Interview by Safiya Sawney
Dim Mak record label founder and renowned international DJ, Steve Aoki has a diverse taste in music which includes everything from the contagious beats of hip-hop maestro Timbaland to the various indie bands that he signs such as garage rock group The Wilowz, pop-punk bands Mystery Jets and Foreign Born and highly-acclaimed groups like Bloc Party. According to Aoki, "a good song is a good song regardless of the genre," or who's writing it. Once that artist, band or "sound" has what he describes as "groundbreaking potential" then he knows instantly that undertaking the sometimes costly job of promoting that sound is simply worthwhile. When signing a band, Aoki looks for artists that are "different, unique and new," and while not necessarily inclined to a favorite genre of music as a record producer, at this point in his life as a DJ, Aoki prefers electronic music.
Aoki makes it clear that his life "truly is about art." When giving reasons for starting a record label not based wholly on making money, Aoki admitted that one of the main reasons for indulging in his very hectic life as a globe-trotting DJ is to fund Dim Mak, his own venture into the world of record production. As Aoki puts it, "My life isn't about making money. My life is about finding great bands, finding great sounds." While this may seem like a ridiculous and unnecessary feat for someone who believes that a business really should fund itself, the rewards that Aoki receives for his efforts are based on a "lifestyle" decision which for him as an artist perhaps is simply nothing more than being a part of a process that leads to successfully introducing an exceptional, brand new sound to the music world. Take Bloc Party, for example, a band who once discovered by Aoki, was plucked from the unknown, and through Aoki's initial promotion efforts ended up as one of the most publicized and respected new indie bands of today. Aoki thus proves that there may still be a place for artistic talent in today's world of carbon-copied, infectious one hit wonders.
Describing DJ software Serato as "one of the greatest inventions that changed my entire life," Aoki gives credit to this wonderful new tool for allowing him to "travel with one back-pack and 2 carry-ons and to be able to finish a song and try it out in the club that night." Confessing that he used to carry around "crates and crates" of records during his cross-continent trips to Japan and Ibiza, it seems that perhaps for workaholic DJs like Aoki, whose thirst for playing "the right parties and the one's that makes sense" even if it meant traveling to both Asia and Europe 3 times within a few weeks and going against friends' advice to "chill out and slow down," that perhaps Serato really was created with them in mind. Serato is still a controversial topic amongst some DJs who see it as a tool that steals the true essence of being a DJ by altogether eliminating the idea of scratching or "mixing" 12-inch vinyls on the spot, but for Aoki, who travels incessantly, Serato really just makes sense.
The interesting aspect and perhaps the most controversial for a famous DJ is gaining credibility amongst other DJS and music fans. For Aoki dealing with the label of "celebrity DJ" and the criticism of not being able to mix well is a daily chore. Aoki puts all that past him and explains, "You want to be able to have a really good flow," as he talks about what he thinks makes a good DJ. He admits he's just like everyone else wanting to be able to go to a club to hear a song he likes. And while he has the utmost respect for those with the ability to "scratch" (or simply successfully manipulate a record by moving it back and forth with your hand in perfect rhythm) like his friends DJ A Trak and DJ Craze, being a DJ for Aoki is knowing how to tune into the crowd that you're playing for and respond in kind because at the end of the day that's why you're in demand. "As much as I love turntable-ism and I have a lot of respect for DJ's that scratch really well, that doesn't make me wanna pee my pants," says Aoki.
When it comes down to creating set lists creating set lists, Aoki uses two creative tangents to decide his end result: the club aspect and the performance aspect. The latter uses his "realm of production," which is primarily electronic and similar to the songs that he produces while the former is purely based on the "masses." "For me," says Aoki, "I wanna get lost in the groove that I wanna hear. I wanna fucking dance," and he stays true to his words as he plays a 4 hour set at New York's Club Arena, injecting melodic old school rap, dance mixes, a little rock and mostly current hip-hop, in between dancing, posing for photos and chatting with fans while entertaining a crowd that bobbed to every beat of his set list.
At the after-party for electro-poppers Chromeo in Brooklyn's Studio B, Aoki was first on the bill and unlike his most recent NY gigs (such as Arena), his set wasn't conformed to what was expected by a mostly mainstream crowd. Here was a chance for Aoki to finally show NY the "electro" stuff he's made of. His set started off with Refused's "New Noise", and he quickly interjected Justice's "Waters of Nazareth", the Erol Alkan Durr Durr Durrrr Re-Edit with Pase Rock Guest Drop right after. Somewhere in between the mixing madness, he fit in the remix of Goose's "Bring It On" w/Todd Fink Guest Drop." And while it was nice that he paid homage to the duo in whose name the AfterParty was titled by playing the immensely popular "Bonafide Loving", missing was Aoki's famous Weird Science Remix of Bloc Party "Helicopter" featuring Peaches and the popular MSTRKRFT remix of Justice's mega-hit, "D.A.N.C.E" (Justice's original "D.A.N.C.E." was later played during Dave-1's set which immediately followed Aoki's).
And through the mixing and chatting with his friends in the booth, Aoki amped the crowd's energy with his famous head-bopping, crazy jumping, erratic dancing and consistent flashing off the "diamond" sign. At the end of his set, it really wasn't unusual to see his fans hanging off the edge of the DJ booth and flocked around its entrance making it almost impossible for the photographers and DJs to move around. But then again...would you expect anything less at an Aoki performance?
Dancing at clubs and signing unknown bands isn't all that Aoki finds time for. In January, he released his first-ever album, a mixtape named Pillowface and his Airplane Chronicles, which Aoki says "is based on making friends and meeting people" in his life as a continent-hopping DJ and, despite mostly negative reviews,this chronic multi-tasker's album debuted at #15 in the Billboard electronic music chart. The album is an eclectic electro mash-up featuring offerings from a wide range of indie-electro artists, most of which are either Aoki's friends or are signed to Aoki's record label. Collaborations on this record range from guest drops by indie-hip/hop princess Kid Sister and dance music's female rebel Uffie to mixes on hit tracks from dance music's hottest craze, Justice. MSTRKRFT & Erol Alkan. Old songs, according to Aoki, have a "certain quality about them," and are a good base to work off of yet the way in which he creates his sound is mostly as a result of "spur of the moment" creative inspirations. He further explains, "You find a certain pocket that you really like, the one that hits you the hardest. It locks you in that groove and takes you over. You let it all out. Just fucking spew everything out and you try to find the best elements and put them together. "
The time-consuming responsibilities of designing and managing his clothing collection, Dim Mak Collection, promoting new bands like Foreign Born and UK's Shit Disco, as founder of Dimmak Records, and working as a DJ, providing musical leisure for W Magazine's party and Alexander Wang's fashion show at New York's Fashion week, for Aoki, is the best part of being who he is. Although more an artists than a businessman, "being creative in all different kinds of worlds" is what makes Aoki, formerly DJ Kid Millionaire, excited to be at the point he is in his life. And if he could add just one thing to unquestionably make his life better, it certainly would be more sleep.