Say the words “celebrity D.J.” and, more often than not, the name Steve Aoki—or D.J. (ahem) Kid Millionaire—will be the first to people’s lips. Mr. Aoki, 29, built his career through his L.A.-based indie-rock record label Dim Mak Records and an urban-streetwear clothing line, Dim Mak Collection. An energetic former hardcore kid, Mr. Aoki is heir to the Benihana sushi-restaurant chain, brother to pint-sized model and Sin City actress Devon Aoki, and best buds with Ms. Lohan, who occasionally drops an MP3 or two with him at his regular Sunday-night residencies in Los Angeles. He is frequently flown to N.Y.C., too, to D.J. at such high-profile spots as high-roller club Marquee, hip-hop hotspot Stereo and tenjune, not to mention Fashion Week.
“I love Lindsay—she’s a very good friend of mine,” Mr. Aoki told The Observer in a phone interview. “Any time that she wants to D.J. with me, or wants me to D.J., I’m going to do that. I’m happy to do that—I mean, depending on the situation.”
Mr. Aoki insists that his father never invested in his business and is tired of the “haters” making assumptions about how he became successful. “Any sort of success that people have, it’s easy to blame it on the easiest thing for people to think of,” Mr. Aoki explained. “It’s the juiciest and gossipy thing to talk about, and they’d rather do that than talk about our ability to stretch a dollar or work it out in other ways to make a success.” Becoming shriller, he insisted: “They can go back and look up the records—I don’t give a fuck!”
But despite Mr. Aoki’s claims, many D.J.’s are getting their gigs simply because of the celebrities they know, the socialites they date, the promoters with whom they schmooze or their namesakes—and not necessarily their talent or skills.
“We probably started booking Steve because we knew his sister,” said Richard Thomas, the marketing and promotional director for Marquee. Mr. Thomas says they pay guest D.J.’s upwards of $10,000 for a single night in the booth.
“D.J.’ing is incredibly hard to break into without connections,” said D.J. Todd Mallis, who has residencies five nights a week at top-notch clubs in the city, including Marquee on Thursdays and Bungalow 8 on Tuesdays.
Mr. Mallis, 26, taught an introductory course at Scratch D.J. Academy, the Jam Master Jay–founded amateur-D.J. school, on how to break into the business. “I lied and said to make a mix tape and get it into the right hands,” he said, while spinning at a tsunami-relief event organized by Petra Nemcova, a supermodel acquaintance, on the shimmering rooftop garden of Ian Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel.
Mr. Mallis, dressed in Dior jeans and a white T-shirt, dropped a “cool, sexy New York” set for the BlackBerry-bearing and Prada-clad crowd, with smooth jams like Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That” and that Peter Bjorn & John whistle-themed song that is transitioning from being brilliant to becoming overplayed. Too bad belly-dancing music interrupted his set when Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones made a quick circuit through the party.
But Mr. Mallis said the celebrities don’t faze him. His laid-back, unpretentious demeanor has attracted celebs including Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Lopez, Benecio Del Toro and Scarlett Johansson to hop behind his swanky turntables. “I’ve never really been star-struck,” he said, the red colored beads on his Tibetan peace bracelet jingling from his wrist while he maneuvered the turntable. “When I see these people in this environment, they’re just clubgoers and there to have a good time, get drunk or whatever is their high for the night, and release a little.”
His father, Harvey Mallis, was the vice president of sales for Perry Ellis for 25 years before moving on to Concept One Accessories, which designs and markets such glitzy fashion brands as P. Diddy’s Sean Jean and sports-team caps that so many D.J.’s cock to the side. His cousin, Fern Mallis, brings sauntering models down the catwalks for Fashion Week as executive director of 7th on Sixth.
“My parents gave me everything I’ve ever wanted,” Mr. Mallis admitted.
Mr. Mallis surrounded himself with promoter friends from his stuffed-up prep-school days at the Upper West Side’s Dwight School, which counts among its alums Paris Hi
lton and almost all the members of the Strokes. “The culture there was really about going out to the clubs and the nightspots, into the city a lot,” Mr. Mallis said in a phone conversation from his Chelsea home. “Something about it intrigued me, but it wasn’t going out. I wasn’t really into experiencing things outside the [D.J.] booth.”
Mr. Mallis got his first set of turntables when he was 16 and fed a serious record-collecting addiction, financed by his parents and by working summers as a lifeguard at a private pool in his parents’ building in leafy Fort Lee, N.J. (which Jay-Z calls home!). He attended the University of Maryland before coming back to New York to study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, expecting to fall into his father’s well-tracked footsteps.
But in 2000, when he was 20 years old, the boyfriend of one of his model friends (Mr. Mallis remembered her name as Brooke but said, “I don’t even know if she’s alive right now—she had some heroin issues”) was opening a new club called La Peru and booked him to D.J. every Friday night.
His parents occasionally helped him pay the rent for his Village apartment while he left school and mined the record shops. Soon he could afford to pay his own way by being hooked up with gigs through friends like Hamptons promoter Jeff Goldstein and Jen Brill, fashion photographer Terry Richardson’s girlfriend and “Director of Mischief” at the Maritime Hotel.
Six years later, he works mostly from home as a music director for the B.R. Guest restaurant group, which includes making pleasurable background-music playlists for the Union Square lunch set at Blue Water Grill, and D.J.’s five nights a week at the top clubs in New York, providing the latest new rock and hip-hop tracks for celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Tobey Maguire to get down to at the premiere of Spider-Man 3 last week.
But it’s not all glitz and glam.
“D.J.’ing sometimes can be frustrating,” Mr. Mallis said. “You can work incredibly hard to create an energy in a night. You put forth a lot of yourself; there’s nothing to show for it.
“People in New York are not going out because of the D.J. They’re there to be seen buying their bottle and listen to the same songs they’ve had on repeat in their office or in their car or iPod. When it’s unfamiliar, when you’re trying to break that new record, they don’t want to hear it. They neglect to realize you’re putting yourself out there, and it’s not easy,” Mr. Mallis sighs.
“But when I’m up there doing it, I love it. At the end of the day, at 1 o’clock in the morning and they scream—it’s a great feeling.”