Steve Aoki talks Dim Mak, underrepresented music and his new album
By Rachel Kupfer
Photo Courtesy of Pat Grumley (React Presents)
DJ powerhouse Steve Aoki is back, loaded with cake and an arsenal of new music.
The world-renowned producer and electronic music household name started his day with the release of Neon Future III, the third installation of his most recent album series. With a list of featured artists that boasts Bill Nye, blink-182 and Lady Antebellum, the series is based on Aoki’s fascination with our current age of technology. Taking a break from his touring schedule, Aoki spoke to me over the phone to talk about Neon Future III, streaming culture, and his roots in radio. We also discussed his upcoming Dim Mak Neighborhood show in Chicago, which will be the release celebration for Neon Future III and feature supporting talent from the label he started over 20 years ago. I will admit — answering a phone call to, “Hey, it’s Steve,” was a way cooler than I was prepared to handle on Wednesday afternoon.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
RK: With the Dim Mak Neighborhood show coming up here, what’s special about the cities you chose to bring the showcase to – specifically Chicago?
SA: When I think of crowds from all across the US, the most memorable crowds definitely are from Chicago. It has historically been one of the most important cities for supporting my music since I started touring across the US. And I should actually research how many times I’ve played at the Aragon Ballroom. I really want to know the exact number, but a wild guess is that this will be my fifth time. It’s always been a big moment for touring. Whenever I do a bus tour, we always have 3 or 4 shows on the map that are very very integral shows of the entire tour and Chicago is such an important marketplace for me. And also, Neon Future II was premiered in the streets of New York. Neon Future I was in the streets of LA. The only difference here is, of course, that I had to pick a different city, but also that we’re not doing it on the streets this time. We’re doing it in one of my favorite venues in America. I wanted to pick a city that was first on the list as far as really crazy crowds and amazing, amazing fans. At the end of the day it’s really about the fans. They dictate why I come to this city.
RK: 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?
SA: 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.
RK: 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?
SA: 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.
RK: 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?
SA: 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.
RK: 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.)
SA: 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.
RK: 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?
SA: 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.
RK: 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?
SA: 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.
RK: Is this album more of a projection, then, for what you’re hoping to see in technology? Or is it more cataloging and processing the changes as you see them?
SA: It’s definitely a projection. Of course I catalog as I go through. Each album is a timestamp, in the essence of what the music is. It’s a timestamp of my creative output on a musical and production level. And I like that. It’s like looking back at baby pictures or teenage pictures. But they’re all so integral in developing who you are now. The cataloging is part of a whole musical package. But the hope is, and the vision is, a projection for sure. I look forward to the future. I’m a techno-future optimist. I’m a junkie when it comes to science, information and that whole space. I don’t know how long this Neon Future series is going to last. I thought it was going to end here. But I already have more coming, and more music on the way. I won’t get ahead of myself, but it’s not over yet.
RK: How can we look forward to seeing that tech junkie enthusiast embodied in this album? What can we look forward to seeing?
SA: 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.