("The Vegas Issue" of GRAMMY magazine features "Spin City," a cover story revealing how Las Vegas has emerged as a mecca for dance/electronica music. Read the story here.)
Steve Aoki first wandered beneath the bright lights of Sin City at the tender age of 19, with his 29-year-old brother's ID in hand. "It worked. I was playing blackjack," says the DJ/producer and Dim Mak Records head, who released his debut album, Wonderland, in January.
These days Aoki doesn't have to be anybody but himself in Las Vegas, where he's not only a resident at Wynn Resorts' 45,000 square-foot Surrender Nightclub [http://www.surrendernightclub.com/flash/], he's also the music director. Aoki's House, his weekly party at the venue, has been "going off" since 2010, featuring Aoki himself, as well as hand-selected guests such as DJs Dillon Francis, Lil Jon and Porter Robinson. No one's sure if it was the chicken or the egg, but Vegas' adoption of dance/electronica music has corresponded with the genre's explosive popularity worldwide, making it the international home of the latest music revolution. In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Aoki discussed the thriving EDM scene in Sin City, his experiences and why the genre will stand the test of time.
What was your first gig in Vegas like?
I remember playing the [House of Blues] Foundation Room monthly in 2005, on the basis of a cover story in BPM magazine about electro artists. But the people at the club didn't make that connection. They were just like, "You're a popular name, here's $800 all in. Play the hip-hop room." I was playing for 300 people, an urban crowd that knew hip-hop and wanted to hear gangsta records that weren't on the radio. I was way out of context.
How did your relationship with Surrender come about?
Before Surrender opened, [Wynn Director of Original Programming] Jonathan Shecter hired me as a music director. We met through my friend DJ AM. He wanted to make Surrender a proper cutting-edge dance club that was going to be part of bringing this music to Vegas. At the end of the day, Vegas is all about dollars and cents, how much money you're making in the club. It’s not about educating people — that's not the point. But Surrender had a different idea in mind. I told them, "If I'm music director, I'm going to bring substance. It's going to change entirely."
Who did you bring?
Afrojack, Calvin Harris [and] later Deadmau5. The Wynn properties started to understand dance music was really growing. Aoki's House was up from day one of the club's opening. I love starting something from the ground up and helping to build it. I was happy to do it with a company that was willing to take that risk, and really make an impact on the whole nightlife scene. They're not the only ones who did it, but they are a big part of why Vegas dance culture exploded.
Is it just a coincidence that the mega-festival Electric Daisy Carnival is also in Las Vegas, or is that related to the club scene?
It's all connected now. All the big DJs playing EDC also play the clubs. I remember we were helicoptering back and forth; I did Surrender, and right after we went to the helicopter pad to make sure I made my set with Afrojack at EDC, and Nick [van de Wall, nee Afrojack] had to fly right back after we were done.
Are the crowds different?
Yeah, for sure. The EDC crowd is educated already. They know the songs, they know the artists, they're engaged actively on social networks, [and] they know what's coming. I look at a Vegas club crowd, from a sociological perspective, in a different way. I play the songs and interact with that crowd totally different than I would at EDC, because it's all brand-new to people.
How long do you think this thriving Vegas scene is going to last?
Vegas is a very fickle market that's about fun. It will change to what people want. Right now, that's dance music. I don't know where the ball's curving, but the pop side of EDM is expendable. The soul of it isn't going anywhere. It's an underground art form that's going to be around for the rest of time.
(Kerri Mason is a New York-based freelance writer who has been covering the business and art of dance/electronica music for the last decade. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Billboard, Billboard.com, Mixmag, and Elektro.)