Steve Aoki: The Neon Punk of EDM

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

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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