How Following His Muse Paid Off Big for DJ Steve Aoki
Maybe "two turntables and a microphone" used to be where it was at. But that was back in 1996, when Beck released his now-iconic "Where It's At," with a chorus calling out the basic DJ setup. These days, thanks in no small part to people like Steve Aoki, DJs have become the new rock stars, rabid fans moshing and kowtowing before their laptops like devotees at a 1971 Zeppelin gig.
But Aoki, whose Wikipedia entry refers to him as an "electro-house musician, record producer, and the founder of Dim Mak Records," is more than a DJ. For those keeping track, he earned the number three spot in Mixmag's DJs of 2012, between Swedish House Mafia and Armin Van Buuren.
If that means nothing to you, here's this: Steve's dad founded the ubiquitous Japanese steak house/entertainment chain Benihana. And one of his half-siblings is comely multiculti model/actress Devon Aoki.
But Steve Aoki is his own man, and he is rapidly becoming his own brand. Making a windy phone call from an ATV in Hawaii while visiting the Jurassic Park set in Oahu, he calls one day before December 21, 2012. Laughing, Aoki says this might be his last interview before the world ends, but he's looking ahead to his New York gig on the 27th despite the title of his new three-song EP, It's the End of the World As We Know It. The cuts are on topic, referencing the more forward-thinking ideas of "rebirth, change, transcending." There's "Singularity," featuring My Name Is Kay and Angger Dimas; "Omega" ("the final letter of the Greek alphabet," he explains), which features Dan Sena and Miss Palmer; and "Transcend," an instrumental featuring Rune RK. As earmilk.com's Colin Tewksbury writes: "Everyone seems to have an opinion on Steve Aoki, but, regardless of your like or dislike . . . there are a couple of things we all could agree on. First, the dancefloor is always packed and raging when this guy throws a party. Second, his brainchild, Dim Mak Records, has a knack for finding some of the best and brightest talents in the electronic scene."
Raised in Southern California, Aoki hasn't always been the globe-trotting music maker. His years attending the University of California, Santa Barbara, prepared him for a different path. He majored in women's studies and sociology, but halfway through college, he'd formed Dim Mak (a martial arts reference). "I was accepted to two Ph.D. programs, but the label was starting to turn a profit," he recalls, thanks especially to his 2002 signing of the band the Kills, and his subsequent success with Bloc Party. "At that moment, school was done, and I had to make a decision."
Fans the world over are glad he listened to his muse. Aoki hired his first Dim Mak employee in 2004, running the label from a house behind Amoeba Music off Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The 24-hour party place was a mecca for the like-minded, and Aoki's star was on the rise as a cultural curator, his club nights premiering the likes of Lady Gaga, Skrillex, and Kid Cudi. Some pundits anointed Aoki "hipsterdom's gateway drug." He doesn't shy away from talking about his role in "hipster culture," and there's no denying his part in bringing underground house, electro, and harder-edge EDM with rap and rock influences to the masses. His remix résumé includes Jackson 5, Drake, Kanye West, Eminem, the Killers, Lenny Kravitz, and Robin Thicke, while his latest solo album, "Wonderland" features guest vocalists and musicians LMFAO, Will.i.am, Rivers Cuomo, Chiddy Bang, and Big John of punk band the Exploited.
"I've always collected music," he explains. "I'd follow labels and buy every single release from a particular label"—which is now what people do with Dim Mak. "I might dress like a hipster," he acknowledges. "Fashion and music and what's hip—I'm interested in those worlds. But it's not who I am or how I live. I'm more about proper dance culture, not hipster culture. I'm passionate about music. Hipster culture doesn't have that. I've been a fan of music and pop culture from the age of 13, and now at 35, that's never changed. It's why I actively run a business that employs 19 people where I hire fans to work for my company."
The more than 50 active artists on the Dim Mak roster (including Aoki himself) feature Israeli psytrance/electronica duo Infected Mushroom and New York's own Fischerspooner. But Aoki, who tours up to 250 days a year, is looking to "expand and innovate." Aoki gives more than lip service to favorite causes and often waxes spiritual, not unlike another multifaceted mogul, Russell Simmons. "During my trip to India, I realized how serious the issue of clean drinking water is," Aoki writes, asking his 1,388,187 Facebook fans to join him in supporting nonprofit Waterworks "and the great work they're doing to fix this problem." He also launched the Steve Aoki Charitable Fund to benefit "creative activists who use the power of media and the arts to effect positive change in the world."
As for Aoki's own world? That's easy: "I'm a time-traveling, speed-reading, fortune-telling, machine-gunning, gypsy-loving, scuba-diving, multitasking, poker-playing fan of life." Indubitably.
Steve Aoki plays Pier 94 on December 27 with special guests Nervo.
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