Steve Aoki is an enigma. Today, he is one of the most successful DJs globally, and a bonafide walking, talking hit machine who regularly performs at the EDM capital of the world, Las Vegas, for a grateful audience. He has worked with artists ranging from the likes of BTS, Machine Gun Kelly to Louis Tomlinson and Migos, just to name a few. Aoki’s spectacularly wild live show, one that sees him bizarrely throw cake into an audience member’s face every night, has grown a life of its own and has become one of the most famous signature moves in music. However, there’s much more to him — and his story — than first meets the eye.
Aoki hasn’t always played glamourous shows in Las Vegas every night for obscene amounts of money, and he has earned his right to become one of the world’s highest-earning artists. While it may appear as though Aoki emerged on a global scale as an overnight success from the outside, that is lightyears away from the truth, and the DJ spent years dedicating himself to the music industry grind before securing any sliver of success. It took years of DJing in bars, playing in punk bands and managing his record label, Dim Mak, before Aoki started to bear the fruits of his labour. In truth, he is a character with many different facets, all of which blend to create a universe that he started building decades ago.
The punk side of his personality is one that the 43-year-old recently revisited for a remix of Crass’ classic punk anthem ‘Banned From The Roxy’. Although it won’t be a chart hit, Aoki can bring together one of his favourite records from his youth and take it into the world in which he now lives. Whilst his career has taken a different path to the one that the Crass-loving child had once envisaged for himself, that part of him is still there, and his love of the attitude that oozes out of the punk scene is one that’s stuck with him throughout his career, even if it has been a subconscious rumbling.
“I guess it’s like an evolution of the same person,” Aoki told me over a Zoom call from his residence in Nevada in response to how his punk background has run through his work. “I don’t make a deliberate effort to put the punk side of my past into the present. With Crass and this song, it all kind of came together because I make clothes with patches with stuff from my past. We did a charity auction with a jacket of mine, and it had demonic patches, a Crass patch and some other things on there. Then Crass saw it because it went viral and they were like, ‘Oh, wow, we didn’t know that Steve Aoki liked Crass’.”
Aoki was then encouraged by the band to remix a song of his choice from their repertoire and ended up opting for ‘Banned From The Roxy’. The remix gives the anarchic track a new lease of life and integrates it into a whole new world. “I couldn’t pick my favourite; I had to pick the one that would work the best,” he says. “With ‘Banned From The Roxy, the vocal itself is a great sample that you could cut up and chop up. It’s like he’s almost rapping in a way. The way he’s singing is in a way that I can literally put it on top of a beat, and it’ll work,” the DJ said with an ingrained passion in his voice.
“When I think of drum bass, I think of England. So I was like, English band, let’s make it drum and bass. This is underground, it reminds me of being at a rave when I was a kid in LA, and then, imagining them playing at an underground show in like a basement in England somewhere. There was a lot of synergies from using a DnB element,” Aoki added.
The pandemic has allowed Aoki time to revisit his roots, a factor which acts as the inspiration for a new project he’s working on called, Basement Tapes, which ‘Banned From The Roxy’ features on. The new series is one that Aoki feels excited about creating. There’s a tangible sense of zealousness in his voice towards the Basement Tapes. It’s a project that allows him to bridge these two worlds between the underground and the mainstream together, introducing more people to the sounds he loves on the way.
“The Steve Aoki brand is very commercial already, so if I do anything more underground under the Steve Aoki name then it’s still commercial,” Aoki admitted. “I do produce under other aliases, I produce different sounds, different productions, in my studio, but, for the most part, I’ll produce a record for my festival shows. The drop just works great for a big festival. Then I’ll do the collaborations I do with bands across different genres. This is a great way to start more of this kind of underground rave sound.”
Aoki’s special touch has seen him collaborate with some of the music industry’s biggest names over the last decade. He has worked with K-Pop giants BTS on multiple occasions, including their first full song in English, ‘Waste It On Me’. “They’re phenomenal guys,” the DJ says about the group. “They’re really fun, carefree, funny dudes. I love them to death we bonded, and one of the most special things that I experienced with them is that they looked to me to produce their music like they could look to anybody.”
While he has an eternal fondness for his work with BTS, there’s one band that Aoki worked with that touched him in the most profound way imaginable. “Linkin Park, Chester Bennington, Mike Shinoda and the whole crew,” Aoki said about his favourite collaboration as our conversation took a slightly more reflective and nostalgic path. “Working with Chester in the studio is incredible. Watching him singing the vocal booth, that’s nothing like you’ve ever thought of. Awesome. Mike is a powerhouse musician, really talented. He literally bleeds music. He’s not even human.”
Aoki is a man with fingers in pies located all over the musical spectrum — with the Basement Tapes signifying another area of music that he aims to explore — however, there is one constant that has been in his life for 25 years, through thick and thin, his record label Dim Mak, a project which he founded way back in 1996. This venture was never a money-spinning exercise, Aoki just wanted to release records he loved and fuel it with his DIY ethos. “I was 19,” Aoki recalls. “It wasn’t a business; it didn’t become a business until about 2004 when I found Bloc Party when I got their first seven-inch on Transgressive Records. That’s when I had to start thinking differently because I now had to account to bands. In the first go-round, when we were just putting out records putting out records for bands, we would press 1000 vinyl, and there’s such little money to be made, we’d share whatever was left, but it’s easy to manage something like that.”
After signing Bloc Party, Aoki oversaw a British indie invasion on Dim Mak. The label snapped up the likes of Mystery Jets, Klaxons, The Kills and The Rakes, which arrived as the moment that Aoki had no choice but to step up the operation and began running Dim Mak professionally. It was no longer possible to operate in such a DIY manner, but those early days of the label are memories that remain joyous to the DJ.
“In the beginning, I wanted to help out these bands that are coming to play in my living room,” Aoki recalled. “They had demos, and I was like I can help these guys and girls out. The first band we helped out was my friend’s band, and I put in 400 bucks. The other label put it in $800 because they were nice. So it was a $1200 project, and we’re all best friends, putting out our other best friends record. We ended up splitting $1 profit and were just doing it for the love of it.
“We were like messengers of the band, we’d go to shows and hawk the seven-inch vinyl, ‘Yo, man, I got a vinyl for three bucks’ When it cost me $2 to make, that’s how it started, and that same process went along for almost ten years, I just would sell vinyl and CDs at shows. I didn’t have a lawyer until like, ten years later. I was just putting out records like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll put out your record.’ I don’t even know what a contract is, you know, I didn’t have an employee until 2004 or 2003, I pretty much did everything by myself. When you’re DIY, you just pick the things up in front of you, and you just make it happen.”
He continued: “With Dim Mak, we weren’t profitable for a very long time. I always had another thing happening to supplement, and luckily, the DJ was the thing. I was so in debt with Dim Mak because I didn’t care if it made money. In the beginning, I really didn’t care. I just want it to be sustainable is all I cared about was sustainability, just to survive so I can continue to help out bands and put out records.”
Those years spent working away in the shadows, investing his heart and soul into records which few people were buying, was an education of sorts for Aoki. The life-lessons that he picked up from the decade-long process are ones that have helped him become one of the most famous DJ’s in the world. On top of talent, Aoki has a dogged work ethic that has prevented him from ever taking his foot off the gas and is a crucial part of his success. “I think the most important thing is that you lead with passion. You only have one life, 24-hours in one single day, everyone has the same amount of time on the planet. At the end of the day, lead with passions and the money will come, if you’re actually doing good work,” Aoki says with a renewed vigour.
Aoki’s efforts as a DJ initially began merely as an income-based side project, conducted in order to fund his label but, gradually, more and more people started flocking to the bars he was playing at in Los Angeles. He slowly became a more prominent name in the community, and once he started creating his own music, there was no looking back. Aoki was at the forefront of the so-called EDM boom. After years of hard work and dedication, Aoki worked his way up to the top of the tree, and when the scene took over the mainstream, his stock rose even further. “It was all incremental steps like the Bitcoin servers that are happening now,” Aoki said on the growth of EDM into the mainstream. “I was already pretty sustainable on the income side by the time in 2010 when EDM actually was coined EDM; before it was coined electronica. EDM was a very institutionalised term that the press used, even DJs were like ‘what’s EDM?'”
When the genre took over and became a behemoth which was seemingly inescapable, it wasn’t without its fair share of critics. DJs found themselves scrutinised by many for “just pressing play”, and these criticisms grew rather tiresome to hear in the EDM community. “I can say the same thing about plugging guitar,” he said about people attempting to denounce the genre. “It’s not difficult to play, E minor, or G or whatever it might be. Also, I’m not saying pressing a button and playing the guitar are the same thing, but I’m saying that instruments that play out music, at the end of the day, you can all learn all these instruments. It’s just a matter of time.”
Aoki has confidence that the attitude towards the genre has changed over the years, and says: “I think kids nowadays are like, I want to be a DJ. Their Dad might be like, ‘Oh, that’s lame man, go play a guitar.’ You should just do what you want to do. Who cares what the haters think? It’s what makes you feel something. At the end of the day, we’re not here for other people’s criticism, or opinions. We’re here for ourselves and what makes us feel a certain way.”
There’s a dedication to everything that Aoki sets his mind to conquer. Whether this is his move into the world of fashion, Dim Mak, or his full-length albums, there’s no avenue that he goes down that he isn’t passionate about venturing into. Whilst many people in his position would rest on their laurels, Aoki is finding new creative outlets to pour his energy into. Although his passions have developed over the years, the innate ability to throw himself headfirst at something he loves has been the one constant since he formed Dim Mak 25-years ago and is the reason why he’s had such a wild, dynamic career.