As one of the most celebrated figures of the electronic dance music world, Steve Aoki plays some 250 shows a year. Known for hurling sheet cake at his fans, surfing over crowds on an inflatable raft and tweaking beloved rock hits with booming beats, the 40-year-old DJ holds more than one Guinness World Record for being the most-traveled musician in one year. It’s no wonder the title of his Grammy-nominated 2016 documentary, which also delved into his life as the son of Benihana founder Rocky Aoki, was “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” The Chronicle caught Aoki ahead of the tour for his most recent album “Kolony,” which features collaborations with rappers like Gucci Mane, Migos, Lil Yachty and T-Pain.
Q: You already had a good thing going with EDM. What made you want to change it up by throwing hip-hop into the mix?
A: You know, my whole life is based on flow. When I’m in the studio, I work with artists from all genres — everything from K-Pop to rock to hip-hop. When I was in the studio at the inception of “Kolony,” I was just making music with hip-hop artists and getting into a vibe. And sometimes the vibe turns into a project because the vibe is so strong.
Q: Does it feel like a natural progression for you?
A: These hip-hop artists weren’t just jumping on EDM beats. It was like, let’s just make the best songs that we can. It’s very much a reflection of American culture. This is the voice of youth culture: Hip-hop and EDM. It’s what the youth experience when they go the festivals, when they go to parties, hang out with all their friends, the clothes they wear, the dances that they do, the artists they listen to. When I play “Kolony” in other countries and I see kids singing along — in a country where English is not spoken — it really speaks to my heart.
Q: In the documentary “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” you talk about the challenges of growing up in a predominately white neighborhood in California. When you see what’s going on in the country now, how do you get up on stage every night and let it go?
A: At the end of the day, this is the time when the immigrants’ voice — the people who are disenfranchised, the people who are underrepresented — this is the time we need to stand up and speak louder than we’ve ever spoken before. In times of comfort and in times of safety and security, you’re not challenged. We don’t have a choice. We can’t sit on the fence anymore in a time like this, in a regime like this. Sometimes you think, “Well, the president doesn’t affect my life.” Well, it’s affecting millions and millions of lives. You can’t just sit idly by and watch this whole place burn down when there’s so much progress being made to represent all people. At this time, we got to be even louder. I’m definitely not known to sit on the sidelines.