Steve Aoki: 'Show me the obstacle course and I'll want to run through it'

One of the biggest DJs in the world talks about his origins in music, his unstoppable energy, and why male DJs need to support their female contemporaries 

Elizabeth Aubrey
Friday 09 February 2018 13:50 GMT
Steve Aoki: 'Music was a way for me to fit in. I found a group of kids that all didn’t fit in – it was like a group of bandits'
Steve Aoki: 'Music was a way for me to fit in. I found a group of kids that all didn’t fit in – it was like a group of bandits'

DJ and record label owner Steve Aoki has a reputation for being one of the hardest working artists in music – and with good reason.

Playing 168 gigs in 41 countries in 2012; the 40-year-old earned a Guinness World Record for being the most-travelled musician in one year. Performing around 225 shows every year since, it’s perhaps no surprise I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead was the title of his 2016, Grammy-nominated autobiographical documentary.

“It’s like there are times when it’s really hard and really difficult and I’m getting no sleep and you have to keep fighting it and going through it,” Aoki says of his relentless schedule. We’re chatting on the final night of his sold-out Kolony UK tour, just after his performance at Brixton Academy.

“Four times playing there, four times selling it out and it’s one of my favourite venues: it means a lot,” he adds. “It’s one of the shows I really look forward to through the year; I do hundreds of shows but this is definitely one of the top highlights for sure.”

Well-known for his energetic performances and boundless enthusiasm on stage, Aoki, a self-confessed adrenaline junkie, seems to thrive on the hectic scheduling.

“I am a challenge-orientated person, it’s my boot camp principle. I love pain,” he tells me, shortly before he’s due on stage. “I love enduring pain and pushing through, I love the Tough Mudder style attitude. Give me the obstacle course and I’ll wanna run through it!”

Obstacles are certainly something Aoki is skilled at overcoming. In I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Aoki talked about the difficulties he faced growing up in a predominately white neighbourhood in California. In one particularly emotive scene, Aoki describes the “tirade of racial abuse” he received from a boy at his school who bullied him when he joined a sports team. The boy’s friends just stood by and laughed.

“I couldn’t believe it – it was like something out of a movie. No one [did] s**t,” he says. “I grew up in America in a suburb that was 96% white people. When you’re a kid growing up in that period of time, an Asian kid or a person of colour, you’re going to be affected by racism… if you don’t have an environment discussing race and ethnicity and where people come from, you’re going to face some sort of level of discrimination or not be able to fit in.”

It was music, and not sport, where Aoki found a group of like-minded people away from the daily discrimination he endured elsewhere at school. Discovering hardcore and punk, Aoki also found an outlet to channel the anger he felt at the constant prejudice he faced.

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“Music was a way for me to fit in. I found a group of kids that all didn’t fit in – it was like a group of bandits," he says. “We were these outcasts and it was like ‘Oh yeah, it’s us, we don’t fit in anywhere’ – I mean, we didn’t even say that [laughs] but that was the kind of gel.

"This was the start of me finding music as a voice, me finding music as a way to understand who I am, my purpose. I picked up a guitar and a microphone and one of the greatest moments or feelings that I had at the time was having that. It [made] me feel something that I didn’t feel before.”

After graduating high school, Aoki chose to study at The University of California, Santa Barbara largely because of its thriving hardcore music scene. Founding Dim Mak records aged just 19, he was putting on gigs for over 450 bands in his student cooperative, learning the basics of the DIY philosophies at the heart of hardcore punk and rock culture along the way. A few years later, he moved to LA with the aim of turning Dim Mak into a thriving business. Aged 22, he succeeded.

The DIY gigs Aoki put on at university – The Pickle Patch gigs – proved Aoki had a talent for spotting bands and acts ahead of their time. Over the next few years, Aoki signed Bloc Party, Gossip and The Kills amongst many others, helping to propel Dim Mak into the spotlight as it became one of the most successful DIY labels in America.

“In the early days, I was into hardcore music so I was listening to Guerrilla Biscuits and Minor Threat… a lot of these bands have a very small following in the large scope of things but they were incredibly meaningful to my career because they built a DIY philosophy that I still use today. It’s a part of how I build companies and brands. I owe a lot to the straight edge hardcore community.”

After being invited to DJ at a party with his friend, Aoki soon discovered he also had a talent at the decks and started playing regular nights known as Dim Mak Tuesday’s. Around 2003, the LA scene quickly took to his dynamic sets as they became one of the most sought after events to attend.

Working with the likes of The Bloody Beetroots, A-Trak, Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Justice and his good friend and mentor, the late Adam Goldstein (DJ AM), he soon attracted a huge following at the free gigs. Now among the most sought after and highest paid DJ’s in the world, one of the defining features of Aoki’s career has been his ability to fuse EDM with other genres.

“I definitely thrive on cross genre collaboration. I love being in the studio with different artists from different ethnicities, from different countries, with different genres and languages,” he nods. “You always find more inspiration [by] changing your creative process and working with different people.”

His latest single, “Azukita” – a collaboration with Daddy Yankee – sees Aoki combining the purer style of EDM he favoured in his early career with Latin music.

“That song is the culmination of years and years of being involved with the Latin world. Latin has been a big influence on me for a long time. I’ve worked with other Latin artists but yet strangely enough, I had yet to do a Latin EDM record. It’s the first entirely Spanish-sung record of mine that I’ve put out.”

Aoki has a large following in Latin America and also performed at the Latin Grammy Awards last year. Our talk takes place the day after the 60th Grammy Awards in New York: a few days earlier, he spoke during a TV interview about the lack of gender equality in the industry and how male DJs need to “make room” for more women. I ask him what he made of the lack of female winners once again at the awards.

“I think what’s happening – and this has happened in history – is that the power of the people, the power of many voices makes change happen up to the institutions that don’t listen,” he says.

“When institutions don’t listen, you have the power of the people to knock down those doors and let them know that this is not right, that there’s something not right about the situation and that’s what’s happening right now.”

“Criticism is going to affect the Grammy community to make sure they’re allowing and thinking about how unequal the male to female ratio is on who is being nominated in different categories and they’re going to have to think about that more and more. I believe in the power of people to make that happen.”

Graduating from university with a degree in Women’s Studies, Aoki has collaborated with many female artists over the years and speaks passionately about his support of the recent feminist movement.

“Institutions on the internal side – there’s only so much that you and I can say if we’re not in there, but the only thing we can say is be loud, use our voice, make our voice heard and do it in numbers," he says. “I’ve always believed in the power of the protest and how powerful that is, and how much it changes.

"When you see people protesting by the hundreds of thousands it changes history, it changes policies; it changes the way we think about things and how the status quo is not right in these areas. That’s happening right now – it’s a beautiful movement.”

His heightened empathy seems to have stemmed at least in part from the strong matriarchal upbringing he and his siblings received as a child whilst his late father - businessman and athlete Rocky Aoki - was often away working. Like his son, Rocky was an astute businessman who launched the hugely successful Benihana restaurant chain.

Aoki’s complex relationship with his father was also explored in detail in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. When he told his father of his music ambitions, Aoki described how “he didn’t really support this idea”.

Despite his father’s wealth, Aoki received no financial help when starting Dim Mak; he borrowed money from his friends Joel and Benji Madden of the rock band Good Charlotte. Yet this tough-love approach seems to be one of the driving forces behind Aoki and his incessant work ethic.

“Subconsciously, my father is someone I grew up kind of trying to impress. Everything I did was: ‘How can I show my dad that I’m doing well, that I’m going to do something with my life?’.

“Still to this day, he’s still there, he’s still in the back of my head – he’s there just to push me along. I’m always thinking about him and I always wish he could see how far I’ve gone in my life or different achievements that I’ve had. I don’t do it for myself - I do it for him.”

Dim Mak’s continued success and its extension into fashion would suggest that Aoki has indeed inherited a great deal of his father’s business acumen. Yet even as the group had its first New York Fashion week appearance last year, Aoki still managed to remain true to his DIY roots, putting on a show with a difference.

“We were like, we’re not going to do a runway, we’re going to do a skate park and we’re just going to be destructive and we did that and we got all the heads turning," he says. "We got all the fashion PR’s writing about us and that’s exactly what was intended…we’re doing it in our own rogue way.”

He's releasing a new EP called 5oki which features collaborations with EDM artists including Quintino, Vini Vici and Hardwell, before his next album – Neon Futures III – is dropped later in the year. The LP will see the DJ returning to his purest EDM roots. Yet like so much of his later work, it will be again rich in cross-genre collaborations.

“It’s all cross genre,” Aoki explains. “I’m really putting an emphasis on EDM and I’m putting an emphasis on cross-genre collaboration. For EDM itself I’m making a big statement of re-claiming it as something [that’s] really important to me – kinda like giving back to my community.”

With so much incessant touring, I wonder how Aoki finds the time to record.

“It’s basically a lifestyle I have to adapt to,” he tells me. “Since I’ve been doing this for years now – since 2000 – I mean I have been touring in the States for like ten years – I live a very unconventional life so I have to [employ] unconventional methods so I can still have albums and music out.” Part of the unconventional methods involve setting up make-shift studios with various laptops in hotel rooms.

“At the beginning, it’s always awkward – it’s a bit tedious and a bit hard, just like any routine at the beginning is always awkward and then after 21 days, it becomes a habit. You’ve got to manage your habits and…be the bigger person and pick up the good habits and turn that into the routine.”

'You always find more inspiration [by] changing your creative process and working with different people'
'You always find more inspiration [by] changing your creative process and working with different people'

This discipline seems rigorous but perhaps not unsurprising after Aoki’s disappointment of not being able to play Madison Square Garden in 2014 after his last album wasn’t completed on time. Instead he returned to LA and performed a free concert on the streets of LA, where his journey began back in 2003.

“It does feel full circle,” Aoki says. "I did some amazing cross-genre collaborations with Louis Tomlinson, Lauren Jauregui… and I wanna go back. I wanna see my community and what they want – I want to give them the bangers.

“When I play the festivals, I can tell what they want, like when they hear the classic Aoki records "Boneless", "Pursuit of Happiness" and "No Beef" – they’re going ape, they’re going wild and they are humming the songs. I want to bring that back and feed them what they really want.”

Aoki’s social media fan-base is huge, and fans are regularly exposed to images and videos of him working out, keeping himself healthy for his gruelling schedule. It’s a far cry from his early days partying on Dim Mak Tuesdays.

“No matter how busy you are in a day you can always find time to work out, and you have to use your environment around you to make it happen,” he says. “For a lot of my work-outs I just do jumping up and down on my bed. Honestly, it’s a simple as just being grateful. Grateful to be in this position I’m in and the most important thing is that I need to keep my body, my mental state, my physical body and my voice, my vocal cords [well].

“I got vocal cord surgery a couple of years ago from screaming so much from being in bands and it did a toll on my voice…so it isn’t as strong as it was. To maintain that, I’m doing vocal cord warm ups and just being fit, being healthy, eating right – all of those things are really important to maintain the rigorous stamina to keep going with such a tough schedule.”

Another key part of what keeps Aoki going, he says, is his fans and his love of them: whether that love is shown by playing the hits or performing one of his infamous ‘caking’ rituals which have become integral to his show or putting on free concerts, where he hurls cake into the crowd.

“The highlights are definitely the crowd. The highlights are the shows – the entire room jumping up and down,” he says.

“I love when I play ‘Just Hold On’ and everyone’s faces light up and everybody is singing so loud you can’t even hear the music…I’ve been debuting a lot of new music and just seeing everyone light up when they hear the new stuff I’m dropping in 2018. 100 per cent, it's the crowd. I live for that moment.”

Steve Aoki's latest single 'Azukita' ft Daddy Yankee is out now

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