Steve Aoki on the 7 Albums That Changed His Life

Steve Aoki (Photo: courtesy of Dim Mak/Ultra)

On Tuesday, July 18, at 4:30 p.m. PT/7:30 p.m. ET, the BUILD Series will present a special live event with Steve Aoki that will also stream live on Yahoo Music. The stream will celebrate Aoki’s Spring/Summer 2018 Dim Mak streetwear collection as well as the release of his fourth album, KOLONY, which marks the EDM superstar’s first full turn into rap music and will feature the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Migos, 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, ILOVEMAKONNEN, and T-Pain.

Ahead of the BUILD Series event, when Yahoo Music asks Aoki to reminisce about the albums that changed his life, it’s no surprise that Eazy-E makes the list, given KOLONY’s hip-hop direction. His nods to influential French DJs Daft Punk and Justice are no surprise as well. But Aoki’s tastes are impressively diverse, so he speaks just as enthusiastically and authoritatively about the Beatles as he does about hardcore acts like Gorilla Biscuits and Refused or ’90s alt-rock darlings Weezer.

“It’s interesting, because the albums I thought of are based more on my roots and less on what informs my production now. … I think of these as the classics that really I’ve lived with for a long time. I go back to the beginning,” Aoki says. Read on for his surprising and very cool picks.

The Beatles, The White Album

“When I really think about the rock bands that really moved me, in entirety, I would have to go with the Beatles above any other band. And my favorite era of the Beatles was the experimental era and The White Album, and the song ‘Revolution 9.’ There’s a lot of different songs on the album that spoke to me in a deep way, and definitely informed my music as well.

“When I was in college, I started playing different kinds of music. When I was in high school, I was making very thrashy, punky, hardcore music, but in college, I started becoming more sophisticated in my tastes, and I listened to a lot of the Beatles. I listened to a lot of The White Album, and it would play into the songs that I would put out. Of course, it was a reference of many references that the overall feeling from that album was a big part of my college years. They were big time stamps of my college era.

The White Album really went above and beyond experimentation for a band of their size and scale. ‘Revolution 9’ is one of the most epic songs to me, just because they were so enormous, ubiquitous — like, everyone knew the Beatles — and then they do this album where they’re like, ‘F*** the rules. We don’t have to do anything that defined us in the past.’ And they made this song called ‘Song Number 9,’ which is just stream of consciousness, almost like an acid trip, you know? And I love that they went and did that in a period of time when they were at their peak. They were like gods, you know? So I think [this album is influential for me] not necessarily just for the songs so much as the fact that they made that statement — or I wouldn’t call it a statement, so much as it was a big middle finger to conformity and the rule book.

“And it’s interesting, because there’s so many bands at the time that wanted to do that as well — wanted to go experimental — so the Beatles broke the genre wide open for a lot of bands that were working with a pop format structure and making very sing-along-able songs that everyone knew. The thing is, you need a band of that scale to do that. You need an artist to say, ‘It’s OK to just jam and then put that as a song.’ I love that.”

Gorilla Biscuits, Start Today

“Gorilla Biscuits was the very first tattoo I got on my body when I was 18. As a kid, I was thinking, ‘When I have my first tattoo, I want it to be something that was life-changing.’ And music, essentially, was life-changing for me. It was a culture shift for me. My whole lifestyle changed, even for my eating habits. The food I ate, the clothes I wore, the friends who I became friends with, what I did with my free time. I learned how to play music, I learned how to play instruments, I learned how to sing, I played with a band, I started making a zine. And it was all based on the scene called the straight edge hardcore scene.

Steve Aoki’s Gorilla Biscuits tattoo. (Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images for Pandora Media)

“One of the biggest, real iconic bands of that scene was Gorilla Biscuits, and it was on the first mixtape that I got when I was introduced into this culture. So I listened to that album front to back. I got my mom to buy me a record player back then, because that was what we did as straight edge kids: listen to records. This was my go-to, my pregame music, in the car when going to shows. I knew all the lyrics. I just remember me as a kid, like jumping on my bed, singing along to the songs. It was a big part of my life.”

Refused, The Shape of Punk to Come

“This was a breakup album — or the album they put out and then they broke up. I’ve listened to them for a long time. They are one of the pillars in the straight edge hardcore scene. They’re part of the straight edge hardcore scene that I resonated to the most, because when I first found straight edge, I was listening to the more obvious bands like Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today — like kids getting together and making something good with their lives that whole straight edge thing. And then I got introduced into more thinking, ‘Hey, you can get together and do good for yourself, but you could do a lot more than that and actually make a stand — on eating meat, or going against the system, or politicizing.’ Arming your voice with real actions, real words, instead of just like, ‘Hey, let’s get together and just sing along.’ There were a lot of bands in that category that really fueled me, that gave me a lot of passion, and Refused was one of them.

“This album was all-encompassing, not just for their own politics, but the politics infused with motivating music in general. They mixed up so many different genres inside this album. They used so many different types of instruments. It’s just one of those epic albums that you can ask any hardcore kid, they’d probably put this as one of the best hardcore albums of all time. And the song ‘New Noise,’ which was the megahit off that album, I also used in my first mix album I released in 2008. It was called Pillowface and His Airplane Chronicles. That mix album was what the electro scene was to me at that time. So it was Justice and MSTKRFT and all the cool indie stuff that was happening and the stuff I was just starting to put out on my label. And I started the mix album with ‘New Noise,’ because I really wanted to bridge this whole new genre of music that happened in electronic music.

“Eight years later, I brought ‘New Noise’ back into my world to introduce this new style of electro with a mix of thrashy, overdistorted, taking risks, taking moments from the hardcore scene, from hardcore and punk, and applying that to electronic music — not just on the musical side of things by really overly distorting and really amping up electronic music to the point where the sound itself is different, but also the attitude and the ideology of punk and hardcore was very similar to this new sound of electro. It was by far the most punk thing that’s ever happened to electronic music, because of the sound, because of the middle finger to ‘The Man.’ It was a cutting away from the mainstream sound that was happening and saying, ‘Hey, we are our own entity. This is our own world. And we don’t care if you like it or not.’ That kind of idea. So Refused was a monstrous influence in so many different areas of my creative pie — when I was a hardcore kid putting on shows, being in a band, writing in zines, to even when I started becoming more and more popular as a DJ, years and years later.”

Daft Punk, Alive 2007

“They released this on their 2007 tour, right after they came out at Coachella [2006] in the pyramid. F***ing epic, epic sound live. It’s probably the best live album, for me, of all time. I mean, I’ve got to have a live album in here to represent live sound, and watching that show at Coachella, that was 100 percent a big shift in me. A big, life-affirming, life-changing shift for me. Because what it did was before then, you never really thought of DJs as a focal point at a festival, at a big live show. DJs before then were always playing these very little clubs to a very select few people, and to put them on a festival, next to a rocking band that everyone knows the lyrics to, just was unheard of. If you were a DJ, you played at a ‘rave.’ You didn’t even call it a festival. DJs and festivals, they didn’t mix yet. The term ‘EDM’ didn’t even exist. It wasn’t even a blink in someone’s eye yet. Dance music, electronic music … you just don’t put a DJ up there on the stage because they’re just remixing, right? And then you look at Daft Punk and like, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re literally just standing there. They’re not even moving. You can see their heads bouncing a little bit. So on paper you’re like, ‘Oh, this is going to be really bad. Why are we going to book this when we can have a band that play the guitars and sing their songs?’

“But then you watched the show, and your body just melts into the ground. You were completely frozen into the moment, more mesmerized and hypnotized by what’s happening in front of you than by watching a band thrash around. It’s like literal hypnotism to me. I was just overcome with emotion, completely from head to toe chills, all the way through the set. And like with a band, I knew all the songs, you know? I’m a megafan of Daft Punk. And then you have this stage setup of them sitting on the pyramid and the lights are going in a certain way; the production is immense around them. And you realize you’re not even staring at artists, you’re staring at two aliens that came down from f***ing space and are just blowing our minds without even moving. Literally, they just infiltrated our brainwaves and jacked them. Like, they’re masturbating our brainwaves to orgasmic proportions, and we’re just like stuck in this frozen place.

“I mean, I’m already a DJ here, so for me, for my culture, this is huge. It was like, electronic music is not going anywhere, and we’re gonna change the game. They were the start of DJs that could bring something on that large scale and blow people’s mind. I think after that, DJs started thinking differently, like even myself. I was like, ‘I need to think different about my show! I can’t just DJ now on turntables. I want to do something different. I want to add new elements to my set.’ I wanted to entertain my crowd with my music, in the same way that I was blown away by these two guys. So that was a huge point for me — as an artist, as a live performer.”

Justice, (Cross)

“This was the next evolution of what I was just talking about. Justice took what Daft Punk built on the foundation of having a live show. They took that to the next level for me. First of all, when they came out with their single off of , ‘Waters of Nazareth,’ you feel the distortion, as a musician. It really got into my soul. It was the fusion of live instrumentation, the distortion, that kind of abrasion, and then also the energy. It was the extra output of energy that electronic music needed to have at that time. And it started forming its own scene, almost this new punk sound as electronic music. That attitude of, ‘We know we’re different and we’re just gonna do our own s***.’ And it became so big. It became big enough that everyone was serious about what was going on.

“I remember when Justice came out the next year, 2008, at Coachella. The seeds were planted with the sound. The kids and the people that were gravitating toward this music were dying for a live experience. Coachella had that once again with this performance. It was the biggest punk uprising electronic music we’ve ever seen or heard. People were crowd-surfing. And I mean, that just did not happen in electronic music. The sound was abrasive and it was energetic and it was almost angry, like it made you want to scream and go crazy in that state. Like that happy kind of anger.

“For me as a producer as well as a DJ at the time, this was a big deal, because I was making remixes in 2005 to 2007 — I made, I don’t know, 40 remixes. I was toying with production, doing this and that. And then when this scene started emerging, this new electro scene started emerging, now there’s a real ecosystem. There’s a community of people that will support the music in this underground scene. And we have parties. And we’re throwing all these really cool parties in L.A. at the time. And we’re doing these electro parties. My label, Dim Mak, we were doing these Ed Banger annuals for all the French crew who would come. Thomas [Bangalter] from Daft Punk would come, DJ Mehdi, SebastiAn, Justice, MSTRKRFT from Toronto would come down and Boys Noize would come out from Germany, the Bloody Beetroots from Italy, and you’d have this really cool scene going on.”

Weezer, Pinkerton

“This is one of my favorite college albums. I loved The Blue Album, I thought that album was absolutely incredible. And then they dropped Pinkerton, and you know, the album got no love on the radio. It got no love anywhere, no pickup. Really strange. And of course, I picked it up and I went bonkers. I always go back to it.

“And when I think about collaborations as an artist, I always think about artists that are not collaborating in the EDM space, and one of the first to come to mind was Rivers Cuomo. I reached out to him, really because of my love for Pinkerton, and I ended up doing two collaborations with him. The first, ‘Earthquakey People’ off of [2012’s] Wonderland, was a pretty big song for that period of time in my career. That was a cool thing.” 

Eazy-E, Eazy-Duz-It

“This is the first album that I learned all the lyrics to. I was so young, about really, like 14. Younger than that, maybe, like 13. I grew up in Newport Beach, California — suburb, middle/upper-class, right on the beach. I think it’s defined as 96 percent white. A very conservative place to grow up in, seeded with lots of ignorance and racism. … And then I found hardcore and punk. So I’m grateful for being able to find my voice through a [subculture] that allowed voices of disenfranchised kids.

“Also in that period of time, for whatever reason, I gravitated toward West Coast rap. I thought it was so cool, because I was from the suburbs — so completely opposite from Compton or anything I saw in music videos or what I saw in the Boyz N the Hood movie. I always looked up to N.W.A, and Eazy-Duz-It was one of the first albums I got and the first album I listened to front to back. I learned all the lyrics to every single song. I used to write them down in my notebook and recite them, rap them in a mirror in my bedroom.”

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