Steve Aoki Discusses His Journey to Superstar DJ and New Documentary 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead'

Steve Aoki
 Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images for PANDORA Media

Steve Aoki performs onstage during PANDORA SUMMER CRUSH 2015 at L.A. LIVE on Aug. 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. 

Over the past decade, Steve Aoki has become one of the most in-demand entertainers in the world -- he’s equally renowned as a DJ, owner of Dim Mak Records and for his own unique brand of rave-ready EDM hits. His exploits have brought him fame and untold riches, if not always respect and closure. Those themes are largely explored in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, a biographical documentary which tracks Aoki’s unlikely rise, and also shows why in some ways it’s been a bittersweet journey.

Directed by newcomer Justin Krook, visually, at times, the film feels like an extended cut of festival footage b-roll or the set-up to an actual Aoki music video. However, between flashy slow motion cuts and frenetic aerial shots, there is a story being told, an engaging one at that. It is the story of a father and son; specifically, that of Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, Steve’s larger-than-life dad. He races speed boats, drives cross-country and flies across the Pacific Ocean in hot air balloons -- anything to publicize his burgeoning Benihanas empire.

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But to Steve’s chagrin, he does not have an especially close relationship with his pop; the elder Aoki sires seven children with three different wives, and divorces his mother in 1981. When Steve begins making waves in L.A.’s early 2000’s electro scene, he is, at least by some critics, written off as just another rich kid playing with his daddy’s money. In reality, Rocky offers help, but only in the form of hard work, hiring Steve to peel onions at the restaurant, like any other low-level employee.

Benihanas doesn’t quite appeal to Steve’s sensibilities, so he quits and launches Dim Mak Records instead. He uses his own money, cash from delivering "greasy food" and working a low-level telemarketing job. In the early days it’s loose and fun, a mish-mash of L.A. cool kids interested in hardcore punk, electro and hip-hop. But by the time the label graduates from a dorm room to an actual office, Rocky’s ill. When he dies in 2008, not living long enough to see his son become a star of his own, it leaves Steve feeling incomplete. Fame and fortune is just around the corner, yet for Steve it may never be enough.

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In this, the film largely succeeds -- using the father/son relationship as its emotional anchor. Elsewhere, it’s bolstered by a more straightforward narrative, that of Steve’s 2014 album release concert at Madison Square Garden. When the concert gets botched, the film feels like an EDM song itself, building up for the drop, before finally, the climactic finish. By the time the credits roll, it ties up rather nicely; Aoki’s life kind of a fairy tale, complete with the happy ending and all. Father would approve. 

As part of the Tribeca Film Festival, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead bowed to a standing ovation at its New York premiere last Friday (April 15). In the bowels of the palatial Beacon Theater, just minutes after capping his emotional coming-of-age documentary screening with a raucous 90-minute DJ set, Aoki spoke with Billboard about the film.
The film was so warmly embraced by tonight. It seemed emotional for you and also your family, who were on hand. Were you scared going into this?

Oh, my god. I was more nervous about this film premiere than any huge show, because it opens up this naked side of me. I always do a lot of filming with my crew, but we do a very public side that’s fun, adventure-seeking. It’s high-energy shows and travel; never behind closed doors. Once I gave Justin the green light -- you can have unwarranted access and film what you want to film, how you want to film it, I don’t care if it’s negative or positive -- I was fine with it. [But] it was three years. It almost felt like it was never coming out. Then a few months ago, I saw the final product, and I was like, oh shit, people are going to see this; this is not just for the archives. Since then, the clock has been ticking down -- every day, until today. I was under so much stress thinking, fuck, I’m naked. Everyone can take shots. They know all my soft spots, my vulnerabilities. And there are so many people who come after me with negative shit. So many trolls out there. But so is life, so you just have to fucking do it, you know?

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The film largely explores your relationship with your father, who passed away in 2008. Is there a nugget of advice he gave you that, looking back, still sticks with you today?

He wasn’t really an advice guy. He was more like, “I’m going to spoil you with life experiences when you come with me. And you have to keep your eyes open and you have to retain what you see.” Whenever we would travel, we would see so much shit. More shit than most kids would see. That was exciting. I’m sure that sunk into my conscience and made me want to do crazy shit like jump off of cliffs. My dad was crazy; I want to be just like him.

That’s interesting, because in the film, your wife talks about how you can’t sit still for more than a few hours -- very Rocky Aoiki-like. 

I always have a crew around me. When I’m in the studio, I work with a team of people. Musicians, pianists, sound designers, all kinds of people. Songwriters, vocalists -- all of them help with the direction. I have a direction and they help with the vision I’m going for. I’m project-oriented, so it’s not like I have so much ADD that I can’t get anything done. If that was the case, I wouldn’t be here. Before, I did everything. I remember starting with just a laptop. 

Just you and Ableton Live.

Yeah, going to YouTube tutorials and waiting for collaborations so I could trade kits and preset sounds, Massive presets, whatever it was. Waiting for those moments. In the studio with Rob Swire watching him do his shit. Or with Laidback Luke in 2010, like, just learning a lot. Now, I still work alone; actually, I do a lot of work on flights, where I’m just working on ideas. But when I’m in the studio, I want a lot of people around me -- singers, songwriters, musicians, sound designers helping me create sounds. 

Speaking of having people around you, the movie also shines a light on the underground electro scene in Los Angeles in the early 2000s.

That period of time, it was sacred. There were no outlets. You had to bring in a camera to film stuff. There were no iPhones. There were Blackberries and shitty camera phones. But photographers, they actually meant something. It was true documentation.

Right. And now we use an Instagram filter to pretend to have a picture that looked like it was from that era. 

It’s harder to build a culture when it’s so accessible. It was small, sacred, hard to get into -- not because of exclusivity, but more like once it was packed, it was already too full. But we were so consistent. And that’s something I realized -- that in order to build culture in an underground way, consistency is crucial. You have to be consistent with whatever culture you’re building. Keep the integrity going. And then other artists will want to be a part of it. I mean, we couldn’t pay anyone, because we weren’t making any money. It was like $5 a head to get in. And then when me and DJ AM started doing parties, we were already making money, so all our parties were free. Nobody had to pay. The only thing was, if you didn’t know who was playing, you couldn’t really get in. 

You had to know to know.

It was difficult to get the information. 

It was L.A. cool.

It was like what says in the movie -- these social centers, they were where a lot of the artists who were creating pop music and changing pop culture, were getting their ideas from. Now, you don’t need to go to a club to get ideas. Back then, you had to be a part of an experience like that; hearing these new guys, where it was difficult to get their music, and you couldn’t really hear it anywhere else.

And in a way, the movie is educational; modern EDM fans, they may not really know where a lot of this stuff came from.

The difficult thing is, even with the information, they may not find value in that -- knowing the source of it. That’s a bigger problem. Like, how millennials digest information, it’s so fast and so easy and so accessible, that history becomes less important. That’s why I think it’s important that people like you -- people who care -- constantly bring it back. Justin put the movie together the way he did, because he knew the value of it. I let him into the stories, into that space, but he was able to make it into something where it was like: hey, all you young kids out there, this is your history, this is really cool, and you should take a juicy fucking bite out of it because it’s some good shit.