Steve Aoki and Dim Mak records deliver critical hits to clubs everywhere.
Steve Aoki has been rocking L.A.’s electro house underground since his days as a student at UC Santa Barbara. When he realized he could do what he was doing so well and make a living at the same time, he focused his energies on creating his own record label.
“I started it in 1996,” Aoki says. “There was no philosophy, business plan or anything.” He composed music, created CDs, designed cover art and kept working. “I just went to Kinko’s and started making copies. Then I got some labels, saved up $400 and sold the CDs for $3 each.”
Since then, Aoki has continued to unleash a barrage of dance floor megahits that earned him accolades from magazines like BPM and Paper. He also won a DJ Ibiza Award in 2007 for Best Set of the Season. In 2008, his first record, Pillowface and his Airplane Chronicles, won the Best Mix Album of the Year Award from Billboard.
The DJ has worked with everyone from Travis Barker and Afrojack, remixing everything from Peaches to Michael Jackson. Working independently from his own production company has allowed Aoki to succeed because he has a hand at every level of the process.
“If you don’t get your hands dirty you’re never going to survive,” he says. “You have to f#*@ing do it yourself.”
As wide and diverse as Aoki’s business is, it’s the end result of one person just being ambitious about making music. “If you know what you want, and you are able to just go for it, you can be a 15-person workforce, all by yourself,” he says.
Aoki’s DIY attitude is pure punk philosophy, juxtaposed with the fact that he’s been very successful in the industry because he is still committed to the art. “Taking money for music always felt wrong,” Aoki says. “I was always afraid of selling out. I wanted to be underground . . . to be punk rock.”
No matter how successful Aoki might be, he stays close to his punk origins. "Misfits," his recent collaboration with Travis Barker from Barker’s latest new solo project, Give the Drummer Some, is raw and aggressive, featuring violent, stomping drums, screaming vocals and a manic energy straight out of the soundtrack to an MMA competition. It’s pure punk rock, but the song’s surgical production level is pure Aoki.
The years have been harsh, but Dim Mak Records has survived and succeeded. Aoki doesn’t pat himself on the back for it; he mostly credits the people he works with. In an industry full of upheavals, Aoki’s business thrived because of a little luck, too.
“Dim Mak Records is still around . . . We’ve missed a bullet a few time,” he says. He tells me one of the secrets: “We still have that DIY aspect. That’s why the business has stayed around for so long.”
“We also believe in DIT: Doing It Together,” Aoki adds.
He is proud that the people who work for him at Dim Mak are invested in the success that comes from working together for mutual benefit. “Look at these people who built companies with just a few people, the right people, to build the infrastructure,” Aoki says. “We’re 50 employees deep, and we’ve done 250 albums because we’ve been able to stay ahead of the curve and continue to reach out and get new music.”
Is Aoki still independent because he’s been so successful? Or is he successful because he’s still independent? Beyond Dim Mak Records, he also has the Dim Mak Collection clothing line, his own magazine (Aoki) and he is currently designing his own brand of headphones for another company, WeAretheSuperlativeConspiracy (WASC).
Going to Kinko’s paid off.
But the scene isn’t without its negative aspects. When a young girl died of a suspected drug overdose after attending Electric Daisy Carnival last June, the electronic dance community took a huge hit. Of course, the media and the authorities quickly blamed the raves and the attendees, instead of the actions of a few misguided individuals.
Aoki isn’t afraid to discuss the subject, although he warns me not to take his comments out of context.
“It might happen again. It probably will happen again. You go to a soccer game, somebody dies. I have to be honest with you; you go to any other sports game, someone may die.”
He talks about how the loss of life is horrible, but out of 10,000 people, given enough gatherings over a long enough span of time, the odds are that a person could have an accident and get hurt or worse.“If someone dies, it’s deplorable,” Aoki says. “In every case it’s tragic. But when 10,000 people get together in one area, it could happen.”
Every year, across the world, large masses of people get together, but more often than not, people don’t get hurt . . . but there’s always the potential.“I’m talking about baseball games, soccer games, rock shows, raves . . . at the end of the day it’s going to be dangerous,” Aoki says. “What are they going to do? Ban baseball games?”
He points out that because of the Electric Daisy Carnival incident, there’s still a stain on the rave scene.“With all of us who are into this, it’s all about the music,” he says. “It’s a shame there [are] just a few knuckleheads that are f@*#ing it up for everyone else.”
Aoki is as realistic as he is compassionate. “I certainly don’t want anyone to get hurt. If I see anyone getting hurt, it really affects me.”
Even with his business in full swing, he’s still a DJ who’s very much in high demand, from Los Angeles to across the nation. This weekend, Aoki will be playing on the Dim Mak Stage at Identity Festival in San Bernardino at the San Manuel Amphitheater. [At press time, the festival was moved to a different venue, the Hollywood Palladium, in Los Angeles.]
The Identity Festival is a national tour featuring three stages (The Main Stage, the aforementioned Dim Mak Stage and the Advent Stage) with dozens of artists, including Kaskade, Steve Lawler, Pretty Lights, White Shadow, Nervo, The Disco Biscuits and more.
Since Aoki is running his own stage, what can fans expect him to offer?
“One big difference is my live show,” he says. Aoki promises that the visuals are going to be well worth the money. “We have a semi that just carries the rig behind the bus that carries all the technicians that make the live show.”
“The Dim Mak stage is the most eclectic, diverse stage,” Aoki adds. “We have The Crystal Method—they are legends from 15 years ago. We have Nero, we have DJ Shadow—and there’s nobody like DJ Shadow.”
Aoki is justifiably proud to be working with so much talent. “We are going to have a lot of diverse artists with songs that are cutting-edge.”
“This live show is based around the Dim Mak set,” he says. “I’m only playing my own records and a few key releases. If you go to YouTube, I’ll be constantly putting up new songs that I’ll be playing for the tour.”
He’s also giving his fans something extra in celebration of Identity. “I’ll be putting up a new song each day on my website at www.dimmakrecs.com."
Running a business, touring and producing isn’t enough, so the DJ is about to release yet another album. “It’s called Wonderland.” We’ll be sending it out December of 2011. It’s been a long project . . . it’s taken almost three years to put together.”
Aoki’s intent was to make an album featuring a diverse array of talent. “Wonderland has a variety of different vocalists and artists including Travis Barker, Lil John and will-i-am. I even did vocals on the album.”
Considering his previous work, what can fans expect from his album? “There are a lot of edgier tracks with catchy hooks that feature a rock influence,” Aoki reveals. “This album is all about the songs, not just the big club dance bangers. Every song is just a formula to fit the style of the vocalist.”
For Aoki, it’s been a long road . . . and there’s still a lot more road to go. Did he ever expect his music to be as monumental as it is right now?
“Of course not,” he says. “There’s no way you can expect something like this to happen.”
As in all careers, there are people who do their best and fail, and then there are people who do the same thing and succeed anyways. Did Aoki have a plan when he started out?
“There’s no road map or formula,” he says. “You can’t strategically make things like that happen.”
Any other reasonable human being could get jaded with the scene and retire, if they had accomplished half of what Aoki has. What inspires him now?
“Every day inspires me,” he says. “There’s always new stimulus—like fashion. It’s in the news, on the television, my Twitter feed, on the Internet, etc. Fans, people, friends. Everything inspires me. Every little thing comes into play.”
While Aoki’s spirit is still very much in the game, he understands the harsh realities of the industry, and how quickly those who can’t adapt fade away. “The people who are going to survive are the people who are flexible. Right now, fans are accessing music for free. Now you can go on the Internet and spend 10 bucks a month and have anything you want.”
The DJ warns that for any artist, technology is the key. The music business has to keep up with the technology if it wants to survive.
“I’m an artist,” Aoki says. “I want to sell records, but I also want the music out there. I do well with publishing, and I do well with my live shows, but all I care about is all those kids out there to have access to my music. That’s the most important connection between me and the fans.”