This year’s Grammy ceremony was the most social TV event in history, and Tuesday night Grammy U decided to continue the interactivity trend by hosting a livestream Q&A session from the Los Angeles Film school with two of EDM’s biggest artists, DJ/producer Steve Aoki and DJ/producer/artist Kaskade.
Steve Aoki founded his own label, Dim Mak Records in 1996, and the label is home to numerous other electro house artists and has released over 250 records. Aoki’s latest solo album, Wonderland, features guest vocalists and musicians such as Travis Barker, Kid Cudi, LMFAO, and Will.I.AM.
Kaskade (Ryan Raddon) has released seven studio albums during his 20 year career, and his latest, Fire & Ice, released by Ultra Music, scored nine Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Hot Dance Airplay Chart. He has appeared at all the major summer music festivals, has performed between 150 and 200 headlining shows a year for the last 10 years, and currently has a monthly residency at Marquee Nightclub & Dayclub in Las Vegas.
The event was streamed over a Google+ hangout, and for those of you who were unable to tune in, here’s a play by play. (Please note, while I was typing furiously the entire time, there may be some paraphrasing.)
Once students from San Francisco and Chicago were connected via satellite, the event moderator, Robin Nixon (The Recording Academy Los Angeles Chapter Governor), introduced Kaskade and Steve Aoki to thunderous applause before jumping right into the Q&A.
Since there are many students aspiring to do what you guys do in the audience, did you choose to do this? What was your journey? How did you get there?
Steve Aoki: I grew up listening to straight-edge hardcore when I was in my tweens. Being in that community had a band spirit. We’d always come together with friends and make music. I started a label when I was 19, got into production when I moved to LA, and then started remixing in 2005. Bloc Party was the first band on my label. I then learned how to use Pro Tools and started producing. This most recent album, Wonderland, took 3-4 years to finish. What my past taught me is to be proactive in your community — be it starting bands, zines, anything. All my friends would pick up instruments and play horribly but still do it — it’s all about community support.
Did you always want to be a performer/artist? How did you discover DJing?
Steve Aoki: I stumbled into DJing. I started at 22, which makes me a late bloomer. I got my start DJing hipster parties — my group didn’t go to raves. We’d throw parties with DJs like Interpool/Bloc Party and didn’t know about Doc Martin or the like. I actually started DJing in Los Angeles on Cahuenga about 2 blocks from this current venue.
Kaskade: I was born in Evanston outside of Chicago, and being in high school in the ’80s, I was intrigued by the new house genre that was emerging. I’d listen to house mixes on the radio, take trains into the city to check out new music. It was a crossover moment — these “art of noise” DJs in Chicago were blending with early house music and the scene was inviting — and I dove in from there. I was all into vinyl and hanging out in the city and buying records. I always laugh at kids complaining about paying $1.99 for a track since back in the day a domestic record cost $4.99 and an imported was $8.99!
Do you have a record player?
Steve Aoki: I think of record players as before DJs. Turntables are a different context to me.
What was your musical journey? How would you say your path into producing happened?
Steve Aoki: I started as part of a duo called Weird Science, and I learned a lot from my production partner Blake Miller. I started maturing more as a producer and learning there are different ways of looking at the structure of a song when I started doing collaborations with people like Laidback Luke, Afrojack, and Tiesto. My last album took me three years. I would hammer out a track, count it as finished, and then 6 months later would restart and not find that I was looking for. It was a real struggle. When I started working with other people, that’s when I started getting insight and closure. For example, I produced “No Beef” with Afrojack in 4 hours versus the countless hours of time on other tracks. Since I started off doing remixes, I was used to having the idea and direction being laid out, and it’s much easier. Working with vocals helps me, and mistakes become the journey.
How did you make the leap from performer to producer?
Kaskade: I got my start buying records, and in the beginning, no one would hire me. I slowly bought pieces of gear like a sampler 909 and 808, and then I started wrapping my head around how people were making the sounds. For me it made a lot of sense as I was never a team player. I was a skateboarder, and I loved sitting alone, being a one-man-band where I could program for hours and have a good time. When Pro Tools introduced Sound Designer II, that was the first time that producing really made sense to me. Instead of sampling and working on a tiny screen, I could see the waveforms on the screen and actually edit things. That’s really when producing started clicking for me. I could make re-edits, do rudimentary remixing, and put everything I had into it.
How has that progressed? What does your studio look like now?
Kaskade: I just moved into a new studio, so there was a definite cleansing process. In the beginning I was stringing together my equipment from secondhand shops and friends. Then I moved to SF right at the time Reason came out. I sold the gear since I couldn’t fit it into my apartment, although I tried to convince my wife we didn’t need the space it would take for me to keep my equipment. So that’s how I sold a lot of the vintage stuff and got into the more digital side and switched to laptops plugged into Pro Tools. I love the vintage stuff, so if I want the real thing, I’ll rent it for a week, but I’m a Pro Tools guy.
Steve Aoki: My early days were spent always using friends’ stuff. I was working out of the Dim Mak office with a Juno 106 at first, and then moved to floral studio where I was just doing remixes. When I moved into my house, I converted one room into a studio, switched from Ableton to Logic, and my set-up now is very simple.
You’re both on the road a lot and both have home studios. Describe the creative process that happens when you’re on the road.
Kaskade: The dream is to be able to do it all on the road. I carry a laptop around, but I don’t get a ton done on the road since there’s barely enough time to sleep, and you’re running around from place to place. I started doing a radio show on the road and doing it in Ableton, but until the last 2-3 years, it was pretty difficult to do on the road, so the majority is done at home.
Is it on your own schedule or are there expectations from the label?
Kaskade: When I start a new album, I see what I’ve started — there’s usually 30-40 ideas I’ve started on the road, some only 30 seconds — and go from there. For me, I don’t have any obligation to Ultra Records, and I do what I want.
Steve Aoki: I tried to start producing on the road since there’s much downtime on airplanes, but eventually I just realized I could sleep during that time. You want to use that downtime, and there’s generally some downtime in the cities before you play, but it’s difficult. I found that on my Identity bus tour I was able to finish several main concepts around some songs. Datsik and I were on the same bus for 60 days, and the spirit is so much fun. I really enjoyed the collaborative spirit that came out from the tour.
Do you bring an engineer or do you do everything?
Steve Aoki: I didn’t bring anyone for this one. For the final mixing on Wonderland, I gave it to the guy who did the mastering on my other remix albums.
Kaskade: The same guy mixed and mastered all of my last 7 albums. As far as engineering, it depends on the budget. With vocal sessions, it helps to have an engineer and be able to sit back and know this is the take I want but it’s not in the budget every time. If I could afford an engineer every time, I could be a little lazy.
Tell us about the selection process for who wants to work with you. Is there a short list you choose from?
Kaskade: Up until now, I just mostly hit up friends or friends of friends. Now I hit up people like Skyler Grey asking if we can work together. For me I’m looking for people that are fun and cool to work with and want to make interesting music and sound different. In Chicago everyone was doing gospel house, and that’s cool, but I want to find my own way.
Steve Aoki: My selection process is also organic. First of all, I live in LA, which helps a lot as a lot of these people actually live here. Will.I.AM., LMFAO, Travis Barker, and others just come out and rock the beat right there.
Are you both doing your own tweets?
Steve Aoki: I’ve done every single tweet except the last one.
Kaskade: 99% are my own, yes. Sometimes there’s a news thing, so I’ll ask someone to send it out as I’m getting on a plane or something.
Is there a strategy or is it just a natural rhythm for your social media?
Steve Aoki: For me, it’s almost like when you throw up in your mouth. It’s a little excessive. I’ll get going on green tea, and I’ll say total fucking shit, and when I get bored, I’ll just get on there and bug people.
Kaskade: Most of the time I’m more controlled, but sometimes I’ll go on a tirade.
Steve Aoki: This is coming from the guy that caused a riot. (LAUGHS)
Kaskade: I feel that Twitter is a direct interaction with the fans — not so much Facebook. It is something I do on my downtime, and I feel it’s cool to interact with the people who got us to this place. I have to speak to my fans directly, and I find it very rewarding. If someone has lyrics that I wrote on their body, then I’ll retweet it, but I obviously can’t retweet everything. It’s all done in slivers of time, and timing is everything.
Steve Aoki: For me, I’ll retweet it if it makes me laugh out loud. And I’ll ask fans where to go for good noodles in random places.
Robert Nixon: Hear that everyone? You can use social media as a route of speaking to your artists directly.
Let’s talk about the growth of the EDM movement. Shows and productions have gotten bigger, so tell us about your live show.
Kaskade: My Freaks of Nature tour finished a month ago. The Identity tour made me realize I needed to add a lot more production and inspired me to hone in and perfect it. It’s a challenge as an EDM artist because people want to see something on stage — its hard to just throw a card table on stage and perform. When coming up with a theme for my tours, I collaborate with others, including lighting professionals, visuals, etc. and try to come up with a show that is congruent with the tone.
Steve Aoki: ID tour was pivotal for me, too. I had a bus followed by a semi-truck carrying the production. It needs to be complementary to the music. Kaskade’s visuals are crazy tough! You did it. Your shit was on fire. When you go on, my arms are already in the air, and I don’t even realize. Visuals are a huge part of the show, and the DJ is just a small part of the experience. It’s really all about the sound.
Kaskade: I’ve had some amazing moments with DJs and people in a 300-person party warehouse in San Francisco with just a flickering lightbulb. In the press and media it’s been portrayed as people are going to shows for the visuals, but it’s the music that drives us here at the end of the day.
Do you guys have one specific moment/show/party with one lightbulb where you realized you’d arrived where you wanted to be?
Kaskade: I’ve never had that one moment, an Avicii like moment where “Levels” came out. I’ve had great moments along my way, but not one moment. I’ve been DJing for over 20 years. I’m 40, and I bought my first record at 15. It’s been a real steady and slow progression.
Steve Aoki: A million shows plus — every one of them is important and meaningful if the connection is there between me, the music, and the crowd.
What advice or inspiration would you give to those listing out there?
Kaskade: If you truly love what you’re doing, continue to do it. Find out more, learn more, and continually be improving. When I was broke in SF and flying to Winter Music Conference, all those moments were important, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Figure out what you really love and just keep doing it.
Steve Aoki: I 100% agree. It’s all about what defines you as a person. We all come with different life experiences, and it’s important to bring that out. It’s all about being authentic –- be the best at experimental noise, progressive house, whatever. What drives you is what’s going to make you become the best.
What’s it like when you work with non-EDM artists?
Steve Aoki: I write tracks specifically for them. For example, Iggy is very specific. It’s got to make sense for the artist.
Kaskade, how do you keep your signature sound through the change of EDM?
Kaskade: I’m glad you say that because some say I sold out in 2005. People who collaborate are like-minded. I consider myself a songwriter, and that carried through the seven albums. No matter how you produce it, it will come through.
What do you think of the term EDM?
Kaskade: There’s a million different genres in the world, and it’s cool that I can tell the newspaper guy that “I’m EDM.”
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What To Listen To:
It’s a no-brainer: Party girls like party music. And nothing gets your fists pumping and head banging faster than the electronic sounds of our favorite DJs. You’ll want to blast this playlist before heading out on the town. The mixed beats will get you in high spirits before sore feet from your sexy stilettos kick in. Are you ready for the drop?
Steve Aoki is one of the world’s most famous DJs, known for his raucous delivery of some of the most frenetic electro tunes available. A performer like no other, he crowd surfs in dinghy’s, throws cakes at crowds and has one of the most loyal and formidable fan armies in the world. Steve is a DJ and producer, but also boss-man of the long established and highly regarded Dim Mak imprint; a label that have released a huge variety of genres from hardcore to electronic dance and beyond. Extensively touring with his camera crew, he interacts with his fans and produces documentaries, as well as owning his clothing line named after his record empire. A very busy figure, Mr Aoki took some time out – having just landed in Stocklholm (from Ibiza!) – to have an informal phone chat with Pulse’s Ellie Hewitt about Malcom X, Molly, and some sound advice for his kids. Steve will play at Mixmag Live at Fire, Vauxhall this Saturday the (15th of September) which you can buy tickets for here.
Talk to me about Dim Mak, what is the ethos behind the label, how did it come about? Dim Mak, well I started it when I was 19, that was fifteen years ago. I’ve put out everyone from The Kills, Bloc Party, The Mystery Jets The Gossip and now more recently people like MSTRKRFT, Infected Mushroom, The Bloody Beetroots, Datsik. I think very few labels can say that they have put out such a diverse collection of music, my label isn’t for any one genre. In the last fifteen years I’ve released around six clear genres and then so many other blends. Indie, dance, post punk, hardcore, electronica, there is no one specific thing we cater to. Just everything that is worthy. I have a huge amount of people working on me and I really depend on them and vice versa, it’s important to keep that alive. When I was 16 my brother was a mod and we always had his friends round, I was only a little kid but that’s stayed with me a bit. All music is related closer than people think.
One phrase to sum up Dim Mak? Malcom X ‘By any means necessary’ [Laughs]. It’s true though.
Your thoughts on EDM as a genre? There’s alot of issues that seem to go with it – twitter wars, long articles in newspapers, ‘the underground’ hating on it… You know what, the amazing thing about dance music is that there are no vocals and yet it ignites people, gets them going like nothing else. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, where you’re going or what you’re about, no one cares when you’re on that dancefloor. It’s such a uniting thing, it’s one of the only things in our generation that is actually about an almost equal community. What people don’t realise about the American EDM scene is that there are no dance music stations, this stuff ‘EDM’ to them is incredibly underground, these kids haven’t heard anything like it before.
How do you chill out? Honestly, between touring, producing, djing, touring, my clothing line and everything else there really isn’t much time for chilling. I try and keep myself in shape, keep fit and healthy. At the end of the day though, my music is my life, I’ve been doing this for the last twenty years. It’s hard to switch off when you’ve invested so much and, of course, you enjoy it.
What advice would you give to future producers? Stick to who you are and what you want to do. If you want to put out really experimental noise, do the best experimental noise you can do. Do it for you, no one else. If it’s good enough, people will listen. If it’s not good enough – you’ve had a creative outlet which everyone needs. The best thing about music is that people really respond to music, they don’t have to understand the language, there’s just an emotive response.
Where are you based at the moment? Right now? Everywhere! [Laughs]. I just got back from my show at Amnesia with Sonny [Skrillex] in Ibiza, it was the last show of the season and the atmosphere was completely amazing, huge vibes. I’m in Stockholm as we speak. I’ve been travelling a lot lately, my little thing is that whenever I’m in these places I take a bit of time to go to a cool landmark or whatever, and jump in the air – it’s these little goals that keep you human. I carry my camera crew and photographers around, because you know what, it’s really important to keep connected on that level to your fans. Really important to have that personal connection.
How did you start out in the business? Did you imagine you’d be where you are today? Absolutely not. I started out to love it, and I still do.
Do you see yourself DJing when you’re 60? Um, god I dunno. This life is a lot of fun but it’s so fast paced, very intense, there’s a lot of energy involved, I couldn’t make that decision now.
What advice would you give to your kids? When they go out clubbing? In life? You know what I’d say to them? Just be safe, be educated. People want to try new things, but be aware of the situation you’re in, your surroundings, the people you’re with. If you want to go find Molly then, well.
That’s so weird, as we call it Mandy in England, I didn’t understand that Cedric Gervais track at first. [Laughs] He should’ve made a UK version called ‘Where’s Mandy’, but back to what I was saying, people are born to make mistakes, but be educated. Be safe.