He’s a Facemelting Electro House DJ by night, Pro-feminist label head and producer by day.
A few months ago, Steve Aoki’s single with Indonesian EDM up-and-comer Angger Dimas, “Beatdown” got the world dancing. Stripped down bass, it comes hard with a minimal beat, while in the bridge a five-alarm riff makes you obey. Australian rapper Iggy Azalea throws the track’s KO punch, flowing about how she’s going to beat up another female who’s really asking for it. Like all songs about girlfights, this song rocks the party.
But “Beatdown” can be also be read as a pro-woman anthem, according to Steve.
“Talk about a feminist song!” he said while visiting the MTV IGGY studios recently.
“I mean, she talks about beating up other girls, but she’s also talking about, like ‘If you’re down for your chick, pump yo’ fist!’ like solidarity-ly, uniting, you know, like good shit.”
Right there, we have the two sides of Steve Aoki. A DJ-producer-label head who spends nearly 300 days a year on the road with his hard electro house set, the party mastermind’s concert rider includes an eighth of local weed, an inflatable raft, and two sheet cakes to be thrown at willing victims’ faces. On the other hand, Steve also majored in women’s studies and sociology at UC Santa Barbara, where he agitated to free death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, and in a dance song he put out this year, name-checks leftist historian Howard Zinn.
Watch “Beatdown” by Steve Aoki and Angger Dimas, featuring Iggy Azalea
It’s for his crowd-pleasing DJ sets that Steve Aoki has blown up, but he’s been involved with every part of the music industry — he’s been promoting parties at his studios in LA for almost ten years, organizing shows from MIA’s first LA gig to Lady Gaga’s earliest performances. He founded Dim Mak Records, named after hero Bruce Lee’s death touch, and has grown it from a bedroom project to an 18-employee label that’s broken the careers of Bloc Party and The Kills, and more recently The Bloody Beetroots. He toured the US and abroad in his teens and early twenties as the screamy vocalist of This Machine Kills, a hardcore band influenced by Rage Against the Machine and Born Against. He’s a part-owner of the club where he throws his parties (christened with Odd Future graffiti). And he wrote a zine in high school.
Most recently, Steve has focused on his own music. He spent two years on his debut full-length, Wonderland, which immediately climbed the iTunes dance charts when it dropped in January. Packed with guest vocalists, his featured artists show musical range within the EDM genre — Rivers Cuomo of Weezer appears in “Earthquakey People,” while Lil Jon and Chiddy Bang flow over “Emergency.” It’s fun dance-pop — edgy, yet open to everyone who likes to jump up and down sometimes.
Most of all, Steve is a media machine. He’s self-branded the “Aoki Jump” — commemorated in an Instagram photo series of him, well, jumping above things. His Facebook timeline is an endless montage of fist-pumping crowds and his reminder to “Tag yourselves!” He employs full-time videographers and film editors to pump out videos of his life nearly in real-time as he jet-sets from Las Vegas to Tokyo and back again. His big message has mainly to do with the importance of champagne-spraying and giant bass drops, but he’s still a role model. Speaking as a Japanese American, Steve has said, “When you’re under-represented, you get misrepresented.” To the pride of Asian Americans everywhere, I can say that under-representation is not Steve Aoki’s problem.
The kind of guy who walks into a room and within five minutes says, “Hey, do you guys want me to do some breakdance freezes?” being disliked is also not Steve’s problem. In person he’s open to real talk. After discussing feminism in our interview, he came back fifteen minutes later and volunteered to me that his music video for “Ladi Dadi,” was problematic. He was concerned because even though the video involves vocalist Wynter Gordon beating Steve into a bloody pulp, the narrative ends by her being vaporized by Steve’s Streetfighter fireball.
“It’s hard to do a fight scene with a girl and represent it in the right way,” he lamented.
Well, we can’t be perfect all the time. But Steve Aoki’s trying.
Watch “Ladi Dadi” by Steve Aoki, featuring Wynter Gordon:
Read on for more highlights from our interview with the music man, from his thoughts on feminism to how he takes his Asian American rage and turns it into something positive.
You’ve been doing underground marketing and social media for a long time.
Oh yeah, that’s the only way we’ve survived. Because that way of marketing –underground grassroots development – essentially, it’s free. You could do it yourself. For almost ten years the first part of Dim Mak I was doing everything on my own, I didn’t have an employee until 2003 when we ended up putting out Bloc Party’s first records and then did the deal with Vice to put out Silent Alarm. Up until then, even during The Kills first record, I was entirely alone. It wasn’t business, it was more like fun project.
You didn’t sleep much.
I don’t really sleep that much in general. Now in 2012, we have 18 full-time employees.
I’ve read that you don’t make money in Dim Mak, that you reinvest everything back into the company?
With Dim Mak, I’ve never taken a salary, ever. My bread and butter is DJing and publishing and my music. Me as a producer, as an artist, that’s where I’m making my money, and whatever my endorsements, I work with Supra and stuff like that.
Dim Mak is my sacred, my never-aging baby.
Bloody Beetroots was a big success for us. And we signed them off a remix. They really came from the underground, and we helped with the development process and mkaing sure that the right people were supporting them, and then they built their core cult following who are diehards, they always follow the music, always go to their shows. I love watching artists becaome successful from day zero, being part of that development. Because you know how things are in music, you never know, you could put so much emphasis on something, and it still doesn’t fly, even if you believe in it. So when it does fly, you’re like fuck.
Is it true that you were a women’s studies major in college?
Womens studies and sociology.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes. That’s all I did for a whole year, is think about feminist critique. It really changes the way you think about things.
But if a guy calls himself a feminist, it’s like a weird thing. I feel wrong saying it, because I’m in support. I’m in the sidelines supporting, like Yellow Peril supported the Black Panthers. That’s what I feel about advancement for women.
In your company how many women are employed?
That’s a good question, and the practice is more important than theory. We are actually a male dominated business. We have a few women in our company, but it fluctuates. But nonetheless we are male-dominated. It’s self-analysis of the things that i do. I tend to forget how important it is. But yeah, that’s a good question. To be critical about what you’re representing and how you’re representing yourself.
You’ve talked about the idea of “sophisticating rage,” I think you were referencing Malcolm X. What rage do you have?
I’m a pretty emotional person to begin with. There’s all kinds of things that I’d start to get pissed about. Some sort of reason or issue, and in order for me to take it to a positive place, you have to do something with it. As opposed to yelling at a wall. You want to be effective with your rage.
In college I was studying all this stuff, I was in all these student groups, I was part of the student political process, and I was trying to sophisticate the rage as much as possible. And trying to educate myself. So obviously now, it’s different, I’m not surrounded by all the information, I’m not surrounded by educated people that inform me. I take what I have in front of me and try to do the best with it. Music is my most effective outlet in being able to voice an opinion.
Primarily I’m a producer at this point. Ten years ago, primarily I was a singer. If you saw the lyrics from this Machine Kills, my band, you’d understand how I was sophisticating my rage. The lyrics are very direct, very much from my own identity as an Asian American, living in America, and all the different things I was dealing with them. Now, I have two songs I was able to write lyrics for, because when I sing, I’m aggressive. A song I did with Travis Barker, “Misfits” — it’s an Occupy-friendly record. It’s generally in that theme: “Fuck the order, we choose disorder, rise to the sky or die.” That’s more a mental process that I’m trying to channel. My latest “The Kids Will Have Their Say” –
Where you quote Howard Zinn.
Yeah, I’m glad you saw that. But it’s general. It’s not targeting one thing.
How many days out of the year are you touring?
Between 250 and 300. It’s unfortunate that I can’t play these songs out as much as I’d like. My voice, I just don’t know how to control my throat, it just dies.
It’s like crazy, in like South America and certain parts of Europe, these kids know all the lyrics. These aren’t American songs, these are global records. They speak to people in Colombia. When I was in Colombia I played a show with Diplo. I ended my set, and usually people are screaming “No Beef,” “No Beef” – they want the big songs. In Bogota, they wanted “Misfits.” I played it, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Diplo was DJing because I was on the mic. And he was fucking around with the EQs so you can’t even hear the music, so all you hear are these kids singing the lyrics. And I was like “What the fuck, how do you all know this song?” There was just that energy pulsating, you just feel it. When I used to go to shows…I was one of those kids singing up there, staring up at the singer, with that connection to those lyrics, not even to the music.
[Five minutes later, in between shooting pictures of him whipping his hair around, he comes back.]
You could interpret “Ladi Dadi’s” video as being misogynist. The video is me defending and kicking her, but nothing in the face, and I wanted to show the guy getting pummeled. And I can throw her down the stairs, and it’s fucked up, but at least it’s not punching her in the face. It’s hard to do a fight scene with a girl and represent it in the right way.
Why couldn’t you just have had her win?
The director was pushing that angle, and then we all talked about it…
It’s like a twist, so I understand.
Right, right right.
It’s funny that you’re pointing out to me that that’s misogynist.
Well, I’m self-critical.
[Three minutes later]
You know when you asked me about the feminist thing?
I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, I’d call myself pro-feminist. Does that make sense? That way, because I was trying to explain it without having a term, and at least that a a word.
Exactly. Because otherwise, it’s like, “I’m all feminist, man, yeahhhh!” It’s kinda like…
It’s like, ‘We’re all on the same team!,’ but no we’re not.
Exactly. We’re not on the same team, but I’m rooting for you guys.