The Neon Punk of EDM

The Neon Punk of EDM

Once an indie darling, Steve Aoki has coasted to superstardom on a wave of pure showmanship.

A Steve Aoki performance is one of the better, faster, stronger sets in electronic dance music. To a world once dominated by heads-down, booth-enveloped DJs, Aoki has introduced punk-rock antics: He showers crowds with Champagne, voyages into the liquid masses crowd-surfing on an inflatable boat, and even sprained his neck stage-diving last year. The results, somewhat like adding theatrics, molecular gastronomy and television cameras to modern cuisine, have been sensational if not outright controversial.

Steve Aoki
Robin Laananen
Steve Aoki
"It's amazing to see that I've gotten this far without having any radio success whatsoever."
"It's amazing to see that I've gotten this far without having any radio success whatsoever."

At Electric Daisy Carnival in 2010, Aoki jumped across the stage, bro'd down with friend Lil Jon, climbed a stage truss and then tumbled into the crowd from at least a body length above. He floated an inflatable lounge chair on a sea of hallelujah hands so a raver could surf gleefully, arms out, as if she were the frigging Queen of the World. It had to have been the time of her life.

"He's not a guy, like many DJs, who just stands there and stares into his computer," American EDM pioneer "Swedish" Egil Aalvik of Groove Radio says. "He's anything but that."

Instead, Aoki is the king of caking — throwing handfuls of actual birthday cake, topped with the scene's signature "peace, love, unity and respect," or PLUR, at his adoring fans.

For all his success, the 35-year-old Angeleno is an unlikely EDM superstar. He came out of left field in the mid-'00s, playing indie rock and hip-hop, letting the likes of Lindsay Lohan take over his decks, and practically dissing dance-music royalty, telling Billboard's Kerri Mason in 2007: "Paul van Dyk, Erick Morillo, Tiësto — I have never even heard of half these DJs, or know their music." For contemporary kids, he proclaimed, "It's no longer electronic music."

Aoki has lived to eat those words, gleefully so. He's not only a convert — he's also American EDM's new prince. The punk who took the piss out of the superstar DJ is now the highest-ranked stateside spinner on DJ Magazine's vaunted annual Top 100 DJs poll. Only L.A.'s Skrillex, who's relatively new to DJing and uses a push-button laptop program, ranks higher.

Aoki's popularity comes even as large, corporate interests are taking over EDM festivals from coast to coast. Some of the nation's biggest concert promoters — Live Nation, AEG Live and SFX Entertainment — are putting big money into EDM, and increasingly claim a big share of the action.

"Steve, I can say hands down, is one of the best live performers in electronic music," says Patrick Moxey, president of Ultra Music and head of Sony's electronic music division. "He's just a phenomenon with the way he interacts with crowds. I actually was at a HARD Festival at the Shrine in L.A. watching him hold court from the stage, wearing a mummy outfit, spraying Champagne on the crowd and stage-diving. He's just off the Richter scale."

The concert-business bible Pollstar ranked Aoki as the top-grossing DJ in the nation in mid-2012: He reached $4.1 million in ticket sales in just the first six months of the year. The figure likely is even higher; Pollstar president Gary Bongiovanni says income tends to be underreported because nonticketed clubs' revenue figures don't reach his publication: "A lot of these DJs make a lot of money at these small nightclubs."

This month Aoki announced that he's signed up for a six-gig residency at Las Vegas' newest venue, the soon-to-open Hakkasan at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, where he'll join U.K. pop star — cum-spinner Calvin Harris as in-house entertainment. Aoki's night will be called Neon Future, which is also the title of a coming album on Ultra Music. Next weekend he'll take on the big stage at Ultra Music Festival in Miami, followed by a return to EDC Vegas this summer.

So how do you go from being an indie DJ to a top-of-the-marquee EDM act embraced by a community that resists the mainstream?

In Aoki's case, it took a dazzling mash-up of influences: You learn from DJ AM. You see Daft Punk live. You absorb the tricks of Benihana and the marketing genius of Andy Warhol.

And then you go big.

Steve Aoki lives in a modern, airy, three-level house in the Hollywood Hills, decorated with blond wood floors, a piece by street artist Robbie Conal, an oil-based portrait of Aoki himself, a signed Breaking Bad poster and an Elvis mural. Across from a coffee table stacked with art books, amid stark, white furnishings, two Daft Punk figurines observe from a perch atop a kitchen counter.

"I don't want to ever have a life of regret," Aoki says. "I want to fill it with something meaningful, with purpose."

He's relaxed in a Kenzo sweatshirt emblazoned with neon-'80s graphics, and disarmingly nice. His stringy long hair and trademark goatee belie a calm, Zen-master quality.

"He's got a mogul thing going on, too," says Joel Zimmerman, head of global electronic music for Hollywood's William Morris Endeavor agency. "He's a pleasure to work with. Part of his success is that he's really likable."

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.

"I'm headlining festivals at this point," he says. "It's amazing to see that I've gotten this far without having any radio success whatsoever."

Turntables are revered by club DJs as holy instruments. So critics weren't always kind to a DJ named Kid Millionaire, who treated them as a physical hurdle between his antics and his vodka-infused worshippers.

A Pitchfork review of Aoki's debut mix-CD, Pillowface and His Airplane Chronicles, called Aoki's sound "the 'new noise' of a 21st-century American Apparelled rock/dance zeitgeist that's not at all played out in the slightest." Even a subsequent defense of Aoki by the industry-friendly Urb magazine in 2008 noted that "he mostly played 3-year-old hip-hop hits with only dashes of rock and dance music tossed in."

As recently as 2007 Aoki told the Weekly his music "walked the line between N.W.A and Slayer," adding that Big Country and Whitney Houston were "definitely important to my sense of good songwriting."

Those are words to make any house-music DJ cringe. Big Country? The dance-music community was composed of mainstream-hating technophiles who revered the DJ with the latest, most obscure basement-produced tracks. Not Slayer. And certainly not Whitney Houston.

David Ireland, founder of Magnetic Magazine and consultant to Live Nation, explains that hipsters and clubgoers were "like oil and water," part of opposing youth-culture tribes in the mid-aughts. "You were a hipster, or you were a raver," he says.

But Aoki tapped into four-on-the-floor house music while maintaining a punk rocker's stance behind the decks. It was perfect timing.

Larry Tee, a New York jock who brought reluctant hipsters and house heads together in the early '00s with his "electroclash" scene, told the Weekly in 2009, "It's cool that Steve moved from being a celebrity DJ to being a really credible electro, blog-house DJ. When I first heard him, I wanted to hate, but I can't really hate."

One reason for Aoki's fast rise is that he learned from the best. In the mid-'00s, Aoki befriended Adam Goldstein, better known as DJ AM. AM became one of the best spinners in the country, if not the world, before his untimely death in 2009. "DJ AM was a big guru to me," Aoki says.

Photographer Mark "The Cobrasnake" Hunter, a former L.A. Weekly contributor, signed on with Aoki as the official documentarian of his late-night shenanigans in 2003. Not long after, AM joined the Dim Mak world.

"He was superclose friends with DJ AM and learned the true way of DJing — how to mix and do all that," Hunter says. "He just soaked it up. I used to share an office with Steve, and AM would come over and fool around with the turntables Steve had in his office — show him scratching and beat-matching."

Aoki was in prime position. 2006 was the year EDM first truly resonated with mass audiences. Sure, electronic dance music had glory days as far back as the dawn of the 1990s, when "Swedish" Egil, then on KROQ, convinced the station to put 808 State in rotation. Even in 1997, electronica, as it was known then, was hailed in the halls of major record labels as pop's savior. Prodigy topped the charts that year, and Moby would do the same in 2000. Savior, however, turned out to be an overstatement.

Then came 2006.

Coachella used to be filled with hipsters standing around as skinny white boys with messy hair played '80s-flavored rock. But in 2006, attendees were treated to the electrifying sounds of Daft Punk. The masked duo zapped the audience with a blinding light show set to its trademark disco guitars and pornographic loops.

The sound was nothing new. In fact, at the time Daft Punk were touring on a greatest-hits compilation. But it was new for the millennial generation.

"AM was, like, 'You have to come with me to Daft Punk. It will change your life. I want you to accept the Daft Punk into your heart,' " Aoki says, adding, "I did."

Performing in a neon pyramid on the Empire Polo Club fields, the French duo cranked out crunchy keytar grooves for mesmerized hipsters who realized that dance music wasn't just about European douchebags DJing inside velvet-rope clubs. Suddenly EDM was cool for the kids in candy-colored sunglasses.

"I was blown away," Aoki says. "They're aliens not from this Earth."

Aoki's EDM baptism gave way to his embrace of France's Ed Banger label, the logical heir to Daft Punk. Dim Mak started hosting Ed Banger parties featuring the likes of Busy P (Pedro Winter) and DJ Mehdi. And Dim Mak soon signed such EDM rockers as MSTRKRFT, The Bloody Beetroots and Felix Cartal. Aoki's French connection culminated with the unprecedented appearance in 2009 of Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter at Dim Mak's Tuesday-night party. The Frenchman spun tunes, sans mask, in honor of Ed Banger owner and former Daft Punk manager Pedro Winter's birthday.

Dim Mak's foray into the alt side of EDM caught the attention of Gary Richards, a longtime dance-music festival promoter who was trying to breathe life into a label.

Wisely, Richards banked on live performances over recordings, which is now where even EDM's top artists make most of their cash. He approached Aoki, who suggested a "Hard On" festival featuring him, Ed Banger artists Justice and Busy P, and Richards' alter ego, Destructo, on the decks. The name was rejected (Richards went with just HARD), but the acts made the annual event into a new EDM sensation.

"I wanted to switch from my label to shows, and I started going out and checking out what was going on," Richards says. "Steve's Tuesday night was really the thing I saw as something different and cool, with dance music and this vibe and energy. It got me really excited to try to get him involved in what I was going to start up."

For years, Richards had tried to get rock and electronic dance music to meld, signing techno acts to Rick Rubin's American label in the 1990s. But it was an outsider, Aoki, who finally showed the way.

"What I like about Steve is his energy and his attitude is kind of punk rock," Richards says. "And I look at HARD as like that. Booking Crystal Castles, Justice, it's totally different than deep house. I've always tried to figure out how to blend rock into electronic."

After losing money during its first few years on the festival circuit, HARD eventually became so successful that last year it was sold to Live Nation for an undisclosed amount. With that purchase, it joins the $50 million sale of dance-music online retailer Beatport to SFX Entertainment and the many suitors eyeing Insomniac, organizer of Electric Daisy Carnival, as part of a wave of corporate interest in EDM.

The sometime home to many of the world's top DJs, from Steve Angello of Swedish House Mafia to Tiësto, Los Angeles has become the epicenter of American EDM, thanks in no small part to Richards, Aoki and locally based Insomniac.

"I think that I can safely say L.A. is the biggest market in the United States for dance and electronic music," Ultra's Moxey says.

Experts say the biggest sign of success for an EDM act is "hard ticket" sales — as in, selling out a big show, solo. Having your name alone on the marquee is a different game from playing a festival crowd. Few DJs — Swedish House Mafia, in the midst of a farewell tour, Tiësto, Armin Van Buuren — can do it.

Aoki did it in November, selling out a 5,000-capacity Shrine Auditorium show billed as "Steve Aoki's Birthday Bash."

Zimmerman of the Morris agency hints that his client will headline a number of "credible ... crossover festivals" this summer before heading out on a solo tour of big venues in the fall. "I think he's got a pretty big year ahead," he says.

In 2007, Aoki experienced baptism by fire, going to Ibiza and encountering what Billboard's Kerri Mason calls a "hostile environment": house heads hoping to explore the deeper shades of legendary spinner Danny Tenaglia, for whom Aoki opened.

Ibiza had become the mecca of DJs' DJs, home to dance-till-dawn performances from the likes of Tenaglia, Dubfire and Loco Dice. It was no place for a fly-by-night wannabe with an hour's worth of material in his record box.

But the L.A. DJ won them over. Aoki walked away with the Spanish isle's annual "Set of the Season" prize.

It was a year later that Aoki's father died at 69 after suffering from diabetes, hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. Soon after, Aoki dropped his Kid Millionaire moniker. (The next year, his hero, DJ AM, died of a reported drug overdose in New York.)

Since then, dance music in the United States has shifted radically from a club-based scene that revolved around aural pleasure on the dance floor to a hands-in-the-air community addicted to massive festivals like EDC, which boasted 100,000 customers a day during its three-day event in Las Vegas last summer.

Before the festival takeover, the most revered DJs in dance music were "marathon men" like Tenaglia, John Digweed and Sasha, snake charmers whose shifts in mood and energy, sometimes during four- to eight-hour sets, comprised mesmerizing aural journeys — multicourse, omakase meals for the EDM connoisseur. What was happening in the booth was irrelevant because the music was the show.

In Europe, solo DJ concerts still happen on a massive scale (and Tiësto, Armin Van Buuren and Sven Väth don't stage dive). But America has held club DJs at arm's length since the homophobic days of "disco sucks."

"America wants its EDM in a big, rock & roll way," Ireland says. "American style is all about the lights and the shows and the festivals. The consumer has come to expect that."

What's more, top American acts are one-hour jocks because that's often all the time they can get at the ever-growing number of EDM festivals nationwide. The slots are maximized with outlandish crossover antics (Flavor Flav joined David Guetta onstage at EDC in 2011). Aoki represents the Americanization of global dance music.

"You can't expect kids who were converted to this in this era to sit around for Danny Tenaglia for hours to do something genius," Billboard's Mason says. "It's not an underground experience anymore. It's a concert experience."

But the club scene benefits from the trickle-down economics of thousands of festival aficionados who want to keep the party going week to week. Thus, Aoki's Vegas club residency and the newfound vibrancy of medium-size venues such as L.A.'s Playhouse and Sound, which can book the likes of Sander Kleinenberg, DJ Dan and Jamie Jones without having to worry too much about stage production.

And if Aoki is the new face of EDM, he's also part of a new wave of business-savvy artists (Avicii, Afrojack, Morgan Page) who keep a tight rein on marketing and imagery.

In 2011 Aoki became an equity partner in Cinespace, Dim Mak's longtime Tuesday-night home. The club was rechristened Dim Mak Studios and given a new, backstreet address.

Aoki has been unusually wise about his career, creating his own management firm, Deckstar, which now represents Travis Barker, Holy Ghost!, Infected Mushroom and more. The DJ gets eyes on all his products, from album covers to T-shirts to fliers to headphones. (He's also endorsed a tequila.) He's a pop art aficionado, Warhol with turntables, a true believer in the idea that art and marketing are inseparable. Dim Mak even sells T-shirts proclaiming, "I Got Caked by Steve Aoki."

Early on, paralleling a move by New York's Misshapes parties, Aoki saw the genius in publishing his friend Hunter's photos of the previous night's Dim Mak shenanigans. Today he's upped the ante by touring the world with a videographer.

"I reclaimed my YouTube Steve Aoki site from a kid who squatted on it," he says. He now publishes as many as four videos a week online, noting that there are no gatekeepers to stardom there, unlike television, radio and print.

"There's no major institutional power that put me in the place I am now," he says. "That's where I feel the most proud about my success so far. Literally I've gotten there by being crowd-surfed by my fans from point A to point B."

EDM is learning from Aoki, the showman, even as Aoki is learning to appreciate EDM's marathon men of yore.

"I look at my show like a long play and each song is a skit in this play," he says. "There's a narrative structure. There's rhyme and reason for every song — why it's mixed before the next and the next mixed after that. I always have to continue to evolve and change it.

"I once said I didn't know Doc Martin or Tiësto or Carl Cox or Danny Tenaglia. I know them now. Through the process of DJing, you start learning about DJ culture."

After Aoki does Miami this weekend, his next big show will be Electric Daisy Carnival in June. He's champing at the bit.

Last year, he'd planned to perform with Blue Man Group. But that night, northern winds started howling. The event's 10-story showcase, the largest festival stage in North America, started to sway scarily. The white stadium lighting at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway flashed on, shocking ravers used to only lasers, "robo scan" lights and glow sticks. An organizer came over the sound system to tell everyone to move to higher ground — the grandstands.

The previous summer, an approaching thunderstorm had blown down a stage structure at the Indiana State Fair, killing seven — and so EDC organizers pulled the plug on performances at 12:45 a.m. Winds were howling at about 40 miles per hour, and the stages were built to withstand gusts up to 80. But there was "an abundance of caution and with fan safety in mind," according to the promoters' official statement. Though there was the possibility of a return to the music as the winds subsided, organizers soon announced the night was over.

Aoki was devastated.

The show had been planned for "months and months," he says. The Blue Man performers were to be wrapped in LED lights, performing on their drums and tubes to specially produced remixes of Aoki songs as the DJ was hoisted above the fray on a cable.

"I wouldn't even leave, I was so upset," Aoki recalls. "When Blue Man Group was, like, 'We're all leaving,' the realization still didn't hit."

But that just raises the stakes for this year.

"Hopefully," he says, "there's no wind this time."

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