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Totally absorbed by music

Special to The Times

IT’S 20 minutes shy of midnight, and Dim Mak Records mastermind Steve Aoki is charging through the door at CineSpace on Hollywood Boulevard, weeding through a sea of choppy haircuts and faux-faded rock T-shirts, trailed by some pals who just happen to be neo-Britpop sensations Bloc Party, coming down to chill out after their sold-out Palladium show earlier that night.

The Rakes and Neon Blonde, two up-and-coming groups, will play in the back room later, but at the moment Aoki’s sights are set on the turntables in a cramped corner of the front room. Flanked by his sister, model-actress Devon Aoki, the black-clad boys from Good Charlotte (with pop tart Hilary Duff in tow) and AFI singer Davey Havoc, he approaches the decks.

It’s a very rock ‘n’ roll scene, brimming with twentysomethings who know the difference between the Kills and the Thrills. As Aoki starts to spin, you’d expect to hear some hot new import, or at least some danceable ‘80s stylings. Instead: shameless party music. Aoki throws on the Pussycat Dolls/Busta Rhymes hit “Don’t Cha” and follows it up with some N*E*R*D, then some (gasp!) MC Hammer and later (double gasp!) the Kelly Clarkson hit “Since You’ve Been Gone.” Duff is banging her head and Havoc is shaking his rump.

Such is the incongruous world of Aoki, the 27-year-old who’s known as Kid Millionaire.

On one hand, he has positioned himself on the cutting edge of cool, having had a hand in turning America on to the likes Bloc Party and rap diva M.I.A., while his record label has jump-started the careers of the Von Bondies and Pretty Girls Make Graves -- indie artists who didn’t find success via mainstream radio or slick MTV videos.

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On the other hand, he knows how to throw a bash, and that quality has made him a hot commodity as a promoter and DJ. If he’s not manning the decks in Hollywood or a warehouse in downtown L.A., he’s jetting to New York, Las Vegas or Tokyo.

And all to play Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing”?

Has the whole rock scene become so meta-ironic that its hottest promoter has to spin pop fluff so he can be fresh?

“Some people think I’m being ironic, but I like everything I play,” Aoki says, lounging at the Dim Mak offices on Cahuenga a few days prior. His new headquarters are walking distance from Amoeba Music and the Cahuenga club cluster where his dance parties first started to fly. “I like hip-hop and respect hip-hop just as much as I do rock. It’s the music I always wanted to DJ. As for everything else, a good song is a good song.”

Josh Glazer, managing editor at Urb magazine, agrees. “A major part of deejaying is the context in which stuff is played,” says Glazer, who mans the turntables with Aoki at Loose Tooth, co-hosted by Urb, Aoki and DJ Franki Chan at Joseph’s Cafe every Thursday. “When Steve plays something like Neon Blonde right next to Kanye West, it elevates both. In a club setting, the line between hip-hop and rock or indie and pop just doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s thanks to DJs like Steve.”

Spinning records actually came late to Aoki, who started out throwing impromptu concerts in his living room when he was a 19-year-old student at UC Santa Barbara. After getting kicked out of his first place (for obvious reasons), he moved into a co-op for people of color and, inspired by courses he was taking in sociology and women’s studies, became more involved in social groups and political issues, as well as music. He turned an abandoned garage on the co-op’s adjoining property into a show venue where the likes of At the Drive In and Hot Water Music performed. The space, called Biko House (after the anti-apartheid activist), still holds events.

“I wasn’t thinking big back then,” remembers Aoki, who had just started making small-run compilations featuring bands from those shows under the Dim Mak moniker. “It was exciting and fun for me. I gave all the money that I made to the bands. We’d have them play, like, three times a week, and they’d all stay with me. My place was thrashed.”

Aoki graduated from college in 2000. His father, founder of the popular Benihana restaurant chain, wanted him to pursue business, but Aoki’s curriculum led him toward more academic (and less potentially lucrative) pursuits.

And then there was his passion.

“I was preparing to go to graduate school and the band stuff was still a side thing,” he says. “Then I met the Kills and everything changed.”

After hearing his label’s test pressings of the duo’s “Black Rooster,” Aoki says, “I flipped! I quit school and I just quit everything.

“The Kills were the turning point for me. I decided to dedicate my life to the band. The relationship influenced the strengthening of my label and it was the beginning of Dim Mak becoming a legitimate business.”

But did Aoki’s family see it that way? All six of his siblings, with the exception of sister Devon (an actress recently seen in “Sin City”), work for Benihana.

“He never pushed us to work in the family business,” Aoki says of his father, who divorced his mother when he was a baby. “But I know he would’ve probably wanted that to happen. The music business is not the best business to get into if your primary goal is to make money. I think he sees the value though. If other people are valuing it, he sees that.”

Despite what many people assume about Aoki, he insists he’s no trust fund kid.

“My dad never invested in my label,” he says, somewhat defensively, as though he’s had to say it before. “That’s the biggest misconception about me. At first I’d get angry, but now I just don’t care. So now I’m poking fun of it. That’s why I call myself Kid Millionaire.”

Unfortunately, the name only perpetuates the notion he has had it easy.

Couple that with his seeming good fortune in befriending rock stars and his head-scratching dance floor choices, and naysayers abound.

“Everyone’s a critic and everyone thinks they’re a DJ. But Steve has an insane musical knowledge,” says Jason Stewart, CineSpace event coordinator and Tuesday co-promoter along with Chan. “Sometimes he goes out on a limb, but he knows what’s good and what’s bad. More important, he knows what works.”

NOT only does CineSpace Tuesdays have a knack for showcasing bands -- such as the Kaiser Chiefs and the Bravery -- at the moment they start to build buzz, it’s an equally popular dance club. And while Aoki’s followers eat up whatever he feeds them these days, he started modestly, teaming up with Chan and singer Har Mar Superstar to host a Thursday party at the Beauty Bar. Thanks to a steady parade of rock star pals on the decks each week (Carlos D from Interpol, Peaches, members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Modest Mouse), the night became a hit.

Meanwhile, Dim Mak continued to grow, bursting onto the national radar with Bloc Party’s “Silent Alarm” and promoting live shows, including the first U.S. gig by M.I.A. (whom Aoki also managed for a while).

“The guy’s a promotional machine,” Glazer says. “Dim Mak is one of the best indie labels out there right now, and it’s because Steve has the enthusiasm and the resources to make things happen.”

Though releasing music is the primary focus, Aoki sees Dim Mak as an all-encompassing lifestyle brand. His target seems to be the new cognoscenti -- that is, New Wave and punk-looking kids who listen to Indie 103, read British mags like NME and Mojo, and track up-and-coming artists on music and culture blogs, but who aren’t too cool to get on the dance floor -- or stay there when a hip-hop tune starts pumping. It’s an iPod shuffle kind of mentality that stands to transform not only nightlife, but the music industry itself.

Promoters like BoJesse Christopher, whose packed parties at swanky spots like Concorde on Fridays and Nacional on Saturdays attract a more mainstream stable of model types and industry dudes who can afford bottle service, sees the barriers between the indie-rock, celebrity-heavy and hip-hop scenes breaking down all together.

“I’ve had my eye on Steve’s scene for a couple of years now and recently started conceptualizing with him on projects to come together,” says Christopher. “The cool kids are morphing into successful industry people themselves. The face of the industry is changing. Hence Steve Aoki’s success.”

Aoki’s next venture, called Connecting the Dots will take his genre-blending sensibilities to a global level, with the release of 12-inch remixes and corresponding parties from L.A. to New York to Tokyo. The first release will include remixes of Bloc Party’s “Helicopter” by DJ Diplo (M.I.A.'s beat man) and Weird Science (Aoki’s new mixer/production project with Blake Miller of the Moving Units). He says the first L.A. event will happen sometime in February.

Back at CineSpace Tuesday, when Kid Millionaire jumps on stage to introduce and gush over his latest music find to a sardine-packed crowd, his enthusiasm is so contagious that it’s hard to believe his ventures won’t succeed.

Aoki may not be the privileged prince people think he is, but when it comes to his fervor for music, the kid is loaded. “The music industry is high cost, low return. You have to be OK with donating all your time and expense and labor, and you have to be willing to almost give it up to build it,” he explains. “I didn’t put much money into this at first, but it became my life. At the end of the day it’s all I have.”

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The nights of

Kid Millionaire

Regular clubs that Steve Aoki either DJs or has a hand in promoting:

CineSpace Tuesday: 9 p.m. to close Tuesdays at CineSpace, 6356 Hollywood Blvd., upstairs, Hollywood. $5. www.dimmak.com/events

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Loose Tooth: 9 p.m. to close Thursdays at Joseph’s Cafe, 1775 N. Ivar Ave., Hollywood. $5. www.urb.com/loosetooth


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