By the time this interview drops, Steve Aoki has already performed at the second annual Twitch Con in San Diego, announcing his entry into the competitive e-sports arena by investing in Overwatch and Counter-Strike team Rouge. Anyone who’s followed the EDM legend should have some idea of how hard he waves his geek card. Between frequent Twitch live streams and a gig composing the soundtrack for Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, recent developments make absolute sense.
And, that’s not all Aoki has in store for 2016.
Detailing his storied history as one of EDM’s most groundbreaking figures, Netflix original documentary I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead also serves as a reminder of how incredibly wild his day-to-day life really is.
Before leaving DXHQ, Aoki also plays the office an unfinished version of a collaboration with Quavo and Lil Yachty. Yes, it’s just as lit as it sounds. But that’s not all the Dim Mak Records leader has in store on the Hip Hop front. The label is still pushing left-field rap acts deeply rooted in the genre through Watch The Duck and Bok Nero. Meanwhile, he’s preparing the third entry in his Neon Future series by working with names like Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty.
When Aoki leaves with his management team and publicist, one thing remains clear. He has a wide range of interests and just so happens to be successful at them all.
Vocal Cord Surgery Renewed Steve Aoki’s Love Of Video Games
HipHopDX: By the time this interview comes out, you would have made your appearance at Twitch Con. You’ve been doing sessions on the streaming service for a while now.
Steve Aoki: I’m a gamer and gaming enthusiast. I’m more of a gaming enthusiast than gamer cause I don’t have the time to play games at the level that a true gamer does. I was a gamer as a kid in the old format of games. When Twitch started becoming a thing, I was excited to jump aboard, tried it out and we tried it out with doing these charitable battles where we would donate money. I think the first one was with Kid Ink? [Looks over to management team] Was it Kid Ink? [Management team mentions Borgore] The first one was with this other deejay Borgore and I think we only bet $1,000 in Street Fighter. Then we amped it up with Kid Ink and we upped it to 10 grand. It was like first to five wins in Street Fighter. Then, I battled Mike Shinoda from Lincoln Park.
I think I lost all of them, but maybe I beat Borgore. I loved doing these battles because it was fun, you see the engagement and people talking. You know, like telling you how bad you suck in the game [Twitch] hit me up to do their first ever non-gaming live stream of my show. They flew their team to Ibiza in Spain and I was doing my night at Pacha. I had a night every single Monday night. They set up their camera above the deejay, they had one behind me and you could see what it was like from a POV angle and deejay both angle in one of the most prestigious clubs on the island. It got great engagement and people watched it. I was really excited because I wanted to see how many gamers would be interested in seeing a deejay set. There was a lot of leakage. Gamers like to listen to music obviously and they like listening to EDM and dance music.
DX: You’re also making an appearance Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 as a composer and non-playable-character role as well.
Steve Aoki: That was a big one for me. When they hit me up and asked me to participate in the game, I was like, “I’ll do it at any stage or level you want me to. I’ll do whatever you ask me to.” I told them what I’d love to do is work with the team and make music. It’s one thing to collaborate with someone in your camp, the EDM space, Hip Hop space or rock space. But, to work with someone in the gaming space or people that write in that space is something else. I mean, I didn’t necessarily work with the singer that does all the Dragon Ball Z stuff. But remixing those songs were definitely a treat and unique. It’s almost like I don’t want to toy with it too much, but I also want to make it into my world too. It was difficult and challenging, but fulfilling. I was really happy to work on music with them and then when they told me they were going to make me a character in the game, that put me over ceiling so I was just so excited about that.
DX: I remember being a fan of anime before the Dragon Ball series, but something about that became a huge national phenomenon. It introduced a whole new audience to anime. How do you feel about the series and its history?
Steve Aoki: I remember when I was in college, I was a part of the anime club. Every Wednesday night, we would go to one of the classrooms and it felt so ghetto style. There would be some Asian guy trying to work the thing in the back to play these old movies and animation films. Then, all of us would crowd around, talk about the soundtracks to different animes and what series we’ve seen. People would bring in comic books talking about different anime they have. It was a pretty awesome time for me to be in a world where I’m around people they loved anime too. Dragon Ball Z fits into that world and fits into the core demo of those who really love anime. People in Japan know Dragon Ball like people out here know Mickey Mouse. So, it’s great to see a surge of that. With Pokemon being a big hit just on the pop culture tip, people didn’t know any character outside of Pikachu. Now, everyone knows all these characters in the game. I think it’s a gateway to the resurgence of Dragon Ball Z.
I'm beyond proud, humbled and excited to finally announce my documentary, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, will now be a @Netflix Original and available worldwide on August 19th! It's a dream come true and one heck of a journey. Check out the official trailer for I'll Sleep When I'm Dead in my bio! #illsleepwhenimdead #iswid
DX: Between that and your crazy tour schedule, when do you find time to game and what have you been playing for the past couple of months?
Steve Aoki: I didn’t play games for a while because I was so focused on using my time to be in the studio. I had to get this vocal cord surgery last year. So, I spent weeks and weeks without talking to people. There was a period of time where I couldn’t leave my apartment. So, I canceled all of my shows and for a long period of time, which was bizarre, I had to be silent. I couldn’t talk at all. Imagine not talking for a day, but for weeks to a month. It’s hard to be out and not communicate. You can’t even mutter, cough, sneeze or anything like that. What I did was use that time efficiently and first prioritized what was important to me. I wanted to properly learn how to do transcendental meditation every single day and I meditated for a couple of hours. I got more piano lessons because I had never been trained in piano and different skill sets that I needed to work on. Even language skill sets. It was like going back to school again. It was great.
Then, you need that downtime. So, I powered up my Playstation and hit up my guys at Twitch. I told them my nights are free now. I was retraining myself and doing a lot of stuff I wanted to get better at. And, I wanted to game because I hadn’t done it in forever. That’s when Twitch came in and I asked them to train me in the new games out there. All I play is Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Call of Duty and Injustice. I bought The Witcher and recently bought Uncharted. More like first-person, running around games. You go out there and boom, you’re killing zombies and shooting people. Boom, straight action. That got me into gaming and now, in the summertime in Europe, what I do is travel with a PS4. I have a PS4 in this bag and lucky in Europe, we have the Aoki Jet and we’re able to put all the stuff on the jet. When you’re flying commercial you only have like two carry-ons. When you have your own jet, you can have like ten carry-ons. So, we have the PS4 out and we’re gaming on the road. HDMI into every television we have and what makes it fun is our crew. We all love to game and we all like to gamble. We just added an extra gamble with a game and we all get better because we have no choice. Someone is going to lose the money or do some pushups. You gotta add a little bit of stress to make the gaming fun so that’s what we do.
DX: You mentioned the vocal cord surgery which was detailed in your Netflix documentary I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. Why decide to be so revealing now in regards to everything from your parents to tour life?
Steve Aoki: These guys who made this doc, even at the two-year mark, I forgot they were making a documentary. They were filming for like three years. Two years later and two and a half years later, you’re like here they are again. I didn’t realize there’s a guy filming right over here [Points to DX video producer James Kreisberg]. That’s the kind of thing. You build a rapport with people where once I know the beautiful young women behind the camera [points to DX video assistant Valerie Sakmary] and she becomes my homie, she can film me whenever she wants. That’s what this team became when we were traveling. They became my friends. Generally speaking, I travel with my own team like the guy that videos and takes photos. We document all this crazy shit that we do on the road and we put it up on a YouTube channel. It was a very controlled way of saying this is what life is like on the road. That’s where it started as, were these guys filming the insane pace and schedule and amazing fans and crazy shows and large-scale shows and all of that stuff. It was basically what I was already shooting, but these guys wanted to know the process.
They wanted to know how did things get to here and in order to get there, we had to break down some therapy sessions. Are you willing to go deeper and to really talk about something personal. I never really talk about my family or that kind of process. He took time to get to that intimate place and as I was doing it, I treated it as a place I could open up and not think that I’m not getting filmed. I had a space to communicate this. Until a day before the doc came out, I realized I aired all of this shit out and I can’t stop it. The train is moving and I can’t stop this train. I was panicking like fuck. I didn’t want it to happen like this, but fuck it’s too late. That’s why I haven’t seen this documentary since I watched it with my mom and friends and a bunch of strangers in the Beacon Theater in New York for Tribeca Film Festival. I had to be there for that, but since then, it’s been hard for me to watch it to be honest. Like I was saying, it’s easier for me to open up when I don’t realize that it’s really going to be out there. I really trusted them in carving out the narrative that they did cause I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go back to that process or that space and go down that road. I could tell you about the crazy shows and all the amazing fans I have around the world and give you a glimpse of what it’s like to be in the studio creation of my music or behind the scenes setting up for a set. No problem. This thing was new for me as well.
Expect Joint EP With Lil Uzi Vert & More Rap Collaborations
DX: The most interesting part of the documentary for me is when you see all the Twitter hate you got as an EDM artist for embracing Hip Hop. Dim Mak started as a rock label before transitioning into the EDM powerhouse it’s become. What’s that transition across genres been like?
Steve Aoki: I always wanted to work with not just Hip Hop, but all genres. I started in rock and I’d say the first genre that I stepped out and working in was rock. When I started producing EDM and doing remixes, I was remixing rock bands really and whatever I could get my hands on. Then I realized if I wanted to put my signature to my sound as I was developing and figuring out who I was in the space of all the music out there, I realized I was going to go to my roots. That’s when I started sampling guitars and I reached out to bands where I could remix and do collaborations they’ve never done as well. Then I started thinking outside the box. I wanted to work with everyone.
Anyone that’s inspiring me whether you’re a rock singer or rapper or heavy metal screamer or whatever it might be, I wanted to open a new door and experiment and challenge myself. I realized that there are certain artists with links where it doesn’t matter what sound or genre they’re doing, we have certain ways to build a bridge and do something brand new. My favorite collaborators and tours have always been outside of working in the traditional space of dance music. Working with Waka Flocka and touring with him, that combination was so organic and natural. It fit really well. His sets are turnt up and extremely live. When we did our song together, it was the same energy. You can imagine both of us on stage rocking together.
Touring with Kendrick Lamar in 2013 was incredible because you see a whole diverse crowd that’s introduced to both kinds of music. Those kind of things are more exciting. I prefer playing at a festival like Coachella where you get to play in front of a multitude of an audience who loves all types of genres from Radiohead to Calvin Harris to Jay Z to whoever is willing to try out anything.
The @dimmak 20 year block party in Atlanta was beyond legendary! We took over a whole parking lot and brought out @hairweavekiller @troubleman31 @migos @whoisrichthekid. Me & @liluzivert dropped our entire EP on people's heads. Closed out the show with another new one w/ #2chainz & @dvbbs. One of my favorite shows of the year hands down! Thank you ATL! #Dimmak ??????
DX: Has there been a rapper you haven’t worked with that you look forward to?
Steve Aoki: There are tons of rappers I want to work with. This year, I’ve worked with a lot of artists and I’ve been thinking outside of just Steve Aoki music. Is this going to be a fit for myself? I’m also producing for other artists now which is a big change for me. That in part started when I was working with Lil Uzi Vert. Lil Uzi Vert had come to the studio and we had been talking for about a year about working together. The traditional style for working with an artist you don’t see is sending them your beat and hopefully, they get into a studio and do their thing over it. Then you work like that. We tried that and it’s hard. It’s difficult. I know how it is to be in the studio and you’re going to listen to the beats you’re going to work on generally with the producer who is in the room.
So, you’re going to be working along with your engineer and I have to do this extra homework with these beats I have in. All these other producers I’m in the studio with, I’m going to prioritize that. I understand how that works. In order for us to get together and make music, we had a scheduled time in the studio for about a week. It took us four months to be like, “Ok this is our open dates. Let’s just focus on making some sick music together.” He came to LA and spent a week in my studio. I got to the studio with him and had a general idea where he would organically be able to do his thing on. It was clicking, but it wasn’t clicking. Then I realized, you might have an idea of what someone might like, but you really need to spend time with them and really let go and un-marry yourself to sounds that lock you in and be flexible.
With Uzi, I had to do that in order for us to get to this comfortable place. When I got there, I was writing music on the spot with him and we were knocking out song-after-song-after-song till we got enough songs to do an EP. It took about four or five months to finish this project and now we’re going to be releasing an EP together from that kind of inspired energy. I remember doing the Dim Mak 20th Anniversary party in Atlanta, 2 Chainz came out and Migos came out and T.I. came out. They all came out on stage with us and Rich The Kid was there. Lil Uzi Vert performed as well.
Right after the show, the energy was heated like it was work to be done. I hit up Migos and they told me they were heading to the studio. I told them I would meet them after an afterparty and we only had like three hours to do something together. So, we all meet at the studio and I play them four or five different beats. They like one and we start reworking it to a vibe that Quavo was down with. Quavo nailed his hook and verses faster than anyone I’ve seen. Insane hooks. Then Lil Yachty hops in and I’m like, “Holy shit. Lil Yachty, can you jump on this?” And he was like, “Yeah dope.”
The organic energy was there. And now we have this song that I’m sitting on. To me, it’s unbelievable. It has this energy and spontaneous spirit to it. Now, you have to be mobile, nimble and flexible and be able to rework and change things on the fly. This whole idea of un-marrying yourself from the sounds or structures that you work in. That’s why this year is so great because I’ve unhinged myself and I’m producing for different sounds that you wouldn’t even think would be a Steve Aoki production or sound. I’m excited about the Lil Uzi Vert EP. We leaked it on Sway In The Morning a few weeks ago in New York. This Migos and Lil Yachty is coming out. I got some work with 2 Chainz and Wale coming out. I have some really interesting music coming out.
DX: Dim Mak has also been pushing Watch The Duck and Bok Nero as well. What’s the plan with them?
Steve Aoki: There are two different plans. With Bok Nero, Jahlil Beats and I are trying to forge and do some interesting music together. When he came to LA, we started working on some beats so we have some stuff together as well. Bok Nero is his guy and Bok Nero is incredible on the fly in the studio. I love watching process and everyone has their own process. I remember me and Jahlil were working on some new beats and Bok is in the corner pacing getting his flow on. Then we start huddling around him and get the energy going and the flow makes sense. He jumps in the studio and knocks it out. So, we did that a couple of times and probably nailed three or four ideas down. As far as what those will become, we’re still in the process of finishing those songs. There’s definitely a long term plan with Bok and Jahlil in doing all the good music together. Once again, I like being able to work with all these incredible producers, seeing their process and being inspired.
Watch The Duck is another really unique outfit doing something hybrid and really joining three different sounds. It’s not two, but three different types of cultures together and doing something brand new. I’m so excited to support and we’re excited to see all who are supporting them. Pharrell is a big supporter of them. Him being on the EP. The fact that Pharrell is featured on a project released from Dim Mak for me is a dream. It’s Pharrell, he’s the man. He’s a trendsetter, if not the biggest trendsetter of culture in our generation. So, with him and Schoolboy Q on the EP. T.I. being a huge supporter as well, that was a big thing for us. They’re signed to a major so our plan with them is to help develop them on the underground and build a base so they can do something bigger with a major.
DX: What’s catching your ear musically right now?
Steve Aoki: I like the “Black Beatles” song. I was just hanging out with Jimi from Rae Sremmurd and we did three ideas. I just love people who are so talented. That’s the new generation of rappers that I’ve been in the studio with where it’s not about methodical writing, but on the fly coming from the dome and spitting it out almost like a freestyle. Then, curating it into a flow and song. Being in the studio with these guys and watching how they work is incredible.
DX: I know an older generation of rap fans have an issue with Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty and the whole mumble rap conversation. Where do you stand on that?
Steve Aoki: Like anything, if it makes you bounce, flow, you love the music and it makes you happy. It’s a new style. Things are going to change. That’s just a part of music. It’s always going to change and there are going to be different things that people don’t like. I’m the biggest target of doing things people don’t like in my community. It’s a lot of people who don’t like that I throw cake at my shows. People actually hate that. I’m not going to stop doing unless people don’t want it. My fans are tired of the cake, it’s all good. My main thing is music. I’m just giving you some love and giving you desert on the side. In any case, after this sound and what people are doing, there’s going to be something else. It’s always going to change.