Steve Aoki is a living, breathing example of the mantra “hard work pays off.” In an age where overnight prosperity seems more apparent than it has ever been, we tend to set our eyes on the “industry plants” and young Internet stars and forget about those who finally find success after years and years of work. Aoki belongs in the latter category; he didn’t wait for handouts or just get lucky. Although he attained international recognition during the turn of this decade, the Miami-born electronic music artist and label head began his independent, Los Angeles-based label, Dim Mak, all the way back in 1996. Due to having passion, perseverance, and a risk-taking mentality, Aoki not only eventually became one of the highest-paid DJ-producers ever but runs a label that has birthed and supported other hugely successful acts like The Chainsmokers, Giraffage, MSTRKRFT, Felix Cartel, Zeds Dead and many more.
We caught up with Steve at his architecturally stunning Henderson, Nevada home. Even though it was clear that the house belonged to one who is very financially well-off, Aoki’s demeanor is as down-to-earth as it gets. He was not boastful about his accomplishments and did not make us feel like they weren’t good enough to talk to him. Aoki was humble, spoke to us in a manner of a mentor and friend, and was more than willing to give in-depth, candid and honest answers to all of our questions. The super-producer contributed his success to his family, team, and an undivided passion for music and focuses on his transformative process rather than the fruits of success. Highlights covered in the conversation include his latest EP 4OKI, his new Netflix documentary I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, the 20th anniversary of Dim Mak, his musical and fashion collaborations, and more.
Tell us about Dim Mak. How did it start and how has it grown?
It’s an evolution; it was a transformative process — in understanding growth and how to not follow the same path that is the easiest, to challenge yourself and embrace the ideas of destruction. It’s understanding that the harder choice can be a fruitful choice or a choice that can kill your business. You have to take those risks. One thing I’ve learned from reflecting back on the business is that after you create and after you become part of a community, you build a consistency. You build a consistent relationship with people representing that culture. That’s how you build a culture around it. But just like with everything, people change and trends change. It doesn’t have to be music, just culture — things fade and things regrow.
We live in an age where things move very quickly. How do you overcome challenges and how do you keep up with the times?
Some of the most powerful contemporaries in the businesses I’ve been in when I was growing were sucked into the black hole of when trends died away. It sucked everything that was important into the hole, and it’s hard to get out of that or survive that because when the new trend occurs, they don’t want remnants from the old period infecting the new system. So how do you get through that? It’s a really interesting thing to talk about for businesses. You have to be flexible and agile, and have a really solid infrastructure in order to be flexible.
With music and fashion, you have to really believe and have a genuine passion in it or else you will just get sucked in. You might be successful in building a consistent brand in that business. But when that trend goes, you might fall into that black hole too. The thread that has tied us through all these pitfalls and almost major failures that would have capsized Dim Mak was this idea of resilience that was based on passion for supporting new talent and putting out music that you love.
Is passion what keeps it going?
That’s the drive that you need to have to get through all of that, because it’s not a business that’ll make you a ton of money. I mean, you can, but those x-factors don’t happen all the time; sometimes they never happen. When we put out “Selfie” by The Chainsmokers, we didn’t know it would blow up to what it was going to be. We didn’t know that The Chainsmokers would be the biggest pop act in music. Or like Bloc Party, when we were supporting them, we didn’t realize that we had at the time when they were like the biggest English export to America. Things like that happen, so you have to really believe. I’m just going back in the archives for artists that blew my mind and it wasn’t really about bottom lines, it was more about I believe in them not just for hit single, but their whole vision.
Tell us about your latest EP, 4OKI.
It started out as a continuation of the last EP I did called 3OKI. It fits right in between Neon Future II and Neon Future III — which is going to release early next year. It’s something completely different from the Neon Future soundscape, musical architecture and vibe. This has more underground house sounds. I did a ton of collaborations throughout the last 18 months and these four were the ones that rose to the top as the songs that could gel together. I really wanted to work with young artists on this EP. It’s not necessarily about just Steve Aoki, it’s about Dim Mak — the culture, the new blood, and all the amazing artists we have on this label.
Could you speak on your Netflix documentary, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead?
It was definitely a naturally organic building process. When they first came in, there was no real expectation or guideline on how this was going to play out. It was more like, ‘Okay, I open the doors for these guys to join us on the road.’ Before Justin Krook and David Gelb got involved, there were different people who wanted to do the filming. They had the wrong approach though because everybody had their own vision, but these guys had made an incredible documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi and had a really interesting way of telling that story. So I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s bring these guys on the road.’
At a certain point of filming, I felt a level of trust that is really important for me to open this door to my personal life, which has never really happened before. In all my behind-the-scenes videos, I’ve never really gone into this world of personal life; it was more about the fans and the culture. Krook and Gelb were capturing that at first, but as with anything that happens, there are variables that you can’t control. And they documented those moments. They were able to turn it into something more meaningful, and in that process, they wanted to see the process of how things went from a place where there was very little opportunity to a place where opportunities start happening and why did that happen. It was at that point that I was like, ‘You guys got full access.’ There were many times that there were cameras in the room but you’d forget they were there. I didn’t really have much say as far as where it was going to go, and I didn’t really want to. It’s one thing to talk about something but it’s another thing to watch and watch yourself talk about it; it sometimes gets real awkward and uncomfortable.
The documentary touches a lot on your father. How did he influence you and what did he mean to you?
The beginning I wasn’t sure where this was going but in the end, it’s definitely proud of the amazing work that this Japanese guy that came to America when America wasn’t very nice to the Japanese people. He really built his career from a very humble beginning and took serious risks and challenged himself and throughout his career even when he excelled in his restaurant business, he pushed the limits in many different ways and tried many things that people didn’t try before. He did it because he loved to do it — I’m glad I got to showcase that.
Also, another unsung hero in the video is my mom. My father’s not with us anymore but my mom is, so I hope she gets the attention. She doesn’t want the attention, it’s not that she’s asking or looking for it. Shout out to all the moms out there, all the parents out there who love their children and support their children, and they don’t want the credit. I got a lot of response from friends and fans and the best ones are, “Yo man, I haven’t talked to my mom for a long time so I gave her a call. I just gave my dad a hug.” Those are the best things: if it can touch you and it can give you some personal attachment to the film where it can affect your personal life and help you find inspiration to be closer to the people who helped pave the road for you.
This film’s also a homage to DJ AM, who was a big part of a period of time when things were slowly happening. He really put me under his wing and you got to give love and respect to the people who help you out. I’m more proud of those moments.
Your recent work seems to be very rap-oriented. Who are some other rappers you’re looking forward to work with?
Chance the Rapper, Drake, Gucci Mane. There’s a lot of people who I want to work with. I have a song with Wale, I did a song with Migos and Lil Yachty, a song with 2 Chainz. I’m not sure if these songs will be out on Neon Future III or in another form of manifestation. I spent a week with Lil Uzi Vert in the studio and we did five songs. We worked tirelessly day and night. We could’ve done more songs because the way Uzi works is like, when he really vibes on an idea, he just keeps going. All the rappers that I’ve been working with lately, they don’t write anything down. It’s all about what’s in your head in the moment and if you’re able to spit a flow with the ideas in your head at the moment. It’s very organic and I really like that, and it’s efficient.
How is it like to be in the studio with them?
When I did something with Migos in Atlanta, we knocked out the main idea in less than an hour. These guys are just so creative and fast-witted. When you see the process you realize that something extraordinary’s going on in their head and it’s inspiring. The energy is crazy, it sparks so much flow that it’s easy to be in the studio for 12 hours and not be on caffeine; I’m literally high off the session. When I have time, I’m going to get back on finishing all these songs. I’m dropping this project with Lil Uzi Vert, I got Travis Barker on a song, Rich the Kid and Maaly Raw. Lots of interesting new music, I hate being tied to one genre or a certain sound. I don’t care. All I care about is making the best music that I can with people in the studio. If I had to change my entire sound library, I will. It’s a big shift musically for me this year.
Are you working on anything fashion-related right now?
To commemorate 20 years of Dim Mak, we did a limited edition collaboration with RVCA recently. It’s an incredible collection that consists of tees, tanks and hoodies that’s available now.
I also have another big collection coming out soon; it’s kind of a childhood dream come true for working with this brand. It’s just one of those big hallmark moments doing a collaboration with this brand. It’s because whenever this brand does a collaboration, they work with my favorite designers and my favorite influential people in the game. I’m doing a bag collection with Burton and I’m a snowboarder and it’s my favorite sport. When I was 14-15 I got into snowboarding and all I would wear is Burton. From when I was 15 to now, all I would wear when snowboarding is Burton. I’ve been a Burton supporter for 20-plus years. My first endorsement was with Gravis in 2007 and that was a big deal because Gravis is owned by Burton. But it’s nothing like having your own collection with Burton and so I’ve been working the last eight months on the first collection of bags and it’s going to be pretty sick.
What are some rare toys you own?
I have a whole wall of toys in my house. I got KAWS Bearbricks, I got the Daft Punk 4000% one, but someone stole it from me. I don’t have any BAPE Bearbricks (yet). I went to Medicom’s headquarters. They have the life-sized six-foot-tall Bearbricks. I’m like, ‘How do I get that?’ I’m a Bearbrick junkie, not as much as Ben Baller though!