In an exclusive and candid interview, the renowned DJ, producer, and entrepreneur, Steve Aoki, opens up about his upcoming musical odyssey, “HiROQUEST: Double Helix,” and delves into the diverse collaborations that define this much-anticipated album. Aoki, known for breaking genre boundaries and pushing the limits of creativity, shares insights into the global sounds that shape his music, making this album a testament to his evolving sonic palette.
Beyond the beats and melodies, Aoki takes us on a journey through his recent ventures, from pioneering the A0K1VERSE NFT community to his role as the executive producer for the biopic “American Hiro.” Exploring the intersection of music, technology, and storytelling, Aoki sheds light on how these projects intersect with his mission to connect with fans in innovative ways.
The interview navigates the roots of Aoki’s musical journey, unravelling the very first song that marked the inception of his career. As a multi-hyphenate artist, Aoki discusses his approach to collaborations and the number one rule that guides these creative unions, emphasizing the essence of making impactful and culture-shaping music.
Aoki reflects on mentors who have played pivotal roles in shaping his artistic identity, acknowledging the diverse influences that range from fellow musicians to family members. The interview delves into pivotal moments, from his first electronic music show that ignited his passion to the challenges faced growing up in different cultural landscapes.
Venturing into the heart of his record label, Dim Mak, Aoki shares stories of collaborations that transformed the label’s trajectory, with a special spotlight on the Black Rooster EP by The Kills. As an influential figure in the electronic dance music scene, Aoki discusses his perception of his role, emphasizing the importance of humility and constant innovation in staying relevant.
From Tokyo’s vibrant music scenes to the downtime faced during a vocal surgery, Steve Aoki offers a glimpse into the multifaceted facets of his life and career. This interview is not just a peek behind the curtain of a musical maestro’s mind but an exploration of the ethos that propels Steve Aoki’s relentless pursuit of sonic excellence.
Steve, the upcoming album includes collaborations with a diverse range of artists. How do these collaborations contribute to the overall theme and diversity of HiROQUEST: Double Helix?
Every single album I’ve done, and I’ve done eight of them, they’re multi-genre. Even in Wonderland, my very first album, I was bringing in different artists that I loved, in rock and hip hop. And, this album is definitely following the same suit. But even more so I’ve been making efforts to include country and Latin. I want to showcase and share the global sounds of Steve Aoki; everything from pop, EDM, and trap beats. All different kinds of genres of music. As I tour more and more across the world, it really informs the music-making process, and my efforts to share my interest in global sound. So I’m really happy that HiROQUEST 2: Double Helix represents that. This album is also by far more dance-oriented than HiROQUEST 1: Genesis, which was more alternative rock-influenced.
Steve, as a multi-hyphenate innovator involved in various creative projects, can you share a bit about your recent ventures, such as the A0K1VERSE NFT community and your role as executive producer for “American Hiro”?
Yeah, I’m always gonna follow my passions. It’s really exciting to be able to build a community, which is something I love doing. But building it in kind of new world ideologies, people that believe in blockchain technology, people that believe in connecting together in the digital space. It exemplifies that with A0K1VERSE. I love combining the two, combining the world of where we’re going in the future, and the digital space. I mean, we’re all essentially part of digital space by having social media accounts. This is just one step further into that, but I really want to connect it to what I’m doing in the real world, what I’m doing with my shows, and connecting with my fans in that way. Even on this new album, Double Helix, there are two members of the A0K1VERSE community that are part of my album, because they’re at the highest level within the A0K1VERSE. It’s cool to be able to engage and bring members of the community into my studio, and work with them on songs, make some magic together. I never did that before, and honestly, I’ve never seen any artists offer to make songs with their community. So I think what we’re doing in the space of A0K1VERSE or The Web 2.5, is creating new rules, and creating new ideas of how to have a better engagement with our fans and our community. Having this A0K1VERSE community has allowed me to do that, so I’m really, really appreciative of all the supporters.
Being the executive producer for my father’s biopic, now that’s a long story that needs to be told. It’s a story that not many people know about in this generation. He influenced generations of people in America and the world, especially in the 70s, and the 80s, when Benihana blew up. That story of his rise and his coming to America as a Japanese immigrant, struggling to find a place in the United States culture, building something that penetrated and became a fixture in the culture, and opened up the road for not just Japanese Americans, but all Asians to build a future here. It’s incredible. That story is a beautiful story. It’s a complicated story. It’s a story that I’m excited about, that it’s going to be told soon. So I’m just glad to see that it’s on its way. There’s progress being made, it’s going to take some time, and American Hero will eventually see the light of day.
Reflecting on the genesis of your musical journey, what was the first song you ever created, and does it hold a special place in your artistic evolution?
The first song I ever created, I was 15. I can’t find the demo and I’m glad I can’t find it because it’s pretty bad. But it is a big part of the story. I was 15, and I learned all the instruments. So this is my first demo where I played the guitar, I played the bass, I played the drums, I wrote the lyrics, I wrote the melodies, I sang on it. I did everything and I recorded myself. So that’s my first production because I played everything and recorded everything, and, on a TASCAM four-track recorder in my bedroom. I think what’s more important than the actual song that was made was the fact that I was 15. I just did it, I learned all the instruments myself, and I figured it all out because I wanted to make my own song. So I think the will to do that was really, really, first of all, a really important step in my whole evolution. It gave me the excitement that I could actually do something like that. After I made that first demo, I was in a bunch of different bands, and all we were doing was writing new songs and trying to be as good as the bands that we went to go see live. That journey still is today. It’s still ongoing. I’m still in the studio, trying to make records that people like, that the culture loves, that the other DJs will play, that move my fans, it never stops, that feeling. I remember when I was 15 in my bedroom, going “I hope someone’s gonna like this”. I still do that in the studio, saying, “I hope someone’s gonna like this”, but I like it. Most importantly, I think that is the other lesson I learnt. As long as I like it, and I’m willing to put this out and share it with the world, that’s all that matters. I can’t control whether someone else likes it or not. But if they like it, it’s a bonus.
Electronic music has been a defining aspect of your career. Can you take us back to the first electronic music show that truly captivated your senses and sparked a revelation in your approach to the genre?
Yes, my very first electronic music show. Well, I mean, I was DJing bars and stuff like that. But the very first show, I would say- God, the very first electronic show. This is like 2003 when I first got into DJing, and I was playing bars, and clubs, and playing wherever I possibly could. But I think playing at the Beauty Bar in Hollywood, which holds like 40 people. That was ground zero for me. That was a starting point for me. That’s where it all began. That’s when I started learning how to mix vinyl because I didn’t have two turntables at my house. I had a record player but you don’t mix with a record player. So, I would have to go there early and practice having to beat match. I remember in 2003 when I bought LCD Soundsystem, Losing My Edge at 118 BPM. I would learn how to mix that into Billie Jean (Michael Jackson) because that was also 118 BPM. That was a big part of my learning process on playing electronic music with pop music, you know, which is what I loved to do back then, mixing in that time period and playing in front of like 10 people. But the culture was there, it was growing in that small room, it was like this indie-electro culture that was brewing. It was a big part of what made me. That room was very special to me. Without me being in that room playing every single Thursday, playing with my friends, and building this community there, I wouldn’t be where I am today for sure. So I just remember, you know, the most impact comes from the smallest rooms you can imagine. You think it’s like the biggest festivals have the most impact, which they do, they have a great impact like Tomorrowland, but when you’re starting out, it’s the small rooms that matter the most. I’ll never forget that.
You’ve collaborated with so many artists, from Sting to Wiz Khalifa to the Backstreet Boys. What’s the number one rule for a successful collab?
The number one rule is to make the best song you possibly can make with those people in that room or the people that you’re collaborating with. There’s a larger story that I tell with my albums, but when I’m in the studio making a song, I don’t think about that larger story. I think, what can we do to make this extraordinary for both of our worlds and fans that we have and for the rest of the world? Like, how do we make our fans happy and do something special? That’s really, really important. Then the next evolution from that is, how do we make a song that changes the culture that helps the culture grow or does something different? And there are certain songs that I did that with, like certain collabs that really pushed the envelope with culture, like the song I did with Louis Tomlinson, “Just Hold On”. Really, it was a special moment. It wasn’t just for One Direction fans, Louis Tomlinson fans, and Steve Aoki fans, that song permeated the culture. It was a really big moment when it came out. And it’s songs like that I hope can become. The song “Mic Drop” with BTS is the same kind of thing. It was a massive song for the K-pop fans and BTS army, and my fans, but it permeated culture once again.
Mentors often play a pivotal role in one’s journey. Who would you consider your greatest mentor, and what pearls of wisdom did they impart that have been instrumental in shaping your career?
Mentors, I’ve got so many mentors. They come in all different shapes and sizes. Whether there are other producers that I listen to that I like, for instance, Skrillex is a mentor, I would say, just because every time I listen to his music, and this is not necessarily like he’s calling me, telling me to change certain things in my music production game, because he’s not doing that, it’s me just listening to his music and being like, fully, thoroughly inspired. He constantly shapes and reshapes where he’s going with music and then the culture follows him. It’s beautiful to see that and he’s always doing this, always innovating. Artists like Skrillex are big guiding lights for me, that inspire me. So there’s obviously music mentors, there’s life mentors, like, my family, my mom. My mom is a massive mentor for me. How she looks at life. She’s always talking about peace, love and joy, just kindness and empathy as the pillars of how to live life. She does it just by being herself, you know, and I see that and how she embodies that. It really resonates to me. I think that’s like by far, far more of a mentor that is important to me than the creative side. At the end of the day, that’s the essence of who we are, is how we treat other people, how we look towards the world, look towards the future. So I look at my mom as a mentor, my father as a mentor, the hard work ethic that he really instilled into me, how he’s able to mark it. Everything towards Benihana, whether he was racing powerboats, or flying a hot air balloon across from one country to the other. He’s always marketing his brand, Benihana. It taught me a lot about building my brand and all the brands that I have. HiROQUEST now is the new brand that I’m building. And I’m excited to embolden that. I mean, there are other mentors, like Bruce Lee has always been a mentor. He broke through in a massive way, in a cultural way, where everyone is influenced by him, not just Asians. I think that’s one thing that I always wanted to do when I was a kid growing up was, I want to really influence culture in a global way. The way Bruce Lee did. So there are a lot of different mentors. But that’s a few that I can mention.
Growing up in New York, what were some of the challenges you faced, and how did you navigate and overcome them?
I didn’t grow up in New York, I grew up in Newport Beach. My dad was from New York. So I flew to New York quite a lot to be with him. But my adolescence was in Southern California. And being in California, I grew up with punk and hardcore, the scene was just growing there. It was a small community, but it was, like, it’s small and loud and it grabbed me by the neck, honestly, and threw me into the pit. I had to mosh my way to the stage. And then I learned how to sing and play guitar. It was a big part of who I am today. So I am grateful to have grown up in Southern California and found music. I’m still doing what I’m doing because of that. Southern California is like a very surf, skate, and snow city and I love all three things. I don’t skate as much anymore because it’s so unforgiving. But snowboarding is a big part of who I am. I love being in the water. So yeah, I still go back to those days as a teenager and remember, like waking up early to catch the surf. And then you know, the weekends go snowboarding or going to shows.
What were some of the challenges you faced and how do you navigate and overcome them?
So I just mentioned some of my memories of Newport Beach, but the challenges that I faced in Newport Beach, it is a predominantly white population. So, it is a homogenous group of people. It is very conservative there. There was a lot of racism that was growing in that culture. As an Asian kid in that world, I had some hardships, and I had to battle some racism. Sometimes I got into some fights because people were just saying nasty things to me. But, you know, it made me stronger as a person. Made me learn quickly what the world can be like when it can be so brutal. It led me to music, honestly, because I was trying to find a sense of belonging, trying to find friendship groups. When you feel like an outcast, music becomes your saving grace. There’s no doubt about that. I found a group of kids that were also, kind of, outcasts, and they all listen to the same kind of screaming hardcore music, and they’re like, you can hang with us, and that was everything to me. So having that as my sense of belonging, I wanted to do whatever I possibly could do to help the cause, to grow the community. I learned so much in that DIY lifestyle of like, okay, you’re part of our world. I was like, I’m gonna do whatever I can to help grow this world. And that’s by starting a band, and by writing in a zine or creating a zine, you know, by representing the culture. Learning those steps at such a young age, really was a testament to all the different brands that I’ve ended up creating throughout the next three decades of starting Dim Mak and creating HiROQUEST now. You have to do the work, doesn’t matter what level or what you know, if you don’t have the means, or if you do have the means, you have to always do the work.
You spent considerable time in Tokyo, what are some of your favourite places in the city? How has Japanese culture influenced your creative process?
Yeah, Tokyo is my favorite place in the entire world. There are so many reasons why. Food, the tourism aspect, shopping, the people, the fans, the sightseeing, the overwhelming overstimulation from walking through the city is just absolutely insane. I learned so much from being there. The Tokyo music scenes are incredible. I toured there before I was even a DJ with my band and I got to really just connect with all the different Tokyo punk bands and the Japanese punk bands that helped shape my music. Nowadays it is different because there are a lot of incredible DJs out there. I am doing some collaborations with some of them. However, I did collaborate with a Japanese band called End of the World. We released the record, I think a couple of years ago, and I just wanted to work with more Japanese artists. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is another artist with whom I did a remix of her hit single “Ninja Re Bang Bang”. Such a fan of hers. Japanese, J pop, all the sounds that come from Japan, there’s something special. I think for the most part, they’re very domestic, they don’t really leave the country. That’s what makes it so special. But I’m trying to figure out how to scale that outward, you know, the best I can. Sounds are unique. And the style! Wow. The fashion is incredible there. There’s just so much there that does influence my creative process. But it’s not just one thing, it’s all of the above.
You work exceptionally hard. What motivates you to maintain such a rigorous work ethic? And how do you find balance in your lifestyle?
I think the work ethic is really based on and grounded by gratitude because I’m extremely grateful for everything that I’ve been allowed to work on. Every stage I’ve been allowed to stand on, and play in front of the crowds, like every fan that’s allowed me to play for them, or, you know, with them, and all the artists that’s allowed me to collaborate with them. I’m just grateful for all that, you know, because like, nothing is permanent. I’ve learned nothing is permanent, and we’re not entitled to anything. And first of all, if you love what you do, you have to be grateful for it. When you’re grateful for it, you’ll work your fucking ass off to make sure that you’re doing the best job you can. Then it doesn’t feel like work because you just fucking love it. You know? So that’s really how I think about all of this. I don’t really think about my work ethic anymore. I stop and I look back, oh, damn, I did all that? That’s crazy. But as I’m working, I don’t think that because I’m just going through the day just excited, enthusiastic about what I’m working on. I want to give whatever contribution I’m putting in, I want to be the best that I can possibly get to at that point in time. I’m always learning. You have to always be a student. I think that is the other big part of that. Not just being grounded by it with gratitude, but you want to be grounded with this kind of curious edge, like arm your curiosity and constantly learn so that you can get better and better at what you’re doing. The balance in my lifestyle? Well, I just let my passion, my curiosity and my gratitude lead the charge. The balance does eventually find its way. I might be very tilted towards work because I just love it so much. But I think the people in my life understand that and they ride with me. I’m grateful for that. Mindfulness is a big, actually a big part of finding that balance, because it does allow me to stop, allow me to breathe, allow me to center. Then once I get out of that, that mindfulness spot, or this moment, then I do find more energy.
Following your voice surgery due to strenuous performance, how do you cope with the downtime of three weeks and what activities fill this unexpected break?
I did talk about this in my book, I wrote a book called Blue: The Color of Noise, you can get that digitally too. I know, I have to plug it! It took me six years to write that book. But yeah, I did talk about what I did there to deal with the three to four weeks of vocal rest. One of the main things I did, and I still do to this day, thankfully, is to use that time up, because I always think about my time efficiency. It’s really important to me that I’m putting a schedule to the day, I think it’s something that we can all learn from. When we go through the day, we don’t want to waste time when our time is so valuable. So during this time, I really scheduled all the things I really wanted to master. One is meditation. So I brought a meditation coach in every single day, and we’d meditate for two hours a day, and she would just get me into that zone better and better and better. After that, my voice rested, I was meditating twice a day, and it really was going back to understanding balance. It helped me create that balance of not just pushing my life in the red all the time. When I go in, I go in hard and I don’t want to do it any other way. I also want to make sure that it’s coming from a sustainable renewable source of energy. So that is where meditation really was a superhero skill set that I learned.
Good Charlotte’s investment in your record label was a significant milestone. How did this collaboration come about, and what impact did it have on your venture?
I mean, this is like back in the early 2000s. Josh Madden was my friend. He’s brothers with Benji and Joel. And he loved Dim Mak. I think we got introduced to each other because I was DJing in New York quite a lot and he was supportive of my record label. We became good friends and then he introduced me to Benji and Joel and they loved Dim Mak. They loved the artists I was putting out. I was putting out Bloc Party, The Kills, and all these different kinds of indie alternative bands, and they were blowing up. We would sign them for, you know, single deals, EP deals, and then they would just blow up right after. Good Charlotte saw what we were doing and was like, “Hey, we’ll support you”. I was working out of my apartment at the time and they’re like, “Hey, we’ll put you in this office”. So I found an office which was actually just a house. But I was able to bring my 13 interns and myself into a different place, not just my apartment and bombard my girlfriend at the time. My poor girlfriend, I had 13 different people working out of the house while she was away at work. They put me in a house, they helped me pay for the rent for the house. But that was a really big deal and it allowed me to start thinking like a businessman, so I’ll never forget Good Charlotte and Josh and Benji and Joel, just what their support meant to me at that time. Such beautiful humans. I really love them so much. I just saw them at When We Were Young festival, they played just recently and that was really nice. So I always supported them and what they did for me at that time, which meant a lot.
Looking back, what was the first track that you believe changed the trajectory of your record label and defined its identity?
I think the first is not a track but an EP, the Black Rooster EP by The Kills, because when I released that EP, I had to decide if I was going to go to graduate school for my PhD program I was pursuing, or just pursue doing Dim Mak full time. When Alison sent me that demo I was like, “Fuck it”. I’m going to music. I’m doing the label. I’m going to do this because I just loved this fucking demo so much. Oh my God, it was so good. When I heard that demo, I was like, “Oh my god”. I just knew this was gonna blow up. I went on tours with them. I spent so much time with them, released that first EP, and then Dim Mak really became my life. I mean, it was full-on. No more school, no more side quests. This was it. This was all I wanted to do. I’m just so grateful to Alison and Jamie from The Kills for believing in Dim Mak to release that first EP.
Considering your influence in the electronic dance music scene, do you view yourself as a successor to the genre? How do you perceive yourself and your role in this evolution?
Oh, I definitely view myself as you know, as a role in the whole space, with electronic music, and with every genre, there’s like important artists that make a cultural impact. I definitely believe I’m one of them, for sure. The trends come and go and I’m doing my best to continue to stay above those trends and just make really good music. That does not just push my fans forward, but me and my fans forward. I’m always in the studio, I’m always thinking about that, how to think forward, how to make innovative music, how to always change my own sound and game, and just do better. It’s really important to me, it’s like it never dies. That feeling to thrive and innovate never dies. And it never gets stale. So that’s one thing that’s really important to me. When I’m in the studio, I’m thinking like, I need to continue to just make better shit to do better. When you’re a student, you have to be humble. You have to be humble and not fill your own ego with whatever it fills up with. You have to really empty the ego as much as possible so that you can make the best music you can. I think when egos are too big, it clouds your creative process. I think it’s really important. So how do I perceive my role and its evolution? I always have hope that I can be part of the evolution. I hope the songs will dictate that, they will tell me that it’s part of it. I can only put my songs out there and hope that one of those songs becomes part of the evolution as I continue down the line.