Steve Aoki: The Neon Punk of EDM

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

Steve Aoki: The Neon Punk of EDM
"It's amazing to see that I've gotten this far without having any radio success whatsoever."

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.

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.

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