In a very short period of time, Steve Aoki has become not only a successful electronic artist and DJ, he’s also become quite an entrepreneur. Aoki owns the record label Dim Mak, which has released albums from Battles, Bloc Party and MSTRKRFT, among others. He’s also released his own clothing lines, restaurants, headphone brands, management companies, magazines and has now working on a new ad campaign with Pucker Vodka that includes a new remix of his track “Ladi Dadi”.
Aoki talked with us about his first studio album Wonderland, his hardcore punk background and about his motivations to become a DJ professionally.
Paste: You’ve been working in music for quite a few years now, but Wonderland is your first studio album. What made you want to release your first studio album now?
Steve Aoki: Well I’ve been working on it for quite some time and as a DJ, it’s not that necessary to release an album to define your career or to get shows or anything like that. Actually most DJs that are the most popular, I’d say about half of them never release an album. You can be a DJ and never release a single over your entire career and never have to release an album. I come from a different world, I come from a rock background, more specifically hardcore. Bands are defined by their albums, not by their songs. But for me, I had that intention in mind with the album because I come from that world, but there was no rush to release an album in, you know, 2010 or 2011, I just, it was a big goal for me in 2011 and I was able to do that. I was able to finally put all of the pieces together.
Paste: Like you said, you’ve worked in punk music before and there have been a lot of electronic artists that kind of have a background in punk music. What do you think it is that attracts both types of music to electronic artists?
Aoki: Electronic music, a large part of it is that it is underground. When you think about what electronic music really is, it’s all about the show, it’s not about the bass, it’s not about the vocals. It never really becomes commercial. I think for me, one underground informs another, the transition makes sense. I mean for me, the transition was really my record label Dim Mak, which has been around for sixteen years, and I think there’s a bridge between alternative and dance music. And all sorts of indie bands are getting remixed by electronic artists. You know, my album was entirely done on a grass-roots thing, I reached out to everyone personally, all people I knew beforehand.
Paste: This album is filled with collaborations and different artists that you’re working with, how does that collaboration work for you? Like what do you bring to the table and what does the other artist bring to the table when you do collaborate?
Aoki: When I work with a producer and when I work with a vocalist, it’s two different things. When I work with a vocalist, I’m writing the piece and the music and then the other person will come in. Like “Control Freak” for example, I had Blaqstarr come in, I wrote a very central piece, I had them sing a bunch of different hooks and then found the one that seems to fit it best and works, and then going around with the group and creating a song, based on that. With Wynter Gordon, I already had the song written, gave it to Wynter, she starting writing and she started singing her four or five lines, I rewrote the song to fit her vocals to find more of the emotion in her vocals. You try to make it different with each vocalist and it also expands my own production skills, like to learn outside the box, to hear what their production ideas are on that level. You know, I’m the main song writer and it’s a first, I’m working with some other producers. We’re all going back and forth, everyone has their different styles and techniques in producing. It just helps to have a different producer in general.
Paste: Since you own your own record label and the music on that is pretty varied, how do you feel that informs the kind of music you make?
Aoki: Yeah, they are complimentary, the artists on the label and my own sound, we definitely compliment each other. Whether we are touring together, which happens a lot, we have a lot of Dim Mak events around the world. It inspires me when I hear what other bands are doing on the label, there is a uniform to it, but like you said, it is also very diverse. We have like Infected Mushroom, dubstep artists, electro-house artists, artists that are electro proper. It’s a community, I think what’s happening as we further digress and we’re further evolving, that we’re more closely knit and the walls that divided are starting to come down. You’re starting to hear a lot of different influences from different genres, latching and creating subgenres. It’s just like a really interesting time. I did a full scale U.S. tour with Datsik, a well-known dubstep artist and we’re both from different worlds, and the tour felt like we were one in the same. It’s exciting, bands and artists getting together that you wouldn’t expect and hearing new ideas and sounds that are becoming the future of dance music.
Paste: So what artists growing up influenced you to want to start DJing and to become an electronic artist?
Aoki: When I was growing up, I was really inspired by, I guess I would say the more political side of the hardcore world. Bands that had something to say and were really passionate about what they were saying and had purpose in the lyrics. That kind of thing can change your life.
Paste: When did you decide you wanted to be a DJ professionally?
Aoki: Well, I never really took it seriously when I first started. When I first started, it wasn’t like I saw a DJ in high school and I thought, “I want to be a DJ”, I was a punk kid, I was in a punk band, and we would get like $20 a show. When I moved to LA, I was already doing Dim Mak. At that time, I saw this band called Bloc Party and we put out there record. At that time, it was just me growing my label and around the same time I started DJing and spinning parties for my label.
I never took DJing seriously before doing parties, but by the time 2005 rolled around, we were throwing parties in Los Angeles. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was on the cover of a prestigious DJ magazine, that’s when I started getting more gigs outside of LA. I used to be making $300 at parties, now I’m making $600 and when my rent is $500, it means a lot. My car insurance was like $400, my phone bill was a couple hundred dollars, so I was paying everything off, including my rent in one week. In one weekend, I’d make like a $1,000, so I’d pay off everything. Once I started making $4,000 a month, now I could put out more records, I could hire someone to work at Dim Mak and that’s how Dim Mak evolved as a business, I dumped every last dollar I made into my company and to this day, I still have never taken a commission. I call it my sacrifice. But I built it and now we have eighteen employees, so I could hire more people.
Paste: Where would you like to see your music and electronic music go from here?
Aoki: Well it’s definitely going in a good place. In America, it’s getting ready to burst. In other countries, the culture of dance music, it’s in the popular, mainstream culture.
The fact that it is underground, I’m not against songs being on the radio, like I’m not against Guetta or Calvin Harris being on the radio, but the rest, 90% of dance music would never go on the radio.
I’m excited about where it is going and I know that we’re on the edge of this exponential curve that’s in our culture right now. We’re moving forward exponentially, whether it’s technology, culture, music, all of it is happening at an exponential rate. And with technology, how we are able to evolve so fucking fast, where we are usurping natural selection because technology is going so fast, we’re exponentializing our growth. What will happen in four years? Who knows? Will we become robots? Will we create music in our heads? I don’t know.