He stage-dives in blow-up rafts, collaborates with everyone from Lil' Jon to Weezer's Rivers Cuomo and has a coif and beard so distinctive that he can be identified by mere outline. But while Steve Aoki is already a favorite of electronic dance music (EDM) fans, 2012 will be the Dim Mak label head's breakthrough year.
"When I first heard about Steve Aoki, I only knew that he was a DJ," says Shady Records/Goliath Artists' Paul Rosenberg, manager to Eminem and formerly DJ AM, one of Aoki's friends. "Then I saw him play and learned he was more than that. He's an incredible performer and entertainer. Since then I've watched him grow into a genre-defying musical entity that the world needs more of."
Three years in the making, the DJ/producer's debut album as an artist, "Wonderland," is due Jan. 17 on Dim Mak in conjunction with Ultra. The wily collection pulls in all the varied elements that have sparked America's dance revolution, in many cases with the artists who lit the matches. But Aoki isn't just playing jukebox: "Each song takes on a different personality of my life and career," he says.
Wonderland sports radio-friendly dance-alongs like "Livin' My Love" with LMFAO, stoned electro-hop like "Cudi the Kid" with Kid Cudi (and Travis Barker) and irresistibly hooky nuggets like "Ladi Dadi" with Wynter Gordon, a surefire chart-topper. But there's also first single "Earthquakey People" with Cuomo, a nerdy '90s-rock throwback, and "The Kids Will Have Their Say," a nod to Aoki's hard-rock roots that features Big John Duncan from Scottish punk band the Exploited on guitar.
Currently co-headlining the Dead Meat tour with gangsta-step DJ Datsik-who recently finished a stint opening for Korn-while maintaining his residencies at swanky casino-hotels like Shrine at MGM Foxwoods in Connecticut and Surrender at Las Vegas' Wynn, Aoki could be the guy who toughens up the sound of mainstream dance in 2012.
"There's a warning on his rider: 'Not a traditional DJ performance,'" says Aoki's longtime manager Matt Colon of Deckstar. "Steve comes from a different background-from punk rock and hardcore music-and has a popular indie label. It's not until the last five or six years that he became a dance artist, and when he plays, it shows. He's half behind the turntables, half screaming vocals in front of them, hanging from the rafters, crowd-surfing and stage-diving. What other DJ does that?"
Aoki matches his exuberance with a bold, colorful aesthetic: cartoon sleeve art, limited-edition T-shirts and hats, and, for Wonderland, a music video for each of its 12 tracks. The desire to promote the album with video content is part of what sold Aoki on Ultra, which has one of YouTube's top 10 most-watched music channels with more than 1.4 billion views. "We spoke to a lot of labels, from Interscope to Atlantic, but Steve chose Ultra over all of them," Colon says. "The largest thing he brought up over and over again was their YouTube presence. For kids these days, YouTube is the new MTV, the new radio."
"I'm making seven music videos at the same time; that's something I've never done before," Ultra president Patrick Moxey says with a laugh. "But I'm rolling with it. We want to help bring Steve to the highest level possible, and to do that, Ultra has embraced all the creativity that he brings."
The video rollout is more than just an artistic project: It's a way to keep Wonderland top of mind throughout 2012. "We're going to release singles with videos every three to four months and service them to MTV and radio," Colon says. "But a dance artist has to stay relevant-going dark for three months is unheard of. The other tracks will be like mini-singles, with videos and remixes for each."
When asked if dance and rock can get along long term, Aoki doesn't hesitate, exclaiming, "This is the future!" And with him at the controls, it's looking neon-bright.