New Orleans at Carnival time: a land of misfit toys temporarily entranced in a state of vibrant revelry and decadent play. Weirdness is not only embraced, it's encouraged. And when the masks go on, the freaks come out.
Maybe that's why Grammy-nominated DJ/producer, record-label owner, and fashion designer Steve Aoki—a self-proclaimed outsider with a knack for over-the-top showmanship—feels at home here.
"New Orleans is one of the most spiritual places in America," Aoki said. "Once you step into this city, it's a different vibe. You're literally stepping into a whole different world."
Natives, transplants, and visitors alike recognize the allure that New Orleans has—especially during the Carnival season. The celebration of life and art and strangeness ties so many of our disparate traditions together. So, when Aoki assumes his position behind the decks at the Metropolitan Nightclub for ZOOLU 24 this Lundi Gras (February 12), his cake-throwing, crowd-surfing, lit-centric theatrics will be at home among a crowd of oddballs and offbeat revelers.
Aoki's flair for crowd-hyping antics stems from his very DNA, as the son of the late Benihana restaurant chain founder and famed showboater Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki. While at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Aoki first made a name for himself throwing underground dance parties in student housing. By his early 20s, Aoki had founded his own label, Dim Mak Records—named for his hero, Bruce Lee.
After a slew of singles and collaborations, Aoki released his debut album Wonderland (2012). That record, along with his relentless global touring schedule, propelled Aoki into the top 10 of DJ Mag's annual Top 100 DJs list in 2013. And after a series of albums, cross-genre collaborations, and earning a reputation for throwing cakes in his fans' faces, he hasn't left the top 10 since.
Aoki credits his success, in part, to the behind-the-scenes work and planning that goes into making every one of his sets a memorable and engaging experience. That includes the Lundi Gras set that fans can expect when Aoki arrives with his 2018 Kolony Tour, in support of his latest and fourth studio album, Steve Aoki Presents Kolony (2017).
"There's a lot of preparation that goes on outside of making new music, making new edits, working on stage and set design," Aoki said. "I want to try different activities during the show that engage the crowd even more to this Kolony experience. So, we'll see if some of these new ideas stick as good as the cake does."
Aoki's commitment to amping up his crowd reflects New Orleans's own penchant for communal revelry, with its very musical heritage grounded in call and response. And any Carnival costume veteran can appreciate the pressure and thrill of maintaining consistent inventiveness, while putting on an unforgettable show each and every time.
"For me, I'm always trying to be inventive with my show, so if it's not the cake, it's something else," Aoki said. "Or, I'm always trying to find something else that identifies my show uniquely against other artists."
"But I'll tell you, it's tough to find that 'cake moment' for an artist," Aoki continued. "I feel very lucky to be able to do something that's withstood the test of time and that people come back for again and again. I think I've caked 15,000 people at this point, if I calculate all the cakes."
"I'm telling you, it's so strange" he added. "It's just one of those things that'll never get old."
With music as varied as the antics of his live performances, Aoki embarks on his latest tour in support of Kolony, an entirely hip hop- and trap-influenced album. Aoki has produced a number of hip-hop tracks in the past, but this album features an all-star cast of contemporary, festival lineup-charging lyricists like Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, and Migos.
This album concept is in stark contrast to albums like Neon Future I (2014), Neon Future II (2015), and Neon Future Odyssey (2016). These albums trend broader in terms of overall genre, and feature collaborations and artist appearances from across the soundscape, from Linkin Park to Rivers Cuomo. But Aoki isn't stopping at a hip hop concept album—his next single with Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee, due out February 2, will expand Aoki's Latin music repertoire as well.
But no matter what genre Aoki dabbles in that day, he has one central goal in mind.
"When I'm in the studio—if I'm not working with a particular artist and we're trying to get a certain vibe—for the most part, I'm going there to make this song so that people go f---ing crazy," Aoki said. "I want people to go nuts. I don't care where they are—in their car, working out in the gym, or definitely at one of my shows—I want them to be going 100 percent, listening to all my songs."
Think what you want about Aoki's music or onstage shenanigans, but few places on this planet understand the concept of "revelry as true north" as deeply as New Orleans. And this Lundi Gras, when Aoki takes the stage to continue fueling the Mardi Gras mayhem, he'll be in good company.
"New Orleans is always something totally out there," Aoki said. "You guys have just a whole different thing going on, and I love it. It's actually really inspiring, you know?"
"That's why, when we do these tours, especially these bus tours, you get a sense of the landscape of America when you go to cities like New Orleans," Aoki continued. "This is really different from Las Vegas, really different from L.A., really different from actually any other city in the world."
Oh, we know, Steve. Welcome to the greatest party on Earth.
Where Y'at: So what are the best and worst flavors to get caked in the face with?
Steve Aoki: [laughs] It's not as much the flavor, it's more of how it looks on your face. The cake is a badge of honor. It's important what colors are on your face. I discarded the chocolate cake, because chocolate cake doesn't really work, uh… It kinda looks like something else, kind of thing? I like the bright colors, I'll put it that way. People wanna have yellow, green, red, blue, all over their face, and definitely some white. I like it explosive, and I want it all over the place.
WYAT: In keeping with that level of showmanship—in 2014, you wrote an op-ed for The Daily Beast, where you made your case for your particular breed of music and entertainment. And in the end, you concluded that, despite the haters, you were sticking with the cake and theatrics. Now, over three years later, can you imagine how different your life and career would be today if you had given in and toned down your act?
SA: For me, I'm always trying to be inventive with my show, so if it's not the cake, it's something else. Or I'm always trying to find something else that identifies my show uniquely against other artists. And I'm still trying that. Even with this tour, the Kolony tour, there's a lot of preparation that goes on outside of making new music, making new edits, working on stage and set design. I want to try different activities during the show that engage the crowd even more to this Kolony experience. So we'll see if some of these new ideas stick as good as the cake does.
But I'll tell you, it's tough to find that 'cake moment' for an artist. I feel very lucky to be able to do something that's lasted the test of time—that people come back again and again. And it's not like a new experience and then, boom, it's over. It's like, this kid got caked, and is like, 'You caked me eight times! …I need to get caked a ninth time!' They freaking love it. It's always fun. I think I caked 15,000 people at this point if I calculate all the cakes, and it never gets old. I'm telling you. It's so strange. It's just one of those things that'll never get old.
WYAT: Besides what I guess we'll refer to as the 'cake factor,' would you say there are any other lowest common denominators that weave through all of your creative projects?
SA: Champagne was my first kind of prop that I used to engage with the crowd and do something that made the crowd even more lit. I was doing that back like 10 years ago, and that was the first time I was like, 'Whoa, this is an interesting way to reach the crowd.' And I'm just lost in this moment to the point where I'm just spraying everyone and everyone's just getting lit. So I still do that, after 10 years. That's kind of a no-brainer, I know everyone kind of does that.
I did the raft, I retired the raft, riding the raft around on the crowd. The cake has stayed true, and it's not going to be going away anytime soon.
The one thread that's always been there, and the most important thread, the most important part of the brand, is the music. If the music is bad, you're not gonna go get caked, you know? If you're like, 'I hate this guy's music,' you're definitely not going to be coming to my show. The music is the No. 1 attraction that brings people to the show, and when I'm in the studio, for the most part—if I'm not working with a particular artist and we're trying to get a certain vibe—for the most part, I'm going there to make this song so that people go f***ing crazy. I want people to go nuts. I don't care where they are—in their car, working out in the gym, or definitely at one of my shows—I want them to be going 100% listening to all my songs. So that's kind of been the lowest common denominator, for sure, because it's just my music.
WYAT: Speaking of, one thing you're definitely known for is your extensive collaborations with artists just all over the place, inside and out of EDM itself. Would you say any of these collaborations were most surprising or instructive in terms of working with other artists and taking your music to the next level?
SA: I've always… I come from outside. When I came into production, I was already outside of the EDM space. I was in bands even before I was a DJ, so when I started producing, I was producing remixes for bands. So the next step, after I started doing original music, was to work with bands, but by extension in electronic production. So I was already leading in that space.
And when I worked with Linkin Park for the first time, that was probably one of those moments where I'm like, 'Holy shit, I'm working with one of my favorite bands of all time growing up, and my favorite singer, Chester Bennington, of all time.' When you're in the studio, you're not even thinking about that. You're so focused on making the best music that you can for your fans and their fans, and later sometimes, you just go, 'Holy shit. I have to pinch myself because I never thought I'd be working with one of the greatest bands of all time.' So that was definitely one of those moments.
And, you know, with Fallout Boy, and now with Neon Future 3, which has been talked about, a lot of band collaborations on there as well. So I love working in that space.
Obviously I love working in the hip-hop space, that's kind of how Kolony was a statement, really where every single song was hip-hop influenced. And then of course, I travel the world enough to where I'm always influenced by so many different cultures, so many different sounds. And that's why working with BTS was a big deal, as well as working with Louis Tomlinson and different Latin artists. My next single with Daddy Yankee is coming out February 2nd, in time for the Kolony tour.
WYAT: New Orleans itself is often thought of as kind of a wonderland for misfits, weirdos and creative types. Would you say you've had a similar experience in the times you've performed and/or visited here?
SA: Yeah, New Orleans is one of the most spiritual places in America. Once you step into your city [New Orleans], it's just like, it's a different vibe. You're literally stepping into a whole different world. And the first thing I want to go do is really dive into your culture and hang out with people and talk with the locals and get their stories. It's always interesting, it's always totally something out there. You guys are just a whole different thing going on, and I love it.
It's really inspiring actually, you know. That's why, when we do these tours, especially these bus tours, you get a sense of the landscape of America when you go to cities like New Orleans—this is really different from Las Vegas, really different from L.A., really different from actually any other city in the world, really.
WYAT: You're an over-the-top kinda guy—what would you say is the most "Extra" thing you've ever done? Absolute lush to the max, no shame.
SA: Most extra thing I've done… Ahh. Good question. That's such a hard question. [laughs]
WYAT: Or anything that pops into mind, even if it's not the 'most'—I just know you must have some good stories.
SA: So I just posted a picture of me in China [on Instagram]. So sometimes I get so into the culture I'm in, I'm like, 'Give me the craziest outfit that's all about that culture, and I wanna become that person.' So with this in China, I'm wearing this traditional, kind of kimono-looking Chinese outfit with this helmet on... I wore it, and it was just so extra and China.
WYAT: As someone who was born and grew up on the coast, and as someone who believes he's a fish, how has it been living in Vegas—in desert country? How do you maintain your sanity being a water person in the middle of a desert?
SA: Just survival. The other thing too is I travel so much. Strangely enough in the summer, I'm always on an island. I'm in Ibiza… or somewhere where I end up finding myself on a boat. So I'm always in the sea, I would get that sea/ocean time—that fills me up. Then I go back home, and home is really where my family is now. So I have my family, my mom and my sister live next door to me. And my cousin lives down the street and my niece. So I'm surrounded by that love and family, and at the end of the day, that's the most important thing—more important than the ocean.
Photos by Brian Ziff & Carolyn Heneghan