Hey Mr. DJ
If the perception you have of famed EDM DJ Steve Aoki is that he seems a little crazy, well, you aren’t entirely wrong. His concerts did gain notoriety after Aoki began doing things like spraying champagne into the audience and on stage, leaping onto inflatable rafts to crowd surf and caking people – yes, literally throwing full-sized sheet cakes at screaming fans begging for it.
But as much as life may seem like a never-ending party for Aoki, it also is a testament to ruthless dedication and hard work. Aoki was, after all, only 19 when he established record label Dim Mak, a move some might consider incredibly risky for someone that age – but one that certainly has paid off.
Twenty years later, Aoki is bringing Dim Mak’s worldwide anniversary tour to a close Feb. 18 in Kakaako. (The concert also serves as closing festivities for POW! WOW! Hawaii.)
It may seem like a strange locale for a global performer such as Aoki but, hey, the man has his reasons.
“‘Cause Hawaii is the bomb,” he says over the phone. “I love Hawaii.
“I’m kind of happy that I’m leaving it with you guys,” he adds. “I have a lot of expectations to see all my fellow Hawaiian fans and supporters going crazy at this party.”
If 15 minutes to talk to someone as interesting as Aoki doesn’t sound like enough time, that’s because it isn’t. But it is all this Metro writer had.
It meant, though, that I couldn’t squeeze in questions about his equally famous family – late father Rocky founded teppanyaki restaurant chain Benihana and was a notable daredevil of sorts; brother Kevin owns Doraku and Blue Tree Café; and sister Devon is part-model part-actor, appearing in films such as 2 Fast 2 Furious and Sin City. It also meant that I couldn’t ask him about his time as a student at University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studied sociology and feminist studies, of all things. It meant Aoki didn’t get to tell me much either about Dim Mak’s earliest days, working with indie groups like The Kills, Bloc Party and The Gossip.
It meant that I really only had time to ask Aoki exactly eight questions.
But in that time, I still managed to learn quite a bit about him – fun facts about his past, like how he worked at Benihana in Hawaii when he was 16. I also quickly discovered that he’s as enthusiastic when he speaks as he appears on stage, and easy to talk to.
He also didn’t sound exactly thrilled with how Dim Mak’s birthday means he’s aging, too.
“I feel old,” he says with a laugh. “That means I’m almost hitting 40. I don’t even want to say 40 yet, ‘cause I still feel like a kid.
“Besides feeling old,” he adds, growing serious, “I feel grateful that we’ve been around this long, that we’ve had a community that supported us – an ecosystem that has kept this business going and sustainable for all these years.”
The music industry is a tough business to grow in, and one that constantly is changing. For Aoki, this has meant keeping up with a fan base that prefers to stream and download music rather than buy a record, which he’s adapted to well. As a DJ too, it was even more difficult for him to find his audience at the start. When he was starting out, he didn’t have access to lots of money, so he must have used dj finance to help him purchase his DJ equipment. Now, he’s a successful DJ who seems to have all of the latest equipment to make sure he keeps growing as an artist.
“Learning to evolve in this world has been exciting and challenging – more like challenging and exciting,” he says. “You have to take these risks and you have to step outside of the comfort zone many times to … move forward in this business.”
In stepping outside of his own limitations as an EDM artist, it is not uncommon for Aoki to team up with musicians from just about every genre. His first remix, Aoki recalls, was of a Bloc Party song. Then there were collaborations with everyone from MGMT, blink-182 and will.i.am to Kid Cudi, Fall Out Boy and a mix of Forever featuring the talents of Drake, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Eminem – a project Aoki credits to a chance encounter with Drake in a parking lot in Los Angeles. Most recently, Aoki worked with Louis Tomlinson of boy band One Direction fame to release the single Just Hold On. Coming up next, expect a hip-hop EP to drop soon, along with more new music.
If his repertoire seems almost a bit random, well, no one ever said that EDM could only ever be about dance music – which is, perhaps, how Aoki has managed to remain relevant throughout the years.
“I think what’s so exciting about being in the studio with so many different people is that you get inspired in different ways by the people you work with,” says Aoki. “I keep that wide open. I don’t put my blinders on … I’d rather keep it open and be flexible and be fluid and just go with how it’s supposed to go organically.”
Before I ever discovered Aoki, I was obsessed with his sister Devon. (Sorry, not sorry, Steve.)
I was in middle school when I watched her in 2 Fast 2 Furious. It was the first time that I can recall witnessing an Asian female character in a role not defined by stereotypes. She spoke perfect English without a trace of any foreign accent being exploited for laughs. She had sex appeal but wasn’t merely a sex object. She raced cars like a badass and held her own with the boys.
It also wasn’t some quaint plotline about Asian family values or of discovering a new culture or her ethnic identity. She was simply there, with everyone else and like everyone else.
All this is to say that representation is important – and something Aoki understands well.
He grew up in Newport Beach, California, in a mostly non-Asian community, where Aoki says racism essentially was accepted. In I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead – a documentary of his life on Netflix that I highly recommend for any fan – Aoki revisits his high school, recalling memories of trying to fit in.
“It was hard,” he tells me. “It was hard to grow up in that kind of environment and not have someone – you don’t have a lot of cultural symbols of someone to look up to that’s cool, someone everyone likes.”
It’s why Aoki loves Bruce Lee so much. The world’s fascination with him had nothing to do with the color of his skin or the shape of his eyes – Lee attracted fans regardless of race simply because he was just a cool person.
Aoki is quick to admit that Asian representation in the music industry is pretty nonexistent. So he makes it a point to collaborate with other Asians he sees potential in.
“Whenever I see Asians doing really good s&*%, I want to link up with them just on the basis that they’re Asian and they’re doing really f#&*%@! cool, influential s@!&,” he says, adding that he recently collaborated with artist David Choe for clothing line Dim Mak Collection, and that other projects are in the works.
“It’s important that we prop each other up, and we support each other and we’re not divisive but we work together.”
And if you were wondering whether Aoki has any plans to slow down, much like the title of his documentary indicates, don’t expect it anytime soon – probably.
“Momentum is definitely a huge key to my success,” he says. “I’m not always like this, but I do my best to wake up every day and be grateful for the influential position that I’m in and to have a creative outlet that I do have.
“If I do slow down, I will lose that,” Aoki adds. “So I follow my passion. I let that be my guiding light, and if it steers me in different directions, I will let that guide me and right now, it’s emboldened in my music.”
The Dim Mak 20th anniversary concert will kick off at 5 p.m. Feb. 18 at 1011 Ala Moana Blvd. Tickets start at $65. Along with performances by Aoki, the night promises sets from iLoveMakonnen, Autoerotique, Max Styler, Trippy Turtle and many more. For tickets and more information, visit bampproject.com.
To keep up with Aoki, follow him on Instagram (@steveaoki).