In an era when electronic dance music (EDM) dominates the musical landscape, Steve Aoki is one of the genre’s most recognizable names as well as one of its most profitable, having earned an estimated $23 million last year alone.
Part of the reason for Aoki’s popularity is that he isn’t just a music producer — he’s an exciting performer who understands the need for spectacle and getting his audience involved. One of his trademarks involves throwing a cake in someone’s face on stage every time he performs.
Aoki is also a businessman, having founded his own independent record label, Dim Mak, in 1996 at the age of 19 while a student at University of California, Santa Barbara. He also co-owns the management company DeckStar with Paul Rosenberg (Eminem’s manager), his managers Lawrence Vavra and Matt Colon, and his mentor, DJ AM.
Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about Aoki is that he’s the son of Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, the late founder of the ubiquitous Japanese restaurant chain Benihana. However, according to Steve, the senior Aoki wasn’t nearly as available as his mother to Steve during his childhood. Because of that fact, Aoki lived a pretty regular life compared to other offspring of mega-successful people. He’s had to make it on his own and will not see a penny of his father’s $35 million trust until he’s 45. Of course, as one of the highest grossing DJs over the past decade, he’ll be just fine no matter what.
NextShark sat down with Steve Aoki to talk about his relationship with his father growing up, his obsession with living forever, entrepreneurship and his new album released today, “Neon Future II.”
Wikipedia says you were a badminton star in high school. How’d you get into that?
Honestly, I’ve tried every sport, every traditional sport. I tried football, and that just didn’t work out for me. I tried wrestling, my dad was a wrestler. That didn’t work out; I went to a hospital after the first match or something. None of these traditional sports worked out. [Badminton] was the one sport that I actually won a few games at, but I wasn’t a star. I wouldn’t call myself a star. I was on the team. The sports that I excelled at were non-traditional sports. I was a skater, I was a huge snowboard enthusiast. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was become a professional snowboarder. That’s really where all my time and attention went to outside of music.
Your father founded Benihanas. What was your relationship with him like?
My mom raised me. But my dad would get all his kids together on trips, and we would have these amazing adventures across the world, hanging out with pops. And I learned a lot from him. His work ethic was nothing like I’ve ever seen. He was always putting that drive into his kids. I think a part of his genius in his restaurant businesses was being a marketing guru. He was just really a clever strategist, and he was very sharp, and he was doing very out-of-the-ordinary stunts that restaurants normally wouldn’t do, like race hot air balloons or offshore powerboats, things like that. He’s a restaurant guy. He was just a very interesting person to look up to, being your father and then waking up all of the sudden you are in a hot air balloon track in the middle of a farmland in Belgium or traveling across Japan and watching him do all this other stuff. So I really got to see the inside scoop of his ethic and all of the stuff that he was doing at that time.
So you wouldn’t say that your dad spoiled you as a kid, right?
For the record, he never actually gave me anything financial. There was no investing, there was nothing that he ever gave any of his kids. Even presents, the presents that he would give me was like, “Oh yeah, here is a jacket,” like a normal present. You don’t think, “Yo man, I just got a Ferrari!” when he had a whole entourage of cars. He was a very flamboyant, extravagant man. He had all kinds of cars, but he wouldn’t be like, “Alright, so son, when you’re 16 you can get this Ferrari.” When you are young, maybe you’re like, “I can get that,” but it would never happen, and it never did. My first car was an Isuzu Rodeo. My brother bought it in a police auction for $7,000, and my mom bought that off from my brother to give it to me. So if anything, my mom spoiled me more than my dad by far.
But the one thing that my dad did do financially that I will to this day always remember and will always respect is that he paid for half of my education. My mom paid the other half of my education for having a double-major, five-years undergrad at UCSB. Instead of being stuck with student loans and dealing with that, I had my parents to deal with that. That was really a great blessing to have; I was very fortunate.
I think in the end, that kind of rearing as a parent really trains properly your kids to live in the real world, because life isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. If you don’t learn to struggle, you won’t be able to deal with failure and deal with things that are gonna happen. I’ve hit the pavement and scraped the side of my face 10,000 times, and the only person that could pick myself up was me. So if I didn’t learn how to do that, I don’t think I would have a business for 19 years with Dim Mak records — finally being a successful, self-sustaining business — or deal with this very grueling schedule, which I absolutely love. No one is putting me in it. When I do 250 or 300 shows a year as a DJ, it’s because I wanna be in it. I’m not complaining. You know no matter how tired I am, the last thing I wanna do is complain. That’s one thing I’ve learned is that if you figure out yourself how to get there, you will understand the glory of all the good stuff that’s coming your way. You’ll take value and really cherish it.
For a guy that wants to live forever, you don’t seem to waste any time.
Living forever is absolutely the insurance policy. Singularity is an insurance policy. So if it happens, of course I’m ready to take that step and merge my body with technology and become an android. I’m absolutely ready to take out all the organs and take out all the temperamental things that will kill you, like your heart, which is very temperamental and causes problems, so I can eat things for taste and not have to worry about [dying]. That would be great. I would love that. If my skin is falling apart, I would upload my brain into another body, and I’ll have a fully beautiful body to work with, but you still have the Steve Aoki brain that people know. So I’m excited for that time, the time when that happens, but if that doesn’t happen, I will sign up to cryonics where I can preserve my body in a cylinder. It’s basically a gravesite, but at least I’m frozen and in a temperature degree where, if they have that technology to bring me back, they can do that.
Why are you so enamored about living forever? What do you think about what Steve Jobs once said about death being the greatest invention of life?
Well, I know that the most amazing thing in life is just to be alive and to think and to produce and to just be a part of this world. To me, this is a heaven, to be alive and to feel these powerful feelings like love, bonding, friendship and all these different things — I try to cherish in that moment. When I think about the future, it’s also really thinking about just being present. And I don’t wanna lose that presence. As present as you are, no matter how you look at it, you are moving forward in life, and you will look at a mirror and you’ll be like, “I’m 37 years old, but I still feel like a 19-year-old guy,” especially with the music I’m producing and these shows that I’m doing. But I’m very present in that. So I wanna just continue and make my own decisions to opt out of life, instead of having cancer do that for me or my brain degenerating or something happening to my body where I can’t stop that. If I can opt out, I would prefer to have that choice.
Are you afraid of death?
Well, I don’t know what’s on the other side. I mean, everyone has their own ideas, and of course, there’s all these religions that say that this is what’s gonna happen to you. But I like to kind of think of things in a way where it has to make sense. What’s gonna happen has to make sense to me. I don’t really wanna get into the whole religious thing, but I don’t really know what’s gonna happen. So all I know is that I know what’s happening around me, and I enjoy that, and I wanna continue being a part of this life. As long as it’s interesting and there is something that pushes me and makes me wanna move forward in life, then I wanna continue.
What drives you to work so hard everyday?
At the end of that day, if you really break it down, it’s all based on passion. It’s all based on how you feel. I don’t wanna get involved in something unless I’m emotionally committed and connected to the project. I trust my gut, I trust how I feel about something. If you ask my business manager how I do my investing, he’ll tell you it’s lopsided. I take bigger risks with the bulk of my money instead of putting my money in very conservative places.
I’ve never seen this much money before in my life, and I made it all myself, so the best part about it for me is that I can make decisions of where it goes. Sometimes it might not be the wisest decision, but I made that money so I have every right to do with it whatever way I choose. So that’s another thing about the idea of working for yourself and actually making your own money — you are not owing anyone anything but you. So that way, if I am going to invest my money and my time into these projects, I have to be 100 percent certain that I’m so emotionally engaged to that part of project. If it fails, it doesn’t matter to me — I feel validity with that amount of time and investment I put into it. Dim Mak is a perfect example. Running an independent record label is one of the hardest businesses there is to do that I’m aware of. But even if someone says, “Don’t do it” 10,000 times, I would still do it because I love doing it. I love to promote other music and artists and be a part of that world. Somehow we dodged every bullet when I’ve seen my friends fall to that wayside that are far more successful than I was. We’ve somehow hit some hyperzone, and we are finally into the money — not a lot of money, but we are into the money.
That’s just one thing that I’m talking about as far as all the different things that drive me. Fashion is a whole other business I’m getting myself into, you have to be on top of it and immersed in that world. It’s a difficult thing, and I’m definitely excited about that challenge too.
Tell us about your new album coming up.
The “Neon Future II” is the evolution of the “Neon Future I.” In the “Neon Future 1,” I have Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey introing and outroing the album, and they both talk about endless life, living indefinitely. Singularity to Aubrey de Grey who wrote a book about ending aging. He’s doing research to reverse cellular degeneration, and again, really getting far into that research. In “Neon Future II,” I got Kip Thorne and JJ Abrams, who are both in space exploration and science fiction. JJ Abrams is the director of “Star Wars” and “Lost,” one of the best TV shows ever. He closes the album, and he is all about exploring space. Kip Thorne is the executive producer of my favorite film, “Interstellar”; he talks about space explorations. I have a song called “Light Years.” I have another song called “Time Capsule” where I wrote a whole monologue about traveling through space. It’s a different angle of the “Neon Future.” I have Snoop [Dogg] and Lincoln Park in the album, I have new artists like Walk Off the Earth, EDM veterans like Nirvo and Matthew Koma. Rivers Cuomo is in the album, from Weezer. It’s a 10-track album. And it’s awesome.
Check out Steve Aoki’s new album “Neon Future II” on iTunes.
Photography by Melly Lee