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EDM Kingpin Steve Aoki Puts on a Show

The DJ du jour on preparing for his wild live performances, playing big brother to a supermodel, and his new album.


Photo: Larry Marano / Getty Images

While watching Steve Aoki throw cake at audiences, you might not guess that the 36-year-old Los Angeles native—son of Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, founder of the Benihana restaurant chain, and older brother to supermodel Devon—has long been one of EDM’s shrewdest move-makers. He became a DJ in the mid-2000s after launching the indie label Dim Mak Records and a series of legendary L.A. parties. When dance music exploded in the late 2000s, so did Aoki, bringing boffo humor to his 2009 Coachella sets and breaking out the cake two years later. In August he releases his second album, Neon Future I, and headlines New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the first time.

Beyond Benihana
“I was vegetarian for 15 years. It was a rebellion against the whole concept of a steakhouse. I was essentially trying to get my father’s attention. I realized in my 20s: I don’t need to rebel this way. I want to get his respect. My father really ingrained in all his kids an ethic of figuring it out. He never invested in any of our businesses. He never gave any handouts. That’s a big part of the reason I’ve been able to take the tools in front of me and make something out of it.”

Model Behavior

“The peak of Devon’s modeling career was in her late teens. Her friends were way out of my league. I wouldn’t even know how to strike up a conversation. The first time I went to a club in New York, I was sitting next to this girl, and the whole time I was talking about why freeing [death penalty cause célèbre] Mumia Abu-Jamal was so important. She was like [gives side-eye] and just walked away.”
 
Punk Roots
“Playing in hardcore and punk bands set me up properly for DJing. I tour 300 days a year; it doesn’t faze me, because I was touring in a bus with four sweaty dudes, hauling gear, sleeping in a van—and we’d have to sleep sitting up. Sometimes you’d get $12 a show. I loved it, every part.”
 
A Proper Show
“Playing Madison Square Garden and doing it right, I’m paid a smidgen of what I’m spending on the production. I think certain artists do that. Deadmau5 cares more about how it’s presented than how much he’s paid. Lady Gaga talks about it all the time. She spends more on production than anything else. I’m getting paid a quarter of what I’m spending—really going all out for a show.”

Pastry Party
“If I play 300 shows, I’m doing an average of 1,500 cakes [a year]. You might be like, ‘I don’t want that shit on me.’ But you want to see someone get the cake. The people who want to be caked are the ones that are the most die-hard—the most energetic, passionate, singing along with all the lyrics. They’re getting their extra cherry on top.”

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