Dj Steve Aoki Interview
A chance meeting with a bar owner in L.A. paved the way for an incredible career that not even Steve Aoki can believe. With an obsessive background in hardcore and punk, Aoki transformed himself into the international deejay and remixer du jour via his work for Bloc Party and Snoop Dogg amongst others. In as little as four years, he also had the fashion world stitched up through hookups with KR3W and Ksubi, not to mention his own clothing label Dim Mak. We caught up with the Californian entrepreneur and music artist formerly known as Kid Millionaire on the eve of his own Supra shoe dropping... Talk about busy bees!
Yo Steve, what’s crackalackin? When are you coming back to the land Down Under?
At the end of the year I’m doing a tour with Boys Noize and playing with Mehdi and Busy P and bunch of other homies. I don’t know the exact dates but I think it’s the last week of December and the first week of Jan that I’ll be in your country.
Let’s Reeeeeewind and go back to growing up in Newport, Cali. Is your music and style influenced heavily by growing up in the late ‘80s early ‘90s?
Growing up, I listened to hardcore and punk from bands like Born Against, Downcast, His Hero Is Gone, Envy, Gorilla Biscuits, Youth of Today, Minor Threat, Unbroken, Shotmaker and shit like that. That was my life. I was a straight edge kid until I graduated from college. I was in a band called This Machine Kills; we put out an album on Ebullition records, my favourite label at the time (they put out Downcast, Born Against, Bread and Circuits, Yaphet Kotto etc) and my whole life revolved around this scene. This was from 92-2002 really. In Newport Beach, I was going to all the hardcore shows and when I went to college in Santa Barbara CA, I ended up putting on hardcore shows in my living room. There were around 450 bands that played in that dingy room, from At The Drive In, The Locust, His Hero Is Gone, Cave In, Jimmy Eat World, Discount and tons more.
When I moved to LA I started deejaying mainly indie music and hip hop. Later I started producing my first remixes of Bloc Party, Peaches, Under The Influence of Giants, Young Love (mainly indie bands) and soon when I started doing my own original production. A lot of the days of being in hardcore bands and songwriting in that world started coming through. Like with 1967, the song I wrote with Junkie XL, it’s an industrial smash but with a hardcore vocal hook that I sang. So yeah you can never really tire of your roots, they’ll stay with me through my productions.
You were a bit of a braniac graduating college with not one but two BAs right? Was it odd for a bloke to be studying Womens' Studies?
Womens' Studies was the most radical major in the university. The department heralded the most liberal professors. Throughout the last years of school I became close with them and studied closely under them, which drew me to just commit to Womens' Studies for an entire year. I learned more about myself and the world around me that year than the four previous years of going to school. I never really thought twice about it until I graduated with a Women’s logo around my neck. If it wasn’t for my total obsession with progressing forward with my label at the time, I would be a struggling professor somewhere doing research underneath a little lamp growing a white beard and living with piles of books in my study.
How did it shape you to become the entrepreneur you are these days?
What I learned in the last two years of school was more about finding my identity that was misplaced and lost in the white suburban world I was raised in. That was important in being able to identify who I am and have pride in what I do and the decisions I make. I had a lot of self-doubt and was terribly insecure growing up. Learning to be a strong independent Asian-American was part of this whole process in becoming who I am today. My heroes since then have and always will be Bruce Lee and Malcolm X. Those were two people who stood strong for who they were and what they believed in.
When did you discover the turntable and realise you could make a living out of it?
My first year in LA I felt lost in that big city. It’s easy to be tumbled around and not figure out where you fit in even when you find your little niche. My first friend in Los Angeles, Cali Dewitt, was a bartender at this bar called 3 Of Clubs. He called me one day and asked me to DJ one night a week because he knew I had a pretty comprehensive record collection of mainly hardcore and punk. At the time I had over 15,000 records (now it’s more like 10,000). Anyways I started playing punk and nu wave records at this place to eight people, watching them drink at the bar probably annoyed at the music I was playing. Since he said I could play whatever I wanted, I did and then my obsession with deejaying started. I started throwing Dim Mak parties in LA and then I started deejaying more and eventually over a few years I became a DJ. From a guy spinning records to actually being a DJ. Fast-forward four more years and here I am sitting in Barcelona, just leaving Ibiza where I played at Space for the closing party. There were at least 10,000 people with the likes of David Guetta, Digweed, Sasha, Fedde Le Grand, and some other terrible giant DJs that I could care less about.
Was it a natural transition for you to then start producing and create Weird Science? Please tell me it’s named after the John Hughes flick!!!!
Weird science is Blake Miller and I. We were friends before then and both totally new to producing. This was around three years ago that we started. Our first remix was Bloc Party’s Helicopter. I remember sitting around my computer working on Pro Tools with him (he knew more about it than I did) but we worked on that track for 24 hours straight. I still play it out and it was the first remix we did. We’ve done around 12 since then and we are now dropping our first original this month, ‘Haus of Cards’. It’s been a long way coming. And yeah of course we got it from the movie! We always thought of ourselves as two nerds trying to produce a Kelly Le Brock!
Many freakers would be surprised to realise that Weird Science actually have production credits on Snoop Dogg’s most innovative joint ‘Sensual Seduction’. Can you give us the low-down on how you came to work with the Dogg Father and the roster of artists that you collaborate with?
Snoop was a label thing. Management and label hit us up and asked for a remix because they liked the Under The Influence Of Giants and Bloc Party remixes… so we knocked that out. And that lead us to do other remixes for other majors like Epic and Columbia where we did Metro Station and The Fashion. I just started doing remixes under my own name over the summer. I’ve just finished a Duran Duran with Timbaland single, Robin Thicke, Good Charlotte, Lenny Kravitz and an artist under Dim Mak S.P.A.
Speaking of collaborations, lets talk Supra! This brand is blowing up so huge right now, no thanks to the roll call of artists repping the brand (none of which are sponsored by the brand by the way) and the truly innovative vision of Angel Cabada. Where did that relationship start and tell us about the Aoki line you are designing for the brand.
I’ve known Angel since I was 14 when I first started skating. I would go to the TSA ramp and mostly watch everyone else skate and when everyone was off the ramp I would jump on and try to roll up and down the ramp until I started doing tricks. When I was a kid I always wanted to be sponsored to be in videos doing tricks like my more skilled teenage friends at the time, but never really got there. I excelled at snowboarding and got a few sponsors but luckily for me I didn’t break any ceilings pushing myself and having more injuries. I’m glad I got more into school than snowboarding in retrospect. Anyways that was my life – skating, snowboarding, surfing and hardcore. That’s what I lived for everyday growing up and Angel was the dude back in the day, still is. We started hanging out again a few years back and he ended up sponsoring me under KR3W. He gave me my own signature Aoki line developing shirts, fleeces sweaters, jackets and accessories for KR3W each season. They sold well and we have been producing each season for the past two years. When Supra started he asked if I wanted my own shoe and of course I said yes and we developed the Strapped with his shoe designer Josh. The Strapped shoe is selling well so we made more colours and for Fall ‘09 we already developed the new Aoki model that I can’t talk about yet but is an undeniable sneaker. Very excited for that one.
How do the Strapped Supra’s reflect your personality and the essence of Kid Millionaire?
Well Supra NS is short for non-skate. I’m not a skater even though I skate so this shoe is more for people that won't wear the sneaker for skating. It’s a high fashion shoe to me. The strap idea was taken from a high-end women’s shoe. This is our take on it.
Are there a lot of peeps out there that mistake Steve Aoki and Kid Millionaire for two separate people? How does your alias differ to Steve Aoki?
I don’t go by Kid Millionaire any more. It was a funny name that I used for the first two years that was from a Kelis song where Andre 3000 said ‘Mama I’m a millionaire’ and I took that and from mama millionaire put Kid instead of mama. True story.
Not content with designing for Supra and KR3W, you also have your own clothing line, which is also your record company Dim Mak. When did Dim Mak (named after your hero Bruce Lee) lift off and who is on the label right now that we should be feeling?
The Dim Mak collection is mainly a tee line with a few sweaters. We do really well online and have about 50 stores that carry our product from Collette to Fred Segal to Beams to other boutiques. As far as collaborations go, we’ve done some consistent ones that are doing well. We’ve collaborated with WESC on doing headphones and will be coming out with new designs every season. We’ve also partnered up with Ksubi in doing Dim Mak sunglasses. George Gorrow and Dan Single, who own Ksubi have partnered with my sister Devon and myself in putting together a Dim Mak range that will have a mini Men’s and Women’s line consisting of denim, jackets, sweaters, leggings etc. There is a lot going on with the fashion end of Dim Mak. As far as the record label, this year we signed MSTRKRFT, The Bloody Beetroots, Felix Cartal, Shinichi Osawa, Machines Don’t Care, Shitdisco, S.P.A., Weird Science, my own production and will be releasing future records with our bands Scanners, From Monument To Masses, The Willowz and Whitey. There are others that are still pending but it’s already a pretty busy year as it is.
It seems you don’t like to keep your finger on just the one pulse. So how do you make room for all the commitments you have in your schedule without conflicting or letting anyone, especially yourself down?
The most important issue with keeping all these different things going is having solid competent teams around the campaigns we have going. For the label we have our LA office headed by Michael Dutcher who handles all the business from here and we have our NYC offices headed by Downtown that handle all our marketing, promotion, radio and planning. For the clothing side, all the business is handled out of the LA offices and with our new partnership with Dan and George we commit the work on both sides of Australia and LA. As far as the Dim Mak/Deckstar management team, that is primarily held out of the Deckstar/Dim Mak MGMT offices through partners Matt Colon and Lawrence Vavra.
Now that we are talking hectic schedules, you are coming down under to rock the ones and twos at Hot BBQ NYD! Did you get to experience the hot Aussie summer last time you were down?
Yeah I spent a whole week in Sydney with my best buddy Cobrasnake, Dangerous Dan and George from Ksubi swimming every morning.
What’s the one thing that has stuck in your mind about Australia since your last visit?
Where do you eventually see yourself in the next five years or so?
Touring less. Honestly, at least I hope so. I just bought a house so I need to commit more time in Los Angeles. I can look two seasons ahead and six months per record release cycle or see as far as my dates are booked. That’s pretty much how I live my life.
Thanks Steve, see you New Years!
Props to Steve's best mate COBRASNAKE for the images.