Steve Aoki and Lil Jon – Massive Dance Week
The Unique Squared Mobile Studio rolled into Las Vegas right at the beginning of Massive Dance Week at the Wynn/Encore Hotel and Casino. The bus was there to act as a VIP studio for the performers, in the event they wanted to work on music during the week’s festivities. The Wynn/Encore hosted a plethora of DJ’s including, Tiesto, Avicii, Afrojack, Deadmau5, Skrillex, Steve Aoki, Lil Jon, Sultan and Ned Shepard, Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Steve Angello, and Swedish House Mafia. The DJ’s were spread out amongst the four stages the Wynn/Encore was offering: XS, Surrender, Tryst, and the Encore Beach Club. One of the stages was a straight up nightclub like XS, while others like Surrender and Tryst were some kind of club/festival stage and pool party hybrid that couldn’t be anything else other than a Vegas venue.
While Lonely Paul and myself were the only ones working on future club bangers that week, we did get a chance to have some of the week’s performers stop by the bus to talk music, gear, and the electronic dance music (EDM) culture in general. Steve Aoki, Lil Jon, and Jonathan Schechter aka $hecky Green stopped by the bus and here is what they had to say:
So when did Vegas become a place for EDM?
Aoki: I think dance music finally became accepted when Surrender became a nightclub. That’s from my perspective. When I joined Surrender, from day one the whole focus was to introduce EDM into the Vegas scene.
When did you recognize that happening?
Lil Jon: When EDM started to get huge, that made a lot of people look at dance music like, “oh sh*t”. Two years ago when it was LA and a stadium, people started to look at it like the biggest festival in the US. It seemed that Vegas started to grow at about the same time and dance music started to take off commercially. The records were getting big like Guetta and “Sexy B*tch” and all the festivals.
Aoki: The festivals became the new radio for all of these kids. When you think about Vegas before all this was going on, the only things that people were playing in the club were radio records. Records people knew. It started changing because the way in which people access music has changed entirely. People aren’t finding music on the radio. YouTube is a format to find out about Skrillex and you can tell how far he has gone. Swedish House Mafia, Tiesto, and what Lil Jon are doing in the dance world, that was through YouTube. John was always on MTV with all his big records. With the dance thing, its not about vocally driven music so we are primarily surviving in the underground. That’s how kids are finding out about our music. It’s changed.
You can’t count on the radio stations to play your music?
Aoki: You can’t and we don’t anymore which is great.
Lil Jon: You don’t have to.
Aoki: It helps us but at the same time we don’t need it. Deadmau5 isn’t on the radio but he is one of the biggest DJs in Las Vegas. That’s a testament to how powerful this music is. You don’t need the major institutions to spread this music to the right people.
Lil Jon: Hip hop was the primary music in Vegas. The festivals and the ways people are finding music has changed. Now you can’t really find a hip hop club in Vegas anymore.
Aoki: 5 or 6 years ago the king was DJ AM. It was about those DJ’s and those DJ’s were the people changing the game in Vegas. After he passed away things started changing and in general people in America became more accepting of the EDM world. Vegas is a cross culture of America. You have people all over coming here to party so you see the whole nation changing.
Lil Jon: I think people got tired of the radio and tired of artists making shitty music. For a time it was the same shit over and over again, cheesy, corny records and then people got fed up. We are in the iPod culture where people are listening to so many kinds of music that they got tired of the radio. Other people were making better records and good music that was underground. These artists got bigger and bigger.
How has this financially, changed your lifestyle?
Aoki: Its made my life a little bit more comfortable as I am doing my job. Instead of flying economy I’m flying business class [laughs]. I don’t need it…
Lil Jon: We just go to sleep! [laughs] We go to sleep on the plane.
Aoki: Sometimes were doing gigs back to back and the comfort means everything just to be able to make it to the next gig. The most important thing is finding the time and place to sleep. And my studio really hasn’t changed that much…
You were saying that your studio is 1/16th the size of this mobile studio.
Lil Jon: And that’s all you need. Technology…
Aoki: Yeah use a bit of technology, creativity and what’s influencing your sound at that moment. When John and I are in the studio, were just mashing up ideas right there on the spot. Thinking of stuff that’s happening around us. Like when we did Turbulence, we all fly, that’s what DJs do, that’s what artists do, and it’s perfect for the club.
What about your public persona? Has that changed?
Aoki: It’s always in those neutral places for me, I wouldn’t say for John. John is one of the most recognizable people.
Lil Jon: It’s the dreads, it’s the sunglasses, I can’t go nowhere without being recognized.
Aoki: Like airports, that’s a very neutral place. What surprises me is when people that are older and dressed in ties say, “I like your song.” To me that’s awesome because I love to reach people outside of my world.
Aoki: For America it’s very different the way people look at EDM as far as cultures. In Europe they have festivals where you’re playing to a mom and her kid, a fifty year old guy, a guy in his twenties, a guy in his thirties. It’s a really wide demographic. In America, what’s driving this music are kids because they are the ones bringing that kind of energy. It’s become big enough where everyone has to take notice, and I think that’s what’s happening with festivals. The festivals became the bat signal to a lot of artists outside in different worlds. I remember when Will.i.am. went to see a festival in Australia, and he was like, “there are just DJ’s playing here, there are a hundred, thousand people here, and they’re not on the radio.” I think its an eye opener for a lot of people. This sound, this scene, this community has been around for a while. There were fifty to sixty thousand kids going to festivals 10 years ago. It’s not like it’s brand new, and in America it’s been around for a while. But now it’s drawn the attention of a lot of people in different entertainment worlds, different music worlds, and they’re taking their part in that play. I think LMFAO is a great example of an artist who took the dance sound and created it into a pop phenomena. They’re getting industry recognition, credibility, attention, and they are also reaching out to 3 year old kids. It’s incredible how far it’s gone. It’s definetly not a linear curve, it’s exponential.
So you have some other businesses that you’re invested in. Can you talk about that?
Aoki: Well before I was a DJ, I was in music, I had a label in college, had it for sixteen years, started it in 1996. I became a DJ in 2002. For me, I always wanna try new things and see what fits in my world. I love fashion, I love music, and I love food. Whenever I have the capacity to do certain things in my life, I wanna try it out.
How has EDM opened doors for you in other businesses?
Aoki: Well you make more money and you have more money to invest in different things you want to do. That has given me the opportunity to invest in restaurants, 2 in LA and 1 in NY. For the most part I have always started businesses myself, so it was a new opportunity for me to invest in something that was already being run. I never thought I would get into the restaurant business growing up because I was a music junkie at heart. I have always believed to follow what I love to do and music is my calling. As I am getting older there are certain other things that are opening up different opportunities for me to do.
Kind of like Pillow Face?
Aoki: We launched Pillow Face with a US bus tour with 55 shows across the US. We brought a Pillow Face team at every stop, we were hitting up the college campuses. It only makes sense because I was doing that tour in that way. Plus I am reaching out to kids that could be coming out to my shows. In a way just giving them that service made sense, and it’s growing. It’s a good way to launch the company and the clothing line as well, which is meant for the kids that come out to my shows.
Do you design it or do you have a team of designers?
Aoki: We have a crew of designers.
So you’re fashion line, what kind of stuff are you doing?
Aoki: The Dim Mak line is all T-Shirts, Hoodies, very ready to wear kind of stuff, but I have been developing a proper menswear apparel line which will be launching at some point. I am knee deep in it. I am pretty excited about launching it. It’s a sophisticated line, its not for the raver kids. This is a line that demonstrates the influences I like. To me it’s like art. When I buy an expensive jacket I am buying it because I love the whole package, the cut, everything they do a certain way. Japanese designers in general are the ones that lead the way for me.
So what else do you do in Vegas when you’re not performing?
Aoki: I’m playing poker, eating, and performing. I rarely do any sleeping although The Encore has really nice beds. When you’re playing poker for whatever reason your brain just turns off the snooze button.
So on stage you come across as the huge party guy but in real life that’s not really your thing right?
Aoki: I’m 34 years old and I am having fun probably more than some of these other people. To me it’s like if you can rage with the best of them, do you really have to be drunk? Do you really have to be on drugs? Some people need it, and I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t have a problem with people going crazy with whatever they’re doing. All I care about is that if they are at my party and I am controlling that side of things, I just want people to be safe, get home safe, and have the best time I can possibly give them. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, injured, or leave in a negative spirit. I want people to have a good time and be safe about it.
When did you really notice that this scene get so big in Vegas?
Aoki: It was gradual. Its like watching a baby grow, you don’t realize it was once this small. Shecky is a good friend of mine and a really close friend of DJ AM who was my best friend. When Schecky said I am opening up this club (Surrender) with Shawn and Wynn, I want you to be the music director and be one of our main guys. I was doing my own thing and when I was playing in Vegas I was playing hip hop. It was a money gig, and Schecky said “you can do your thing. we want you to introduce your sound to our club and our brand.” They took a risk on me really because I am not the most commercial house DJ. They could have picked someone else that plays to everyone. I do play all kinds of stuff and I am definitely different than your typical EDM DJ. A good general manager of a club is seeing how many people are walking out the door, how much money people are spending at the tables and these guys let me do my thing. For me as a DJ its always about the kids in the front giving me that energy and their energy trickles out to everyone else so I focus on them first. They create the energy and the dynamic in the room for everyone else to have a good time. I never really felt like I had a bad night where I left and thought it was too hard, or they didn’t understand the music at Surrender. I definitely felt a growth from the beginning to now where it is. It was not really small and now it’s massive, it was actually pretty great in the beginning because any new nightclub that opens, people want to see it.
Aoki: It’s a big business. The scene, culture, and clubbing has changed so much in the whole US. Vegas is a really good microcosm of your typical musically ignorant club in a city that has a lot of cross sections. Before Surrender I always considerired Vegas to be the most musically ignorant place in the world becuase they only want to hear the most palatable radio music. The people buying the tables are dictating what the DJ is going to play. It used to be something I never looked forward to. I never played a record I didn’t like because I love pop music and hip hop. The music that gives me the energy that I play here now didn’t give me that before.
So you had to play the music dictated by the audience, but is it different now?
Aoki: Surrender said you can do your thing. The scene I was playing in was becoming big enough where Scheky said I can do my own thing in Surrender.
How many shows are you playing?
Aoki: In 2007 I was touring 300 dates. In 2008 I was playing 250 dates. Now I am somewhere between 260 and 300 shows. While I am in Europe I will stack them so I could be playing 60 dates but doing 2-3 shows in the same day.
Aoki: Vegas really has changed. If you look at the billboards you are seeing peoples names and their faces and that never really happened before. Back before EDM infilitrated Vegas, the DJ’s were paid a couple thousand dollars and were put in the corner of the room and no one knew who they were. There were only a few DJ’s with a face that were getting 20-30,000 a gig and those were DJ’s like DJ AM.
Aoki: Now agents and management are in touch with what these clubs are making so that it’s more fair for the DJ bringing in that much and they should be getting paid for that.
How much does this bus give incentive for DJ’s to play here?
Aoki: When me and Afrojack first came here, Surrender built a mobile studio for us to work in for a week. Before this we worked in my house for a week and we wrote a lot of songs. He is like a Beethoven of our time. Nick doesn’t need a keyboard, he has everything going on up here and he is very humble about it too. He is not just a good friend of mine but also someone I look up to. So we worked here in Vegas and I asked Shecky to get us a studio together and he figured it out in 24 hours and turned the gift shop into a studio. We worked on “No Beef” there, we finished it there.
Aoki: I think for certain people, this studio would mean a lot to them but the day, time, the era that we live in, everyone just plugs their computer into their system. And you work everything in the box just right off the computer.
Shecky: The business model that these guys have is more efficient than what record companies do and as a result it’s changing where the model is. These guys are producing and distributing music with their laptop. Music has become a free tool that promotes their live show, the one area where the music industry is thriving is live events. These guys are in the hotspot with these live events. This electronic music scene is really the red hot area of the music biz because their business model is more efficient than Atlanttic records, Sony music, or any label. They dont have any extra baggae. It’s a guy or a couple guys and a laptop, making a record, putting it online, and shooting their own videos.
Aoki: I shoot a video about once a month. Besides making my own music videos with different directors, I am constantly shooting webisodes. Its a really important way for me to communicate through the internet with people that care.
How many dates do you do in Vegas?
Shecky: He does about 20-30 shows a year.
Why do you think Vegas has become the red hot center of all this?
Aoki: It’s one of the only cities that can afford to have all these DJ’s come here on a consistent basis. Place like NY, I have to play once every 8 months because I am playing music halls or ballrooms. I want to have the most compelling show to maximize what I can do in that city. Instead of playing the club, I want to play the Roseland Ballroom to 4,000 people or in LA at the Palladium. That is more meaningful to me than playing the club. Ill do the clubs in Vegas because that is the culutre here.
Shecky: It’s the convergence of fans, venues, and money. It’s the only place in the whole planet where those things converge.
Aoki: Sometimes Ill play Friday at Surrender and Monday at XS and its two completely different types of people. You have the local scene that supports you, but they might only go to Surrender because they like that club, or they might only go to XS.
Shecky: His monday thing at XS is a local’s paradise. When he does Monday’s at XS, it is a blockbuster huge night. When he does Friday at Surrender its more of the mass audience. It’s a lot of California, it’s a lot of Asian.
Aoki: One time I left XS and I talked to 7 different groups of people randomly. Each group was from a different country and I couldn’t believe it. India, Portugal, Italy, Venezuela, I couldn’t believe how many different people outside of America were at the show.
How is Vegas changing the DJ?
Aoki: I can pursue things that I have always wanted to, like being a part of a business like Sol Republic. And being ambitious to think I can be a part of a company that has a competitive edge in a really huge market. Now I can be a part of somehting bigger.
It takes you from underground to a mainstream world.
Aoki: I think if you change your public image then yes. Yes if I start rocking some Dolce Gabbana or some shit that’s not really me. I am always gonna do the things I love to do. If I am doing things for things I don’t like, that’s when it changes you. For me it’s what inspires me is what I am going to do when I want to do it.
After the interview, Aoki walked through the studio and gave us some comments on the gear we had on board. “Wow that board is sick,” was his initial impression to the Presonus StudioLive 24.4.2. “I got Machine and a couple of synths, but this Moog is dope,” for this part of the Mobile Studio Tour 2012 we brought with us the Native Instruments Maschine and the Moog Little Phatty to cater the studio for the electronic music producer. “Come to think of it this is not much different than my own studio. What are these? M-Audio BX8a’s.” It’s not uncommon for people to come through the studio and put their hands on nearly all of the gear on board and we welcome that. It does not matter to us if you are Steve Aoki or someone who is just getting started in their production. Both parties are always welcome to come on board, use the gear, and ask questions.
If you just can’t get enough of Steve Aoki, Lil Jon, and the Unique Squared Mobile Studio, check out the video which has snippets from this interview and some behind the scenes footage of Aoki trying out the studio gear.