For his fourth album, Steve Aoki, one of EDM's great showmen, has teamed with some of the biggest names in hip-hop. On Kolony, he abandons the trademark electro-house pulse of his Neon Future albums, instead diving into a booming and colorful trap-centric sound alongside modern stars like Migos, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, Lil Yachty and more. Rolling Stone caught up with Aoki to talk about the Kolony project, working with rap's newest generation and how the worlds of EDM and hip-hop continue to bridge.
When did you first come across hip-hop?
Even before I got into hardcore and punk, which really was the first time that music became my lifestyle. A big moment for me, even before then, the first album where I sat down and wrote every lyric to every song. It was Eazy E's Eazy-Duz-It and N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton. I was in elementary school and it was this world that was the complete opposite of mine.
When you were listening to those early cassettes, what about the music was speaking to you?
You could visualize the stories – whether they're true or not – they're storytellers and you can imagine the scenario. It's something about the imaginative process of living in their world, and you put yourself there and you live vicariously through those stories.
What was the original idea that started Kolony?
I'd have to lend that to working with Lil Uzi Vert, we were in the studio together for a week. Generally speaking, before Kolony, I'd have beats already done, entire records done and artists would vibe with the record. But when I was the studio with Uzi I was like, 'Listen to this fucking record, listen to this drop, this is dope,' but that's not what got him in the booth. My process changed in that session, because it wasn't about the big drop, because it wasn't about the EDM. It was about finding a section to allow him to be [himself]. My job in the studio was to give him that landscape; I'm going to give you a color palette and I'm gonna give you space that so you can be creative.
What's the difference between working with EDM producers and working with rappers?
The issue producers have with working with artists, they come in there with fully produced songs so they don't even allow a vocalist to come in there, so what I learned is that I don't do that anymore. Especially for artists where I want to give them the lead. I'm the director and you're my lead actor in this film. That kind of relationship needs to be understood and I can apply the colors and extras to make Aoki.
What were the last songs and collaborations that came together for the album?
Sonny Digital and "Thank You Very Much," which is the closing song on the album. It's a song I don't play in my sets because it's very introspective and it isn't a very heavy drop record. It's one of my favorite songs on the album. I think the most interesting part of the record is that Sonny Digital is singing. It's exciting because I wanna be the artist to help break out Sonny as a vocalist, 'cause his singing and how he wrote was bone-chilling, it was incredible. I'm happy that this song can hopefully break him out as a vocalist, like when Kanye came out rapping.
Do you have any particular artists you'd love to work with for this particular project?
Rae Sremmurd, been in the study with Jimmi, trying to find time to get in the studio with Swae and get our track down. Ayo and Teo, I brought them out [for the Kolony release party], cause I remixed "Rolex." I love those kids. They brought their dancers and they were going nuts on stage. It was insane.
On Kolony you're working with artists from Mase to Lil Uzi Vert, what do you think about the difference in this upcoming generation of rappers? Do you think they're a bit more open to work with EDM producers, because ten years ago an album like this probably wouldn't happen.
100%. This album was largely based on relationships and friends. Most of these artists, you can't just call their manager and do a song with these artists, because you have to develop a relationship, 'cause most of these artists already have their favorite producers, they have their own albums to attend to. If they're going to do a feature it'll be with their friend or someone that they really respect. I cultivated great friendships with a lot of these artists that I'm proud to say led to the completion of the album.
Younger EDM producers often say, 'I don't think too much about genre.' Do you think much about working with this kind of EDM producer or that kind of rapper?
I get why young producers don't want to be compartmentalized. I'm an EDM guy there is no doubt about that, I'm not saying I'm not. But at the end of the day I'm just a producer and I'm constantly shifting my gears, whether the critics liked it or not I don't care. … All I care about is making the best music I can in the room. Hopefully the idea is to forge a whole new lane, because that is what is happening nowadays, because now artists are literally creating their own subculture. One artist can create and another can join then it's a full blown ecosystem, a healthy ecosystem around a sound, a squeak, a dance, it's insane.
Why do you feel the worlds of EDM and rap are coming together more freely?
I think the most important thing is that it doesn't matter what genre of music you're from. Energy is by far the most important element that surpasses trends, surpasses trends, cultures, genres, styles. That's why when you see Uzi or Travis Scott wilding the fuck out and people going apeshit and it feels like a punk show or a hardcore show or an EDM big-banging drop show. That's the energy people are attracted to. When a hip-hop artist goes hard at EDC everyone wants to be a part of that. It might not be your shtick or sound, but you can do something that can be a part of that.