"I think I've caked at least 12,000 people," laughs Steve Aoki of his signature concert move. "It's been a lot of happy people with cake all over them." The multi-hyphenate DJ, designer, producer and music executive has had plenty to reminisce about over his 21-year career, but little spare time to do so between his 2017 residencies at MGM Grand nightclubs and dayclubs, Hakkasan Las Vegas and Wet Republic; his signature clothing line, Dim Mak Collection; and his fourth studio album, Kolony. The new release, a notable departure from his EDM roots, features Migos, Gucci Mane and Lil Yachty, among others. In a rare moment of downtime, Aoki let us inside his Las Vegas home to chat more about his many projects and life off the Strip. When did you first become interested in music, and how did you decide to make it your career?
I first got interested in music when I was a teenager. When you're a kid, you listen to all kinds of stuff. I have an older brother -- ten years older than me -- and when I was growing up, he was a mod. He would ride around in his moped, and I just remember seeing his friends always coming by, and they always dressed the same in military trench coats and bowl haircuts and listened to the Jam and the Who, and it's the first time where I'm like, "Wow!" [There was this] merging of fashion and music and lifestyle and culture. And I always thought it was so cool.
So fast-forward ten years later, I found my own scene and it was straight edge hardcore. We all dressed very similar to each other, we had similar haircuts, we had X's on our hands, we had a very specific kind of style. And also, more important for me, the barrier to entry to actually be a part of making the music was really wide open, because in that scene, it's based on this concept of DIY and it allows anyone that's part of that to be creative themselves. By the time I was 16, I had recorded my first demo on a little Tascam 4 track recorder. I learned all my instruments myself; I didn't go to school. I played drums, I played bass, the guitar, I even sang. And I started playing in bands, and then it became my life.
I immersed myself in [hardcore] culture, and it followed me through college, where I was putting on shows in my living room... and then I started my label, Dim Mak, when I was in college, with no money at all...And then I movedt o LA after college and I started throwing parties based around my label. I'd just signed some bands that were bubbling. The Kills, I signed their first record. I signed Bloc Party's first records. So, we had a little thing going on and I started DJing because we didn't have any money to pay anyone, so I was like, "I'll just DJ. I'm catering to a non-electronic crowd. I'm catering to a rock, indie-rock kind of hipster crowd in Hollywood." So I learned how to DJ live, basically, on vinyl. And eventually I had a great audience because they didn't really care. They just wanted to hear the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Notorious B.I.G. back to back. So I was doing that for a minute, and then I started remixing the bands on my label. The next step from DJing was to actually apply some of your musical skill, going from the studios of being in bands and recording in big studios with a group of people to learning how to produce off of a laptop. That was a weird transition for me and it took me about two years to really get the hang of it, and in those two years all I did was remix everything under the sun that I could get my hands on. Eventually I started making original music, and then the rest is history.
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While you were getting deeper and deeper into the music industry, do you think that your interest in fashion and personal style was developing at the same time?
Yeah. When I first got into hardcore, since it's part of the DIY lifestyle, the first tools that you want to get when you join this community are a guitar or a musical instrument, a microphone and a silk screen press. Because when you're in a band, once you start the band, the first thing you think about is screen printing your shirts. So I was screen printing shirts in my mom's really small closet.
And fast-forward, going into LA and DJing a lot more, I was doing a lot of bartering back then, so I heard about the Magic trade show in Vegas and I reached out to them and I was like, "Listen, I'll DJ on the floor of your show if you give me a free booth to sell T-shirts." And they were all about it because they were like, "Holy shit, we've got this new, cool DJ, or whatever, in LA. We can give him a little real estate in the back corner of the trade show." And I met up with a showroom back then -- this is 2006 -- and they helped guide me, and I learned a lot on how to sell clothes at Magic and at trade shows. And then I decided to put it on hold, and I teamed up with some people and we started developing a line. It took a couple of years to develop, and in 2014, we finally came out with our first collection. We launched in Japan, a very controlled market, and we did three seasons out there. [The line is] a hybrid between LA, American culture and Japanese high-end fashion. We did that for three seasons and it took another year and a half of developing the line to finally bring it to America. And that's when I brought our fifth collection out for NYFW this past January, and we turned the runway into a skate ramp.
How would you describe your personal style?
It might be generic [to say], but it's always changing. It's similar to my music. Luckily for me, I travel the world so I really absorb culture everywhere. I like to call myself a "walking sampler." I take pictures to record everything that makes me turn my head or makes me feel something. And I take that back with me when I go into my design meetings and try to explain why I like certain things, and then if there's a pattern there I create a mood board. It's not just about a current trend, but it's the feeling I'm getting as I'm traveling, meeting these different people and letting that inspiration do the talking and capturing.
Where did you come up with the idea of always throwing a cake into the crowd?
The easiest way for me to explain that is playing Coachella for the first time was also one of those moments where I was like, "Holy shit, I'm playing in a festival." And the second time I got invited to play Coachella, my set time was later in the day and it wasn't like the first set time in the tent and I had a pretty decent crowd so what I did was instead of putting together my playlist of what I'm going to be playing in my set, I curated it with activities. So at this part of the set I'm going to do a stage dive, at this part of the set I'm going to bring out these life rafts. And I had four girls with me, and I remember the day before we were sewing up neon capes and I had them wear the capes onstage, standing on boxes. And I was wearing this fucking crazy-ass Jeremy Scott reflector jacket, and I wanted the show to stand out. So everything was methodical, everything was thought out. And I had the girls jump in the rafts, and I jumped in the rafts. And another show we brought Super Soakers out.
So after that show, I started thinking about my live shows differently; it's not exclusively an auditory experience. You're watching, you're listening, you're feeling the energy from the crowd, you're feeling the energy from the music. It's a full sensory experience. So everything matters. The musical story of your show is by far the most important part. That's why people are there to see it. But the other things that happen on the stage are also important. So I started thinking about that more and more, and I constantly was trying to do something that can stand out from other artists. All of us are thinking that.
A couple years go by from that Coachella experience and the life raft idea was amazing -- people loved jumping in my life rafts. But I needed to do something new, so I remember I helped produce this record called Turn up the Volume on Dim Mak for an artist from Toronto called AutoErotique, and the music video was such a great treatment, it was such a great video. It was cakes exploding in peoples' faces in super slow motion. Like, really high-def slow motion, beautifully shot, and I watched the video, I was like, "This is an incredible video." It went viral and I'm promoting the song in my sets, and I woke up with the idea of, "I'm going to throw a cake, I'm going to cake someone while I'm playing the song, and maybe people will get that connection to the video." And I did that a few times and put it online, on YouTube. I was traveling with a videographer and a photographer already in 2011, and it went viral, and soon I retired the song, but the cake became a fixture of the show and everyone was asking for it, and this was like five years ago. So since then I think I've caked at least 12,000 people. [Laughs] It's been a lot of happy people with cake all over them.
Interview by Hannah Baxter
Photography by Jake Rosenberg of Coveteur
Styling by Stephanie Mark of Coveteur
Production by Lauren Gonzalez of Coveteur
Grooming by Homa Safar using NARS Cosmetics and Bumble and bumble.