12on12 | Steve Aoki x Richard Orlinski - Year Zero

Promoting a new vinyl compilation in Paris, the superstar DJ talks EDM, punk, nepotism, cakes and flying to space.

Confession: I don’t actually like, like EDM. I like techno, and house, and rave, club and all sorts of electronic music. But I’ve never been a fan of the big, two-hands-in-the-air, everybody-scream confetti-cannon Vegas stuff.

Steve Aoki is possibly the most recognizable EDM DJ of all time, regularly playing shows around the world to five-figure capacity crowds. I’m here to interview him, half just to hear about his bonkers life and half to try and ascertain whether his love for club music is real. It’s often hard to escape the feeling that his bombastic brand of dance is a simplified, sanitized—dare I say Americanized—form of rave.

“Yeah, you could say that,” he says. “But that’s what it’s meant to be, though.” He launches into a complex analogy comparing music consumption to studying philosophy at college, where the mainstream is Philosophy 101 and the underground is a class on one theory by one specific philosopher. “I love being a professor in 101 and I love playing in the small rooms, in front of, like, the educated people. Tonight, I’m gonna be doing both.”

We meet at Galeries Lafayette, a department store in Paris on the Champs-Elysées. Aoki is promoting Year Zero, a vinyl compilation of tracks chosen by him with original artwork by the French artist Richard Orlinski. It’s the eighth record released by the vinyl label 12on12, in a series that has also involved Takashi Murakami, Travis Scott, Run DMC and Swizz Beats.

Later, Aoki will play the Accor Arena, a 20,000-capacity sports stadium in the French capital’s 12th arrondissement, hurling birthday cakes through the Parisian night into the faces of his gleeful followers. Later still, he’ll play an afterparty at Phantom, a newly opened club attached to the Accor, throwing yet more cakes in a slightly more intimate setting. More on that later.


12on12 | Steve Aoki x Richard Orlinski - Year Zero

Right now, he’s in the Lafayette at the 12on12 record launch, an event promising “an immersive experience that brings together culture and creativity”, including a panel discussion featuring Aoki and Orlinski. After the panel, I’ve been promised a 10-minute interview with the man once named the highest-paid DJ in North America.

Or that was the plan anyway. Once the panel—during which Aoki and Orlinski talk effusively about the merits of physical art forms—ends, a flock forms around the DJ, and he begins posing for photos. His manager tells me this is the first he’s heard about any interview. He also says the whole team is jet-lagged after flying here on the Aoki private jet from a show in Copenhagen last night. Tomorrow they’ll fly to Prague. They need to leave the Lafayette for soundcheck by 5:30 p.m. It’s 5:22. I suggest grabbing Steve now if he’s free.

“Yeah, but he’s not free,” his manager replies while Steve smiles for another selfie. “As you can see.”

There’s a break in the line and I seize the chance to collar Steve. He greets me kindly and authentically even before I’ve told him what I’m doing, and the crowd politely backs off.

“I wanna, like, impact culture in a way that’s interesting and unique,” he says, waxing lyrical about the 12on12 record. “It would be a shame to drop it if no one even understood it because the whole point of this is this is truly underground.”

12on12 | Steve Aoki x Richard Orlinski - Year Zero
The artists on Year Zero are broadly classifiable under the subgenre known as straight-edge hardcore, a subsection of American punk whose fans refrained from drink or drugs. Steve fell in love with straight edge growing up in LA in the 1980s and 90s. His Year Zero tracklist is an autobiography of sorts: on it, you’ll find Gorilla Biscuits (Steve’s first tattoo), Earth Crisis (who he once saw play in a crowd of “like 30 people”), Refused (a Swedish band who Steve once booked to play in his living room in college, only for them to break up beforehand), and Envy (a Japanese outfit who invited Steve over for his first ever tour of Japan). You’ll also hear songs by Rifoki and The Fire Next Time, both bands with Steve in them, on guitar and vocals.

Then there’s Shelter’s In Defence of Reality, a track with a title that neatly sums up the 12on12 idea: celebrating the physical product in an age of non-fungibles. Each 12on12 release is vinyl-only. Travis Scott’s edition sold out and is now reselling on eBay for prices in the region of $1,500. Year Zero retails at $150, or you can get a bespoke version “hand-finished by the artist” for $800 or an Orlinski print, also hand-finished, called Punk Kong 2023, for $2,000. Each item is limited edition, marketed as a collectible with a lofty potential resale value. They’re like real-life NFTs.


12on12 | Steve Aoki x Richard Orlinski - Year Zero

A brief glance at Steve Aoki’s career trajectory thus far: after playing in a few bands at college, Steve threw parties in his living room, known as the Pickle Patch, in the late 1990s and 2000s, attracting everyone from Skrillex to Kanye to Paris Hilton with a sweaty atmosphere and indie-electro soundtrack. He founded the record label Dim Mak, helping break British bands like the Klaxons and Bloc Party in the States, then rode its success to the point where he was DJing shows himself and remixing Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

For a short while in the mid-2000s it was cool to like Steve Aoki. He laughs. “I’m not cool anymore, cause I’m old.” He’s now 45, but in truth, he hasn’t exactly been chic for a while. In 2007 he released his first mix CD, a selection of indie bands remixed by electronic producers called Pillowface and His Airplane Chronicles. Pitchfork scored it 2.5/10, calling it “the aural equivalent of mixing toothpaste and orange juice.”

“It’s okay, I don’t care,” Steve tells Observer. “I’m pretty self-aware and critical.” He says this convincingly, but he once sued the parody EDM website Wunderground for printing t-shirts with his face on them. They also published stories questioning the veracity of Steve Aoki as a person, prompting him to write a protracted op-ed for DailyBeast, explaining: “It was a comedic story on me being a fake DJ… Satire is a protected free speech (which I am a firm believer in) but this site walks a very fine line between satire and misleading the public.

In the early 2010s, Aoki started appearing on “best-paid DJs in the world” lists, where he’s remained ever since. Never content to stay in the same place, he has since released seven solo albums, moved to Las Vegas for an ongoing DJ residency, broken a Guinness World Record (most-traveled musician), started a Dim Mak fashion line, published a series of sci-fi comics, voiced a character in the 2017 animated film Charming, worked with a number of video games (Call of Duty, Dungeons & Dragons, Need for Speed, Star Trek Fleet Command, NBA 2K8, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2), made an autobiographical Netflix documentary called I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, founded the pizza delivery service Pizzaoki, joined the fitness company Orangetheory as chief music officer, written a memoir, created an NFT marketplace, spent $420,000 on a Pokémon card and started the Aoki Foundation to fund research into the cryogenic freezing of human brains.

Last year, Elon Musk announced that Aoki would be among the guests on SpaceX’s first passenger flight to the moon. Exactly when that will happen is up in the air right now, particularly after the Starship’s first test flight ended in an explosion. “Actually no, the media fucked the whole thing up,” says Steve. He was meant to be there but attended the Latin AMAs instead. “The launch was extremely successful. All they cared about was the takeoff. And then they blew it up on purpose.”

Anyway. You’d be forgiven for thinking an underground punk compilation is a left turn for a man most often associated with stadium-sized electronica. But herein lies one of the keys to Aoki’s success: though it may look like electronic music, the Aokiverse—in everything from Pillowface to Year Zero—has always had more in common with rock than the dimly lit clubs of Chicago or Berlin. So, what’s the biggest of all the public misconceptions about Steve Aoki?

“Ah… there’s a lot,” he says. “I guess, like, the clickbait on Steve Aoki is I just throw cakes at people.” That is true though. “Yeah, I know, it’s true.” Since about 2011 Aoki has habitually thrown frosted birthday cakes at his fans, inspired by a music video by Dim Mak artist Autoerotique in which cakes exploded in people’s faces. People now turn up to Aoki shows with “CAKE ME” written on t-shirts and Aoki estimates he’s caked around 25,000 people to date. 


“That’s why it works at my shows. Everyone stops and goes I gotta see this.” If you book Steve Aoki, you’ll get a six-page cake rider specifying exactly what kind of iced confectionery you need to provide. “But also it gets, like, the only coverage, for people that are glazing over my music,” Steve adds. “At the end of the day, people can think whatever the hell they want.”

Lots of people think of Steve Aoki as a nepo baby. “What’s a nepo baby?” he asks. Steve’s father Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki founded the teppanyaki restaurant franchise Benihana in 1964, bringing theatrical, turbo-charged Japanese food—one critic called it “the Japanese equivalent of the minstrel show”—to New York and then all of America. Benihana was valued at $100 million in 1998 and Rocky once told New York Magazine he was “like Trump” because of his playboy lifestyle. When Steve was approaching the cusp of superstardom in 2008, his father died while still embroiled in a lawsuit with four of his own kids. Steve and his sister Devon (a supermodel and actress) were two of the only Aoki children not sued by their father. The auspice of nepotism—the belief he couldn’t have done it without help from his rich dad—permeates many people’s perception of Steve’s success.

“You mean I was fed with a silver spoon?” he says. “Well… my father never actually funded any of his children. There was no financial investment into my life. Although he did pay for my college. I’ll always remember that. And I did get a Rolex watch when I graduated high school. So, there are a few things I got from him, but I never got a big paycheck from him, he never gave me a monthly allowance. I’d have to say that he could have, and I would have absolutely loved that growing up, it would have been nice, but the fact that he didn’t made me learn something that was really important: how to deal with failure.”

Among Rocky’s catchphrases was the line “Money not everything… just 99 percent”. Steve admits that wealth was once a driving force for him, but says he measures success differently now. Rocky also once told a business school: “Americans enjoy eating in exotic surroundings but are deeply mistrustful of exotic foods.” It’s tempting to draw similarities between the way Rocky bastardized Japanese cuisine for the American market and the way Steve has simplified and repackaged club music for a mainstream audience.

But seeing Steve perform IRL in Paris, arms aloft, pogoing like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh while cartoon images of his face drift across giant LED screens behind him, there’s one clear difference between him and his dad. Rocky was shrewd, dishonest, even conniving. With Steve, there is no conceit. After our interview, he plays first an arena and then an afterparty, throwing a total of 10 cakes over the course of the evening. As he emerges for his second set around 2 a.m. he roars into a mic: “Everybody scream!” It’s bright, brash and epileptically flash, but Steve is nothing if not earnest.


12on12 | Steve Aoki x Richard Orlinski

Our interview ends when his manager makes a third, finally successful attempt to interrupt, telling me I’ve had “a solid 18 minutes” and they’re now late. Steve gets up but we’re still talking—about space, cybernetic brain modifications and sleep (he gets eight hours most nights now). Before he goes he signs my copy of Year Zero, although it’s not really a signature, just his last name in bubble writing with a face drawn in the O. I still don’t know if he loves underground club music or not. But I know he loves what he does. Whatever the hell it is.


Original article : Observer written by Sam Davies

May 08, 2023

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