Steve Aoki is a living, breathing example of the mantra “hard work pays off.” In an age where overnight prosperity seems more apparent than it has ever been, we tend to set our eyes on the “industry plants” and young Internet stars and forget about those who finally find success after years and years of work. Aoki belongs in the latter category; he didn’t wait for handouts or just get lucky. Although he attained international recognition during the turn of this decade, the Miami-born electronic music artist and label head began his independent, Los Angeles-based label, Dim Mak, all the way back in 1996. Due to having passion, perseverance, and a risk-taking mentality, Aoki not only eventually became one of the highest-paid DJ-producers ever but runs a label that has birthed and supported other hugely successful acts like The Chainsmokers, Giraffage, MSTRKRFT, Felix Cartel, Zeds Dead and many more.
On your interview with Larry King the two of you discussed looking towards the future. Whenever I ask the rock bands this question, they tend to give the same, monotonous response, but do you see the music you play being the one to survive longer than the others, especially considering your case, that it’s essentially the “music of the future?
The future of music. I can tell you more about predictions of the general future. The future of music is much more complicated. I think the future of the general civilization is easier to identify. It’s tough to dissect. I’d say the future is — okay, if music is all about tapping into your emotions, that’s basically what music is. You tap into your emotions and it makes you feel something and it makes you want to experience it, so you go to a live show or watch videos of your favorite artist. It’s all about access to your feelings, right? It’s about making it easier, more convenient. So whatever way that music can tap into your feelings and your emotions, that’s what the future of music is going to be. That’s what we’re going to be heading towards. Electronic music is that. It’s one step further because it is a very experiential culture.
One of your biggest tracks on Spotify is a remix from a Kpop band. The genre has been around for a good minute, but is that going to be the next big thing at least here in the US, K-pop? How did that collab with BTS happen?
Well I also love to work with international artists. That’s really much more my thing, to reach out to someone from, say, Korea, or Brazil. I want to work with artists from all over the world. It was a new way to make music together. BTS was interested in working with me, and I was interested in working with them. We vibed out and had a really great time and then met with the production team. Then we dropped the remix. And yeah, the world really loved it. We got feedback from not just one particular chart, but really from all camps. The Korean BTS fans love it, the American fans love it, you know? Spotify views were through the roof, YouTube views were insane. The live shows are already going very well. So it’s great when you can tap into that and be able to project it out to the world.
You’re hitting the road with Desiigner Kolony who has had a plethora of rap features; how did he end up being selected to go on tour with?
We knocked it out of the park with the Mic Drop remix, but he wasn’t on Kolony. We vibed real good when we linked up. The energy — he’s so lit. On stage he has so much energy. All of those other guys are great. I would love to tour with any of the artists on the album, but they’re all busy doing their own thing. The timing worked out with Designer. It just made sense with the timing, and we recently dropped the Mic Drop remix.
You’re two-time Grammy nominated. Did you attend/watch it this year? Any thoughts on the winners? Or perhaps who you thought should’ve one?
You know, I didn’t really watch it. I know Bruno Mars won something and people were shook up about. But I’m the person that never really follows up with it.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon tweeted, though I’m paraphrasing, that the award is for the music industry, but that music is for everyone. So do you agree, does the Grammy really mean something outside of industry appraise?
No. No, when you say it that concretely, it doesn’t matter. My ticket sales were the same. It’s basically like you’re being honored for something. It’s, like, the first people would say: Steve Aoki, Grammy-nominated. That might come out in those moments in a speech or something, but besides that, it doesn’t matter much. It’s very music industry oriented. But it’s great to be on the list, on a personal level. It’s a very big deal personally, but it doesn’t change the game for me.
Bringing that full circle a bit and focusing on the “neighborhood” aspect of the show, what’s important about touring with artists from your label?
It’s a family. We’re our own neighborhood. We’re a family. Dim Mak’s been around for over 20 years now. It’s a big part of my identity as an artist. Being able to grow as an artist would have been very difficult if I didn’t have this community, this “neighborhood,” to build and develop my sound — and now the sound of young artists. That’s the whole point of a label, is to help and develop new artists with incredible talent with something the world hasn’t heard yet. I really believe in these young artists we have fostered and in helping get their sound out into the world. It’s also not just about EDM. We definitely help to curate artists in different genres, like Bok Nero, the hip hop force of Dim Mak. I also wanted a diverse lineup from the Dim Mak belt because we don’t just put out one kind of electronic music. Bear Grillz is more dubstep, Max Styler is more house. Brohug represents the more future house sound. It’ll be good to bring in all different sounds from the Dim Mak family and throw a big party.
Particularly in today’s streaming culture, what power do you believe there is in a label today – and in you as the founder and frontman of Dim Mak?
I think streaming allows for artist-run companies to have much stronger influence than ever before. That’s why you’re seeing that any artist with any sort of influence is starting their own label with their friends and putting out records. It’s working, it’s effective, and it actually really does help out younger artists that wouldn’t otherwise have a voice. At the end of the day, even for me, as I developed my sound, there were certain artists I looked up to and followed because I really liked their whole sound and concept. If they’d come to me and said, “Hey, I’m going to help you out,” I would find that to be more meaningful than a bigger institution or company coming in. I’d rather work with an artist that gets my vision and the intricacies and details of what I care about, and put it out there to the world in a way that makes sense to me. Streaming culture has absolutely allowed for more power for artists and artist-run companies. And what happens in the end is that it allows for more diversity. It allows for more growth and expansion of the culture. It’s not just the highest ones that sell the most mattering, which is how I feel big labels work. It’s statistically driven, and it’s not necessarily for the culture but for the bottom line. With artist-driven companies, or at least with Dim Mak, it’s always been more about the company’s culture instead.
Since WNUR-FM gives particular attention to “underrepresented” music, what are some genres or artists we can pay better attention to within electronic music? Where do you see the future in electronic music?
Electronic music as we can see it has spread its wings really far. It’s a big part of pop culture. When you look down the Billboard Hot 100, you see a lot of DJs that are part of the music-making of what’s popular in America, even outside of EDM. It’s come that far, so that with electronic music we have a large say in the music cultural space. Artists from our world can really go into every genre. That then makes it really exciting for producers in EDM. I didn’t start with EDM, but with rock music. My dream was always to collaborate or work with my favorite bands. But that would have never happened if I’d continued down my rock road. As I built my electronic career, one of the first things I wanted to do was get in the studio and make music with Linkin Park. Make music with Fall Out Boy and Jim Atkins and blink-182. Even now, farther down the path, I’ve done a song with a country artist. Earlier in my days I never thought I would do something like that, and I’ve always wanted to. It was just a question of how I could get across this line, and electronic music has built the bridge so that I can work with artists that want to do something unique. It’s really exciting to do that. The genre is just constantly spreading its wings and hybridizing. There’s so much exciting stuff happening in the electronic space.
Continuing within that vein, where do you see opportunity within EDM? What do you think up-and-comers, especially my college student audience, can bring to the table? (for context, student and community DJs have shows through WNUR’s Streetbeat segment every night.)
You have to have the passion and the heart. It lies in you. And that’s always been the case, not just for music. When I was in college, my heart was full of passion. I still have that same fervor, but it’s something unique when you’re young. You’re going to do what you need to do, get no sleep, handle your business and then you get to play early in the morning. I was on a radio show when I was in college, called KCSB. There was a training wheels program that was only broadcasted on campus. No one listened to it. And I was like, “I wanna be a radio DJ.” I would play at 2, 3 in the morning, and I never made it from the training program to KCSB. But in any case, there were thousands of other kids like me. You have to start somewhere. And when you have the heart and the passion, all you need are the tools. You then can develop your skills, and hone into what you’re good at and find your knack. That’s how it all started for me, was when I started DJing. I developed a curation program and said, “Hey, I’m gonna put on these parties and focus it on a specific genre targeted at a specific person.” And that original indie underground thing spread to other genres and became something very groundbreaking for LA. Kids and teenagers can start developing and honing skills and building a little community – a little neighborhood in a way.
Even beyond that, do you think there are opportunities within the actual music of EDM – unexplored ideas or things that haven’t been explored enough?
If you want to go into unexplored sound, you’ve got to get into the studio and start making some music. It just takes time. At the end of the day, you need to surround yourself with the culture of the music. You don’t have to have a college degree, you just need the passion and the drive to get in front of a computer and figure out what kind of music you want to make. I remember when I first started making remixes. Most were horrible, and eventually I made something people cared about – 3 years later. If you love it, you’ll spend the time to do it. And you can’t think too big, and want Drake or Post Malone to listen to your remixes. You need to start in Soundcloud and start communicating with smaller artists with a very specific sound. If you get the respect from them, that’s how you’ll really learn and get constructive criticism. Honestly, the bigger DJs who have influence are going into smaller pools. We’re looking at where communities are being built and seeing, “Who’s chopping it up down here?” I want to hear it. But you have to start small with a community of people who get what you’re doing. There are so many different genres that you don’t need all this training. Like you could start a whole thing with weird sounds crinkling water bottles. You can build it up. And someone will say, “I really like what you’re doing with the water bottles. I’m going to do it with Pepsi cans.” And then all of a sudden, there’s something happening. That’s how culture gets created.
Finishing up, you’re now headed toward Neon Future III. Since the first Neon Future, which you’ve previously said was inspired by the intersections of humanity and technology, there have been a ton of new tech developments — how do you view those changes, and are they relevant to this newest installation?
Neon Future is becoming more and more real. For me, it’s the intersections like you said. It’s really the conversation of science fiction becoming fact, and that’s the conversation I want to be in. I want to know how close we are to these “impossible” ideas, these imaginative ideas that we think of in movies and in cartoons and in our imagination. It’s about where we want to go and where we’re afraid to go. And there’s a lot happening. It’s an exciting conversation that happens mostly in smaller circles. I have a fascination and obsession with it, so I like to put myself in those circles and see what the hell is going on. It’s very exciting, meeting up with these scientists and researchers. It’s a big concept for me. I don’t just name one album Neon Future, but a whole series, because it’s a whole ongoing conversation. Who knows, soon we’ll be able to telekinetically make music and share it without having to open up a computer.
How can we look forward to seeing that tech junkie enthusiast embodied in this album? What can we look forward to seeing?
There are a ton of songs. My song with Bill Nye about the collaboration between science and music. There are very diverse collaborations in the rock and country space. And then there’s this incredible song that Mike Posner wrote that I collaborated with him on. I’m really proud of that one. And one of my favorite songs was what I made with Era Istrefi. She did an outstanding job. There’s a big conversation in regards to Neon Future III. It’s a stacked album.
Steve Aoki performs in Bali, Januari 1st 2019 at Sky Garden Bali.