Of all the fascinating bullet points on Steve Aoki’s curriculum vitae — son of late Benihana founder Rocky Aoki, owner/operator of renowned independent label Dim Mak, in-demand producer/remixer/collaborator, author and tireless philanthropist — perhaps the one that stands out in the boldest relief would be “one of the world’s most acclaimed DJs.”
As it happens, Aoki never set out with the intention of being the world’s greatest anything, least of all a DJ.
“I didn’t expect it to become a job that would carry everything, that would be the breadwinner that would carry my life forward,” Aoki says by phone from his Las Vegas home. “I thought my label was that. I was paying my debt for my passion, my record label, with $100/$200 gigs, times five gigs a week, times four weeks a month. And then I was like, ‘Wow, I can pay off a lot of my expenses this way and live a pretty comfortable life.’ I didn’t expect it to take me where it has. I’m here to support artists and grow a community and culture that I absolutely love.”
Over the past quarter-century, Aoki has become a global EDM phenomenon, routinely playing for immense festival crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. But his current tour supporting his imminent new album, Neon Future IV (so far, no specific date has been set beyond sometime this year), will include a number of club dates like his appearance at Bogart’s in Cincinnati. While he appreciates the inherent differences in those two situations, Aoki has designs on keeping the experiences relatively similar, whether it’s for 1,000 or 100,000 people.
“On this tour, it will be pretty much the ‘Neon Future’ experiential show,” Aoki says. “It’ll probably be different orders here and there because that’s where I follow the crowd, but for the most part it’s very much an artist’s set. For most club shows, I’m just going to have some fun and wing it, then play my favorite records at the time, but this is going to be about Neon Future IV and also for the fans that want to hear all the classic records from my archive. So, I’ll be mixing in songs from my past and the other Neon Future albums.”
At the same time, Aoki understands the differing dynamics presented by clubs and festivals and has adapted unique methodologies in catering to each audience.
“With the smaller shows, it’s more of a dense fan base, so I can really dig into my sets,” Aoki says. “The way I see it, a festival show is like a final exam. People have maybe heard one song or maybe they’re with friends and they’re curious and want to check it out. So, I’ve got to use these broad brushstrokes to paint a larger picture for them and for my diehard fans. It’s like the 101 of Steve Aoki music, a greatest hits kind of thing.”
As the number would indicate, there have been three previous Neon Future releases, with the new fourth installment comprised completely of collaborations. The story arc of the albums deals with the rise of technology, a robotic takeover and a melding of tech and humans into a single entity. With last month’s release of “Maldad,” every song from IV’s proposed setlist has been released as a single, dating back to the first track, “Are You Lonely,” which Aoki dropped almost exactly a year ago. In addition, the music series inspired a comic book series, which was compiled into a graphic novel by publisher Impact Theory.
Aoki also released his memoir, Blue: The Color of Noise, in 2019. With all of his previously mentioned activities devouring his calendar, it seems unlikely that Aoki could find time to read a book, let alone write one. His solution? Chip away at it for six years.
“I started in 2013,” he says. “Even before I was a DJ, I was in bands and I have notebooks upon notebooks of poetry, stories and writings. Compiling it all together was the hard part. I’d been writing about different facets of my life and it was really difficult to edit it down, to focus on one common theme. I had to change it from a book of shout outs — ‘Oh, I have to include this person because they had a big influence on my life…’ — to sticking to the color blue and what that means to me and how that has been different shades of my life. It took a long time to get to that stage. It was a challenge, but it was an undertaking that didn’t have a deadline.”
As noted, Aoki maintains an almost incomprehensible schedule of recording and performing, but his most satisfying work comes from using his high profile within the music industry to benefit a variety of charitable pursuits, many of which are administered through his Aoki Foundation, which helps fund various areas of brain research, particularly brain preservation and regenerative medical advances. The foundation is also active in animal rights issues, disaster relief and providing aid to individuals with developmental challenges.
In this divisive time in American history, Aoki views all of this work through a wide-angle lens.
“We’ve only got one life and we can’t live without each other,” he says earnestly. “Our species isn’t meant to be alone and selfish —we survive because we love. We survive because we’re social beings. We have a semblance of compassion and, at the end of the day, we want to be happy. The best way to be happy is to help each other out, any way we can.”
Aoki has also found the inner path to making his crazy schedule an engine for his success. Writing Blue was a therapeutic outlet for him, which went hand in hand with the actual therapy sessions he’s attended over the past three years. But his basic philosophy is the umbrella that covers all of his endeavors.
“My life is like a constantly moving train, I’m always on the go. To be able to stop and really sit with some of those feelings was very challenging but very important to me,” he says. “I believe in the ethos of momentum and using that momentum to carry you forward and how important momentum is to create that state of flow that allows you to do what you do.”
UPDATE: On March 6 it was announced that Neon Future IV will be released on April 3. "Halfway Dead," a new single from the album featuring blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and singer/rapper Global Dan, was also released.
Steve Aoki plays Bogart’s Tuesday, March 10. Tickets/more show info: bogarts.com.