EDM star Steve Aoki on cake throwing and collaborations
American DJ Steve Aoki is one of dance music's biggest personalities. As famous for throwing cake during gigs as his brash style of music, Alex Green speaks to Aoki about cake, his art and misogyny in the industry
THERE'S a deafening burst of white noise as Steve Aoki picks up the phone.
The globe-trotting DJ and producer is in New York but he's leaving – off to play a series of shows in Florida.
"I'm sure it's a little clanky in here," he says apologetically as car horns blare in the background.
Aoki is in the back of a car on the way to the airport. As he enters a tunnel he warns me he could lose signal. It's not the finest time for an interview, he admits, but he'll make it work.
It's difficult to overstate Aoki's stratospheric success as a DJ, producer, philanthropist and cartoon-like icon of the American EDM scene.
He's instantly recognisable with his chest length hair, thick beard and propensity for loose-fitting vests.
A second-generation Japanese immigrant, Aoki was born in Miami and grew up in Newport Beach south of Los Angeles.
His father, a former wrestler, went on to found the successful Japanese restaurant chain Benihana.
Despite the commotion of the freeway outside his window, Aoki is surprisingly present.
He's used to the rigmarole of promotional interviews, and of pushing his newest album, high-profile collaboration or cross-continent tour.
"What I come with this time, the most important thing, is the music," he continues.
"It's all the new music I've been working on. I'm going to mix in some more classics."
His voice fades sharply then cuts as his car enters a tunnel. Some 10 seconds later it reappears from under a wall of crackling disturbance.
He apologises then continues: "In my previous sets I didn't really play too many of my old classic records that helped build my career.
"So, I'm going to be pulling out some of the classic Aoki."
What sets Aoki apart from his peers such as David Guetta, Calvin Harris and the late Avicii is his love of on-stage props – most famously cake.
Yes, cake. The 41-year-old is best known for throwing oversized cakes at his audiences.
Also in his repertoire are crowd surfing stunts, spraying champagne bottles and riding rafts across packed dance floors at music festivals like Tomorrowland.
And it's clear he's not giving up the cake anytime soon.
"There are certain things that are just part of the Aoki experience," he explains.
"Fans in the front row – they want the cake. It would be a shame not to serve them what they want."
Aoki's massive success has as much to do with his relentless touring schedule as it does with his music, or his gimmicks.
Some years he will play as many as 250 gigs, often in far flung regions like China not usually visited by EDM royalty.
Clearly, he is comfortable on the road.
"I don't feel like I am in a foreign land," he relates. "It still feels like the energy is there."
Of course, this hasn't been bad for Aoki's bank account. In 2012 the US touring research company Pollstar named Aoki the highest grossing North American artist for the first half of the year.
He's also done his bit for charity, setting up the Aoki Foundation which funds the search for a cure to degenerative brain diseases.
But despite his success in the US, it's likely most British fans first heard him through his collaboration with One Direction pin-up and X Factor judge Louis Tomlinson.
Just Hold On shot to number two on the UK singles chart on release, its tropical electronic swing bolstered by Tomlinson's ravenous fan base.
But Aoki is relaxed about the song that put his name on UK billboards.
And why wouldn't he be when his list of previous high-profile studio liaisons include Will.i.am, Linkin Park, Iggy Azalea, Blink-182, Fall Out Boy and Korean pop stars BTS.
"You know, it wasn't like, 'Oh yeah, I love One Direction, I'm going to reach out to them', even though I'm a fan of the group," he ponders.
"It's all about chemistry and connection. For me it's a lot about natural chemistry, if there is a vibe there, and I love reaching out to all kinds of people."
There is much talk of "chemistry" and "unity" in the American EDM scene. But claims of misogyny have been levelled as many of its stars and there are few successful female EDM DJs.
Aoki, however, is clear in his support for equality in a post-Me Too landscape – even if he has been the target of similar claims.
"There are a lot of amazing female DJs on the underground who have been pillars of the community," he says after a pause.
"But they are not getting the public attention, the media attention."
As our conversation draws to a close, Aoki makes pains to restate his point, going so far as to say all men have a responsibility to lift women up.
"The necessity for female DJs is there and it's all about the youth, it's all about the next generation pushing forward and making it happen.
"Men need to support and make room for women to really step on that centre stage."