Steve Aoki: Sowing The Seeds Of Dim Mak

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Photo by Dove Shore (doveshore.com)

You may know Steve Aoki as one of the biggest electronic music DJs in the world. Founder of the record label Dim Mak, which just celebrated its 15-year anniversary. By the end of 2011, Aoki clocked almost as many flights as there are days in a year. Trotting across the globe playing festivals for tens of thousands of people, headlining the biggest nightclubs from Ibiza to Japan. His DJ persona is that of a stage diving, crowd surfing hype man, scooting atop the crowd in a blow-up raft while fans lose their pants. The guy knows live entertainment.

When I think about music for the club world I think about how to create that level, break that threshold of anxiety and panic, and make people just explode because of their emotional influence from the music. -Steve Aoki

I met Steve eight years ago; around the time indie rock started sloshing around in dance music’s waterbed. Bloc Party just came out. Electronic music was in a slump (read: the scene was lured back underground from where it once began), the club scene was flaccid and monster events like Electric Daisy Carnival weren’t yet revived—nowhere near their present fan base. 99% of electronic music fans had no idea who Steve Aoki was. Soon Hollywood started to pay attention; Aoki was the guy running one of the first, dare I say hipster, electronic-rock, cool-kid endorsed indie nights in LA. Visiting bands, celebrity gawkers and hard-to-find DJs put Steve’s weekly party at Cinespace, along with his Banana Split night in collaboration with DJ AM, at the top of many lists. With photog wunderkid the Cobrasnake chronicling the nights’ antics, Aoki helped put the new LA music scene on the international radar. Then, as often happens in the music world, things began to speed up. Exponentially. There was no real build up, his DJ career simply began, in full swing. He was in Pepsi commercials with Puff Daddy, Current TV was doing webisodes about him, he was getting name dropped on Ugly Betty.

The rest, as they say, is history.

What you may not know is that Steve comes from an underground music scene in the ‘90s. He was that young kid willing to do anything for the neighborhood heroes; learning how to play the guitar and bass and a little bit of drums at the same time while attending Newport Harbor High School. “I was never traditionally taught, or sought out lessons,” Aoki says proudly. “I would just go over to my friend’s house and just fucking jam out.” He spent time in mosh pits, embraced a punk rock, DIY lifestyle. He would muse about the political and social things many underground subcultures do. It was about trying to find yourself and something you’re passionate about—something you want to get behind for the distance. In a scene where oft-times you’re judged by paying your dues, Steve decided to pursue a life in music he believe in.

For this three-part story, I interviewed Steve over the course of the past year, following him to clubs, talking to him at festivals and the few days per year that he’s actually in LA, we’ve chatted at his home high up on Wonderland Ave in the hills of Hollywood, a street made infamous in ‘81 when porn star John Holmes got mixed up in a quadruple homicide at an apartment up the block from Aoki’s.

Here’s a different slice of Aoki. A glimpse of the road that led him on his musical journey to superstar DJ. One the public rarely sees. There’s a lot more to him than you might think.

PART ONE: Sewing The Seeds Of Dim Mak

The first thing I saw when I walked into the room were all these kids with shaved heads. The guys on stage too. So, I’m in this room watching all these bands play. Just screaming hardcore. It’s all boys—maybe a few girls? Kids stage diving. I’m like, ‘Fuck this is crazy.’ This isn’t commercial punk. It isn’t Greenday. It isn’t Rancid. This is hardcore in a dingy fucking basement. I see a kid crowd surfing and they drop him. All of a sudden a crowd forms around him, and I’m like ‘What the fuck, what the hell is wrong with this kid?’ I peel over and I look down and he’s having an epileptic seizure, or something, and he’s just gushing blood out. It wasn’t even like drooling out; it was squirting out like a fucking fountain. It was the scariest shit seeing this kid out in the middle of the floor all fucked up. Then this guy went in and pulled the kid’s tongue out so he wouldn’t choke on it. Blood was just spraying out. Then all of a sudden they pulled the kid out, made sure he was ok and the show just went on. I got a rush from that.

That rush was Aoki’s 1992 introduction to the DIY culture of hardcore—his first straightedge show—four years before Dim Mak would release its first single, “For The Kids” by Stick-Figure Carousel. That show was one of the reasons why his first band Good Hue, so named after one of his High School teachers, came to be. It’s what sparked his passion for music, and gave him the motivation to pursue it.

Dim Mak came into official existence in 1996 while Steve was attending Santa Barbara College. He was living at the “Pickle Patch”—the epicenter of the local punk rock scene. From Ventura and Oxnard, anywhere above Santa Barbara, down to the Valley and even Sherman Oaks, if you were a band, Pickle Patch was one of the places you just had to play—if only to say you did. Headlining the living room was a badge of honor worn proudly by many. Hundreds, even. The Rapture, !!!, Jimmy Eat World, Planes Mistaken For Stars all claim the Patch as their alma mater. They were heady days. Kent McClard, the owner of Ebullition Records was in the complex. Lisa Oglesby, the main girl running HeartattaCk magazine was there. According to Aoki, Dim Mak was never meant to be a business in the first place. It was more about having fun and putting out records. There were no employees to pay (that didn’t even happen until 2003) or office space to rent out. He didn’t even have email or own a computer until he was 22 in college. It all came together due to Steve being an active participant in the straightedge punk scene. Not the predictable beginning considering the world he and Dim Mak are currently navigating.

By the time he started college his tastes in hardcore were becoming more sophisticated. It was less about the typical shave-your-head, stand together and unite lyrical messages coming from straightedge bands like Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today, and was moving towards more political hardcore bands like Born Against and Downcast. “When I was getting into this new thing there was one label that was sorta the basis for it. And that was a label called Ebullition Records,” says Aoki about the beginning years of college. “Everything they were doing was a really big and influential piece of the whole puzzle, including the magazine they published, HeartattaCk. And, they were based in Santa Barbara.”

So what do you do when you’re a 17-year-old punk rock kid from Orange County attending college in Santa Barbara and your favorite label is based right there? You bang on the front door and ask for an internship. You do anything to get your foot in and just sit there if you have to. He wasn’t going to find his place hanging out with the kids listening to Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones in their dorm rooms. His freshman year, after much persistence, they said OK. His foot was in the door.

So what did you do at first for HeartattaCk?
Reviews. They would literally give me like 30-records to review each issue. And I would do them all. Eventually I was like, I want everything. I would review over a hundred records each issue. I wanted everything: the demos, the fanzines, 7-inches. I took everything, including the stuff no one wants. Everything was getting sent to this magazine. I started building my clout in this ‘zine by reviewing everything. People would start recognizing SA as Steve Aoki.

You were really motivated to make something happen.
I was constantly writing to bands. I would write to bands I loved. “Yo man this demo is so amazing.” I would write to the band on the back of the demo. People like Ryan Shelkett from Cross My Heart. He hit me back and said he loved HeartattaCk and that my reviews were great. That’s kinda how the label got started too, I would write these meaningful letters to bands and they’d write back and I’d be like, “I’d love to put out a record man” and they would give me an EP to put out, or would let me release the vinyl. So that’s how it all kinda started…putting out a 7-inch.

Talk a little about your first official Dim Mak release, Stick Figure Carousel.
Dan Sena, he was their guitarist, is a really old friend of mine. I’ve known Dan since high school. He actually helped record a demo for Good Hue—he actually played in Good Hue at one point; but he was in all these successful hardcore bands. Always playing shows. These days Dan’s DJing as is, even now, an organ of Dim Mak.

We printed at Kinko’s. I split it with two other guys; we split the cost three ways. I think it was like $1200. I used the money I made from working at Benihana and put it in the pot. Then boom we had our first 7-inch. The first Hearts & Minds was a quote from my dad. I didn’t know what to choose. I also had to choose a label name… I was like WTF should I use? Dim Mak, oh cool… Death Touch is Bruce Lee. I like the association with Bruce Lee without saying it’s Bruce Lee. The Death Touch, I think it’s pretty cool.

The Kinko's Connection: "Kinko’s was a big component of how the label survived. My roommate Mike Fite worked the graveyard shift—it was dope. He had a record label and he would print everything at Kinko’s for free. They weren’t too smart. We got away with probably 50K copies of stuff. I started a fanzine. I would go there late night while he was working and just print thousands and thousands of pages and flyers and things that would go inside of the ‘zine. Print it out on heavy card stock. I did some die-cutting there. I was there every night doing shit for the ‘zine, for the label. And when Mike wasn’t there they had these little blue things that you put into the machine that could count the copies, add up the money. We’d bring them into the bathroom and jam it against the floor and it would go to nine million copies or something and we’d bring it back to them and go ‘I just dropped this and I only made like 20 copies and it shows this number.’ We’d get our shit for like two bucks while our friends were cramming crates of paper and all the stuff we copied into the back of the car. We did that so many times and we never got caught. It was amazing. Then Mike quit his job. At that time that transition made sense… we didn’t have to do that anymore. It was like the 40th release at that point and I was really good at stretching the dollar. Well, I didn’t have any dollars, so I didn’t have a choice."

Was there any friction at Ebullition while you were trying to get your own thing going?
No, they didn’t care at all. They eventually put out an LP by my band, This Machine Kills. And that was a big, big honor. It seems to make sense that they did, because Brett, the guitarist, was Kent’s best friend and his roommate. Kent was… I always felt like Kent looked down on me, I never felt like I got respect from Kent. I was like this little kid trying to come up, do good shit, be a part of the community and be respected. It was never about money, it was about respect.

This Machine Kills started in ’97 and really shaped the political side of Aoki. He discovered that politics, being able to use the band as a catalyst, became another drive for him. He started becoming focused on academia in a way were he could use it publicly. Use it as a platform for social commentary. When Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant, was murdered—shot 41 times—by four New York police officers, Aoki wrote “41 Bullets.” He was, the listener could infer, not happy with the situation. The final album for This Machine Kills, Death in the Audobon Ballroom, was about Malcolm X–a fairly important human being who, as it happened, died in the Audobon Ballroom. TMK as a collective were a political lot, Steve as the pattern had begun to prove, was an emotional fellow who seemed not to understand the concept of passivity. Social democrat? Not so much. His editorial mixture had a bit more jet fuel—straight up, in your face—Rage Against The Machine-style shit. Drumming up the crowd on the road saying things like:

“This machine, this machine, this machine, this machine kills fucking fascists dead. That's right, dead. You don't have to be a racist to be a Nazi fuck, your mindless nationalism gives you credentials enough.” –This Machine Kills

Your Mother might not like it, but then again drawing attention to the evils of the world for a living might not be her thing.

When Aoki started Dim Mak he did a series called Hearts & Minds. It lasted maybe 30 releases. It was a way for Aoki to celebrate inspirational people of color.  Each CD included all these little things, quotes, a little something written on the person, photos. The series illuminated people like Leonard Peltier, Che Guevara, Huey P Newton, just random people… Mumia Abu-Jamal, Angela Davis, Bruce Lee, Third World Gay Liberation, the Black Panther Party. Keeping with the DIY mentality, Aoki would design each one.

Before the idea of Dim Mak, what did you want to do?
Politics, regardless of means of expression, has always been a driving passion. Being able to find my voice. I’m not a very articulate person, but I always wanted to be. That was kinda like my dream, to become like a Malcolm X. Being that powerful, and speaking with that verve.  But I could never do it. I was always so shy. I couldn’t speak and I still can’t fucking speak that well. Half the time I’m stuttering what I’m trying to say. That was always one of my things that I wanted to become. My goal. But even though I knew I couldn’t get there, I still wanted to try. The music, being a singer in a band, enabled me to be that person without having to speak. I could sing. Just like DJing enables me to be able to influence a crowd, be a spokesperson for the music.

I wanted to get a PhD, start writing books. I got a Women’s Study degree to get even more radicalized. I was involved with student politics. This all helped me to make my music more real. So I have things to back it up, as well. I didn’t see myself becoming a social worker after college. I wanted to write books, become a professor… that kind of thing. That would be my glory at the end of the academic plateau. I wanted to find that avenue, and at the same time be in a band and be able to voice all my shit because that was my art, and that was opening the door to a global platform. People that were into hardcore wanted to find meaning in the lyrics.

So you’re in school. Taking all the radical classes. It’s hard to picture Santa Barbara campus as that place.
When I was in school the student government was very radical and political. We stormed the Chancellor office, locked ourselves in, because they were trying to take away ethnic and gender studies for budgeting. We were like, “Fuck that shit.” So we rushed in. After that it made headlines in our newspapers and everyone heard about it. All the people that were leading it became heavily involved in student government the following year. One was the president; the other vice president and I became student advocate. I wrote this whole thing in the Daily Nexus, our school newspaper, about it all.

How big was Steve Aoki on campus?
I was definitely starting to make a name for myself on campus because I was so active. I was part of all these different clubs. I was even part of Anime club. I was part of a martial arts club. I was at KCSB trying to be a radio DJ. You know me now…  I have like 10 companies. I’m a poker guy, this guy, this guy and this guy. It’s the same thing, but on a smaller scale. I was really just trying to do everything. As far as the general population of college knowing who I am, no. But for the hardcore community, yes—because Pickle Patch was the center for the whole area.

Do you wish there were more politics in music at the moment?
There’s a time a place. In the club you don’t need politics. People just want to have a good time. When I think about music for the club world I think about how to create that level, break that threshold of anxiety and panic, and make people just explode because of their emotional influence from the music. That’s how I see music in a club. Then of course when I hear a political song, I will always have that leaning to that side. I’m always going to be down for the underdog. I’m always going to be down with that personally. When MIA did “Born Free,” I was constantly talking about how dope it was that she was trying to make a point without being so obvious. By using red heads, which was a brilliant idea. Even though she got a lot of flack and criticism about it I just loved that she took that stance. So yea, when people do certain things like that I’ll always stand up and make myself known that I support. It’s not like I’m hiding from it. I’m being diplomatic here too. I’m a DJ first right now. I’m not a political speaker. I suppose that I was, when I was younger. Not to say that it’s gone. I still have it in me; it’s just not going to be the forefront of my music. My tone is more neutral now… in contrast to my time at the university. I still have an opinion about stuff, but I’m not trying to force it upon, or activate people.”

aoki.part1crowd

The Mobilization Continues…

Mr. Aoki may not be trying to activate people on the political tip, but he is a driving factor in festival and club attendance across the globe. He’s come a long way in the decade and a half since that first punk rock 7-inch, and Steve is still having fun and releasing a helluva lot of music. Dim Mak’s discography is creeping up on 300, and his debut album, Wonderland (a nod to the infamous LA street where Aoki lives), dropped today via Ultra Music and Aoki’s own Dim Mak. The list of talent he pulled in and collaborated with is insane—in an impressive sense: will.i.am, Travis Barker, LMFAO and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Lovefoxxx of CSS, Blaqstarr & Kay, Lil Jon & Chiddy Bang, Wynter Gordon, Rob Roy and Sickboy, just to name a few. “The Kids Will Have Their Say” features members of legendary punk bands The Exploited and Die Kreuzen.  Think of the wide spectrum of sound on Wonderland as a way for Aoki to showcase the music that has influenced him over the years.

Guaranteed you’ll hear a lot of the Wonderland album on the Deadmeat tour—his biggest to date. It gets underway on January 19. He’s partnered with dubstep wizard and Dim Mak-signed Datsik. The pair will trip across North America throughout the winter. The lads have a gaggle of up-and-coming producers in tow: Alvin Risk, Mustard Pimp, Autoerotique, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike and Terravita. Perhaps we’ll see you on the dancefloor. I’ll be the one holding my pants up.

Here's part 2 of 3.