One Step Beyond

Posted online: April 2018

A dizzying list of projects keeps STEVE AOKI on his toes—he’s a DJ, musician, remixer, producer, owner of the record label Dim Mak, and most recently, a fashion designer. All of this began humbly enough in Santa Barbara

Written by Amelia Fleetwood Photographs by Brian Ziff

“I’ll sleep when I am dead.” The motto is tattooed on the back of DJ and electronic dance spin master Steve Aoki’s neck, and it says it all. Living true to this adage has its advantages—he never stops moving. Aoki’s compulsive work ethic compliments his whirlwind lifestyle, complete with private jets and all-nighters from New York City to Paris to Ibiza and residencies in Las Vegas. He’s famous for his parties, wild romps onstage, crowd surfing, and especially his cake-throwing antics. His penchant for spraying champagne onto an enthralled and pulsing audience during his sets is legendary. Born in Florida to Japanese showman Rocky Aoki (founder of the Benihana restaurant chain) and Chizuru Kobayashi, the family later settled in California. “Let’s wind back the clocks,” Aoki laughs. “I grew up in Newport Beach where it was 96 percent white. It was confusing for me. As an Asian American, I could not see where I fit in. I was the weirdo.”

It was not until Aoki was in college at UC Santa Barbara (earning degrees in feminist studies and sociology) that he ceased feeling isolated and found his footing. “As a student, I was the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kid who wanted to change the world. In Santa Barbara, I figured out how to use my voice for the first time. I was desperately trying to make some noise and do something with my feelings and my thoughts,” he shares. “That time was really important; it propelled me to learn more about my identity, which I then related back into my music. Music became a tool to share the information and feelings in my head.” His time in Santa Barbara became the foundation for Aoki’s life in more ways than one. While at UCSB, Aoki played—and also hosted—hard-core punk shows in his house in Isla Vista. The shows became so popular that his living room was dubbed the Pickle Patch. Aoki hosted more than 80 bands a month, and it was the place to be. Most of the acts that played at the Pickle Patch did not have record labels and were not signed. Starting his record label Dim Mak in 1996 “seemed like the natural thing to do,” he says. (Dim Mak is a reference to Bruce Lee’s martial art death touch technique—striking certain points on the body to cause illness or death.)

“I never touched a turntable when I was in college, I only had a record player—two very different things,” he laughs. This was all pre-DJ life. Aoki  chose to leave academia and moved to Los Angeles where he met up with a group called The Kills and put Dim Mak on the map. “When I wasn’t touring with The Kills, I was trying to get Dim Mak off the ground. I’d throw parties in L.A. introducing the bands I was producing, and that’s when I started DJing. I  invited all my friends, and that’s how it all got started.”

These days, the 39-year-old Aoki splits his time between DJing (which is a constant), and promoting his first hip-hop album Kolony, which includes some of the biggest names in the rap world: Migos, Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, 2 Chainz, Wale T Pain, Gucci Mane, Ricky Remedy, and more. It’s a change of pace from Aoki’s usual electronica house music. Aoki additionally spearheads his own fashion brand, also called Dim Mak, as well as teaming with Topshop, where his Vision Street Wear collection is set to launch in early 2018. A staunch perfectionist, Aoki always seeks to improve his game. “It’s very important to me to be on top of the world, but I can never put my feet up because the top is just one peak and there are more.” When asked how he unplugs, Aoki chuckles. “Unplugging…I still have to learn how to do that. Maybe that’s my next goal.”

As a student, I was the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kid who wanted to change the world. In Santa Barbara, I figured out how to use my voice for the first time. I was desperately trying to make some noise and do something with my feelings and my thoughts.”  

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