When he was barely 19, Steve Aoki started Dim Mak Records out of his college dorm room. After recently celebrating the label’s 15 year anniversary, Aoki discusses his love of San Francisco, the evolution of Dim Mak, and the label’s new weekly Obey the Kitty party Wednesdays at Vessel.
Steve Aoki has become one of the most talked about DJs and producers in electronic music today, and will release his newest album Wonderland on December 20th. But what some don’t know is that Aoki has run his own record label Dim Mak for the past 15 years, exposing bands and DJs, including Bloc Party, The Kills, and many more, to the world.
When you started Dim Mak in 1996 how big was the label in terms of personnel and the roster?
In ’96 I was barely 19 and I was doing it out of my dorm room with no money, no funding, no business partner or marketing. I literally had $400 in my savings account and I put all of that to putting out the first record. With the help of my friends, we grew the records to shave costs down.
I didn’t have my first employee until 2003. It was me and this girl working; I was able to pay her minimum wage. Then in 2003, we signed this band named Bloc Party. In 2004 we sold close to 80,000 records of Bloc Party—just singles and EPs all physical, no digital. In 2005 we did a deal with Vice Records for Silent Alarm and that record sold over 350,000 albums in America, physically. By then the Silent Alarm record was our 80th release.
Now in 2011, we have a 15-man operation working and it’s a very busy ship. We have over 240 releases under our belt and we’ve dodged the bullets that have killed many great labels in the past. We’ve figured out how to survive and evolve just like any species.
What is the Dim Mak formula that has helped the label survive so long?
I guess the formula is based on my A&R-ing because at the end of the day I’m 100 percent the A&R at this label. I’m the one that decides to release the music, whatever comes out is from my crop of what I want to release. We have a variety of all kinds of different artists as well. We have Rob Roy who’s a hip-hop artist, Ali Love who’s more of a singer for more disco records, we have Bloody Beetroots, MSTRKRFT, Felix Cartel which is more dance driven. We have so many bands too. Lot’s of variation.
I’ve caught a number of your sets over the last few years, there’s always a lot of diversity in terms of genre. They start electro and then switch to punk and metal influences in the middle parts of the set. Is this reflective of your personal music taste and Dim Mak’s roster?
Absolutely, my set is more and more becoming an entire set of just my music. I think if kids are going to pay decent money to come see me play, I want to give them what they want or what they expect: my music. I try my best to play the records they want to hear, but can’t play them all.
My new album coming out is as diverse as what you’re talking about. I have one record with The Exploited, an 80s punk band. I used to be a singer, so I do punk vocals on a 130 BPM dance track. Merging two different kinds of style and generations into one song is an exciting collaboration.
How do you chose who you want to collaborate with?
Collaborations are mainly based on a mutual relationship. They have to want to do the record. The thing is that all these people have their own schedules, agendas, singles and albums. So for them to jump on another person’s album or record is cool because it takes a lot of time and energy to focus on that. That goes the same for me too; I’ve turned down a lot of remix opportunities that I was really sad about because I need to focus on my own thing.
All these people, I know them really well otherwise it’s just too hard. I just can’t reach out to Jay-Z and be like “Hey man, let’s do a track!” He’s got to find that respect and time to do that and he’ll do that with certain artists that he likes. It’s taken me a long fucking time man; I’ve spent three years putting this album together and now it’s finally coming out.
Were these all in studio collaborations or did you work sending clips back and forth?
Some of them were and some of them weren’t. Every one has their own studio. When I was on my bus tour across Identity, I had brought my own studio, which was an 8 x 10 foot room in the back of my bus and that’s where I worked. You can really create a studio out of anything.
Dim Mak had its own stage for this summer’s Identity Festival and Electric Daisy Carnival. Are you planning to do your own Dim Mak tour?
We’re doing something really exciting at the end of January through March. It’s going to be a Dim Mak tour with myself and Datsik and other Dim Mak artists and we’re going to be hitting arenas across the U.S. I’ll be promoting my album Wonderland coming out on December 20th.
What do you attribute to the rise of EDM the last few years? Do you believe it’s here to stay this time unlike when it fizzled out in the late 90s?
It’s based on a bunch of different things like a multi-layered onion with moving parts that make it work. One of the most important things about sustainability is the actual producers and artists that are out there. There are enough artists now to have a sustainable community that will last longer than any sort of trends. The artists are constantly producing new types of sound and genres in electronic music.
With dubstep, Skrillex came out and reinvented dubstep in his own way and now he’s got his own thing. There’s so many different dubstep sounds, there’s moombahton now, you know? There’s so many different types of electro now that there wasn’t five years ago. All these producers and subgenres are starting to come out and do their own thing and it’s cool to see.
Do you think the way people are accessing music is changing what they listen to?
Definitely. Kids aren’t looking at MTV or television or radio to find their music anymore. They’re finding it on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The way we access music has changed so much that now you don’t need that big machine for your songs. All you got to do is get out there and do it yourself and be organic when you put something out. This is part of our generation, these alternative methods to finding music.
EDM has become bigger in the states, but the international community has still carried it more consistently throughout the years. What do you find to be the big differences between how dance music is received here versus places in Europe or Asia?
Europe is raised by dance music. Dance music is the status quo and it’s always been there constantly for decades. America is so coated with just what’s on the Top 40 but now people are shifting away from that and they’re finding their music in different places. I mean MTV now needs to stop calling themselves music television because they’re not. It’s good that they put on all these shitty reality shows, because now people have to go other places to discover new music.
But the crowds here are still incredible. If you take a smaller city in America versus a smaller town in Germany they’re both going to be insane because they paid money and love the music.
Dim Mak has a weekly party in SF now called Obey the Kitty at Vessel. Tell me what people can expect from the party every week?
This is our first Dim Mak residency in San Francisco. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the world to play in. For one, the crowd in SF is so educated and up for it. It’s one of the most important places for me to play across the U.S. When we decided to do another residency, I said ‘it has to be in San Francisco.’
We’re doing group package touring with all the amazing international artists coming through. With Obey the Kitty, we’re just extremely happy to be a part of the San Francisco dance community. We want all the kids who love my music, and Dim Mak artists whether it be all or one to come party and listen and be part of the scene.
Obey the Kitty is a weekly party at Vessel held on Wednesdays. More Info.