Steve Aoki puts the show in EDM

 Steve Aoki

Steve Aoki (Brian Ziff / June 12, 2014)

Steve Aoki gets it. As EDM (electronic dance music) outgrows its roots in '70s and early '80s DJ culture and the notion of a musical tastemaker blending records on two turntables, it has become about spectacle. DJs and electronic artists are no longer content to sink into the shadows and let their music speak loudly for them. The reason EDM has turned into a multibillion-dollar industry around the world and exploded in North America in recent years is that DJs are now showmen, and no one does "show" quite like Aoki.

There's cake and champagne, there are inflatable rafts floating on a sea of hands, hoses soaking the audience, stage diving and crowd surfing – Aoki essentially orchestrates a free-for-all. His antics have brought criticism from certain naysayers, who claim that Aoki isn't a true representative of DJ and club culture. The latest tirade came from underground DJ Seth Troxler a few weeks ago. He lashed out at EDM as "ridiculous music, made by ridiculous, un-credible people" and singled out Aoki as an "overpaid, untalented, cake-throwing, performing monkey."

Aoki has heard the criticism but says it won't alter his over-the-top performance style. "It really started when I played Coachella in 2009," he says. "I wanted to do something more than a DJ set because it's a celebration, one of the most important festivals in the world. I brought out the inflatable raft, girls in neon cloaks, the super soakers, people jumping in the rafts. It was fun, exciting, people were having a blast. No one was saying, '(Expletive) this DJ.' I never sensed a judgment. I saw people smiling and laughing and having the best time of their lives.

"The intention is to create a sense of happiness, joy. It's sad that some people misinterpret it as something else. It's meant for that room and that room alone. Everyone's judging from the on-line world, but it's about that room. Judgment, scorn, ridicule make me sad, if you're not there to experience it. Let that pretension go, see if you can smile and be happy and be part of this experience."

Aoki was far removed from dance culture during his teens. He was playing in punk bands in California and while attending college in 1996 formed his own label, Dim Mak. Its signings included Bloc Party, the Kills and Battles, then moved into electronic music with projects such as the Bloody Beetroots and MSTRKRFT.

"High school and college were my punk, formative years," he says. "I was playing hardcore, learning to be a musician. In bands you tour, but you're paid nothing, you're playing to 50 people in a basement, sleeping in a van and you love it. Then I started drinking."

Aoki had lived by the "straight-edge" code of abstinence for years in the punk scene, but began going to parties when he turned 21 and checking out the DJ scene. "People hired me because I was throwing my own parties, blending indie and dance," he says. Remix work followed, with offers from dance artists seeking a tougher edge or indie artists looking to break into the clubs. He worked on tracks from Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Weezer and Duran Duran, among many.

His first album, the 2012 release "Wondaland," was essentially a compilation of his singles from the preceding years, and traced his evolution from punk to electronic music, with collaborators ranging from Kid Cudi to ex-members of Die Kreuzen and the Exploited.

"The music I was producing was absolutely in the punk ideology, with a structure in dance music," he explains. "The kind of electro we were doing was too noisy, too abrasive, it was punk and rock 'n' roll. It was timely because artists like Justice and Bloody Beetroots were forming their own world, and that was the world I was spinning in."

Singles such as "The Kids Will Have Their Say" echoed the harder-edged industrial-dance experiments of Ministry or early Nine Inch Nails more than anything in the EDM world. "It didn't cross over, didn't work as dance music at the time, but I didn't care," Aoki says. "The acceptance into the EDM world of this harder stuff was not an easy road to take." Now, he says, "It's become commercialized, and all kinds of DJs play the hard stuff."

Aoki still believes he's somewhat of an outsider within EDM, even though his pay checks and fame have expanded as the festival scene has exploded in America.

"I blame it all entirely, and not in a bad way, on the Internet," he says. "It's changed the way people discover music. It's not centralized anymore. It's not TV and radio anymore driving music. Youth culture today doesn't want to hear what's on radio or TV. Self-discovery is so important in identity processing, who you hang out with, what clothes you wear, what shows you see. As a kid, I found out about things through friends. I would go to hardcore shows with 50 people. But it's decentralized and accessible to anyone at any age now, and we're exponentially multiplying genres. Suddenly the kid who doesn't fit has a place to hang out."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

When: 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Spring Awakening at Soldier Field, 1410 S. Museum Campus Drive

Tickets: $95; ticketmaster.com

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