Although Steve Aoki is best known for his shameless EDM anthems and unusual habit of covering his fans with cake, the L.A. DJ is also a cunning label head and enthusiastic techno-futurist. His latest album, Neon Future, is a 10-song journey into a world when humans merge with technology, live forever and party even harder than they do now. Google engineer and The Age of Spiritual Machines author Ray Kurzweil speaks on the intro and Ending Aging wiz Aubrey de Grey riffs over the New Age closer. In between, Fall Out Boy add some spectacular vocals and drum fills to “Back to Earth” and Waka Flocka and Kid Ink rap over the record’s two catchiest tracks, “Rage the Night Away” and “Delirious (Boneless).” Just before it was released to the world, Aoki got on the phone to talk about its sci-fi inspiration and where he – plus dance music as a whole – might go next.
Where did the Neon Future concept come from?
I started reading books on singularity and the progress of science and technology, and that was all really exciting to me because, being a science-fiction nut growing up and reading comic books. When you start seeing that some of the science-fiction – some of these ideas are actually real trajectories that are going to happen in our lifetime – at least notable writers and people doing research that you trust and respect, then my interest starts lighting up. Then when you start finding information all you want to do is share that information.
Extending our lives, extending our creativity, opening up the mysteries of the brain. All those things that are really exciting – that’s kind of the basis of Neon Future, and that’s why I interviewed Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. I’m also doing a companion set called Neon Future Sessions, where I’m interviewing different scientists, authors, writers – interesting people who have written books that have inspired me. I went to Oxford University and interviewed Richard Dawkins on his take on the future. I was really curious to hear what he had to say about that. That’s going to be happening on my YouTube channel.
Beyond the monologues, how does this tech stuff relate back to the album?
I look at it the same way as I look at music. The way dance music is going, there’s endless possibilities to produce dance music in a way that the barriers were so strong and so held up, but now I can do a song with Fall Out Boy and it’s accepted. Then, in the same album, I could do a song with Waka Flocka or Kid Ink or MGK or Empire of the Sun – artists from all different genres, some of which never even worked in a dance space. That’s what I love to do. I love to work with artists that were able to find a brand new name and create something really exciting and fresh.
What happens once the barriers come down? You get Waka Flocka and Fall Out Boy on the same album, then what?
Well, there’s always the question of over-saturation that people talk about, and that’s just going to open up the space to a lot more different people with a lot more different ideas – that’s exciting. So, what’s going to happen? Genres are going to break down. It’s already happening now. Artists are creating their own genre sound and other artists are building upon that sound and already creating a huge subculture created around one particular sound created by one artist. So, with all that happening, the genres are going to break down and there’s going to be a multitude of sound coming out. There’s going to be a genre for every single kind of sound out there. I want to just know and be a part of all that.
What’s an example of an artist creating a genre around themselves?
Skrillex is a really good example, coming off the gate. First of all, he came into electronic music, but he came into pop culture in a way you could not put a formula to – you could not project something like that, it just happened. The amazing thing about that is it wasn’t supported by huge institutions or big record labels with funding. It happened because of YouTube and fans, and he was able to create his own genre and create a whole culture. And now there are new guys coming up who are being consistent with their sound and creating their own thing.
And electro – the term electro was punk at one point. In 2007, when Justice really branded electro to the masses, it was punk, it was noisy, it was cacophonous, you know? People were like, “I don’t want to hear that. It’s not part of the commercial dance space.” But now, it’s being embraced. It’s like the basis of EDM. Evolution, man, it’s exciting. You have no idea what’s going to happen.
Who are some of those new guys coming?
I’ve definitely been supporting Deorro, through Dim Mak, and he’s got an album coming out at Ultra. He’s definitely creating his own sound, his own culture. I’m really proud to see his rise. Then there are these really young guys that no one’s heard of too much: Botnek, every time they put out a track, it’s charting on Beatport and always a new sound that no one has really done yet. Autoerotique, who have been consistently doing something really awesome and incredible at least for the club space. Whenever they put out a new song, I can play it in the club and it just destroys the dance floor, and they’re still fairly unknown. Those are a couple I’m really all about.
I’m curious too, about “Delirious (Boneless).” What is the path that that song took from a song that you played in your DJ set to, you know, really big hit?
Through the course of the last five years, I’ve always had like, one song that has dominated my set, whether it was “No Beef” or “Turbulence” or “Warp 1.9.” “Boneless” is a song where I was playing it out around the world, and I would drop the volume and everyone was singing to the beat, and it would be a no brainer. It was actually happening even before the song came out in September of last year. That’s what’s so amazing about the virality of music. It doesn’t even need to actually come out because people download the music and figure out how to hear or find out about it if they wanna know about it. That’s what I love about it.
But to crack America – America is a whole different beast. To see something like “Animals” happen, that vocal-less record happened on Top 40 radio, that was a huge surprise for a lot of the community. A big win for Martin Garrix and big win for the dance world at large, that something like that could happen. But it just cant happen on a regular basis. So, “Boneless,” even though we were thinking about servicing it to radio, it made more sense putting a vocal on there. This was actually the first time that I really looked at doing a song for radio and kind of let go of some control and listened to a lot of different radio pluggers and had Ultra come in and help out with ideas. We had, I don’t know, hundreds of top lines for the records.. When we found out Kid Ink wanted to jump in on the song, it felt right. I was the in the studio with him making sure that it was to the standard that we were looking for with the song, as well as making sure it sticks with what radio needs to crack that radio code. It was a long, long process. A long process.