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Steve Aoki's voice sounds exactly like who he is. His breezy tone is that of a guy who grew up in Newport Beach and went to college at UC Santa Barbara. The fierce intensity when talking about everything he does is just right for a tirelessly prolific electronic music producer/performer.
The founder of the Dim Mak label swings by the City National Grove in Anaheim this Saturday, touring in advance of his debut album, Wonderland (due next year), and, he says, the set he'll be performing will not be the same as what he's been doing elsewhere in the world this year.
"My last show was the I Love Techno festival in Belgium; the headliners included Boys Noize, Paul Kalkbrenner and myself, and Laurent Garnier and Carl Craig were there—a whole mix of more underground music—so I tailored my set toward the more underground records Dim Mak is releasing," he says. "For the show in OC, the kids are mostly coming to hear my music, so I'll tailor the set toward that. I might toss in something like 'Don't Turn On the Lights' by Felix Cartal—that's an incredible record—but it'll mostly be my own things, including six or seven selections from Wonderland."
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Aoki describes the record as "pretty much a collection of singles," in that not every song was created or sounds like a typical club record. But that's hardly surprising, given the range of performers on the album, including LMFAO, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, Kid Cudi, Lil Jon, will.i.am under his Zuper Blahq pseudonym. It's as if the previous 10 years of pop-friendly club music were all wrapped up in one package. Aoki's also proud of his own singing turn on "The Kids Will Have Their Say."
"That one features one of the guys from the Exploited on guitar," he says. "It's pretty punk!"
Aoki continues, "Up until this point, I've really been focusing on the club records, such as 'I'm In the House' [his 2010 collaboration with Zuper Blahq], tailoring the songs by writing to the vocalists. That's grown more or less out of relationships and friendships, with people I've known well who have their own albums and schedules. Wonderland comes out of that, but it's also something where I'd like to show my production caliber, to be able to expand and work with a diverse number of artists and different sounds."
Among those artists he's been impressed by in recent years is Skrillex. "He reshaped a genre of music and created his own subgenre, and it's been amazing to see it happen from the beginning to where it is now," Aoki says.
Our conversation concludes on a more universal note, as we talk about how electronic music's new liveliness is something that could have only happened now. "The way in which people access and discover music in the past three to five years has radically changed, and that has helped dance music," he says. "People do find a way to get to the music: They don't want the Top 40 anymore; they want to find a new, cutting-edge sound. When the radio only played 20 songs and MTV didn't run videos anymore, they had to do their own research on YouTube and SoundCloud, and that gave birth to a lot of new people.
"Dance music has been here for a long time, but it's been reemerging. America did finally open up. In Europe, it's status quo; everyone over there listens to dance music. I was looking out at the crowd at a festival I played in Holland, and I saw 40- to 50-year-old people dancing. Over here, it's the kids making it a priority, watching the videos, seeking things out. Meanwhile, for a lot of us running labels, doing things such as making videos means we've completely bypassed the system. We've hijacked it, and we're getting the results. It's a powerful time for independence, a completely different time than it was just a few years ago."
This article appeared in print as "Hijacking the System: Steve Aoki talks U.S. dance culture and his upcoming, debut album."