Steve Aoki doesn’t crowd surf. At his shows, he floats atop the candy-coated masses in an inflatable raft like a drunken yacht captain high on champagne and wobbly bass. He also launches birthday cakes. At a show in Toronto, Aoki hit a kid in a wheelchair with a cake, point blank. The fan was elated.
Aoki’s stage antics and work ethic—easily masked by an unmistakable fu manchu and party-all-the-time persona—have lifted him to global fame as one of the most recognizable names of EDM.
Aoki, who performs at the Event Center at San Jose State on Jan. 30, has always been an idea man who has pushed the limits and marketability of dance music on and off stage. He grew up in Los Angeles, where he started his career as a promoter and tastemaker.
“Hollywood in 2003 and 2004 was very much hip-hop, very much commercialized,” Aoki says. “There was, I hate to say it, no hipster culture.”
Aoki and his best friend, famous party photographer Mark Hunter, a.k.a. the Cobrasnake, threw parties that catered to a different crowd.
“We were for hipster kids in Hollywood, people who were educated on fashion and current trends and music,” he says. “Instead of having DJs play, we’d have bands come in and DJ. We had the Yeah Yeah Yeahs DJ a party, and bands like the Killers and the Shins.”
These parties led to the creation of Aoki’s label, Dim Mak Records, and they also forced him to become a DJ himself. When famous bands weren’t playing a party, DJ duties were left to Aoki.
“In college, I was definitely not a DJ,” he says. “I was in bands, I was playing guitar and bass. I was straight edge. It was a whole different world. DJ-ing for me didn’t start until that Hollywood party scene.”
In the beginning, Aoki’s bread and butter was remixes, which would take him anywhere from a few hours to up to five days to create. The crossover success of his addictive house remix of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” in 2011 arrived at just the right time. Dance music was going mainstream, and the hit song, along with the growing profile of Dim Mak, elevated Aoki from trendy clubs to larger venues. His most recent Bay Area performances include a headlining set last summer at Shoreline’s Identity Festival and a return performance at the 7,000-capacity Civic Auditorium in San Francisco in November.
However, despite the success with remixes, Aoki is more focused on making original music. His most recent release was a collaboration with Linkin Park called “A Light That Never Comes.”
“It was a six-month process from start to finish on that track, which was new for me,” Aoki says. “We started from scratch. There was a period when doing remixes was definitely my favorite thing, but when you can write an original record that can stand the test of time, that’s far more satisfying than doing a remix.”
But finding time to create original tracks can be tough for Aoki, who plays an incredible 250-300 gigs a year. In the weeks since his Aokify Tour with Waka Flocka Flame ended in December, he has visited Japan and South America to headline EDM shows.
“If you’re [touring] as much as I am, you’ll find the time if you really put your head down and get to work,” Aoki says. “At one point you had to have access to a studio, which most people couldn’t do because it was too expensive. Now all you need is software on a computer. It’s changed the game in terms of efficiency and convenience.”
Still, he can’t create all of his original material on the road. Last year, he borrowed Bon Iver’s strategy and rented out a cabin in Mammoth to write most of his new original album, Neon Future, in isolation. The idea of an electro-house musician composing global dance hits in a Walden-like rustic cabin is, not surprisingly, something that an avant garde tastemaker like Aoki was eager to embrace.
Sometimes, however, it’s hard to tell whether he’s leading the pack or following it. The Linkin Park track is pleasing power pop—not music of which sharper-eared, more critical listeners would approve. Even going back to 2008, Pitchfork panned Aoki’s first mixtape, Pillowface and His Airplane Chronicles, with a 2.5/10 rating, and never reviewed him again.
But what critics condemn, the masses embrace. The YouTube video for “A Light That Never Comes” has more than 7 million views, and the comments demonstrate that many listeners can’t get enough. Aoki is an enigma—in some ways he represents the cutting edge of culture, but in others he’s a pop star for the global masses.
Fortunately, Aoki doesn’t care either way. He’s interested in the work, making his own music and bringing forth innovative new artists. He’s best as a label boss, the Diddy of EDM. In July, for example, he announced that Dim Mak would be throwing its full support behind hardstyle, a more aggressive genre on the dance music spectrum than what’s typically found on the DIm Mak roster. He signed Belgian hardstyle artist Coone, and Aoki’s collaboration with Coone, called “Can’t Stop the Swag,” will be released Jan. 28.
Hardstyle will be just one of many of Aoki’s weapons on display at San Jose State this week. In addition to his classic remixes, audiences should keep an ear out for his new original work. He’s collaborated with seven great musicians, from Rick Rubin to Angger Dimas, to create a new collection of remixes for “A Light That Never Comes,” and at least one or two should be on tap in San Jose.