Dominant just a few years ago, the electronic pop genre known as EDM has faded from the commercial mainstream — just two producers associated with it are in the Top 50 this week. So artists in this space have been forced to come up with creative ways to maintain a presence outside of the festivals and Las Vegas gigs that have long been a mainstay.
EDM producers have primarily settled on three approaches. One is to become a behind-the-scenes figure for pop acts — Skrillex, for example, has contributed to songs by Justin Bieber, Fifth Harmony and Mariah Carey, but you have to hunt through the credits to figure that out. There’s also the “if you can’t beat them, join them” strategy, exemplified by the last Calvin Harris album, in which the producer basically abandons any semblance of EDM and just makes hip-hop and R&B, since those genres helped knock EDM off the charts.
And a third strategy, made famous by Diplo but now taken up by David Guetta, Dillon Francis and others, is to serve as a conduit to the English-language mainstream for artists from other backgrounds — often Spanish-speaking acts, since Latin music continues to experience eruptive growth.
Steve Aoki, an enthusiastic maximalist, has embraced all three of these tactics simultaneously. Last year he released Kolony, which he describes as a hip-hop album, remixed the K-Pop stars BTS to help them achieve their first Top 40 hit Stateside, and performed at the Latin Grammys with J Balvin. This year he produced another cut for BTS on Love Yourself: Tear, a Number One album in the U.S.
And on Friday he released Neon Future III, a madcap LP that caroms from K-Pop (BTS again) to country (Lady Antebellum) to Nineties nostalgia (Blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World) to Norway (Ina Wroldsen) to Puerto Rico (Daddy Yankee) to Yugoslavia (Era Istrefi) to science (Bill Nye), gluing everything together with Aoki’s characteristic electronic mayhem. To top it all off, the producer will perform at the Latin Grammys again this week, this time with Nicky Jam.
This all seems like a possible overextension, but Aoki is happy to try to be all things to all people. To hear him tell it, in fact, that’s the job. “You go out there and want to really speak to everyone in the room, not just your core audience,” he says, drinking tea last week after an interview — and obligatory Aoki jump — with the pop radio personality Elvis Duran. “If you can speak to the people in the back that don’t understand you, and get them to understand you, then you’ll get more gigs. You’ve won the room.”
Before that, though, he has to win his own studio, which can be tricky when working with acts from wildly different backgrounds. “I think about all the times [early in my career] when I could see the artist [I’m trying to collaborate with] sitting on the couch just going, ‘yeah, this is cool,’ but I just know they don’t like it, and after the fourth song, sometimes they’re sleeping,” Aoki recalls. “So I’m like, ‘man, I suck.'”
“As a producer, it’s not just the technical skills, you’re creating the energy for them,” he adds. “You want to feed them energy so they get in the booth excited to be able to come up with ideas.” Before each collaboration, a calculation is necessary: “Is it gonna be a one plus one equals two kind of thing? Or a one plus one equals 100 kind of thing?”
Aoki is eager and excitable; he tends to lean towards the “one plus one equals 100” side of the spectrum on most questions. Neon Future III is the latest installment in an album series that is “building awareness around the idea that we’re going on this exponential curve of tech” to the point where “we are gonna see these science fiction concepts becoming science fact.”
Since he’s a “techo future optimist,” much of his job involves counteracting popular narratives about how “Artificial Intelligence is gonna make us slaves or take over our jobs.” To achieve this, Aoki reaches out to figures like Bill Nye the Science Guy, who talks about noble gases on Neon Future III‘s final track as a beat gnashes and gnaws behind him. “We all learned about science through Bill,” Aoki says. “He communicates science to people in a way that’s tangible and easy to understand and not scary. That’s essentially what I want to do with this Neon Future. I want to make it tangible and not frightening, not intimidating.”
To really spread his gospel, Aoki needs to reach a wide audience. But electronic music has not proved as reactive as hip-hop or reggaeton or K-Pop in the streaming era. “Streaming is the skeleton,” Aoki says. “But if you want to build muscle, you need radio. That’s your protein.”
And this is where his collaborations have been a boon. “Jaleo” with Nicky Jam and “Azukita” with Daddy Yankee and Elvis Crespo gave Aoki his first two modest hits on Latin radio this year. He’s also hoping that his speedy Blink-182 collaboration “Why Are We So Broken” might “find a lane.” So far his best hope is “Waste It on Me,” BTS’ first song entirely in English; Nielsen Music reported that 13 pop stations added the single into rotation last week.
His series of BTS collaborations also has additional significance outside of commercial goals. “When I was a teenager, one Asian face really stood out: Bruce Lee,” Aoki says. “I wondered why there were no other Asian people out there. Now you have seven guys from Korea, one Asian American, that are representing [Asians in the U.S.] in this way that hasn’t really been felt at that level of power and influence.”
It’s hard to imagine that there are sounds Aoki didn’t squeeze into Neon Future III, but if “Waste It on Me” doesn’t connect, he’s already got his ears focused elsewhere. “I’m into the funk movement in Brazil and the afrobeat sounds that are emerging right now [from Nigeria] and soca,” Aoki says. “I want to go, ‘wow I’ve never heard that. I need to hear that.'”