Steve Aoki: Wonderland & Beyond
Some may envy Steve “DJ Kid Millionaire” Aoki for his privileged upbringing. Others may scoff that his flamboyant live-show antics—like crowd-surfing in an inflatable kayak (aka “white raver rafting”)—are mere gimmicks.
But, what may seem to EDM purists as a device, in actuality is rooted in Aoki’s background in punk rock. And, perhaps ironically, in adopting that genre’s DIY approach, Aoki helped create a DJing career that he never counted on.
That’s right. Aoki discovered DJing almost by accident. In college and beyond, he threw parties on his own, eventually ambling over to the pleasures of DJ booth after spending time remixing the songs of the bands he loved. No, Aoki didn’t come up through the ranks of clubland and he almost astonishingly professes not to have known who Tiësto was until late-2005 at the earliest. But, like many jocks before him, Aoki’s musical obsessiveness and entrepreneurial spirit put him in a great place to become a big-time DJ.
Of course, you’d have to live in a cave not to know what Aoki has accomplished since he first got behind the decks. His Dim Mak label—founded in 1996—has released music from acts ranging from rockers like Bloc Party and the Von Bondies to EDM mainstays like MSTRKRFT and Zedd. His slew of remixes and collaborations has kept his name at a high profile in clubland. And his DJing career has taken him around the world, spinning his brand of rockin’ electrohouse at the most prestigious clubs and outdoor festivals. Stop by one of the big festival tents and you’re very likely to see Aoki conducting another off-the-hook party.
A large part of Aoki’s draw is his good-natured, easygoing character—wealthy background be damned. (Aoki’s late father Rocky founded the Benihana restaurant chain.) And despite a travel schedule that found Aoki conducting this interview on very little sleep, those traits were evident when we talked to the L.A.-based jock in time for the release of his latest artist album, Wonderland (Ultra). It went like this:
DJ Times: You put on a very energetic live show that’s atypical for a DJ set. What’s your core philosophy of a live DJ performance?
Steve Aoki: I come from a punk, hardcore background, from being in bands when I was a teenager to my early-20s. I was a singer, so it’s hard to shake that off. Before, when I was just DJing, I wasn’t doing vocals. It didn’t come to me until I started singing to my tracks. When I started producing music, when I started doing vocals, the first track I did was with Junkie XL in 2007 called “1967 Poem.” That jump-started my background of being in that energy again and bringing that into the music. Then I started sampling guitar and bass when I was producing music. That was the next step for me. It’s all about the music that helps energize the shows. If music isn’t driving you to that level where you’re breaking the ceiling and all the energy starts spewing out, you can’t get to that place.
DJ Times: Some might accuse your performance style as being gimmicky.
Aoki: For me, it’s genuine. I’m just doing vocals, singing to my tracks—the tracks I’m going crazy to are the ones I know, because I wrote them. It’s definitely not something that is manufactured, my live show. I grew up with this—for example, the concept of stage-diving. I’ve been doing that since I was 13-years-old! For me, when I went to punk and hardcore shows, it wasn’t rare to see 50, 100 people stage-diving throughout the whole show, including myself jumping on the singer’s head and jumping out onto the crowd. [laughs] That’s my culture. I grew up on that. When I started producing music, that resembled some of the same kind of energy. It just brought it back to my roots.
DJ Times: Do you think it’s misperceived as being contrived if kids didn’t grow up going to those same punk shows?
Aoki: Kids that come from a different kind of scene, like trance or techno or whatever that didn’t understand that culture, to them I could understand—like, “What the fuck is going on? Why is he stage-diving? Why is he screaming?” I’m sure all that’s being said and I don’t necessarily blame them because it’s so foreign to them. When something’s foreign to someone, it can also come across as negative. I’m just fusing my culture with my music and mixing the two.
DJ Times: How does that manifest itself in the studio?
Aoki: On my album, I have your typical big dance sounding records and then I have to keep it real with my roots with “The Kids Will Have Their Say” featuring Sick Boy with former members of The Exploited and Die Kreuzen—that band was around in the late ’80s and they played with everyone. They played with Black Flag to Minor Threat to the Bad Brains, everyone. We have the drummer from that band. The guitarist is from The Exploited. The song title is referring to a track from this band called SS Decontrol from 1982 who released a song that, it’s bringing back that hardcore thing to a dance beat, a 130 BPM dance beat, but with guitars. And I’m screaming, too! [laughs] I’m not gonna apologize to people that don’t get it. Of course, I’m open arms to all listeners and this album is reflective to the diversity of all types of listeners who can welcome this album. I have some slow songs and more indie songs, like the one with Lovefoxxx, to dubstep with Kid Cudi and Travis Barker, to more poppy ones like with LMFAO.