Kaskade brings it back to the city that first inspired him

It hasn't been a bad little career for Kaskade, the world-renowned DJ otherwise known as Ryan Raddon. One of the guiding forces in electronic dance music for more than a decade, Kaskade is now a major concert draw, worth $16 million a year, according to Forbes magazine. He's now regularly headlining arenas and large theaters, including an Oct. 12 date at Navy Pier Exhibition Hall.

The show will be a homecoming, of sorts, for Kaskade. He was born 42 years ago in north suburban Evanston and grew up Northbrook. Before he was old enough to drive in the '80s, he was taking trains and catching rides into Chicago to hang out at all-ages dance clubs such as Medusa's and Limelight.

"I was heavily influenced by what I was hearing in Chicago in the '80s — Chicago is the place where it all started," he says. "We were very influenced by those early house records that got played on specialty radio shows on WNUR and B-96, and the music at these teen clubs. It was a combination of new wave and dance music, and Chicago DJs putting a new slant on it. I heard (Marshall Jefferson's) 'Jack Your Body' at Medusa's, and I was off. Twenty years later, we're here because of that."

Raddon was 15 when he started hanging out at Gramaphone Records, the Clark Street headquarters of 12-inch dance vinyl, and brought crates of records with him to Utah, where he attended Brigham Young University and later the University of Utah.

"I studied communications, only because I could get my own show on the campus radio station," he says. "I never thought of it as a career. Music was always a really passionate hobby — it was like collecting DVDs or stamps. When I graduated college, I had a fairly successful weekly club gig, and was buying more studio equipment and writing my own music. I realized I didn't want to work. But it's only when I moved out to San Francisco (in the last decade) that I got serious. My friends were getting jobs, promotions, and I realized I needed to get my music out beyond pressing up a couple hundred copies and giving records to friends."

Kaskade was signed to OM Records, and began releasing a series of acclaimed albums in 2003, bringing a rich sense of melody to his electronic dance tracks.

"I still had Chicago fresh in my mind and I was also influenced by groups like Sneaker Pimps and Portishead," he says. "It was the first time to me that electronic music had real soul to it. Up until then I was cutting up records and relying on samples, doing sound design work. With 'It's You, It's Me' (his 2003 debut), I realized it's more about writing songs — I needed to say something. Different production styles will come and go, these flavors will come and go, and people will move on to the next thing. I had to have my voice in there – I wanted to take the deeper San Francisco music or the jacking Chicago stuff and get my melodies on top of it to set me apart."

His latest album, "Atmosphere" (Ultra), includes his first vocal on the title track. It's a surprisingly transparent ballad about his relationship with music; with its gentle pulse and dreamy atmospherics, it's as suitable for headphone listening as it is the dancefloor.

"I'm not the best singer in the world," he says with a laugh. "But the albums have always been personal. They're stories about me and what I'm going through. The EDM (electronic dance music) trend is that a lot of DJs are turning to these writers who are churning out songs that sound similar to each other, it's the same pool of people. I've stood in the corner and leaned on people that I thought sounded unique, and I'll stay in that space. That goes along with me singing on that first single. It just made sense: A personal record, a personal song. Why let someone else sing it?"

Business is booming for electronic dance music and Kaskade says it's been driven by technology. "This has been cooking in the underground for 20 years, and the sophistication is finally there where more people can understand it," he says. "The studio gear is cheaper and easier to get, and it's easier to make something that sounds more sophisticated. We worked through the sound design phase with cheap samplers. But now a kid can compose a symphony or score a film on his parents' laptop."

He says to have commercial staying power, EDM needs to make its mark without relying on collaborations with mainstream pop artists such as Black Eyed Peas and Rihanna. "We're just at the beginning of this now," he says. "(French house music producer David) Guetta has paired with platinum-selling artists to get EDM noticed by the mainstream. He kicked down the door for us. But people like Deadmau5 and Skrillex are making genuinely great music without relying on that. We're getting to the point where more electronic guys will break through without having to pair with Katy Perry."

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

When: 5:30 p.m. Oct. 12 Where: Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: $50; ticketmaster.com

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).

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