Steve Aoki – the cake-slinging, social media conquering, genre-defying superstar DJ – on his philosophy for life

Steve Hogarty
Follow Steve

You can spend several hours watching international superstar DJ Steve Aoki chucking cakes at his fans. Big rectangular cakes, the kind you’d get on a round-numbered birthday or at a bad wedding, hurled with force from the stage into an expectant crowd. By the time the cake is airborne the audience has been whipped into a Wickerman frenzy, some cheering, some booing, some making primal, drawn out animal noises, all of them desperate to catch Aoki’s creamy bouquet with their face.

One video, titled ‘steve aoki longest cake throw hits guy in a wheelchair’, has racked up 1.3m views. In it, the globetrotting music producer is silhouetted against his stage – a grand and complex multi-level arrangement of towering LED displays that blast the words FUCK OFF into the sky – and assumes a shot putter stance. He launches the baked goods with the precision of a highly trained sniper, the gently tumbling cake tracing a perfect parabola above the heads of his flock before exploding on the face of one eager fan, whose euphoric expression is smeared in sweet, sticky debris. It’s easily an 80 foot shot. The crowd erupts in giddy, unfettered ecstasy. Grandchildren will hear of this moment.

I met Steve Aoki in a chic rooftop bar on the Strand. On the table in front of me was a six-pack of Sainsbury’s fairy cakes that I’d bought for £1.80 on my way there, with the vague notion that the fifth highest paid DJ in the world might lob one at me. He thanked me, but didn’t touch them, let alone start tossing them around.

In lieu of smearing one another in dessert, we spoke about the changing frontier of social media in relation to his stardom. “Instagram is my go-to,” says Aoki, who had just appeared in the first ever Snapchat-exclusive episode of MTV Cribs, where he proudly presented a Banksy sculpture from Dismaland of Mickey Mouse being swallowed whole by a snake.

“It’s very weird how quickly social media became part of our lives,” he says. “Can you remember what it was like before? Now we live in this ADHD culture where everything is perforated. It’s like you have to be focused on five things ahead of you, all the time. And it’s always changing.” Aoki commands 6.2m Twitter followers, another 5.4m on Instagram and a further 8.1m on Facebook, all of which he uses to promote his shows and communicate with fans. In an industry where publicity is paramount, Aoki and artists like him have booted out the middlemen and welcomed fans into their private lives.

“It’s interesting to think back about how we used to get the word out,” he says. “Before Instagram and Facebook it was MySpace, and before then I was handing out flyers. When I first started DJing, the only way to get people to book me was to head down to the copy centre and make my own flyers. I did that a lot as a kid, when I was in a band and putting on shows in my living room.”

Aoki is lank-haired and lean, like a thin Kid Rock or late-stage John Lennon. He’s relaxed and friendly, with a laid-back attitude that only a Californian can muster, and a chilled out quality to his voice that makes him sound like he’s just spotted a really interesting cloud. His father was the founder of the Benihana chain of restaurants, an ex-wrestler and speedboat racer called Rocky Aoki. His sister Devon is an actress and model who was once the face of Versace.

In 1996, aged 19, Aoki launched his own electro house label, Dim Mak, working with bands like MSTRKRFT, Bloc Party and Mystery Jets. “When my label first blew up it was because of this English band called The Kills,” he says, thinking back to the first time he visited London. “We put out this EP called Black Rooster in 2002. I came out here for them, around that era. I sang with Bloc Party around that time too, after we’d put out the Banquet EP.”

It’s in the last decade that Aoki has achieved international success with a string of solo albums, becoming known for his zesty remixes, high-profile collaborations and attention-grabbing, cake-slinging live act. He’s recently worked with Louis Tomlinson on the ex-Directioner’s first release since the band split, called Just Hold On, a genre-blending single that extends an olive branch across the previously unbridgeable void between EDM and pop. It reached number two in the UK charts.

“Every day I’m moving pretty quickly,” he says. “It’s very rare that I’m sitting in one place unless I’m in the studio. And even then, the studio moves around with me – I made my own studio in my hotel room last night. I don’t need big speakers and soundproofed walls, or a huge SSL console or mixing board. All I need are my three laptops. My back hurts from all the equipment I bring with me.”

Hauling a makeshift studio around on his shoulders like an audio-snail means he can be ready when inspiration strikes. Keeping his tools nearby is part mundane practicality, part Zen philosophy. “Having that mobility and flexibility is really important, because ideas aren’t waiting for you to start working before they show up. It doesn’t work like that. Your ideas are going to come to you whenever they come to you. And they’ll flit right by your face. They’re like dreams, if you don’t catch them at that moment then you’ll completely forget about them.”

“You’ve got to stay bushy-tailed and wide-eyed. That’s another important rule in my book. Stay away from that jaded, cynical area in the creative pursuit,” he says, tracing a jaded circle on the table.

“I sample everything in life,” Aoki continues. “Not just with music, but with every creative project, and especially with fashion. I’m a walking fashion sampler. I take pictures, I write down notes on everything I see. You know like, if you have a certain seam that I like…” Steve Aoki reaches across the table to run a finger along the shoulder of my grey H&M sweater and I’ve never felt more complimented, “I’d take a picture of it or make a note of it. I create colour palettes, too. Like whether these two colours actually work well together with this material.”

It may have been the cortado kicking in, but Aoki becomes energised when talking about clothing. His skate and streetwear-focused Dim Mak Collection is an offshoot of his record label, but to Aoki it represents more than simply a prosaic expansion of his business.

“Fashion is probably the most fickle trend there is. What’s hardest about the process is working on a collection that you’re not going to see on people’s backs for another year. You have to really trust your gut and your instinct, and you could be wrong. Not only could you be wrong, but you could lose a lot of money. Fashion is different to music in that it requires so much attention, time and money to hire your team and get your samples and do your fittings and the whole deal. At the end of the day it’s a couple of hundred grand, and if you’re off the mark you’re going to lose a lot of money. You can’t do that too many times and survive as a business.”

I tell him that it sounds like awfully hard work...

“You’ve got to stay bushy-tailed and wide-eyed. That’s another important rule in my book. Stay away from that jaded, cynical area in the creative pursuit,” he says, tracing a jaded circle on the table. “Eventually you will find yourself in that space, and you gotta stay out of it. Or maybe finding yourself in that space is reason for you to not do that thing any more. Pursue different interests.”

The conversation loops back to social media and, perhaps inevitably, the angry and disingenuous nature of online discourse. Twitter is not Aoki’s preferred platform – “it’s filled with a lot of hateful trolling. It’s so empty, it has no substance” – but his catapult to fame has given him a thick skin.

“My trajectory has taken me from a bottom-rung, Los Angeles DJ playing the smallest bars and clubs, to touring around the world. But the most difficult period of time for me was early on, when all that started happening. There are a lot of people who want to bring you down because they just don’t understand why you are excelling and they’re not, even though they’re grinding away doing a similar thing. But I think that happens in any field, not just DJing or entertainment. It happens in any job where there’s promotion. People get so affected by it that they’re like ‘I’m out, I’m done, I don’t want to be a target’, and that’s exactly what their critics want, for that person to opt out because they can’t handle the pressure. That’s when I had to learn to have tough skin, but it still affects me. We all have a heart, you know? We all have feelings.”

Feeling partly to blame for the increasingly sombre mood, I press Aoki for a more upbeat memory. He flicks through the calendar on his phone in search of something cheerful. “How about this? I had a show in Germany on 3 June where I made this incredible connection with the crowd. All 50,000 of them were tuned in to what we were doing, and they’re not high on drugs – or, well, I’m sure some of them were – but I didn’t really feel that. Me and my friends are on stage with our arms around each other, and we’re hopping from left to right, and then we start to see the whole crowd doing the same thing.” It sounds pretty great, I say.

“Yeah, that was a special moment, the whole place together and moving in sync. You have to do things together or else they don’t work.”

‘Steve Aoki Presents KOLONY’ is due for release on July 21 on Relentless Records. Photography by Dominic Nicholls.

Related articles