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Last month, Aoki celebrated his Grammy nomination for best dance/electronica album (for 2012's Wonderland) at Drai's in Hollywood. Throngs waited at the velvet rope as a host ushered guests to an elevator that led to the rooftop venue, Vegas-style. Inside it was body to body, literally.
While not exactly the leading edge of a scene known for its technological progression, Aoki's music is well-polished and clearly informed by the crunchy chords of Daft Punk. Wonderland is chock-full of collaborations and appearances: Lil John, Travis Barker, Rivers Cuomo and Kid Cudi. The tracks, with cathartic trance build-ups, throbbing acidic loops and hopeful interludes (see "Steve Jobs"), comprise a soundtrack for faux-hawk ravers. The sound is custom-made for Aoki's thrashing on the big stage — and as radio-friendly as anything LMFAO ever released.
It was as a college student at UC Santa Barbara in the late '90s that Aoki started his music career, hosting bands in a campus-adjacent house during his freshman year. A self-described Malcolm X admirer, Aoki double-majored in women's studies and sociology and worked as a bicycle delivery boy for a burrito joint. (Yes, that meant taking shit from the frat boys.)
Some of his early punk-rock shows in Santa Barbara drew just a single listener, although legend has it that the performers included Jimmy Eat World and an early version of The Mars Volta. Aoki was a vocalist in a punk group of his own, too — This Machine Kills. A hardcore punk fanatic, he collected 15,000 records and started a home-based label, Dim Mak (named for Bruce Lee's "death touch"), which would later become a sensation.
By graduation in 2000, Aoki had hosted an estimated 450 shows, including ones at Biko House, a residence for minority students.
"I was putting on shows in my living room," he says today.
In the early '00s, as he moved to Hollywood and dug into his apartment-based label, Aoki got an early taste of success. In 2002, Dim Mak's 36th release, The Kills' Black Rooster EP, put the label on the map. After Aoki signed Bloc Party, The Gossip, Klaxons and many other indie sensations, Dim Mak earned a deal with Hollywood Records.
Sizing up Aoki's extensive punk, hardcore and indie vinyl collection, the bartender at Three Clubs in Hollywood invited him to spin in 2004. Aoki didn't know the first thing about DJing; at the time, he had only one turntable. Then again, there was only a handful of people at the divey bar. And spinning punk and indie hardly requires the beat-matching blends of a superclub jock.
Something clicked. Aoki would take his newfound passion for spinning tunes to his own residency at Beauty Bar (called "Steve's Fucking Awesome" night), to the late LAX, and finally to Cinespace, where he essentially remains to this day. He called himself "Kid Millionaire."
And Aoki was that, in a way. His father is the guy who invented Benihana.
Aoki's grandfather had been a showman, an actor and a tap dancer. When he opened a jazz-infused coffeehouse in Tokyo before World War II, he called it Benihana. Two decades later, when his eldest son, Hiroaki, immigrated to the United States, renamed himself Rocky, and opened a teppanyaki restaurant, he appropriated the name — and his father's sense of theater.
The first Benihana, on New York City's 56th Street, had just four tables. But sometime after its 1964 opening, Rocky Aoki realized his father's example and remade his restaurant around a griddle that showcased the chefs as they flipped knives, caught shrimp in their hats and tossed produce into the air to the open-mouthed astonishment of Mad Men — era New York. That was how to make it in America.
But for all of Benihana's success, Rocky and his wife divorced, and the future DJ, born in Miami, grew up in posh Newport Beach, far from his father's New York — based empire. (Among Steve Aoki's half-siblings are model/actress Devon Aoki, who was the face of Versace for a time and who also appeared in the movie 2 Fast 2 Furious.)
By the time Benihana and its holdings were sold last year, they were worth an estimated $296 million. Aoki has said that his father never gave him a dime, although college friends have said his mother benefited from Benihana's success.
Still, Steve Aoki would go on to start a couple of restaurants of his own, including the Eveleigh in West Hollywood and Kitchen 24 in Hollywood and West Hollywood. And Rocky Aoki — Olympic wrestler, boat and car racer, notorious womanizer and all-around hell-raiser — did give his son something.
"The strength in everything he did was pushing his marketing and work and art and sportsmanship all to one brand, which was Benihana," Aoki says. "He raced Benihana powerboats. He had hot-air balloons branded with Benihana. He marketed to one thing. His influence is unconditional. Now I see why I market everything toward Dim Mak."
Despite his pedigree, Aoki sees himself as an underdog punk artist at heart. He was "straight-edge" in college — no drugs, no booze — and says he still doesn't drink anything harder than green tea. His time in empty rooms, from his college shows to Three Clubs, hardened him to disappointment.