Steve Aoki is one of the biggest acts in EDM, a global superstar loved by the masses for his showmanship and flare. A household name with combined social media reach of 16 million followers, who has worked with Linkin Park, Fall Out Boy, will.i.am, Afrojack, Snoop Lion, Travis Barker, and many others, Aoki has become one of the faces of the movement’s burgeoning popularity over the past decade.
Now, Aoki’s rise to prominence — and, more specifically, how he became Steve Aoki, the DJ/producer known for the wild stage antics like crowd-surfing in a raft and throwing cakes in the faces of fans — is explored in the new Netflix documentary, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.
“The essence of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is about the process of the development of the start of my career and the drive,” Aoki tells Yahoo Music. But the heart of the documentary is his relationship with his family, including his famous father, Rocky Aoki, best known for founding the Benihana’s restaurant chain. “There’s a lot of personal reflection that goes into my family and conversations with my family, my father, and my mother. It’s a door that’s opened I’ve never really opened before,” says Aoki.
Like his dad, who was a daredevil and consummate entertainer, Aoki is a showman, one who is very comfortable living his life publicly. So for years, following his father’s 2008 passing from complications caused by cancer, Aoki had a videographer and photographer chronicle his life and adventures. Thus, when he was approached three years ago by filmmaker Justin Krook and producer David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), Aoki was open to the idea of making a documentary — though he tells Yahoo it wasn’t intended to be the revealing family story that it became.
“It started out them filming on the road what it’s like, the grind, the hustle, all the shows, what it’s like to be on tour,” he explains. “Then they went deeper and they kind of found a direction and navigated through a lot of different stuff to hone in on this storyline. They followed me through Japan to my family burial grounds, and found the story compelling I have with my father.”
The title of the documentary definitely ties into Aoki’s lifestyle. “The title is indicative of the way I live my life in not wasting time and, at the end of the day, I’m just grateful,” he says. “I’m grateful to be sitting in this chair being interviewed here at Yahoo ,and I’m grateful for the position I’m in: I can play my music, make my music, and there’s an audience that actually cares to listen to it. I don’t want to lose sight of that. So, with that in mind, if I have the opportunity to play in front of new crowds and new places all around the world, give it to me and I’ll take it.”
Being one of the faces of EDM, Aoki — maybe more so than most, because of his flashy stage antics — has been maligned by critics who question whether DJs are “real musicians.” He explains the role of the DJ in playing to sometimes hundreds of thousands of fans in one set: “As a DJ, what we do when we’re onstage, we’re playing our musical narrative to the crowd. But when you’re onstage and you’re playing in front of people, you’re not only giving your musical narrative, you are giving an overall sensory experience. When you’re in the crowd watching a DJ, you’re not just hearing music — you’re feeling it. You’re around people that are also feeling it.”
Fittingly, the documentary wraps with one of the biggest gigs of his career, a massive 2015 free show in downtown L.A in 2015 to celebrate the release of the first Neon Future album. That show became a family affair, with Aoki’s mom and many of his siblings on hand to witness “LAoki,” a party in the streets for more than 8,000 fans.
For Aoki, there turned out to be nothing more fitting than having his mother on hand to witness his triumph. As much as he grew up the public son of daredevil, entrepreneur, and celebrity Rocky Aoki, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead chronicles how much Steve is the son of his mother.
“My mom was the constant and the rock that really raised me, through all the thick and thin, ups and downs. She was my parent,” Aoki says. “My dad was my parent, too, but she raised me. And she’s kind of like the uncredited, and not necessarily someone looking for the credit, that really brought me up to who I am today. So I’m really happy that the film really got to give shine to this beautiful wonderful human being that is so generous and so kind and deserves all the recognition that we can give her.”