Who is Steve Aoki? Some know him as one of the world’s premiere DJs and producers, while others seem him as a goof with no shirt and long hair who throws cakes.
For indie rock band Bloc Party and electro duo MSTRKRFT, he’s the Dim Mak label executive who gave them a big break. For LA party hipsters, he was a beacon of a changing musical landscape. For hardcore fans, he was an influential promoter, and before all that, he was the son of infamous restauranteur Rocky Aoki.
So, who is Steve Aoki really? In his recent memoir Blue: The Color of Noise, Aoki reveals that he’s all of those things and more. Truth be told, Aoki is an awkward young man who found himself in sweaty crowds, liner notes and more than a few moments of tragedy.
The book strings together the highlights and influential moments of his life via a filter of blue hues. It’s an easy read delivered in a mostly conversational tone, and while there are lots of behind-the-scenes celebrity stories, there are also very intimate moments. It’s harrowing at times, like when he remembers the day of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting, but it’s also endearing to realize that this public figure is as much a super-fan of his idols and peers as the rest of us. He’s also very forthcoming with his own failures, and there’s a lesson there, too.
We read Blue: The Color of Noise and picked out a few big takeaways. Read some of our favorite bits below.
Steve Aoki’s Dad Has Secret Families Around the United States
“My family tree’s got a whole lot of branches,” Aoki writes in chapter one. “There’s even a whole other tree.” It’s hardly a secret that the Dim Mak label founder’s father was himself the founder of popular Japanese restaurant chain Benihana. Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki was also a champion wrestler who once traveled to the Olympics with the Japanese team. Steve’s mom is Chizuru Kobayashi, the larger-than-life restauranteur’s childhood sweetheart and first wife from Japan.
But while Steve and his two older siblings were growing up in Miami, Florida, his dad was having three children by another woman named Pamela in New York City. The two families met over father Aoki’s hospital bed when a boating accident put him in a coma. Both sets of wives and children rushed to his side, discovering each other in the process. A seventh Aoki child was later discovered in a paternity suit.
His First Remix of “Thriller” Was Shot Down
Aoki’s first musical love was Michael Jackson. In chapter three, Aoki writes that “a sequined hand just kind of reached up through the noise and grabbed me by the throat.” He saw Jackson touring Thriller when he was seven. “He set it up in my mind,” Aoki writes, “what a performance should be: joyous, exhilarating, a little primal.” In 2009, he remixed the Jackson 5’s “Dancing Machine” for a compilation. He paints an illuminating and intimating portrait of that process, but in 2017, his take on “Thriller” was less inspired.
Now famous, Aoki was given his choice of Jackson tunes, and he purposely pushed himself to take the crème de la crème, but his hectic touring schedule and fears of incompetence led him to procrastinate and turn in a rushed EDM banger. Sony asked him to give it one more go, and after a “meditative reset,” he let the song steer his sound. Joe Jackson, Michael’s father, visited him in the studio to give the final sign off. “Sometimes you need to stop the train,” he writes. “The work has to come from somewhere deep inside you. It can’t be rushed or scheduled — otherwise, you’re just going through the motions.”
He Made a 9/11 Documentary, But Never Released It
Aoki just happened to be in Manhattan when the World Trade Center was attacked. He was alone in the home, awakened by his father’s worried assistant as the family hurried to take stock of each other’s health and whereabouts. He called his sister, model/actress Devon Aoki, to make sure she was okay, then found himself inexplicably running toward the chaos. “I am like an idiot climbing up a down escalator,” he writes, “a salmon swimming upstream.”
He tells how the air is full of ash and smoke, and when he found his friends at Union Square, one of them had a camcorder. He immediately began filming and interviewing passersby. He and his friend ended up interviewing historian Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker for a documentary they called Carpet of Gold, Carpet of Bombs, but in the end, they never released the footage. They never even rewatched it, with the video just becoming a surreal collection of living nightmares and collective pain.
He’s Totally Sober
As an uncool Asian kid in a white SoCal neighborhood, Aoki didn’t have much temptation to drink or party, because he wasn’t invited to those kinds of get togethers. He was, however, randomly and unwittingly sold acid when he was in the 9th grade. A bad trip sent his mind in a dark spiral that ended with him accepting Jesus Christ as his lord and savior, and swearing off drugs and drinking for years.
He was militantly Christian and straight-edge, diving head-first into the hardcore punk scene, but the importance of religion and sobriety wore off by his senior year of college. He started drinking as a means to open-up in social situations, but by the time his father died in 2008, he was downing four or five drinks a night to maintain and mitigate his hectic schedule.
When his close and influential friend DJ AM died of a drug overdose in 2009, it forced Aoki to open his eyes to the reality of his own addiction. “I was unmoored,” he writes, “bouncing from one gig to the next and hoping blindly, stupidly that the direction I was headed in was the direction I meant to be going.” He doesn’t call himself “straight-edge” today, but he says he no longer feels the need to drink, and he doesn’t.
The Genesis of The Cakes
Since that first Michael Jackson concert, Aoki has always been obsessed with the “wow” of live performance. He write about how art punk band Men’s Recovery Project inspired him with nonsensical “concerts” that included eating cereal at a coffee shop in NYC at 8 am, and performing a “set” at the his college-home-turned-venue the Pickle Patch, completely nude as they rubbed each other with Twinkies. French DJ Sebastian blew him away by opening his set with a 10-minute loop of a corrupt French politician’s public confession.
Fueled by all this madness, Aoki began spraying champagne on the audience and crowd surfing on giant rafts. It was great until a fan was accidentally injured, so the rafts had to go. Soon thereafter, AutoErotique released “Turn Up the Volume” on Dim Mak with a viral music video that featured cakes exploding on people’s faces. Aoki bought a cake for a show in Boston, decorated with the artist’s name and song title. He played the song and started dancing around with the cake, not knowing what would happen.
Then, one headbanger dude in the front row started begging to be “caked.” Aoki hesitated, and the whole crowd chanted “cake him! Cake him!” “To cake,” he writes, “I’d never heard it used as a verb, but here it was … like a page out of that great Maurice Sendak picture book we all read as kids, Where the Wild Things Are: “Let the wild rumpus start!”
Aoki’s wild rumpus continues, and you can read all about it in Blue: The Color of Noise out now via Macmillan.