It's just past 2am on one of those "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" Saturday nights, and a capacity crowd of more than 3,000 revellers inside the Strip's epically proportioned nightclub Hakkasan Las Vegas are tripping the light fantastic. To the pummelling oontz-oontz-oontz of electro bass, they are dancing and drinking with hedonistic abandon when Steve Aoki decides it's time for cake.
A live wire in skinny jeans, the DJ leaps from behind his turntables to a narrow ledge ringing the DJ booth, holding a vanilla-frosted layer cake the size of a small boogie board. Between signs bearing the messages "Please cake me" and "I need the cake", Aoki spots his quarry: a grinning twenty-something bro with outstretched arms.
The DJ hurls the cake, splattering the guy and everyone around him with enough of the sugary confection to provoke an ecstatic release that ripples through the crowd like electricity. This is hardly a spontaneous gesture: up to a dozen times each show, performing worldwide more than 225 days a year, Aoki flings cake at the crowd.
"Some people are like, 'That's so … wrong,'" Aoki says. "But I'm not caking people out of hate. It's a love connection. Dance music is an emotional journey. It's how well you can make people feel something they haven't felt." In a conversation laced with F-bombs, the DJ adds: "The best part to me is post-cake. After the cake has hit their face, they turn around so the whole crowd can see: they're on top of the … world."
But as much as the scene at Hakkasan is business as usual for one of electronic dance music's busiest touring acts - a DJ turned indie record label owner and music producer who earned his stripes as the rowdy figurehead for Los Angeles' trend-setting dance music scene during the past decade - Aoki's cake toss that night can also be viewed as a kind of opening salvo: as he embarks on a game-changing suite of new initiatives, he's lobbing more than cake to change the shape of his career.
Late next month, Aoki will drop Neon Future Vol1, the most ambitious - and uncharacteristically intellectual - effort of his career. The first instalment of a two-album collection focuses on themes of futurism, evolving technology and scientific innovation, the record features Aoki's synth-driven, rapid-beats-per-minute collaborations with a cross-section of modern musicdom including multi-platinum hitmaker Will.i.am and arena-rocking emo-pop quartet Fall Out Boy.
Meanwhile, a companion video series, titled Neon Future Sessions, will probably upend expectations for the long-haired head-banger who also sprays champagne on his audience. In the videos, Aoki interviews techno-eminences such as scientist-inventor Ray Kurzweil (behind the "singularity" theory that envisions the melding of human brains with supercomputers), author-theoretician Aubrey de Grey (whose books portend man's ability to overcome the ageing process) and digital media mogul Arianna Huffington, earnestly grilling them about the future in its myriad forms.
"Whenever I learn something, I want to share it," Aoki, 36, says. "Now I'm in this position where I get to interview the futurists of today, the people involved with my main interests: artificial intelligence, brain research, technology."
But it's his family lineage as son of Rocky Aoki - the flamboyant, philandering, speedboat-racing founder of the Benihana restaurant chain - that grabbed the attention of David Gelb, the filmmaker behind the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. An as-yet-untitled documentary produced by Gelb (directed by his protege, Justin Krook) chronicling Aoki's complicated relationship with his father is set for theatrical release in January by Relativity Media.
Contrary as it may seem to Aoki's self-styled image as ringmaster to dance music's decadent demi-monde of Ecstasy pills and Patron shots, the entertainer established his earliest cultural bona fides in the SoCal hardcore and punk rock scene, where building community and fight-the-power politics speak louder than bling.
Growing up in affluent Newport Beach, California, after his parents' divorce, the musician was effectively cut off from his father's Benihana fortune - estimated to have been worth as much as US$100 million - by the elder Aoki's insistence that his six children attain success without his financial help. Still, the misconception the younger Aoki grew up a "rich kid" has dogged him ever since (not helped by Aoki's early DJ moniker "Kid Millionaire").
"Hardcore was about going to shows, singing unity lyrics and the DIY lifestyle," he says, seated in the back of an Audi sedan speeding down Interstate 15. "The more you can bring creatively, the more respect you get. If you come in with daddy's money, they're like, 'Get the … out!'"
While an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, Aoki launched Dim Mak Records to release the kind of independent music he loved while also writing critical pieces for hardcore fanzines and touring with his punk band, This Machine Kills.
After moving to Los Angeles in the early 2000s, however, Aoki experienced an epiphany once exposed to the aggressive sound of acts such as MSTRKRFT and Justice that melded rock'n'roll aggression to an electronic dance infrastructure. Learning to DJ specifically to bring the sound to a larger audience, Aoki began promoting raucous Hollywood party events and cultivated a following. "It was the punk rock of dance music," he says. "And I was the ambassador for Los Angeles and bringing worldwide electro to LA."
Over time, the DJ transitioned into producing his own music, recording electro remixes of alt-rock artists signed to Dim Mak before releasing his debut solo album, Wonderland, in 2012. And as EDM remade the Top 40 in its own image, the performer emerged as one of its biggest draws.
Last October, Aoki landed at No8 on DJ Magazine's Top 100 DJs, the highest-ranking American on the list. And that reputation is borne out by his summer schedule: a dual residency at Hakkasan and the decadent Pacha nightclub in Ibiza, Spain; a packed touring roster of big-footprint music festivals across Europe as well as Aoki's bring-the-house-down set before a crowd of 130,000 at Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival in June.
Although Aoki declines to place a dollar value on his earnings as a resident DJ at Hakkasan, he ranks among the town's top-earning EDM stars, whose marquee presence has revolutionised Las Vegas' entertainment culture. Where nostalgia acts once ruled the Strip, dance music all-stars such as Calvin Harris, Afrojack and Hardwell have turned the city into a beacon for block-rocking beats with hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenue tied to their bookings.
Still, not everyone is enamoured of Aoki's stagecraft. In May, fellow producer-DJ Seth Troxler challenged Aoki in an invective-filled op-ed on Vice.com calling him an "overpaid, untalented, cake-throwing performing monkey" - an attack that prompted soul searching. "You see the comments come in: 'Aoki's a clown, a poser.' I do feel a bit insecure about it. I thought, 'Maybe I should stop caking.' But I can't let these people dictate the way I live. In this space, it's all about the moment," he says.
After Rocky Aoki died in 2008, his children spent years in legal battle with the restaurateur's widow, Keiko Ono, over his will. In May, a court awarded Steve and his supermodel half-sister, Devon, 50 per cent each of a family trust that stipulates that when the siblings turn 45, they are set to inherit ownership rights to Benihana and substantial income from the restaurant chain.
For his part, Steve Aoki has no plans to go on a wild spree with his inheritance. Instead, he says, he intends to maintain the business and views the court verdict as a victory for his family against the woman he says cut off Rocky from his children in his dying days.
Looking to the future, Aoki grows introspective. He acknowledges that balancing his public image with his personal goals can be tricky. "The crazy parties! The cake face! It does come across as ignorant fun. But I have this whole other aspect that I really want to expose - to show I'm not some dumb, spoiled brat.
"I want meaning in my life. I want to help the empowerment of whatever I'm doing. I never want to be watching on the sidelines."
Los Angeles Times