This approach to music-making has opened Aoki up to global demographics and allowed him to follow his many interests, whether it's the history of humanity or his own sentimentality. Interpolating Matchbox Twenty's 2001 Adult Contemporary jam "Unwell," as he does on new track "Used To Be" with Kiiara and featuring Wiz Khalifa, falls into the latter category.
"This particular song is a lot about nostalgia," Aoki tells Billboard over Zoom from his place in Las Vegas. "I remember when the songwriters sent it to me and it was like, 'Oh my God, I can’t wait to work on this,' because it was a mega-smash hit when I was leaving college in Santa Barbara and trying to figure out my life. Now I can actually work on this song. It’s crazy."
With the pandemic forcing Aoki off the road -- a transition he says was at first "harsh" -- he's had time to build a pair of saunas, focus on his meditation practice and "experiment beyond belief" with music. (He also caught heat for playing a Tampa club show during Super Bowl weekend in February, an event he declines to comment on.) He says once he gets the opportunity to be vaccinated, he's eager to play countries currently allowing shows.
Here, Aoki talks about the influence of his father, Behihana founder Rocky Aoki; the influence of his mother (whose Instagram bio reads "Thank you for supporting Steven! Love you all! God bless you!"); and the origins of his singular hustle.
1. Where are you in the world right now, and what's the setting like?
I’m in Las Vegas, Nevada, at my house. I call it the Aoki’s Playhouse. My studio is here, the Neon Future Cave. I’ve got names for everything. I’m always working on music, I’m always creative here. It’s been the most amazing creative space on the planet for me, and luckily it’s my home.
2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
The first 45 that I bought, obviously it was vinyl, was “A Nightmare on My Street” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. It was 1988. The reason I got it is because of my brother, who’s 10 years older than me. He had the sickest vinyl collection. He was a mod, so he had The Jam and Style Council and The Who and Morrissey. He was always playing vinyl, and I was like, "I want to be like my brother, but I have to listen to my own music." I watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air all the time when I was a kid, and I loved Freddy Krueger, so I was like, "This is perfect.”
3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do they think of what you do for a living now?
My dad was a restauranteur and entrepreneur. He founded a restaurant chain called Benihana. He was very much a daredevil, kind of like the Asian Richard Branson. He was an athlete, over-performer, workaholic. In many ways he paved the road for a lot of Asians in American to find success in America, especially at the time – in the '60s it was very difficult for Japanese immigrants to succeed in the U.S., due to the internment camps and things that had happened decades before. He struggled and fought through a lot of the racism and ignorance of the time and helped bring a culture to America that is beloved now – Japanese food.
He passed away in 2008, so he got to see a little bit of [my] success. For him, success was having sustainability and longevity. He was a businessman, so he didn’t think of music as a career; he thought of music as fun and not something that was a career. In all honesty, most musicians don’t actually succeed financially. It’s a tough world for musicians to actually make money off of music and survive. A lot of the musicians I was helping out and supporting through my label had side jobs, even though they were in popular touring bands.
My dad saw that too, because I was running a label before I was a DJ. He didn’t want to see me as someone who was always going to have to have a job on the side while I was doing my music career. I showed him that [it was sustainable] early on, but he didn’t believe me, because playing in bars, in his mind, was not sustainable. Like, "Are you still going to be playing in bars in your 30s, 40s, 50s?" He didn’t see that as part of a growth step, although that can be sustainable. But he finally saw the longevity and how it could actually grow. I remember when I told him I was playing Coachella in 2007, the first time I played a festival. I was like, “Look dad, things are changing. I could actually make a career out of this. It’s not just something that’s for fun.” That was a big moment.
4. Did that make you proud?
Big time. I really lean heavy on him as far as getting his approval. That was really really important to me.
5. What was the first song you ever made?
I was 15 years old. I not only played every instrument, but I recorded everything myself. That was my first testament to recording as a producer and as a musician. I have to pat myself on the back for that. I sang as well, and wrote all the lyrics and melodies. I did everything myself and made a four track demo on a recorder that my mom bought me that was like, 400 bucks, which was a big deal, a big birthday present at the time.
The song is godawful. Pure awful. But I played two different guitar lines, a bass line, I played drums and sang. I can’t even tell you the name of the song, or even find the cassette tape. That moment, though, changed everything for me. It didn’t matter how bad it was, it was the fact that I actually did it.
6. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into electronic music, what would you give them?
Daft Punk, Alive . It’s a no-brainer for me. I would say Discovery, any Daft Punk album, but the reason I say Alive is that it mixes the greatest hits of Daft Punk in the live context that I got to experience. It’s so different to hear it live than hearing it on an album. When I hear Alive, it transports me back to 2007 and watching them at Coachella. It was game-changing for me. If there was a single moment that changed my career as an artist and made me rethink everything and really gave me inspiration that this is something that’s lifelong, it’s that one-hour Daft Punk show that I watched at Coachella.
7. Was that the first electronic music show that really blew your mind?
That is the most game-changing show ever, because I got to see artists that were in my space that I loved. I mean, they were my favorite. They’re still my favorite artists of all time, so watching them live, seeing them perform in front of so many people and seeing them hypnotize anybody far more than any band or singer jumping around on stage -- they didn’t move; it was just two guys in helmets who were barely moving and their production was insane. Of course there were other [electronic] artists playing festivals, but it didn’t turn the lights on in the way they did. It didn’t completely flip the script. It was like, "This is performance and your body is lifted into space and something’s happening." It was incredible.
8. What does "EDM" mean to you?
I mean, it’s my life. It’s my core of everything I’m doing. I might produce different sounds. I did Kolony, my hip-hop album, where I produced entirely in the hip-hop world and I was doing straight-up hip-hop beats that you might have not known was me. But the core of what I make now is EDM.
9. What’s the first non-gear thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as an artist?
I had this car that I literally drove [into] the ground and ended up selling to a junkyard. I had a tax receipt for 400 bucks, and I had no car. I was 28, and at that time I finally got out of debt, which is a whole other story. I had a successful label by all optics. It looked like it was crushing, because we signed Bloc Party and some really big acts that blew up in America and we got attention for that.
But I didn’t know how to run a business at the time. I was just spending money like crazy and I didn’t know how to balance the budgets. At the time I was in a mega-hole. A big hole -- like, 10 credit cards overdue, a hundred thousand dollars of debt. And there was no way for me to make that money back with the label, so the only way to climb out was if my dad, who had money, would help me, or if I figured out another strategy.
10. So what happened?
Option one was never an option. He never once gave me any money, no matter how rich he was, he never actually wrote a check and put it in my bank. I’m so grateful for that, because he could’ve done that. He had the means to pull me out of this hole that I got myself in because of my own recklessness and plain naivete. But he would never do that, because he didn’t want me in the music business to begin with. He wanted me to get a nine-to-five and deal with life. I would never have crawled to him to ask, and he would have never given me the money. He would’ve told me to figure it out on my own.
That’s when this DJing thing on the side became – it was not only my passion, but it became my goal to work five times as hard, and instead of making $100 a gig, $300 a gig. I was playing five to six days a week everywhere around town. I played anywhere. I played for $50 to $300. I finally climbed out of that whole and got enough cash that I was able to buy my first car with my own money. I was 28, and I brought all the cash into the Toyota dealership and dumped it all on the table, dirty tens and twenties and fives and ones that I got from bars and clubs. I dumped it out and said, "I want to buy this Prius." I was two thousand dollars short, and they gave it to me. They’d counted all the cash already.
It was a huge lesson for me. When I have a kid, I can only imagine that if my kid is having a tough time, I'd want to help them, but that’s not necessarily... that’s toxic to enable bad behavior. It’s a tough thing for a parent, but for my dad, it was no problem.
11. You've collaborated with so many artists, from Sting to Wiz Khalifa to the Backstreet Boys. What's the number one rule for a successful collab?
To me, the success isn’t about the streams or how many eyeballs are on it. To me the success is the heart of the song, if it really pumps in the way it’s supposed to pump. For me, at the end of the day, music is just an extension of your feelings and how it’s connected to other people. That’s it. You produce music and work with other artists to create a moment in time, an experience, a feeling that you can embody and can be shared with other people. Some songs will literally change your entire life and get you through the toughest times in your life. I’m not saying this new song is doing that, but that’s what music can do and that’s why people are so passionate about music.
12. Who haven't you worked with yet that you'd like to?
Elon Musk. No joke, he’s my number one. I mean, The Weeknd, Drake, Post Malone, Eminem, clearly. But I like to think about who’s changing culture that I would love to melt minds with, because [Musk] doesn’t have to be playing on a keyboard. If we can lock in the studio for a few hours and talk about space and shit, and then I can start making music while we’re vibing, that’s a collaboration to me. It’s all about feeling and inspiration.
I did a record with J.J. Abrams. I did one with Yuval Harari, who wrote my favorite books of all time, Sapiens and Homo Deus. I made a record with Ray Kurzweil, who coined the term 'singularity' and the whole idea that we’re going to get to a point when A.I. and technology will usurp humanity. I love thinking like that. I flew to the Bay Area to meet with Kurzweil in his apartment, just to talk. I flew to Cambridge just to meet Richard Dawkins and talk with him. I ask who inspires me the most, not who’s going to write the best lines. Everything is a collaboration, as long as there’s a connection.
13. Your party Dim Mak Tuesdays was such an L.A. institution. What's your wildest story from that event?
Kid Cudi giving out his jewelry in front of like, 50 people. I think I’d just finished my "Pursuit Of Happiness" remix for him, and he came to perform with me. This was like, 2009, after we toured together. We were homies, and he was always coming through, and he was in this mood. I couldn’t believe it. He was singing “Pursuit,” and he just climbed over the booth and started giving away his jewelry. I couldn’t f--king believe it. He was just in that mood of like, pure happiness. He just wanted to give. What a feeling, to feel that free.
14. What are the best parts of living full-time in Las Vegas?
The best part is being close to my mom, and it being quiet, as strange as that sounds. I live near my mom and my sister, which is so incredible for me, being close to my family. Especially because I’ve been touring nonstop for 18 years. I’ve rarely had time to see family. I moved to a Vegas suburb, and it’s so different than what people think Vegas is all about. People think of the Strip. Outside the Strip, it’s quiet in these suburbs. I got set up, then I bought my mom a house. She’s 10 doors away from me and I see her all the time. It’s the best investment I ever did.
15. You keep extraordinarily busy with business ventures, music, etc. How do you keep so many plates spinning and still maintain your sanity?
It’s the only way I can actually live my life. Yes, I do need resets and I've been learning that a lot. Meditation and mindfulness, things like that are very important, but I’ve always been in the center of the tornado. I like having the activity, the energy, the chaos. I like having a busy house. Even as a kid, we would almost adopt my friends that didn’t have places to live. Everyone would hang out. I’ve liked that kind of energy from a young age.
Even before I was a DJ, I was in five bands, I was putting on 20 free shows a month in my apartment – everyone trampling into and destroying my apartment and sleeping on that floor -- I was in school full-time and I had two jobs. I was writing for a magazine. I don’t know how I had enough time to do all that. Now, it’s the same. That’s just my personality.
16. Finish this sentence: the most exciting thing happening in dance music right now is _____.
Experimentation. At least for me. For me as a creator and artist, I’m experimenting beyond belief, and I have a feeling a lot of artists are doing the same because they have an endless amount of time to be in the studio.
17. What's the best business decision you've ever made?
Allowing myself to fail and learn through my failures. Embracing failure and accepting that failure is coming, managing expectation of what success means and what it is and responding in ways you never thought how to respond, which ultimately allows you to think bigger and do more with unknown circumstances. And that’s life. There’s no wheel that you can continue to ride. It’s always going to change, and you have to learn to adapt. If you can’t, you’re just going to be stuck with the trend you’re a part of and be a relic of the time. I’ve seen that with a lot of people who get stuck in a trend, and when the trend dies, their art goes with it. You have to be able to adapt and be okay to fail and be okay to fail in front of people and be okay and know that’s going to happen. That’s hard, the bigger you get, you just don’t want to fail in front of people.
18. Who was your greatest mentor, and what was the best advice they gave you?
My go-to would be my father, but then if I really think deep, it’s really my mom. She’s the unsung hero in my life. She never told me specific phrases in life that I could live by, she just lived them, and I learned from them. One thing she’s taught me that's stayed with me is just gratitude. Being grateful to be where I am, to be alive, to have love and to be able to experience happiness in different ways.
That feeling occurs a lot for me when I’m on stage. I always have to pinch myself. If I’m onstage and laughing or smiling heavy, it’s because I can’t believe I’m still onstage and people actually give a shit about what I’m doing and care enough to come to my stage and my show and spend whatever money they have, drive all the way out to come see me, stand in front of me the whole time, sing the lyrics. It’s an incredible feeling. Whenever I do it, it empowers me to play the next show, and that’s why I end up doing so many shows. I’ve done 200 minimum shows a year around the world for 15 years straight. Producing music is one thing, playing it live is the next level.
19. What has the last year been like for you, not being able to get that experience?
The transition was a bit tough, because I was literally yanked off of a tour that was the biggest tour of my career to date. It was sold out and doing really well. It was my biggest album to date, 27 songs, and the biggest stage production I’d ever put together. It was a harsh transition. I actually didn’t believe [the pandemic] would last. I thought COVID would last a month, I just didn’t understand it at the time.
But once you get past that – it’s another thing as a human being that I’ve been able to learn how to pick myself up after feeling so badly because I’ve fallen over so many fucking times. I feel like I’m a very adaptable person. This was a true testament to that. Can I completely flip my life? When I’m on the road, that’s my home. When you’re on the road for that many shows a year, you’re on the road the whole year because you have to consider the travel time. So I did 250 shows a year, I’m on the road for 300. The home is the road, and if you can’t make that adjustment, you won’t survive for that long.
Now, home is home, and I love being home now. I love it. I’ve learned to love it. My mindfulness practice has become priority for me now. I meditate every day. I built one sauna and then I ended up building a second sauna. I have two cold plunge tanks. I do yoga. It’s just a different life. I’m 43 now, I’m just trying to take care of myself in a different way. I do that on the road, but you can only do it to a certain extent. My documentary was called I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. Before, I could give a s--t about sleep. Now it’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Tired.
20. What's one piece of advice you'd give to your younger self?
I think being present is really lacking because of social media, so to more present and engaged with people. That’s really important, because we are alike, and we are a social species and we want to connect.
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