Always an active participant in the music scene, Steve Aoki played in bands, wrote for a music ‘zine and put on more than 450 shows in college before starting his own label, Dim Mak Records. His electronic style has made him a popular DJ the world over, especially in Las Vegas—and in turn, Aoki calls MGM Grand club Hakkasan “my favorite nightclub to play in the world.” His album “Neon Future” comes out in September.
When was the first time you came to Vegas?
Probably around 2005. I played the Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay. I was playing hip hop—I was a DJ, like I am now, but I didn’t have any music. I was just DJing what people wanted to hear. It was honestly tougher, because the DJ back in that time period was anonymous. Your job was purely to keep the whole place dancing. If you played the wrong song and people left the dance floor, you might get kicked off at any given moment. As an artist, I’m not thinking like that, I like to introduce songs that no one’s heard, and I might introduce four of them in a row if I want to.
What do you like best about performing in Vegas now?
I really feel like it’s my back yard when I’m playing at Hakkasan and Wet Republic. It’s fun—I’m not really nervous or scared if something was to happen when I couldn’t control, because that’s when you get nervous, as an artist—there are certain variables that you can’t control, like where your set gets [bleeped] because of some technical issues with sound or whatever it might be. But even if that happens, I just feel more comfortable there. I’ve been playing at Hakkasan for a couple of years now. It’s got the best sound, it’s got the best room, a good team. And the crowd’s always different. That’s another great thing about Vegas—each weekend you’re playing to a completely different, brand-new crowd.
When you were a kid, did you know you wanted to be in the music world?
I did. I guess I was a tween when I got into hardcore and that whole sound and movement did I really feel that music was going to be part of my life. Growing up, there was a major distinction before I found this music scene and culture. There’s a real critical distinction, because before I’d just listen to music and it was fun and I’d hear a song and I’d like it, but it didn’t become my lifestyle and my community. All the decisions I made were based around that culture.
What were some of the singers and bands that had the biggest impression on you?
Some of my favorite bands at the time were Born Again, Minor Threat and Fugazi—a bigger band would be Rage Against the Machine. I grew up with that ideological, philosophical, outlook—the lyrics had meaning. It had purpose. It kind of led me down this pathway into college, where I started to educate myself and get more involved on a more sophisticated level with my involvement in music. It gave me the tools to do all of those things.
How did you make yourself part of the scene?
To gain respect from your peers, you do that by being proactive in your community and being creative in different ways to push your sound, your music, your culture. Whether it’s doing a ‘zine, whether it’s putting on shows, producing shows for other artists, whether it’s being in a band. So when I was in college, I was just very involved in my community. I was also putting on shows—I had more than 450 bands play in various living rooms of mine when I was in college. Then I started a label—it was a very natural kind of progression.
What’s the meaning behind the name of your label?
Dim Mak is a martial art move otherwise known as the "Touch of Death." My childhood hero was Bruce Lee, that I wanted to have some sort of connection without having to call it Bruce Lee Records, which isn’t very cool. So there’s this mystery that he was killed by the Dim Mak, and the mystery holds that he was able to do Dim Mak, so that was my way of paying homage.
You travel so much, how much time do you spend in any given place?
This year I adapted, because I had to finish part one of “Neon Future,” so I spent the majority of January through May in Los Angeles and New York finishing the album. I would do what I call a power weekend: Sunday-Thursday I would be in the studio, then I would just hammer out the weekend playing shows, wherever it might be— in Vegas, America primarily, so I could be closer to the studio. I finished almost everything in May, with the exception of one song, and that one song took a long time because the vocalist was so far away, and we had to continually do mix-downs on how it sounded. I work with many people, so if I work on a song with a vocalist, and he or she doesn’t like the mix, I’m not going to go on without it. That took about two and a half months to finish, but now the song sounds so much better. In this particular song, there’s 14 different vocal layerings, so it’s just an epic, epic song!
In the past few years, the Vegas nightlife and daylight worlds have really exploded. Why do you think that is?
I think there are a lot of factors as to why dance music itself has grown so much. If you really want to break it down, I feel the culprit is the Internet. The Internet has taken away the control and the power from institutionalized structure that was so regulated that only major labels had access to giving out this music, so that you only hear a particular kind of music or that’s the only way people would discover music. Now with the Internet, you don’t need that anymore. We’ve taken control of the space to allow for artists to shine and be discovered more easily. At the end of the day, it’s all about discovery. How to access and discover the music is how the music is going to grow. So now that we’ve decentralized that, we’re able to all grow. Skrillex is a perfect example of an artist that grew from that world. He put music out on the Internet and blew up bigger than some of the biggest pop stars on television. He just completely flipped the whole script and shook up the whole industry, and major labels had to take note. We can’t necessarily control the space that has no control. That, in my opinion, was the start of it.
What do you like to do after your final set?
I like gambling, so if I have a good crew of people I might go play some blackjack, or go play some late-night poker, which I used to do all the time. I’ll sit by the poker table and play some poker.
What are some of your favorite places to dine in Las Vegas?
I’m still exploring. I just moved here (in October 2013). I’m hoping that Las Vegas will become more progressive like Los Angeles and start bringing in some more health-conscious options. Whole Foods is a must go-to for me. MGM Grand has a lot of good restaurants—Joel Robuchon is obviously one of the top-tier restaurants here. I like Greens and Proteins, I like the shakes there.
How are you looking to get more involved in the Las Vegas community?
When I moved to Vegas, I had a meeting with Tony Hsieh right away. I wanted to meet the man who is revolutionizing Las Vegas, in my opinion. I want to be a part of that community. I just got so inspired by the whole team—he’s got an incredible team working at Downtown Project. They’re bringing so many progressive options for the people who live out here. That’s what I’m looking forward to—more mom & pops, more boutiques growing. It’s invigorating seeing someone who has wealth and power and a whole community supporting him to be able to develop an economy that’s going to be able to support itself outside of gaming and outside of tourism. I plan to get more involved in that world. The ideas are plentiful.