It was a blindingly sunny afternoon at The Raleigh hotel in Miami, where oiled bodies clutched cocktails and cigarettes by the pool. The glistening water seemed to reflect Miami's deepest image of itself. Steve Aoki cruised into the hotel's lobby with a posse of publicists in his wake. He looked just like a normal dude, really. I mean, look at him—scraggly hair, sandals, silk-screened T-shirt. "I gotta take a piss," he declared, darting around the corner.
Like every other noteworthy DJ in town for Miami Music Week, Steve Aoki was in the middle of a week that would crush the average mortal who is used to luxuries like a full night's sleep and the concept of downtime. His schedule that day would include an all-day Dim Mak blowout in the same hotel we are currently in, learning to wake surf with the Red Bull team, and headlining an appropriately-titled "Rage the Night Away" party at Story nightclub with R3hab, Borgore, and Felix Cartal.
But Aoki is not just a normal dude—or a normal DJ, at that. He's one of the few superstars who's taken the idea of crowd interaction at EDM parties to an entirely new level. While many moons ago, DJs were relegated to dark corners of anonymity, Aoki encapsultes the idea of "DJ as rockstar." His stunts have become legend—especially the one where he lobs a cake into the crowd (and especially the time the cake landed on this guy). For better or worse, his parties have becoming synonymous with rager culture. Aoki is the guy who screams "1, 2, 3, 4!" before rabble-rousing the turnt up masses to the point of transcendence.
When he returned from taking a leak, Aoki sat down to discuss why DJs don't have to be entertainers, how his punk roots influenced his stage persona, and why caking people is just a reenactment of his childhood. Plus, he shared a pretty dope story about Johnny Depp partying in Mexico.
THUMP: You've built up a reputation for doing these really theatrical stunts on stage, like caking people and riding rafts through the crowd. When was the first time you caked someone?
Steve Aoki: The idea was from a music video by this guy on my label called Autoerotique. He did a video for his song, "Turn Up the Volume," where these cakes would explode in slow motion in peoples' face after they blew out the candles. It was really cinematic—beautifully shot. The song went viral because of the video, so I came up with the idea of promoting the song by caking someone. That was the concept—the actual cake I had in the beginning would say "Autoerotique, Turn Up the Volume" on it. For the first six months when I added that to my rider, someone would have to write that on it. By the time I retired the song, caking people had just became part of the show.
Is it a specific type of cake? Like, vanilla versus strawberry shortbread cake?
Oh yeah, well, I've tried 'em all. I've literally tried 'em all.
What works best?
Well, I've done the chocolate—we had to take that out because it doesn't look good.
Well, yeah because it looks like shit… literally?
Yeah. And, people like having cake on them when it's colorful or white… but not, like, black. It looks like dirt. Or shit.
That's not cute.
Not it's not cute at all.
How about the other performance aspects that you've incorporated into your shows—champagne spraying, or riding a raft through the crowd?
Coachella 2009 was the first time I actually did production for a show. I wanted to do something interesting, so I had these boxes built that would light up my letters—A.O.K.I.—behind me. I had a stylist design these neon crazy capes. I had people standing on the boxes dancing. I had a full-on Jeremy Scott getup—this crazy jacket with reflectors all over so it just looked bizarre. Then I brought out Super Soakers and I brought out four rafts. That was the first time I introduced the rafts to my show. Later on, Rolling Stone did a full-page photo spread like, "This is Coachella." It was like, Paul Mccartney… and me on the raft.
It's an interesting way to have fun with the fans, and it's safer for me because previous to that I was stage-diving—not the safest way to jump into a crowd. But if you have a raft you have some sort of soft suspension and cushion.
Have you always been good at hamming it up for your audience? Or did you make that transition as you performed for bigger crowds?
There was definitely a transition. When I first started, I was DJing at bars and at VICE parties. I still consider Suroosh [Alvi] one of my gurus in a way, because he helped me and my label Dim Mak out. Back in '03 to '06, I was playing parties where it was just a bunch of kids that weren't there to see the DJ. They were there for the party. When you're in that environment you don't ham it up because they don't even care who you are. They're just there to hang out with their friends. In the early part of DJing, I was in a world of DJs that didn't know how to DJ.
Like playing punk records and shit?
Yeah, I was playing fucking hardcore records mashed up with B.I.G. mashed up with Bloc Party—just literally slamming records over. The DJing life started when I invited bands to come DJ with me at the parties I was throwing. It evolved into a more punk DJ culture that really separated itself from commercial dance music. I'm a punk kid. When Justice came out and they were like, this is our fucking sound, this is our culture—that's my shit. It doesn't matter what kind of music it is. It's that spirit that you gravitate towards. That's when I started bringing the guitars and the loud, abrasive music into my music. That's when I started collaborating and teaming up with artists like The Bloody Beetroots. I ended up signing MSTRKRFT at the same time in 2007.
But in '05 to '07, I was like, how the fuck do you use a computer to produce a song? I did not know a fucking single thing about it. Then I worked with this other guy that was in a band that knew Pro Tools. He was like, "Let's just start together, we'll figure this out." We remixed a song off Bloc Party's album Helicopter. I actually put them out, so I had the stems and I could release the single. No one could say no to me releasing my own remix, no matter how fucking horrible it was. And actually, it was pretty good!
You brought punk rock to dance music.
Yeah, you bring that ethos, you bring some styling in the music. Obviously I've evolved as a producer and a songwriter, but working with bands like Linkin Park is a dream for me too. I've been listening to their albums since
. My new album
has another rock collaboration with Fall Out Boy, who are very good friends of mine. We're at this place where now we can see eye-to-eye, but we're in two different worlds. If I was still in my old band This Machine Kills that would never happen, nor would it make sense.
Did you ever take This Machine Kills on tour?
Yeah I did. We toured Japan twice, we toured America a bunch of times. I never toured through Europe, but we toured in a shitty fucking van and I remember we played in Albuquerque to 12 people. We got paid like 20 bucks. That was the way it is. It's not a sob story by any means.
It wasn't bizarre for me because I was putting on punk shows in my living room. So all the bands would stay on a dirty, grimy-ass fucking floor—that's where Isis and Caven and Locust and Reversal of Man and Hot Water Music and Discount and Jimmy Eat World and The Rapture and all these influential bands that eventually became mega rock stars would end up staying. That's where I came from. To be where I am now and to come from a place where that was the norm is pretty fucking weird.
Do you think it's important for DJs to be entertainers?
No. I don't think so because… well, the best way for me to put this is that my favorite experience of watching a DJ—they're not DJs, they're aliens to me—was watching these two guys that barely moved. They moved their heads a little bit and maybe shrugged their shoulders. And it was a life-changing experience for me. It's like the first time you do a drug and you're like, fuck! It really soaked into my core. And that was Daft Punk.
But they're still pretty theatrical.
It's not necessarily like you need to go crazy and throw cakes and shit. I do that because I'm just really a really anxious guy, and I'm kind of reenacting my childhood. Being in band where I was screaming on people with a mic, stage-diving on them, and playing in these basements where everyone's jumping on top of each other. It's weird to stage dive at a dance concert—maybe not now, but it was weird. But where I come from that's as normal as it gets.
Speaking of punk rock antics, you're well known for getting in trouble. How often do you find yourself in an altercation with someone in a position of authority?
I'm working on that. No, really I am. Because at the end of the day it really boils down to ego. It's not punk to yell at security unless they're fucking someone up and you need to tell them to fucking stop fucking someone up. But if you can't get into a club and you're yelling at them because you can't get in? That's straight fucking ego. I've definitely done some stupid shit when I'm drinking a lot. I don't want to blame it on the alcohol because essentially it is you, regardless if you drink. But yeah I'm definitely the culprit for many stupid moments where my ego got the best of me.
I heard this one story that's actually really fucking cool. Johnny Depp went to this club in Mexico and security would not let him in because he was wearing shorts. It's fucking Johnny Depp, right? I think he was by himself too, which is fucking so cool. He literally walked back to his hotel, 30 minutes later came back with pants on, and then was like, "I got pants on can I come into the club?" And they let him in. How fucking cool a guy like that is. He makes hundreds of millions of dollars making movies and he's still really fucking cool.
Michelle looks like shit… but not literally - @MichelleLhooq
Max used to listen to screamo - @maxpearl