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In Bio Doc Premiering at TFF, DJ Steve Aoki Mixes Up An A-List Career

Justin Krook Steve Aoki  Matt ColonTFFSon of sports star and entrepreneur Rocky Aoki, long haired Steve strode a very different path to set in motion his own career. But becoming an internationally renown dj/mixer/producer wasn’t initially part of his plan. 

A Grammy-nominated international producer/DJ, electronic dance music entrepreneur and founder of the trendsetting record label, Dim Mak, Aoki built a big business well before turning to deejaying and electronic dance production. In turn, it became an events/lifestyle company and apparel line.

Since launching in 1996, Dim Mak has broken bands such as Bloc Party, The Bloody Beetroots, Klaxons, and The Gossip through deft marketing of single and full-length album releases -- it now has nearly 500 releases to date.

Then as a solo artist, Aoki has become a force of nature averaging over 250 tour dates per year. 

Aoki's second artist album Neon Future I, was released September 30, 2014 via Dim Mak/Ultra Music and features his Gold certified single "Delirious (Boneless)" with Chris Lake and Tujamo featuring Kid Ink, "Born To Get Wild" featuring and "Rage The Night Away" featuring Waka Flocka Flame.

The second part, Neon Future II, was released on May 12, 2015 and featured collaborations with Linkin Park, Matthew Koma, Snoop Lion, Rivers Cuomo and NERVO, plus a  special appearance by creative genius J.J. Abrams who voices the outro to close the album.  

Aoki also Executive Produced and curated the soundtrack of The Hive -- The Nerdist's first feature film acquisition. Created by writer/director David Yarovesky and produced by Cary Granat of Scream 2 and Scream 3 fame, the film was called by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn as "the most horrifying and disgusting love story ever."

Recently, Aoki became the subject of a documentary about his career,  I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, titled as such because he never seems to stop going.

Subject Steve Aoki, director Justin Krook, and producer Matt Colon talked with a trio of journalists in New York City at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

Q: Being the focus of this documentary, how did you deal with your family, friends and colleagues?

SA: I’ve had a video crew of my own — some friends of mine would shoot these guerilla-style, YouTube-style videos for the last five years. So I always had some video team with me at some point traveling through the world. When Justin came into the fold, we were going over ideas about doing a doc which obviously wouldn’t be the same thing of what’s already out there.

What hasn’t been out there is more of a personal story that I had yet to discuss with anyone. In interviews, I don’t really talk about it. I never felt safe to talk about it. It’s more fun to talk about adventures on the road or doing on the spot things that directly connect with kids that are coming to my shows.

In this story, it was hard to open up and go into it. It took time. At a certain stage of making a movie, we crossed that bridge together. I was eventually like, “All right, you have uncensored direction and access. Do what you want.” I didn’t even see the film, after two-and-a-half years of filming until a month ago. I didn’t know how it was being edited.

Krook: I think one of the shoots that really opened things up was when we went to Japan for [Steve Aoki’s] mom’s 70th birthday. He got his mom, his sister and his brother to all go out together. Steve’s busy, and everyone’s spread out around the world, so it was kind of a unique thing. We were able to tag along on this family vacation of theirs.

Meeting the family — his mom is the nicest person you’ll ever meet — and those days in Japan really helped in that aspect. And also, for the rest of the time filming, I don’t think I ever saw Steve not working for seven days straight. It was interesting to film you when you were on personal time, because it was show after show after show.

Q: How do you feel about seeing yourself in this documentary?

SA: It is awkward for me. When I started seeing the more emotional side of things, I don’t like to show that. I don’t like showing the sad or dark. I really try to stay in a fun, spirited place. As far as the public access to who I am, I just like to show the fun side of things.

My “brand,” or whatever you want to call it, the Steve Aoki you see at live shows is fun. I’m not trying to portray anything different. But with this doc, when we get into more of these vulnerable places, it’s tough to watch.

Q: A lot of documentaries take more than five years to film. What was decided in the pre-production stage, in terms of how much access you would have and how long you wanted to film?

JK: We wanted to get it done as quickly as possible. But that said, we shot over the course of two-and-a-half years. Up front, when I first met with Steve, Matt (his manager) said we’re going to get all the access we need to make this. 

Saying that and doing that is one thing, so over the course of those two-and-a-half years, we were able to dive a bit deeper. From a filmmaker’s side, we were able to able to earn Steve’s trust to tell his story and his family’s legacy.

I was familiar with Dim Mak [Steve Aoki’s record company]. I had seen Steve’s shows beforehand. So when I went out to meet him, I thought he’d be this party animal, drinking all the time. No, he’s a health nut, super-intelligent and a super-humble guy. And right then and there, when I met, I knew we were going to have a really good film.

Q: Themes of legacy and family resonate throughout the film; they're an important part of the story. Those themes  spoke to you -- how did they affect the presentation of the movie?

JK: When we were talking with Matt and Steve, when we were conceptualizing the film, we didn’t want to make a documentary that was going to only speak to just EDM fans. While that is a big group of people, it’s really limiting the audience at the same time.

It’s also limiting the demographic; it skews pretty young. What we wanted to do is use the dance-music scene as a backdrop. It’s sexy, it’s fun to look at, the live performances are great.

But if we could find a universal theme that could resonate with people of all ages and all races, everyone around the world can connect with having expectations put upon you. Everyone can understand these different family dynamics — whether it’s your high-school soccer coach or your parents or your teachers. Everyone understands what it is to have expectations, so I think that was kind of the genesis of it.

If we could connect with people, it wouldn’t matter if you’re a dance music fan or not. And I think at the end of the day, this film is an introduction to who Steve is but it’s also an introduction to the dance music scene as a whole. People who don’t know much about the scene come into it and understand it a bit more, but at the same time enjoy the film on a more emotional level.

SA: I think in the beginning, it was a bit difficult for me to decide to that. I never really did it before. I felt like if we were going to make a documentary that is telling a more human story instead of a dance story, then we might as well go all in. We might as well bring it all out, especially when we have people outside of my space making this film. 

I didn’t want to make an EDM doc. They’re already out there. And also, for me, when I think about my father and my mother and the contributions they made to the culture — my father, particularly — there’s such a great story there.

As time goes by, it gets forgotten. It’s nice to bring it back to new generation that has no idea about it. The older generation, they know of him. That story stays in that bubble, but it’s nice to bring it to a new generation: the story of a Japanese person in America at a time a few decades past World War II, when discrimination against Japanese people was on red alert. He actually started a business that was part of popular culture in America. That’s unheard of.

His story is incredible. He was an ice cream man in Harlem, when he was 20s and had first moved to New York, and he got a loan to open up a restaurant. It’s kind of a crazy story. The hardship that he faced then, it’s hard to relate to now, but someone like him really opened up a lane for other Asians to be able to have that they can actually have an identity and be heard or be able to create a business or do something that can affect an infinite number of people. 

So when I think about what he did, then it’s all worth it in the end to bring that back into this film and show that.

Of course, but when you see your dad [on TV], it’s your dad. But when you see Bruce Lee on TV, it’s like, “That’s my god! That’s my dude!”

JK: [He says to Aoki] But now it’s you as well. How many other Asian-Americans are huge, Top 40 artists?

Q: Even though you and your father went into  different lines of work, you both have the traits of being a workaholic entrepreneur. He was quoted in the movie as saying he put work before his family and health. How do you balance that for yourself?

SA: It’s all about time management. Time management is how to use your time wisely, obviously, and understanding where you need help in certain areas and building teams in those areas to be able to build projects. I’m more of a project-based person, so I look at everything in projects and how to execute those projects requires help, a team.

Even though it says DIY, it’s really DIT: doing it together. That community-based spirit has been a thread since day one, when I was in the punk and hardcore scene, whether it was doing a ‘zine, forming a band or starting a fashion company. You can’t do it alone.

If I’m going to execute something with music, I might be the one creating the music, but I need a team to help me get it out there. So it’s all about how to delegate and know where your weaknesses are and where you can help fill in those spaces with the right people.

Q: Given that you’ve been in the music industry for so long and have a lot of influence, is there anything you wish you could change about the industry?

SA: I think one of the good things that’s happened, in terms of where the industry is going, is that the people who didn’t have a voice before, who needed these larger financial institutions to provide them with a voice for people to be heard, that’s changed.

If you don’t have the money, you can create a YouTube channel and start singing on YouTube and create a space for that and become your own star with your own crowd. Soundcloud gives you that platform as well.

There’s a lot of platforms for independent artists to have a voice and have a following and be able to get their music heard. That’s a great thing, but there is still a ceiling that is hit where you need some of these major labels, these financial institutions to break through.

And I feel like that ceiling needs to go away, more like an anarchist way of looking at what good music is. Good music isn’t always in the Top 40. That’s just the music that was paid to get up there.

There’s a lot of good music that hasn’t been heard because of these ceilings. How do we get through that? That’s the question. We’re already going in that direction, but how do we break it down even further? The artists who really have the influence have the platform.

Q: Where do you see yourself in pop culture and how does that relate to the overall message behind I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead?

SA: Dim Mak has hit 20 years as a record label. We started in 1996. I started DJ’ing in 2003, and before that, I was in bands. So I went from being in bands and touring to realizing that I enjoy developing brand-new artists and helping them get their music out there, and learning how to do that better and better. 

So that’s always been my life’s blood, even through the course of me DJ’ing, I realize the weight and influence that I have could really help out artists who are, in my opinion, much better producers than me. 

Q: And how do you help them? What can I do to help them?

SA: I always have something that is part of my role: How can I give back to artists and build a culture moving forward, and make it more self-sustaining, which it has become? That’s what’s exciting when you’re a part of a group that can build something that’s self-sustained, that doesn’t need or require other people’s input, other people’s money or influence. And that’s something I’m trying to help make bigger and bigger.


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