Most of my readership is surely aware of Skrillex’s past as Sonny Moore, the singer of mallcore sensations From First to Last, but they are probably not nearly as aware that famed electro house musician Steve Aoki was a prime figure in the screamo scene of the late 90s/early 00s, playing in bands and even writing record reviews for HeartattaCk.
The hilariously earnest official Ebullition website describes them as a “mixture of classic early ’90s hardcore influences such as Merel and Iconoclast combined with a more modern screaming vocal assault. Their lyrics are extremely political.”
This Machine Kills was probably the most popular of Aoki’s projects, although he was also in bands like the more straightforwardly Dischord-esque Esperanza and the prog-screamo (think along the lines of I Would Set Myself on Fire for You and Wow, Owls!) the Fire Next Time, both of which are severely under-appreciated, in my opinion.
I really love Steve Aoki’s early hardcore records because they are so politically motivated. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of making fun of the idealistic leftist politics that so much of the 90s hardcore scene traded in, I think Aoki’s status as an Asian-American lent these bands a certain potency and authenticity that many similarly-styled bands (besides maybe Los Crudos and Spitboy, among sparse others) lacked.
This song is called “The 21st Reason to Kill Pete Wilson,” and it’s pretty explicitly about the shitty politics behind Proposition 21.
Esperanza, in particular, embraced racial tension wholeheartedly in both its lyrics and its presence, going so far as to print t-shirts that said “Fuck Your Privilege” and quoting Zapatista manifestos in their liner notes. Naming the band Esperanza (which means “hope” in Spanish) just adds to the defiance. Stuff like this was really what paved the way for things like Orchid putting Angela Davis on the cover of their self-titled.
Aoki also runs Dim Mak, a label that has gone through quite the journey throughout the years; it started out releasing records by indie-hype bands made up of ex-punks like Pretty Girls Make Graves, the Kills, and the Icarus Line and is now the home of Borgore and the Chainsmokers.
What I find of special note, however, is the three-way split that This Machine Kills released with Bay Area anarchist screamo act Yaphet Kotto and Japanese post-screamo innovators Envy. It’s a pretty fascinating snapshot of the last legs of the 90s DIY hardcore scene. All three of these bands played a style of music that, to me, personified late-90s hardcore more than any youth crew or tough-guy band, but it seemed like the latter was gaining much more steam. Metalcore had become pretty much the go-to image for “hardcore” in everyone’s heads, leaving bands like This Machine Kills to lick for scraps at the bottom of the barrel.
A 3-way collaboration song that is simultaneously the most pretentious and the most fucking awesome thing I have ever heard in my life.
In hindsight, it’s painfully obvious why Aoki decided to jump ship and start doing electronic music– it is massively more profitable. It’s also pretty much the trajectory for any hardcore musician that grew into a moderately successful, Pitchfork-acclaimed indie act (see Wes Eisold in Cold Cave or Justin Pearson collaborating with the Bloody Beetroots).
Speaking of the Bloody Beetroots, this is the more recent hardcore side project that Aoki formed with one of their members. It’s more straightforwardly “hardcore,” but it’s still pretty dope.
It’s definitely interesting to examine how many successful people have roots in the hardcore scene. As Mike Mowery once said, “Behind every successful business is a hardcore kid.” Therefore, it should come as absolutely no surprise that so many of us have become so well-known (and ironically, much of their hardcore past forgotten). In any case, I’m pretty proud of how far so many of us have come; to me, it seems just as much a product of our DIY-nurtured networking skills, hustle, and practicality as the talent of the individual players. Plus, with so many of us in positions of power, we are in a perfect place bring the fucking system down. ¡Viva La Zapatistas!