Music News

DJ Steve Aoki Runs EDM's Premier Label and Tours the World

Maybe "two turntables and a microphone" used to be where it was at. But that was in 1996, when Beck released his iconic "Where It's At," with a chorus calling out the basic DJ setup. These days, thanks in no small part to people like Steve Aoki, DJs have become the new rock stars, rabid fans moshing and kowtowing before their laptops like devotees at a 1971 Zeppelin show.

But Aoki, whose Wikipedia entry refers to him as an "electro-house musician, record producer, and the founder of Dim Mak Records," is more than a DJ. For those keeping track, he earned the number-three spot in Mixmag's DJs of 2012, between Swedish House Mafia and Armin Van Buuren.

If that means nothing to you, here's this: Aoki's dad founded the ubiquitous Japanese steak house/entertainment chain Benihana. And one of his half-siblings is comely multiculti model/actress Devon Aoki.  

But Steve Aoki is his own man, and he is rapidly becoming his own brand. In addition to his solo work, his brainchild, Dim Mak Records, finds him at the forefront of the electronic scene.

Raised in Southern California, Aoki hasn't always been the globe-trotting music maker. His years attending University of California-Santa Barbara prepared him for a different path. He majored in women's studies and sociology, but halfway through college he'd formed Dim Mak (a martial arts reference). "I was accepted to two Ph.D. programs, but the label was starting to turn a profit," he recalls, thanks especially to his 2002 signing of The Kills, and his subsequent success with Bloc Party. "At that moment, school was done, and I had to make a decision."

Fans the world over are glad he listened to his muse. Aoki hired his first Dim Mak employee in 2004, running the label from a house behind Amoeba Music off Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The 24-hour party place was a mecca for the like-minded, and Aoki's star was on the rise as a cultural curator, his club nights premièring the likes of Lady Gaga, Skrillex, and Kid Cudi. Some pundits anointed Aoki "hipsterdom's gateway drug."

He doesn't shy away from talking about his role in "hipster culture," and there's no denying his part in bringing underground house, electro, and harder-edge EDM with rap and rock influences to the masses. His remix résumé includes Jackson 5, Drake, Kanye West, Eminem, The Killers, Lenny Kravitz, and Robin Thicke, while his latest solo studio album, Wonderland, features guest vocalists and musicians LMFAO,, Rivers Cuomo, Chiddy Bang, and Big John of punk band The Exploited.

"I've always collected music," he says. "I'd follow labels and buy every single release from a particular label" — which is now what people do with Dim Mak. "I might dress like a hipster," he acknowledges. "Fashion and music and what's hip — I'm interested in those worlds. But it's not who I am or how I live. I'm more about proper dance culture, not hipster culture. I'm passionate about music. Hipster culture doesn't have that. I've been a fan of music and pop culture from the age of 13, and now at 35, that's never changed. It's why I actively run a business that employs 19 people where I hire fans to work for my company."

The more than 50 active artists on the Dim Mak roster include Aoki himself, Israeli psytrance/electronica duo Infected Mushroom, and New York's Fischerspooner. But Aoki, who tours up to 250 days a year, is looking to "expand and innovate." Aoki gives more than lip service to favorite causes and often waxes spiritual, not unlike another multifaceted mogul, Russell Simmons. He's launched the Steve Aoki Charitable Fund to benefit "creative activists who use the power of media and the arts to effect positive change in the world."

As for Aoki's own world? That's easy: "I'm a time-traveling, speed-reading, fortune-telling, machine-gunning, Gypsy-loving, scuba-diving, multitasking, poker-playing fan of life." Indubitably.

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Katherine Turman