Saturday, January 19, 2008

Steve Aoki: living well is the best revenge

As much as his countless detractors hate to admit it, Steve Aoki is a star. He’s a globe-trotting DJ who hobnobs with everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Justice. His record label, Dim Mak, is among the most influential indie imprints in the world, boasting releases from U.K. post-punks Bloc Party and local anthem-rock heroes Foreign Born.

Still, hating on Steve Aoki is on the verge of becoming an Olympic sport. Music bloggers and journalists roast him regularly, with snarky sites taking every opportunity to diss him. His former partner and current nightlife nemesis, Franki Chan, recently accused Aoki of professional backstabbing via an e-mail blast. His heritage as the son of Benihana founder Rocky Aoki is a constant source of critical fodder, not to mention a splashy, multi-page exposé on the Aoki family (including his model/actress sister, Devon) in New York magazine a few years ago. He's even being sued by a blogger that goes by "The Arab Parrot" for allegedly stage-diving onto his head at the HARD New Year's Eve party--twice.

All the while, his high-energy DJ sets, which border on full-on performances given Aoki’s penchant for rock-star moves like head-banging and the aforementioned stage-diving, attract larger and larger crowds of party people amped on his bombastic blend of underground electro hits and social celebrity. Add photographer Mark “Cobrasnake” Hunter and any number of Aoki’s extended family of cool-kid friends, and the resulting scene is like nightlife crack to his growing legion of neon-clad fans.

I spoke to a jet-lagged Aoki on a crackling cell phone somewhere in Nova Scotia, Canada, a few days before his Pillowface mix officially hit stores. His haters will be bummed to know that through it all, he’s still having the time of his life. And with the potential mass-market popularity of his mix CD, the rocket ride might just be getting started.

Pillowface and the Airplane Chronicles has been finished for months now. How does it feel to finally have it in stores?
I’m so happy. We just had a bunch of retail meetings, and I’m so impressed at how many huge chains are picking it up. It’s so hard to sell CDs now, given the downfall of the music industry. I’ve been running Dim Mak for 10 years, and the mom-and-pop shops have always been my bread and butter. But to ship thousands of CDs to stores like Best Buy and Target for those kids that don’t have access points besides online is so cool.

Are you still happy with the mix?

I love how it came out, from the artwork to working with all of the great artists that guest on it. This mix to me is more of an introduction to a lot of the kids that have just found electro. There has always been a gap between the culture of DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Tiesto to the culture of electro. It’s like two different worlds. It’s an exciting time, with what acts like Justice and MSTRKRFT have been producing. I picked the most obvious and popular tracks on purpose. Having people like Amanda Blank and Naeem from Spank Rock rapping over “We Are Rockstars” is a pretty cool concept if you ask me.

Why do you think your Cinespace Tuesday parties are still so popular after almost four years?
I think it’s just the consistency of quality. We’ve always had great artists come play, and we maintain strong relationships. We got to a point where it became the global satellite for many of the new international acts that want to play L.A. for their first time. It’s been a great home for our scene. The scene has changed a lot, though. Those changes come from the artists, though, like Justice. Those guys are the image of what this culture is right now. Without them, there wouldn’t have been as much of a change.

So for you, it always comes back to the music
Absolutely. But the sound has changed. Three or four years ago, we were more excited to have someone like Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Carlos D of Interpol come DJ. I’m sure that in a couple of years, it’ll evolve from where it is now.

Do you have any response to the recent diatribe Franki Chan issued about you in his IHEARTCOMIX e-mail blast?
No, I don’t. It doesn’t really affect me. People are going to have their opinions. I have no reason to backlash or talk negatively on him or what he’s doing. I don’t care to put the energy or time into something like that.

People seem to really enjoy hating on you. Does it ever get to you?

It used to affect me. But for the most part, the stuff would be untrue. It’s easier for people to assume that rumors and gossip are true when you don’t know the person they’re about. I’m not trying to put myself anywhere near her fame, but it’s a lot like how the press treats Britney Spears. You read in Us Weekly that she has mental illness or whatever, when maybe she just had a really bad day. What can you do? I just want to continue doing the work I’m doing with the label, clothing line and DJing.

Pictures of you DJing with Lindsay Lohan are all over the Internet. Have her skills improved due to your coaching?
Her main job is not being a DJ, so it’s not really relevant. But the most important thing about anyone playing records at a party is what songs they choose. To me, Lindsay has some of the most eclectic tastes out of anyone I know. She’d be a great DJ if she really wanted to be.

What advice can you give to aspiring superstar DJs who want to do what you do?
Have fun. I’m serious--just enjoy what you’re doing. After that, the rest is just icing on the cake.