Steve Aoki: The Neon Punk of EDM

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

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.

Steve Aoki
Robin Laananen
Steve Aoki

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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."

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