Producer Steve Aoki, known for his sternum-cracking electronic beats, paid tribute to Chester Bennington on Thursday night by releasing "Darker Than the Light That Never Bleeds." The brawny, festival-ready mash-up contains elements from two of Aoki's previous collaborations with Linkin Park, the singles "Darker Than Blood" and "The Light That Never Comes." Net proceeds from the sale of the "Chester Forever Steve Aoki Remix" will go to Music for Relief, the nonprofit organization that Linkin Park founded over a decade ago for their charitable efforts.
"It was a tragedy what just happened," Aoki tells Rolling Stone in the week after Bennington's death by suicide in July. "I still can't believe it. Even though it's been some time, you think, like, oh, no, no, no. I can't believe we're already talking about him in the past tense. I'm like, holy shit, he's fucking gone."
"I've been playing every single day since I heard," the producer continues. "When I play the songs that we did together live, that's the hardest part. You remember the times you worked together, all the different moments. There's so many different layers: It's not just like friendship, it's about the kind of person that he was, what his lyrics mean to the world, how powerful his voice is, and the history of what it's meant to me, even before I even met Chester."
Aoki was a longtime Linkin Park fan, but he never imagined that he would work with his idols. He voiced his admiration for the band publicly during a 2009 interview. "One of the questions people always ask is, 'Who do you want to work with?'" he tells RS. Aoki threw out Bennington's name. "He's my favorite fucking singer," the producer says. "From one of my favorite bands of all time."
"You say those things with the idea that it's not going to ever happen," he adds. "I never thought that we would ever be collaborating on music at all." At the time, EDM was just beginning to conquer the Top 40 and infiltrate country, hip-hop, R&B and rock. "EDM and rock music – you would never imagine the pairing," Aoki says.
When he did enter the studio with Linkin Park years later for the sessions that would result in their first song together, "A Light That Never Comes," Aoki found the collaboration an easy meeting of the minds. "The first time I got in the studio with them – it was no longer, like, me being the mega-fan and them being the rockstars," he recalls. "Once they laid down the groundwork, it was just mutual respect. And I got to learn about the Linkin Park process. It's so different from how I attack an album, or how I go into tackling a song. It was so inspirational and so informative and educational, and I love being a student in those kinds of moments."
Bennington was an especially distinctive presence in the studio. "It blew my mind, because you see this guy – he's a total rock star, absolute legend, the G.O.A.T. – and he's just a very humble," Aoki explains. "A real, genuine humble dude that bares his soul and isn't afraid to speak about all the darkness that was haunting him and allowing others to be like, 'hey, you're not alone.' He touched so many people."
"He has a funny sense of humor, too," Aoki continues. "He's definitely the kind of guy, he walks into the room, and everyone lights up and everyone focuses on him."
After "A Light That Never Comes," a cross-format hit on both Billboard's Rock Airplay and Hot Dance/Electronic Songs charts, the producer worked with the band on "Darker Than Blood." Bennington and Co. also helped guide Aoki as he increased his own charitable efforts. "They were always my big brothers in terms of philanthropy," Aoki notes. "How to build an organization that effectively uses resources in areas where it's needed." It makes sense, then, that sales of "Darker Than the Light That Never Bleeds" will go to Music for Relief in Bennington's name.
In addition to raising money for a good cause, "Darker Than the Light That Never Bleeds" also provides Aoki with a new way to pay homage to Bennington in his live sets. "When I play our songs together live, I'm so proud, but I'm so, so gut-wrenched," he says. "And at the same time, when I feel the crowd fully with me, together in that moment where they totally get it and they sing along to all the lyrics and their eyes are closed – I feel like that's my way of giving back."
Additional reporting by Kory Grow