Before Steve Aoki became the star of the L.A. indie rock scene-- before his Hollywood record label, before his celebrity as a DJ, before his clothing line and his corporate sponsors--before all that, there was a 13-year-old boy in Newport Beach.
He was lonely and impressionable. His parents had been divorced since he was a baby. His mother, an immigrant, spoke Japanese at home. His father, the founder of the Benihana restaurant chain, was on the other side of the country, a faraway rich man whom the boy saw on vacations. The boy's house was a far cry from lavish; he lived with his mom, his grandfather and his two much-older siblings in a bluff-top development of suburban tract houses. Classmates who visited remember an exotic place where "the shoes came off when you walked in" and "there was always rice cooking." Once, when he was in grade school, his best friend was co-opted by the kid brother of a skinhead and the two hid behind a bush and threw rocks at him, shouting racial epithets as he rode past on his bicycle. Another time, a kid at the local pizza place conned him into dropping acid--an experience so terrifying that he didn't touch another inebriant for eight years.
"I wanted to be like every other kid," he would later remember, "but I could never fit in."
One day, a kid in his class gave him a mix tape. The music was like nothing the boy had ever heard. It was wild, thrashing, powerful. The bands were outsiders, with exotic names like Minor Threat and Gorilla Biscuits. The boy listened, and listened some more, bought a turntable, and began obsessively collecting records. By his senior year at Newport Harbor High School in 1995, he had morphed, almost magically, into a teetotaling vegetarian skateboarder with bleached Raggedy Andy hair and a burgeoning music collection. He knew about four people who were even remotely like him, and even among them he felt like an outcast. His bronzed, buff, conventional Caucasian classmates voted him "Most Unpredictable."
He didn't care. By college, still sober as a parson, he was on a mission, producing do-it-yourself records on a shoestring and running underground concerts out of the living room of his UC Santa Barbara apartment. By his early 20s, he had his own record company, named Dim Mak--"Death Touch"--in honor of Bruce Lee, his childhood hero, the only Asian, he would later observe, who was rooted for by people of every race and creed. It didn't make much money but it was his, launched (and still run) without a dime from his father.
"Music became my community," the 29-year-old Aoki explains now, sitting on a battered couch in Dim Mak's Hollywood office, his cellphone and BlackBerry ringing incessantly while two European rock bands wait to see him. In photos, his long hair and Fu Manchu mustache make him look like a Hawaiian dope dealer, but in person he's ebullient and waif-like, a former women's studies major who has lived for the last five years in a low-rent fourplex with his college sweetheart.
His leg jiggles nervously when he talks, and periodically he hops to his feet or, when particularly excited, leaps like a cartoon character onto the big green desk in his office. The ring on his phone is a comical man's voice: "Pick up the phooooooonnne!" it hollers.
"Music was where I fit," he says. "Music became a central focus of what I wanted to be part of. That mix tape--" He laughs out loud at the randomness of it. "That mix tape--it changed everything."
Rock 'n' roll, at its heart, is a thrilling fable, a story in which three chords and a little magic turn a lonely outsider into his one true self, a figure of enchantment, maybe even a prince.
Steve Aoki's is a rock 'n' roll story, but it's also a story about everything changing, about the shifting crosscurrents that are delivering more and more of that magic into the hands of outsiders. In the new cultural order--the post-Napster landscape of digital downloads and online hipster society pages, of MySpace and Facebook, of limitless choice and globalization--consumers who once followed the lead of big media companies are now as likely to turn to charismatic tastemakers such as Aoki who are known and trusted within a particular market niche.
Never mind that Aoki's "offices" are in an unheated, falling-apart bungalow on a Cahuenga Boulevard weed patch, or that his car was his big brother's 14-year-old Isuzu Rodeo until this year, when he splurged on a Prius. If his trappings are less than impressive, they're more than made up for by his growing cultural influence.
By day, Aoki runs Dim Mak Records, the small indie label that jump-started the career of the British neo-pop sensation Bloc Party and that has more recently imported such rising European stars as Klaxons, Scanners, Whitey and Mystery Jets. By night he is a wildly popular club promoter and DJ whose venues range from hole-in-the-wall Hollywood after-parties to massive Tokyo "superclubs" and $10,000-a-gig corporate events.