The Straight Edge Mormon DJ Taking Over the World
Kaskade has been DJing dance parties for 20 years, and last year was the No. 8 highest-paid DJ in the world, raking in $17 million. But he isn’t like other DJs.
“I don’t know what day it is, truth be told!” says Kaskade, surging with adrenaline.It’s 4:30 on the morning of July 5, and the acclaimed DJ has just rampaged through a three-plus-hour set at the Encore Resort’s XS Nightclub—a 40,000-square-foot Dionysian dancehall in Las Vegas that’s half-nightclub and half-nighttime pool party, lit up by a plethora of pyrotechnics.
“There are 10 different parties going on at once,” he says, flashing a boyish grin. “The scale of this is freaking bananas. There are 5,000 people here tonight. It’s really more like a festival. There’s fire off the roof. When you call this a nightclub, it’s insulting to nightclubs.”
When you watch Kaskade manning the decks, he looks like a kid in a candy store, smiling from ear to ear; a single raise of the arm sends a shockwave rippling through the crowd, inciting blasts of air and confetti, accompanied by wild paroxysms of dance.So you’d be shocked to learn that this fresh-faced, vibrant man, who Forbes ranked as the No. 8 highest-paid DJ in the world, raking in $17 million in ’14—and who doesn’t look a day over 30—is a 44-year-old married father of three daughters.
“I’ve been up for over 24 hours at this point because I woke up with my kids in a different time zone, and they were up at the crack of dawn,” he says with a chuckle.Kaskade (real name: Ryan Raddon) splits his time between his home in Los Angeles and the road, and while the wife and kids accompany him on tour occasionally, he says that “usually the schedule is too insane.”
Indeed, just listening to his schedule is enough to make you exhausted. “I landed an hour before this show, I’ll have a sleep and food break in between, and then I’ll play another Vegas show, then get on a plane and fly to Europe and play 10 shows over nine days. Children couldn’t handle that, man!”
He lets out a hearty laugh. “I have ‘nightclub guy’ and ‘dad’ mode. I’ve been juggling these things, and I make it work. It’s just a matter of priorities, I guess!”
If that weren’t enough, while most of his DJ contemporaries subsist on a diet of tequila shots, groupies, and amphetamines, Kaskade is a straight edge Mormon who doesn’t partake in any of the so-called extracurriculars offered to the nightlife gods.
“I don’t party at all!” he says. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I’m a bit of a freak that way because I’m completely different from what you would think. Look, you can’t put all electronic musicians or DJs or whatever you want to call us in one pot. A lot of these guys live in the night and party, but with me, I’m married and have three children. I have a life outside of this.”
And still, on 24 hours of no sleep and at 4:30 a.m., Kaskade is brimming with energy. We’re seated across from one another in an abandoned restaurant a stone’s throw from the XS stage, and he still seems amazed to be where he is. After all, only in the last four or five years has Vegas been overtaken by dance music, with dozens of DJ billboards lining the strip, and knob-twisters collecting six-figure paychecks for a night packing one of the city’s many, many nightclubs.
“Honestly, when XS first approached me in 2009, Vegas didn’t really exist as far as its connection to electronic music,” he says. “It was ruled by urban music and Top 40. I’d come here and play on Wednesday nights for the service industry, but it was off the strip in tinier places. To see where it is now is mind-boggling.”
He adds, “Now, you’ve got guys like Martin Garrix who make one tune on his parents’ laptop in his living room and he’s this pop powerhouse. That’s a cool story, but for me, I’ve been in the trenches for so long.”
Kaskade grew up in Northbrook, a village on the North Shore of Chicago. It was formerly known as Shermerville, and served as the basis for Shermer, Illinois—the fictional town where many of John Hughes’s seminal teen films were set. Growing up in the homeland of house music, he became attracted to it from a very early age, attending parties at the teen dance club Medusa’s and shopping at Gramaphone Records, arguably the first house-specific record store in the world.
“The scene attracted me for many reasons, but it’s always been about the music for me,” he says. “In Chicago, there were a lot of peripheral things that were going on around the teen house music scene, and the people that were attracted to this music were very forward-thinking, progressive-minded people. The fact that I didn’t party back then didn’t matter to these people. These were weirdos, freaks, geeks, whatever. They were not people that were going to judge me. So, the fact that I would hang out among the freaks and drug addicts as this weird little straight edge kid didn’t bother anybody. It was this cool hodgepodge. We were on the fringes.”
“I wasn’t going to the Friday night football game or the kegger,” continues Kaskade. “I was taking the train to the city, digging through stacks of records, and going to nightclubs.”
I mention the booming business of EDM and what exactly the word “DJ” encompasses these days, since many of the so-called “world class DJs” of today are programmers who don’t actually know how to spin records.
“It’s a little insulting,” he says. “Right now, the landscape of what encompasses the word ‘DJ’ is so broad and vast now. You have guys like me who learned on vinyl, know the technique, and know what this really is. I witnessed the whole rise of it. I was friends with Frankie [Knuckles], and I was going to his weekly parties at Medusa’s when I was in high school in the mid-’80s.”
“It’s changed the landscape of what this is. The entry point used to be so much higher, and there was so much more respect for the art of DJing and what it was. We’ve lost some of that now.”
Kaskade attended Brigham Young University, where he’d work on DJing in his dorm room and play the occasional house party. He then served a two-year Mormon mission in Japan, and when he returned, moved to New York for a spell where he worked as a Japanese tour guide. “I needed some cash, so I got a job working for Teiko-Kanko, this tour company,” he says, chuckling. “Typically I was in one of these 17-passenger vans with the microphone attached and I’m driving at the same time. The company was too cheap to hire a driver and a tour guide.”
He later transferred to the University of Utah, where he met his wife, Naomi. While he finished his classwork, in 1995, he began DJing his first weekly party at local venue Club Manhattan, using the proceeds from his gigs—as well as running a Salt Lake City record store—to purchase studio gear. Naomi convinced him to move to San Francisco in 2000, and he landed a job as an A&R assistant at the electronic music label Om Records. He soon adopted his DJ moniker Kaskade—named after a picture he saw of a waterfall—and released his first single, “What I Say,” in 2001.
Kaskade slowly rose up the ranks until the zeitgeist caught up with him, and in 2008, released his fifth album, Strobelite Seduction. The single “Move for Me,” which he made in collaboration with Deadmau5, because his first No. 1 hit on Billboard’s dance chart, and cemented his status as one of the top DJs leading the progressive house boom.
Recently, Kaskade released a remix of Jack U’s tune “Where Are U Now,” featuring the vocal talents of one Justin Bieber. Some of his fans, who, like Kaskade, view themselves as dance music purists, levied complaints that he’d get involved with the Biebs, forcing the DJ to write a lengthy explanation on his Facebook page.
“I’ve always remixed pop music because I view it as an interesting challenge—fitting the square peg in the round hole,” he says. “I like the song. To me, it’s a song about faith—and a person with faith. I had a connection to the song, and thought Bieber sang it great. When Diplo and Skrillex came to me to remix the song, it was a no-brainer. There were a few people saying, ‘Really, man, Justin Bieber?’ And I just thought, Welcome to electronic music. This is what we do.”
With his ninth studio album due in the fall—which may, he says, include a collaboration with his longtime pal Deadmau5—and at 44 years of age and rising, Kaskade is adamant that he’s having the time of his life, and isn’t planning on packing up his turntables anytime soon.“It’s tough—having a family, being in the studio, and being on the road,” he says. “I think I’m just really calculating with my time. Before I said ‘yes’ to everything and was DJing for cheeseburgers, but now I really think things through. And with the fans, I always want to give them everything, but I also have to hold things back and keep some things for me.” He pauses, and flashes that grin. “And make sure I’m not dead next week.”