One am is fast approaching at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and Steve Aoki is bent over a laptop in his luxury hotel suite, scrolling through 160 tracks in preparation for a full set of noisy beats and the night’s coming tsunami of champagne, CO2 fog and vanilla frosting. “I want to play all this s–t tonight!” he says excitedly, jumping out of his seat and pumping his fists amid an entourage of friends and crew waiting to bounce over to the hotel’s nightclub, Hakkasan.
“I’m amped! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Aoki is dressed for action, in a long-sleeve shirt, baby-blue jeans and bright blue high-tops. In a moment, two extra-large security men in suits will escort him on his long walk to the DJ booth, through the hotel’s casino, past the penny slots and the thousand-dollar machines, the high-rollers and the bakery.
Hakkasan is home to superstar DJs such as Calvin Harris and Tiësto (whose names are displayed outside on signs as big as the club itself) and is a great gig by any measure. But Aoki’s ongoing residency, which began in April 2013, represents only a small part of his success.
Moulded by both the irreverence of the LA punk scene and the experience of creating the still-influential Dim Mak record label, Aoki is an anomaly on the high-gloss global DJ circuit. He is, like a handful of his peers, a superlative entertainer. But in the way he controls his brand and mines the zeitgeist for the next creative and business opportunity, he has provided himself a roadmap for longevity in a fickle industry.
Aoki, 37, has been putting the finishing touches to his new concept album, Neon Future, Vol II, a collection of colliding beats and textures of the moment featuring genre-busting collaborations with Snoop Dogg, Linkin Park and Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. Onstage at Hakkasan, Aoki unleashes a seamless storm of EDM sounds mixed with bits of ’90s rock from Nirvana and Oasis, plus Born To Get Wild, his collaboration with will.i.am. The dancefloor shakes beneath the modern Chinois-chic décor and the light fixtures shaped like Aoki’s bearded face. One fan lunges toward the DJ booth, lifting a phone with a hopeful neon scrawl on its screen: “I love U… A selfie?” But Aoki isn’t about to stop for a picture. There are too many fans yelling one plea in his direction: “Cake me! Cake me!”
Behind him in the booth sit six white cakes, fresh from the bakery. In the last few years, these cakes have become his trademark. Each is decorated with the name ‘Dim Mak’ in blue frosting, but for one small error: the baker has misspelt it ‘Dim Mack’ and now Aoki’s road manager is carefully wiping off every errant C. Branding is business, after all. But no one will notice or care when these creations are hurled into the crowd.
Aoki spies a punter sitting on a friend’s shoulders, begging to be hit. The guy is duly obliged with a fluffy white dessert right in the face, and for a moment his entire head is encased in a perfect helmet of sugary white. His reaction is pure ecstasy, and he doesn’t wipe it off. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
There was an obvious role model in Aoki’s life when growing up; his father Rocky founded Benihana, the hugely successful chain of theatrical teppanyaki restaurants. A master at marketing, Rocky branded everything he did, including the hot-air balloon he piloted on his record-breaking
flight across the Pacific in 1981. He loved boats, fast cars and Andy Warhol paintings, but never spoiled his children.
As an Asian teenager in the privileged white enclave of Newport Beach, Aoki threw himself into LA’s vibrant punk scene, joining a succession of local hardcore bands.
Money was no object, because there wasn’t any; he would roll into town to play a gig to 30 people before crashing on a basement floor. The chaos of those live shows, where the singer would wade into the crowd, breaking down the barrier between artist and audience, stayed with Aoki.
He was 19 when he launched Dim Mak from his apartment while still a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Aoki and three friends each chipped in about $200; his father contributed zero. “He wanted me to learn the hard way,” says Aoki junior.
Aoki sought to prove himself despite his father. “Rocky was a patriarchal father who ran a steak joint,” says long-time manager Matt Colon. “Steve studied feminism, was a vegan and started a communist party in Santa Barbara.”
One of the first acts on Dim Mak were indie-rock duo The Kills, who have gone on to international acclaim, and the label also broke Bloc Party in the US. Aoki’s Dim Mak Tuesdays in Hollywood became must-attend events. “His parties were the spot to send cool bands to break them,” says Colon, then a marketing director at BPM magazine. It was at these parties that Aoki stumbled into the role of DJ, jokingly calling himself “Kid Millionaire” while still driving an old Isuzu Rodeo. He would play the celebrity and fashionista scene, mixing obscure electronic music with Britney Spears. This blend defined the spirit of his label.
“I grew up listening to punk and Steve was the same way,” says Bryan Linares, who started working at Dim Mak eight years ago as an intern and is now in charge of marketing and branding. “But now you go to Coachella and you see Jay-Z watching The xx from the side of the stage. That’s the future. And we want a kid to be able to find whatever he wants to in our world.”
Aoki has seen rival labels – some bigger than his – fade along with the genres in which they specialised. Meanwhile, the DJ has steered his label through phases of EDM, dubstep, drum ’n’ bass and electro, and thrived; in 2014, Dim Mak celebrated its 500th release. He makes a policy of hiring people who are willing to spend time on culture’s front lines, but Aoki’s own insatiable curiosity – and 300 days a year on the road – sets the tone.
“He’s a sponge,” says Linares. “He’s travelling so much, and I think it’s just the A&R in him. He’s always on the cusp of the next thing.” “In the beginning, there was no plan,” explains Aoki. “Now, when I look at business, I look at it as, ‘Where’s the plan? Where’s the future?’”
The new album is a testament to Aoki’s commitment to progression. Neon Future, Vol I, released last autumn, was the ultimate party plan; on Vol II, he adds ballads and some tears. Home We’ll Go mixes bright electronics with the acoustic shadings of Canadian rock band Walk Off The Earth – imagine Mumford & Sons stepping into a bar with Daft Punk to jam.
“The difference is the emotional value of this album is a bit darker,” says Aoki. “I wanted to get people into the Neon Future party and make them happy. Once they’re in, they’re ready for everything.”
A few days after the Las Vegas set, Aoki is in LA for a full day of meetings. In 24 hours’ time, he’ll be jetting off to a couple of weekend gigs in India. “Sometimes I really am zombified,” he admits.
In the Beverly Hills offices of his management company, Aoki meets with the organisers of music-meets-action-sports event Air + Style, which is being hosted by snowboarder Shaun White. They’ve proposed placing Aoki’s booth at the very top of the event’s almost 50-metre-high ramp at LA’s Rose Bowl. The DJ leans forward on the table, staring silently at the blueprint. He walks out to the balcony, about 15 metres above Wilshire Boulevard. The ramp would be more than three times this height.
“Fifty metres?” says Aoki. “They won’t be able to see me at all.” An enthusiastic snowboarder and BASE-jumper, Aoki may be a proven thrill-seeker, but the stage has its own demands. He’ll need more than TV cameras to feed his performance.It’s now late afternoon and the fatigue is beginning to take its toll. Aoki’s shoes are off and his eyelids are beginning to droop. He begins to curl up in a corner of the office couch. In a short while, a taxi will arrive to take him away. Then work on Vol II will continue.
On stage at Hakkasan that Saturday night, the demands of the real world seem more distant. For all his success as a brand-builder and label head, it’s in the booth where Aoki feels most free. Strapping on a pair of CO2 guns on a Saturday night on the Vegas Strip, ready to fire off geysers of fog, is an experience that no spreadsheet could eclipse.
Aoki leaps to the front of the stage and sends fans crowdsurfing on inflatable rafts. He uncorks champagne bottles, spraying the front row. This is the kind of showmanship that alarms EDM’s critics, who like their DJs to stand behind the decks and look cool. Aoki is unapologetic. At the end of his three-hour set, the crowd has thinned to a hardcore of early-morning survivors with staminas of steel. Aoki shares their commitment to the moment. “You want to go to sleep?!” he taunts happily.
“I love those people,” he says later of the diehard dancers. “I do it for them.”
Go BEYOND THE ORDINARY, be inspired every day, and dive deep into the world of The Red Bulletin:
The Red Bulletin App: Read brand new stories anytime and anywhere on your mobile devices
The Red Bulletin Magazine: Get the magazine delivered to your door every month by subscribing here