One a.m. 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 shit tonight!” he says excitedly, jumping to his feet 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!”
He’s 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 Aoki on his long walk to the DJ booth through the hotel’s casino, past the penny slots and thousand-dollar machines, the high-rollers and the pastry shop.
Hakkasan is home to superstar DJs like Calvin Harris and Tiësto (whose names are on the MGM exterior on signs as big as the club itself) and is a great gig by any measure. But Aoki’s ongoing residency at the venue since April 2013 represents only a small part of his appeal.
Molded both by the irreverence of the L.A. punk scene and the experience of creating the still-influential Dim Mak Records label, Aoki is an anomaly on the high-gloss global DJ circuit. He is, like a handful of the others, a superlative entertainer. But in the way he controls his brand and mines the zeitgeist for the next creative and business opportunity, he’s managed to provide himself a roadmap for longevity in a fickle industry.
And in the last few months, Aoki’s put the finishing touches on his new concept album, Neon Future, Vol. II. The album features colliding beats and textures of the moment in genre-busting collaborations with Snoop Dogg, Linkin Park and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. Onstage inside Hakkasan, Aoki unfurls a seamless storm of accelerating EDM beats mixed with bits of ’90s rock from Nirvana and Oasis, and his own “Born to Get Wild” collaboration with will.i.am. The dance floor shakes hard beneath the modern Chinois-chic décor and light fixtures shaped like Aoki’s bearded face. One fan lunges toward the DJ booth, lifting a phone with a hopeful neon scrawl on his screen: “I love U… A selfie?”
But Aoki isn’t about to stop now for a picture. Too many fans are yelling the same thing in his direction: “Cake me! Cake me!”
Behind him in the booth are six white cakes fresh from the bakery. In the last few years they’ve become his trademark. The Dim Mak name is written out in blue frosting on each, but with one problem: The baker misspelled it as “Dim Mack,” and now Aoki’s road manager is carefully wiping off every errant C. Branding is business, after all. But no one’s going to notice or care when these heaping loaves are hurled into the crowd.
Aoki sees one dude in the swirl begging for it, sitting on the shoulders of a buddy. He’s obliged with fluffy white dessert tossed right in his face, and for a moment the guy’s entire head is encased in a perfect helmet of sugary white. His reaction is pure ecstasy, and he doesn’t wipe it away. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
The last decade has been very good to the men behind the decks. Electronic dance music has elevated the likes of Harris, David Guetta and Aoki to global brands, with relentless touring schedules and sizable bank accounts. In 2014, Aoki for the first time cracked the top five of Forbes’ list of highest-earning DJs, banking $23 million, according to the magazine. But the requirements of sustained success stretch beyond a killer live show. And that’s where Aoki sets himself apart. “My entertainment is essentially my business,” he says. “It organically overlaps.”
The 37-year-old’s career began with an obvious role model. Father Rocky Aoki was the founder of the hugely successful Benihana chain of theatrical teppanyaki restaurants. A master at marketing, he branded everything he did, including the hot-air balloon he used to become the first person to cross the Pacific in one. He loved boats, fast cars and Warhol paintings but never spoiled his children.
An Asian teenager in the privileged white enclave of Newport Beach, Aoki threw himself into L.A.’s straight-edge punk scene. He was a member of a series of hardcore bands. Money was no object, because there wasn’t any. He’d roll into town to play a gig to 30 people before crashing on a basement floor. The chaos of those live shows and the way lead singers would wade into the crowd, breaking down the barrier between band and audience, stuck with him.
Aoki was 19 when he launched Dim Mak out of his apartment while still a student at UC Santa Barbara. He and three friends each chipped in a couple of hundred dollars. Rocky Aoki contributed zero. “He wanted me to learn the hard way,” says the son.
The younger sought to prove himself despite his father. “His dad was a patriarchal father who ran a steak joint,” says longtime manager Matt Colon. “Steve studied feminism, was a vegan and started a communist party in Santa Barbara.”
One of his first acts was The Kills, now an internationally acclaimed indie rock duo. He then broke British band Bloc Party in the U.S. His taste-making credentials took shape, and his Dim Mak Tuesdays events in Hollywood were a must. “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 becoming a DJ, jokingly calling himself “Kid Millionaire” even while driving an old Isuzu Rodeo. He’d play the celebrity and fashionista scene, mixing obscure electronic music with Britney Spears. The blend defined his nuanced record label.
“I grew up listening to punk, and Steve was the same way,” says Bryan Linares, who started 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 stage. That’s the future. And we want a kid to be able to find whatever he wants to in our world.”
Aoki saw rival labels, some bigger than his, fade along with the genres they specialized in. Just since 2008, he’s taken his label through phases of EDM, dubstep, drum & bass and electro and thrived; in 2014 it 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 traveling 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,” adds 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 knack for progression. Neon Future, Vol. I, released last fall, was the ultimate party plan. In Vol. II Aoki adds ballads and some tears. “Home We’ll Go” mingles bright electronics with the acoustic shadings of Canadian rock band Walk Off the Earth, as if Mumford & Sons stepped 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 L.A. for a full day of meetings. In 24 hours he’ll be on a jet to a couple of weekend gigs in India. “Sometimes I really am zombified,” Aoki admits.
In the Beverly Hills offices of his management company, Aoki meets with organizers of the music-meets-action- sports Air + Style event, hosted by snowboarder Shaun White. They’ve proposed putting Aoki’s booth at the very top of the event’s 160-foot-high ramp at the Rose Bowl. The DJ leans forward on the table, staring silently at the blueprint. He walks out to the balcony, about 50 feet above Wilshire Boulevard. The ramp would be more than three times this height.
“160 feet?” Aoki says. “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. His shoes are off and his eyelids are beginning to droop. He begins to curl up in a corner of the office couch. In a little while, an Uber driver will come take him away. Then work on II will continue.
But back on the stage that Saturday night at Hakkasan, real-world demands are still a ways off. For all his success as a brand builder and label head, it’s in the booth where he is the most free. Saturday night on the Vegas Strip, there is nothing about strapping on a pair of CO2 guns to fire off geysers of fog that can be eclipsed by a spreadsheet.
He leaps to the front of the stage and sends fans crowd surfing in inflatable rafts. He uncorks champagne bottles, spraying the front rows. It’s the kind of showmanship that alarms EDM 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 some early morning survivors with the stamina of steel. He shares that kind of commitment to the moment. “You want to go to sleep?!” he taunts happily.
“I love those people,” he says afterward of the last dancers standing. “I do it for them.”