Son of sports star and
entrepreneur Rocky Aoki, long-haired Steve Aoki strode a very different
path to set in motion his own career. But becoming an
internationally-renowned DJ / mixer / producer wasnít initially part of
A Grammy-nominated international producer /
DJ, electronic dance music entrepreneur and founder of the trendsetting
record label Dim Mak, Aoki built a big business well before turning to
deejaying and electronic dance production. In turn, it became an events
/ lifestyle company and apparel line.
Since launching in 1996, Dim Mak has broken
bands such as Bloc Party, The Bloody Beetroots, Klaxons,
and The Gossip through deft marketing of single and full-length album
releases. It now has nearly 500 releases to date.
Then as a solo artist, Aoki has become a force
of nature, averaging over 250 tour dates per year.
Aokiís second artist album Neon Future I,
was released September 30, 2014 via Dim Mak/Ultra Music and features his
Gold certified single ďDelirious (Boneless)Ē with Chris Lake and Tujamo
featuring Kid Ink, ďBorn To Get WildĒ featuring will.i.am and ďRage the
Night AwayĒ featuring Waka Flocka Flame.
The second part, Neon
Future II, was released on May 12, 2015 and featured
collaborations with Linkin Park, Matthew Koma, Snoop Lion, Rivers Cuomo
and NERVO, plus a special appearance by creative genius JJ Abrams, who
voices the outro to close the album.
Aoki also Executive Produced and curated
the soundtrack of The
Hive Ė The Nerdistís first feature film acquisition. Created
by writer/director David Yarovesky and produced by Cary Granat of Scream
2 and Scream
3fame, the film was called by Guardians
of the Galaxy director
James Gunn as ďthe most horrifying and disgusting love story ever.Ē
Recently, Aoki became
the subject of a documentary about his career, Iíll
Sleep When Iím Dead, titled
as such because he never seems to stop going.
Subject Steve Aoki, director Justin
producer Matt Colon talked
with a trio of journalists in New York City at the 2016 Tribeca Film
Being the focus of this documentary, how did you deal with your family,
friends and colleagues?
Steve Aoki: Iíve had a video
crew of my own. Some friends of mine would shoot these guerilla-style,
YouTube-style videos for the last five years. So I always had some video
team with me at some point traveling through the world. When Justin came
into the fold, we were going over ideas about doing a doc, which
obviously wouldnít be the same thing of whatís already out there. What
hasnít been out there is more of a personal story that I had yet to
discuss with anyone. In interviews, I donít really talk about it. I
never felt safe to talk about it. Itís more fun to talk about adventures
on the road or doing on the spot things that directly connect with kids
that are coming to my shows. In this story, it was hard to open up and
go into it. It took time. At a certain stage of making a movie, we
crossed that bridge together. I was eventually like, ďAll right, you
have uncensored direction and access. Do what you want.Ē I didnít even
see the film, after two-and-a-half years of filming, until a month ago.
I didnít know how it was being edited.
Justin Krook: I
think one of the shoots that really opened things up was when we went to
Japan for [Steve Aokiís] momís 70th birthday. He got his mom, his sister
and his brother to all go out together. Steveís busy, and everyoneís
spread out around the world, so it was a unique thing. We were able to
tag along on this family vacation of theirs. Meeting the family Ė his
mom is the nicest person youíll ever meet Ė and those days in Japan
really helped in that aspect. Also, for the rest of the time filming, I
donít think I ever saw Steve not working for seven days straight. It was
interesting to film you when you were on personal time, because it was
show after show after show.
How do you feel about seeing yourself in this documentary?
Steve Aoki: It is awkward for
me. When I started seeing the more emotional side of things, I donít
like to show that. I donít like showing the sad or dark. I really try to
stay in a fun, spirited place. As far as the public access to who I am,
I just like to show the fun side of things. My ďbrand,Ē or whatever you
want to call it, the Steve Aoki you see at live shows is fun. Iím not
trying to portray anything different. With this doc, when we get into
more of these vulnerable places, itís tough to watch.
A lot of documentaries take more than five years to film. What was
decided in the pre-production stage, in terms of how much access you
would have and how long you wanted to film?
Justin Krook: We
wanted to get it done as quickly as possible. That said, we shot over
the course of two-and-a-half years. Up front, when I first met with
Steve, Matt (his manager) said weíre going to get all the access we need
to make this. Saying that and doing that is one thing, so over the
course of those two-and-a-half years, we were able to dive a bit deeper.
From a filmmakerís side, we were able to able to earn Steveís trust to
tell his story and his familyís legacy. I was familiar with Dim Mak
[Steve Aokiís record company]. I had seen Steveís shows beforehand. When
I went out to meet him, I thought heíd be this party animal, drinking
all the time. No, heís a health nut, super-intelligent and a
super-humble guy. Right then and there, when I met, I knew we were going
to have a really good film.
Themes of legacy and family resonate throughout the film; theyíre an
important part of the story. Those themes spoke to you. How did they
affect the presentation of the movie?
Justin Krook: When
we were talking with Matt and Steve, when we were conceptualizing the
film, we didnít want to make a documentary that was going to only speak
to just EDM [electric dance music] fans. While that is a big group of
people, itís really limiting the audience at the same time. Itís also
limiting the demographic; it skews pretty young. What we wanted to do is
use the dance-music scene as a backdrop. Itís sexy, itís fun to look at,
the live performances are great. But if we could find a universal theme
that could resonate with people of all ages and all races, everyone
around the world can connect with having expectations put upon you.
Everyone can understand these different family dynamics Ė whether itís
your high-school soccer coach or your parents or your teachers. Everyone
understands what it is to have expectations. I think that was kind of
the genesis of it. If we could connect with people, it wouldnít matter
if youíre a dance music fan or not. At the end of the day, this film is
an introduction to who Steve is, but itís also an introduction to the
dance music scene as a whole. People who donít know much about the scene
come into it and understand it a bit more, but at the same time enjoy
the film on a more emotional level.
Steve Aoki: I think in the
beginning, it was a bit difficult for me to decide to that. I never
really did it before. I felt like if we were going to make a documentary
that is telling a more human story instead of a dance story, then we
might as well go all in. We might as well bring it all out, especially
when we have people outside of my space making this film. I didnít want
to make an EDM doc. Theyíre already out there. Also, for me, when I
think about my father and my mother and the contributions they made to
the culture Ė my father, particularly Ė thereís such a great story
there. As time goes by, it gets forgotten. Itís nice to bring it back to
new generation that has no idea about it. The older generation, they
know of him. That story stays in that bubble, but itís nice to bring it
to a new generation: the story of a Japanese person in America at a time
a few decades past World War II, when discrimination against Japanese
people was on red alert. He actually started a business that was part of
popular culture in America. Thatís unheard of.
His story is incredible. He was an ice cream
man in Harlem, when he was 20s and had first moved to New York, and he
got a loan to open up a restaurant. Itís a crazy story. The hardship
that he faced then, itís hard to relate to now, but someone like him
really opened up a lane for other Asians to be able to actually have an
identity and be heard, or be able to create a business, or do something
that can affect an infinite number of people. When I think about what he
did, then itís all worth it in the end to bring that back into this film
and show that. Of course, when you see your dad [on TV], itís your dad.
But when you see Bruce Lee on TV, itís like, ďThatís my god! Thatís my
Justin Krook: [He
says to Aoki] But now itís you as well. How many other Asian-Americans
are huge top 40 artists?
Even though you and your father went into different lines of work, you
both have the traits of being a workaholic entrepreneur. He was quoted
in the movie as saying he put work before his family and health. How do
you balance that for yourself?
Steve Aoki: Itís all about
time management. Time management is how to use your time wisely,
obviously. Understanding where you need help in certain areas and
building teams in those areas to be able to build projects. Iím more of
a project-based person. I look at everything in projects and how to
execute those projects requires help, a team. Even though it says DIY,
itís really DIT: doing it together. That community-based spirit has been
a thread since day one, when I was in the punk and hardcore scene,
whether it was doing a Ďzine, forming a band or starting a fashion
company. You canít do it alone. If Iím going to execute something with
music, I might be the one creating the music, but I need a team to help
me get it out there. Itís all about how to delegate and know where your
weaknesses are and where you can help fill in those spaces with the
Given that youíve been in the music industry for so long and have a lot
of influence, is there anything you wish you could change about the
Steve Aoki: I think one of the
good things thatís happened, in terms of where the industry is going, is
that the people who didnít have a voice before, who needed these larger
financial institutions to provide them with a voice for people to be
heard, thatís changed. If you donít have the money, you can create a
YouTube channel and start singing on YouTube. Create a space for that
and become your own star with your own crowd. Soundcloud gives you that
platform as well. There are a lot of platforms for independent artists
to have a voice and have a following and be able to get their music
heard. Thatís a great thing, but there is still a ceiling that is hit
where you need some of these major labels, these financial institutions
to break through. I feel like that ceiling needs to go away, more like
an anarchist way of looking at what good music is. Good music isnít
always in the Top 40. Thatís just the music that was paid to get up
there. Thereís a lot of good music that hasnít been heard because of
these ceilings. How do we get through that? Thatís the question. Weíre
already going in that direction, but how do we break it down even
further? The artists who really have the influence have the platform.
Where do you see yourself in pop culture and how does that relate to the
overall message behind Iíll
Sleep When Iím Dead?
Steve Aoki: Dim Mak has hit 20
years as a record label. We started in 1996. I started DJíing in 2003,
and before that, I was in bands. I went from being in bands and touring
to realizing that I enjoy developing brand-new artists and helping them
get their music out there, and learning how to do that better and
better. Thatís always been my lifeís blood, even through the course of
me DJíing, I realize the weight and influence that I have could really
help out artists who are, in my opinion, much better producers than me.
How do you help them? What can I do to help them?