song where the DJ drops the bass back into the track and the crowd goes absolutely wild, the vibrations rattling their tonsils). Raddon says it’s one of his favorite moments of any set, which can last anywhere from two to four hours. “Ten years ago, you lit a sparkler at a club, and people were ripping their faces off,” says Raddon, as he exits the booth at 4 am. I wonder if the vastness of this spectacle helps eradicate the need for additional recreational enhancements? He responds, “It works for me—and I’m drinking a Fiji water.”
The superstar DJ’s schedule doesn’t leave him with as much time as he’d like to visit his hometown, but Gramophone, along with Lake Michigan and Chicago-style hot dogs, is on his to-do list every time he does. (“I’m not that discerning, I just want a good hot dog,” he says. “I don’t get that in LA.”) Festival season does usually bring him home—tonight he is fresh from his stint at Lollapalooza. “Standing in front of the massive crowd [on Perry’s Stage] with the Chicago skyline behind me is seared into my brain,” he says. “I also won’t forget pissing off Paul McCartney with the ‘noise’ that I was making. That made the punk inside of me grin from ear to ear.”
photographY BY jEff gaLE and jEff cRawfORd. Styling by Olwen Zarlengo. Styling assistance by Dana Thomas. Grooming by Iryna Pume. Shot on location at 2794 La Bella Court, Henderson, Nevada, currently listed for sale by Kristen Routh-Silberman & Jill Landess Synergy/Sotheby’s International Realty.
September 14, 2018