STEVE AOKI is a two-time Grammy nominated producer/DJ, entrepreneur, founder of Dim Mak Records, and designer of the contemporary menswear line Dim Mak Collection. Since launching in 1996, Dim Mak Records has become a springboard for acts such as The Chainsmokers, Bloc Party, The Bloody Beetroots, and Gossip. As a solo artist, Steve lives on the road, averaging more than 250 tour dates per year. His 2016 Netflix Original documentary I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead was nominated for a Grammy. Known for his genre-bending productions, Steve has collaborated with Linkin Park, Snoop Dogg, Fall Out Boy, and more. His hits “Just Hold On” with One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson and “Delirious (Boneless)” with Kid Ink are both certified Gold. His latest album, Kolony, debuted at #1 on the Electronic Album charts. Marking his first full turn into rap music, Kolony features Lil Yachty, Migos, 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, T-Pain, and more.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
The iMask Sleep Eye Mask is an absolute blessing to have on tour; I carry it with me wherever I go. Because we travel and our schedules are so stressful, I need to be able to sleep any time there is quiet. That time isn’t necessarily the traditional time that people sleep. For me, it’s when I have finished DJing or I’m in a car. It is then that I put on my iMask and get those 15 minutes of sleep. When you’re tackling a strenuous work weekend—something like five countries in two days, which is something that we do in the summer —you have to sleep in any situation. This could be in the car, on the plane, going from hotel to the venue, or from the venue to the airplane. I carry the iMask with me and stick it on to sleep or practice my Transcendental Meditation, which sometimes allows me to fall asleep. I like the iMask because it shuts everything out. It’s absolutely one of the necessities on the road that helps me get my z’s.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why? Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
The quote I live by is “By any means necessary.” It’s from Malcolm X. When I was in college, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and was blown away by the determination and commitment that Malcolm X had to his people and to fight against a system that was not designed to support or help him or his people. He really made strides in bringing civil rights to the forefront of the American people. It was a very moving book, and I remember reading it a few times.
As I started my label, I wanted to create a slogan with this concept, and I wanted to use this idea of “by any means necessary” as a way of life. When we started [my label] Dim Mak back in 1996, I didn’t have any money to launch the label, as I only had $400 to my name. So I would find any way possible to make sure these records came out. I did whatever I could with the tools in front of me with no excuses and no complaining. You gotta find a way to get your project done; you gotta think outside the box.
My team also lives and works by the mantra of “by any means necessary,” and because of that, we can get things done that others might not. I feel lucky to have such a great team that will share this way of life with me.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
There was a period when I was drinking at every show, and I was DJing a lot, maybe four nights a week, playing local shows in Los Angeles. I had a couple of Dim Mak parties, and we were on top of the world! We had cornered the market with our sound and culture, and I was just getting booked left and right. I was the ambassador of this new culture that was burgeoning in electronic music called “electro,” and my ego was flexing a bit. I was drinking and having fun. It was a great feeling, but then you forget about the most important things in life because you’re in that fog of self-indulgence.
My mom was coming to visit me, and she never flies in. This was one of the few times she had. I was supposed to pick her up in the morning. I had a big night the night before—we had a party, I drank, and I stayed out super late. The next morning my mom landed around 7 A.M., and I slept through it. I woke up at 10 A.M., or something awful like three hours later. I saw a text message from my mom—she barely even knew how to text! I don’t know why, but she waited at the airport for three hours, sitting outside on a bench. My poor mom.
Once I got to the airport an hour later—making it four hours she had been there—she was just innocently sitting on this bench, and I broke down. She was still so sweet about it. It was at that moment that I felt like this whole life of partying and drinking was all bullshit, especially if you can’t maintain your priorities of valuing and taking care of your family.
That was one fail I will never forget. After that, I stopped being caught up in that Hollywood bubble where everyone parties and drinks every single night. You can live in that bubble and forget about the realities of your family and relationships outside the bubble. But those relationships are vital to who you are and are important in your life. Eventually, I quit drinking, which I am happy about, partly because of this major fail.
What is an interesting routine that you do on the road?
Being on the road, you deal with lots of traveling that can bog you down, and a lot of bad food options, which means you can’t control all the variables around you. At home, you would have your juice spot, your gym, and your market where you can shop every day, so you can eat the right foods and keep your life in balance.
One thing that I do on the road is “Aoki Bootcamp,” which utilizes accountability between the people I travel with to meet a certain goal every single day. We set a certain number of repetitions to complete each day, such as push-ups, sit-ups, etc., and even have a WhatsApp group chat to show evidence that we did the workouts. Beyond exercise, it also crosses into food, because it is not just about the workout you do but also about your diet. We have a list of foods that we can’t eat, and if you eat them, then you have to add 15 more repetitions to your workout to account for it. So, each day, we do our best to eat properly and exercise and meet these goals. That’s the underlying philosophy of Aoki Bootcamp: to use group accountability to meet these goals for food,
nutrition, and workouts.
If you don’t meet the goals by a particular time, by midnight, then you get financially penalized, and [the money] goes toward brain research nonprofits through the Aoki Foundation.
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Fast-forward through college, to after my father passed away. I got into studying cancer so I could understand what killed my dad. It was eye-opening. It got me looking into the future at how science is finding cures for other diseases. It all pointed to The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil. It opened me up to the idea of science fiction becoming science fact. I grew up reading comic books, and I loved sci-fi and anime. Ghost in the Shell was my favorite anime. I also really liked Armitage III, which dealt with the issues of self-aware robots.
I read Ray’s other books, which feature radical future science concepts, and it showed me how some of these ideas are actually attainable. Not just feasible in the distant future but in our lifetimes! It is incredible to think that some of these imaginative ideas, such as living forever or turning into a robot, could actually happen. [For example,] in the book Ending Aging, Dr. Aubrey de Grey talks about his research into how we can stop the degeneration of cells, essentially finding ways to extend life.
Ray Kurzweil talks about the law of accelerating returns, which states that fundamental measures of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories. For instance, in the ’70s, we had a computer that was the size of a room and cost $250,000, and now we have a computer the size of my hand that is much more powerful. In the end, it’s not just about rich people having technology; it’s about scaling it so that everyone can be a part of it.
You never know what can happen, but this book made me feel that there is a neon futurist hope, a hopeful utopian future where we use technology to better our lives, enhance our creativity, and live longer, happier, and healthier lives that are not plagued with disease, and where we use our resources in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet. I hope for that future. The Singularity Is Near informed my music—I named an album after it, and I wrote a song called “Singularity” in 2012. I even got Ray Kurzweil in the music video.
I then decided to create a concept album series called Neon Future. I wanted to not just fuse all my collaborative musical efforts into this concept but to also do songs with a scientist. Ray Kurzweil agreed to join me. I interviewed him in his apartment in San Francisco and also interviewed different people who inspired me.
In Neon Future II, I continued that conversation with different people and non-scientists like J. J. Abrams and Kip Thorne. The project is ongoing with Neon Future III, so we still have more to go, and it’s had a huge influence on my life.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
The one thing I learned in music and collaboration is that music is a cyclical trend and entertainment in general is always in a cyclical trend. I’ve realized that instead of following the trends, you want to identify the trends but not follow them. It’s good to recognize trends, but if you follow them, you get sucked into them, and then you also fall with the trend.
It is a testament to my label, an independent record label that I’ve been running for 20 years now, that it has survived the bullets that were supposed to take us out when we were forging our own path, creating new movements with sound and artists. We created and were part of certain trends, but we survived past the death of those trends. What I’ve learned is that people can position me in certain trends, and somehow I’ve been able to reemerge when the trend has passed. I can continue to hover above the up-and-down cycle.
I focus on the energy of my music, not the trend. The energy itself doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t exist in that space of being cool or not, and at the end of the day, the feeling itself is the most important thing to recognize, because the energy that my music will give off and attract is a very human feeling.
Essentially, music is our tool to engage with our feelings. I want to make sure I always stay in a zone where whoever I work with and however I make my music, I take the cultural cue of what is inspiring me at the time. This may be associated with trends, but I will always make sure that the energy of the music is at the forefront, and make that the loudest voice in the mix. I will always think about not riding that roller coaster. I know the roller coaster exists, but I am not going to put all my eggs in one basket and stick it on the roller coaster. Stay away from the trend! Identify, recognize, but stay away.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
When I’m in the studio and I get in a state where I can’t get my ideas across, and I’m banging my head against the computer, I have to leave the space. The same goes if I’m trying to finish a project and I’m just hitting a wall. You have to leave the space so you can reset.
Generally, the first thing I do is meditate so I can reset everything—reset my
brain and reset my energy. I believe in the ability to find flow, and when you are in that state of flow, you are capable of finishing projects really fast. To give an example, The Clash finished one of the best albums in rock history, London Calling, in three weeks. They finished that entire album so fast, in my opinion, because they were in a state of flow. In times like that, you are extremely productive and creative.
When I’m in that state of flow, I stay there as long as I possibly can, because once you’re out, it’s hard to get back in. If you’re hitting that wall or getting upset with yourself and can’t get back to finding inspiration and creativity, you have to reset and go back to the basics. That’s why some of my favorite artists to work with, whenever I go in the studio with them, say, “We don’t want to work in a big studio”—they want to go back to the basics and work in the small, kind- of-shithole studio. By doing this, you go back to the soul of why you do what you do. And most important, it’s not about how much money you can put into a project; it’s not about how many people you can put into the project; it’s about the gut feeling that you find in the center of why you did it in the first place.
You just gotta get back to that place, and if it makes you happy, then ride that happiness into a state of flow, and the rest is history!