EDM in the history museum: Steve Aoki gear travels the world and finds a home at the museum

By intern Rebecca Hall

Music blasts toward the audience as concertgoers dance to Steve Aoki's pounding bass rhythms and bright LED displays. The DJ throws cakes at his cheering audience, to their delight, and jumps off the stage in his signature "Aoki Jump." Many electronic dance music (EDM) fans will tell you that there is nothing quite like attending a Steve Aoki concert. It might sound like an odd combination, but this kind of showmanship has garnered attention from all over the globe and has made Aoki one of the world's most famous DJs.

Two turntables on a long board
Aoki's DJ equipment, recently donated to the museum

Steve Aoki (born 1977) has been a part of the entertainment world for most of his life, founding the Dim Mak record label (named after a martial arts move popularized by Bruce Lee in his 1970s movies) while studying at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the 1990s. He learned a little something about showmanship from his father, entrepreneur Rocky Aoki, who founded the Benihana restaurant chain after immigrating to the United States from Japan. The younger Aoki has been performing multiple shows a week since Dim Mak's founding and now represents American EDM around the world by performing up to 300 shows a year. The essential elements of these shows are their digital components, with which Aoki creates a concert experience that stimulates all the senses.

Aoki travels with a set of music equipment that he uses every time he performs, and he recently donated a set of his gear to the museum. This acquisition is part of an important narrative the museum is assembling through research and collections illustrating the evolution of turntable and DJ technology. Aoki's gear joins DJ Bob Casey's equipment from the 1950s and Grandmaster Flash's turntable, both of which are excellent examples of how Americans have repurposed and transformed existing technology in order to create dynamic new musical experiences. In the late 1950s, Bob Casey pioneered the use of mixing the output of two independently operated turntables through a single P.A. system. This enabled him to keep dancers on the floor and music playing nonstop at sock hops and other teenage gatherings. Later, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Bronx DJ Grandmaster Flash developed modifications to turntables as well as new techniques for manipulating the records he played on them so that the turntables became musical instruments in their own right. (The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation has a fascinating article on Grandmaster Flash and his revolution.)

A single turntable
Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash used this Technics brand turntable made by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. It was originally released in 1979 as a high-fidelity record player for the average consumer and was soon adopted by radio and club deejays.

The donation of Steve Aoki's gear enables us to expand our narrative history of turntabling and DJ work into the current era. As an intern in the museum's music collection, I had the amazing opportunity to learn about the secrets behind the magic of Aoki's concerts by examining and documenting the donation of his gear. Like Casey and Grandmaster Flash before him, Aoki uses his DJ equipment as his instruments—but unlike his predecessors, the musical experience that he creates is digital. Hard drives and computers replace turntables, although much of the physical design, controls, and attributes of his gear replicate the experience of a DJ working an analog system similar to that of Casey and Flash. When we break down the system that he donated to the museum, we see first that he connects his laptop to the rest of his gear through an SL3 interface.

A black piece of DJ equipment that looks like a tape deck, but isn't
Aoki's RANE SL3 interface, manufactured around 2010

Aoki then uses his laptop to view his playlists and music files as he mixes recorded songs while generating new sounds and effects. Aoki performs this work with a mixer and two multiplayer decks. Multiplayer decks replace the function of turntables. Similar to Flash's techniques of scratching and adjusting the speed of vinyl records, Aoki uses jog dials on the player decks to sonically manipulate his digital music files.

A piece of black DJ equipment
One of Aoki's Pioneer multiplayer decks, model CDJ-2000, manufactured in 2009
Black DJ equipment
Aoki also donated this Pioneer multiplayer, model CDJ-2000 Nexus, manufactured in 2014, to the museum's collection

The mixer then allows Aoki to control which songs and multiplayer deck are playing without taking the time to use his laptop. The mixer features knobs and faders that, when physically manipulated by Aoki, ensure the music is mixed, equalized, adjusted for speed, and otherwise sounds right to his ears. As if his work was not complicated enough, Aoki then incorporates a video feed of colorful LED designs that correspond to the music he is playing, giving his show an intense and unique energy and spirit.

A piece of white DJ equipment with lots of levers and switches
Aoki's Pioneer DJM-800 mixer, manufactured in 2008

If you ever get a chance to see Aoki perform live, you'll have a better understanding of how he uses technology and musical creativity to make unique and spectacular experiences for audiences around the world, like many of the DJs who came before him! You can now see his turntables and soundboard on display in the museum's Ray Dolby Gateway to Culture.  

Rebecca Hall completed a summer 2017 internship in the Division of Culture and the Arts.