Long-term success is not something you can plan in the music industry, no more than you can anticipate the energy of an audience at a show or the outcome of an election. But, after 20 years, the record label named after a Chinese martial art known as the death touch has given more life to the music world than its founder Steve Aoki could've expected.
Dim Mak Records was the launching pad for the superstar DJ, one of the biggest names in EDM. He even became an unexpected global ambassador, as he sat on the floor of the final U.S. presidential debate in Las Vegas last month, rubbing elbows with senators and taking selfies with Bill and Hillary Clinton. “You're sitting next to senators and leaders of the free world,” Aoki recalls. “It was a very serious room, and you're so focused on what they're talking about that I really learned a lot.” Though the election results feel as if America just got a cake smashed in its face (and not in the fun way that Aoki does it at his shows), the fact that a DJ from Newport Beach was granted this sort of honor proves how far Aoki and EDM have come since he started deejaying in 2003.
Before he became a superstar, Aoki was just another kid with a guitar in his parent's house. The son of divorced parents Chizuru Kobayashi and Rocky Aoki, the late business mogul who started Benihana, Aoki hosted small punk and hardcore shows in his mother's living room or anywhere his friends had enough space he could fill with bands, amps, distortion and sweat. “I grew up going to shows and listening to bands in that world, and I was in bands—emo bands and hardcore screaming bands,” Aoki says. “That was my groundwork as far as getting into the foundation of where Dim Mak started, when I was 19 and in college.”
Officially founding the label in his Santa Barbara college dorm room in 1996, Aoki's path to success came through learning the DIY route in all aspects of business from recording to marketing and distribution. To this day, he keeps a hand on most of those areas himself (his next-door neighbor is actually Dim Mak's primary distributor). As bands such as the Kills started breaking big, Aoki says, he had to learn to grow his business on the fly. One such learning experience involved Bloc Party, who were a totally unknown band months prior to the release of their debut album, Silent Alarm, which initially sold 350,000 copies. That success led to a deal with Vice Records for the U.S. release.
“We weren't even prepared to do anything of that scale and work with labels of that scale,” Aoki says. “And it was incredible to see it go from there. There's no chart pathway; I just heard this demo from a band I really like.”
Even in cases where the records Dim Mak released didn't sell well, Aoki was never opposed to taking risks on artists he deemed to be great. He remembers signing a folk band called Young People that he loved enough to give them a shot. He signed former blues band the Soledad Brothers, whom he discovered while on tour with the Kills. When he heard Brooklyn-based experimental, instrumental band Battles, Aoki jumped at the chance to put out their 2004 effort, B EP.
This weekend, Aoki returns to where his music career began to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Dim Mak with an all-day party on the sand in Huntington Beach, as well as a solid handful of artists in genres ranging from trap to trance. “The thing about Dim Mak is that we're not shackled to one type of music, and we're a music-loving label,” Aoki says. “That's how we survived the different epochs where labels came and went. We weren't the coolest label, we weren't the most popular label, but we definitely had an impact in all these genres.”
The trail of successful Dim Mak releases—which includes such recent acts as The Chainsmokers and Max Styler (who is also on the bill this weekend)—show a change in music trends globally, as well as for Aoki personally, as his tastes are as vast as his travels. “There's a lot of luck involved with this as well,” Aoki says. “Just following your gut and following where life takes you—it's a choose-your-own-adventure game constantly.”
All along, Aoki has been leading his own successful trail as a DJ. In fact, he was already a budding talent in the DJ world in the years before the term EDM was even a thought. But pursuing his dream and becoming a star is not where the story ends for Aoki. He hopes to stay relevant—at least for another 20 years—and continue keeping his ears open for the next big thing.
At the moment, though, he says it feels good to sit back and enjoy what he's created with the community that helped him scratch the surface of his vision. “OC is where I was raised, my adolescent years,” Aoki says. “It's where I picked up my first guitar, where I picked up my first TASCAM recorder, which lead to what I do now, producing music electronically. So for me to come back and do that for the EDM fans is a trip. I'm so happy it's happening; it's gonna be really sentimental for me.”
Dim Mak 20th Anniversary: SoCal Edition, featuring Steve Aoki, Migos, DVBBS, Autoerotique, Max Styler, R3LL and special guests, at Bolsa Chica State Beach, 17851 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach; www.thesocialgroup.com. Sat., 2-9 p.m. $20-$80. 18+.