Steve Aoki turns 42 in November. The world-famous DJ has traveled the world at a non-stop pace for years now, collaborating with artists spanning all genres and countries (BTS, blink-182, Lil Yachty, Bill Nye (!), and more among them), and banked enough memorable moments to last three lifetimes. This week, he’s sharing a few of those memories in his new memoir, BLUE: The Color of Noise.
Aoki says he started jotting down stories for his memoir about six years ago. After the 2016 release of his Netflix documentary I’ll Sleep After I’m Dead, which traced the high-frequency musician’s career, Aoki decided it was time to put all of those stories together. “I saw how much of an impact the documentary made and how relatable it was,” Aoki says. “Justin Krook was the director and he was the one who guided the project. I said, ‘Okay, now I have to take the reigns and guide the narrative myself.’”
BLUE is less of a celebration of Aoki’s rise to fame and more a moment meant for introspection; it unpacks his complicated relationship with his father Hiroaki Aoki (the founder of Benihana), details his teenage years growing up in Newport Beach, California—where Aoki was the only Asian kid in the neighborhood trying to find a way to fit in—and traces his music industry highs and lows, as a record executive, promoter, and eventually a DJ.
GQ sat down with Aoki recently to dig into his memoir, whether he wants to live forever, why he wants to get Elon Musk in the studio, and more.
GQ: Did you know you were to going to center the whole narrative around this idea of one color?
Steve Aoki: Blue is my favorite color, and also my last name in Japanese translates to blue tree. There are so many shades of blue and meanings of “blue” to different cultures. It reflects different meanings and emotions. That ended up becoming the overarching theme of the narrative.
I found it more fulfilling to talk about the times in my life when I had very little success. I could have talked about the big shows, the fame, the glitz and glamor, but that wasn’t exciting for me. I would rather go deep into the nooks and crannies of my childhood, my adolescence and my college years, and moving to Los Angeles and trying to make it there. It was fun to go back to that timeline, and say, “Alright, what fits into the narrative?” There’s so much to put together. That was the hardest part.
In the book you talk a lot about being the only Asian kid in your neighborhood growing up and how Bruce Lee was the only cultural connection for you. How do you think growing up in that environment shaped you?
That was definitely the most seminal turning point in my life. Newport Beach, where I grew up, was 96 percent white. If you live in an area that is so homogenous, there’s going to be a lot of ignorance, racism, and discrimination that goes unchecked. A lot of times the kids didn’t even realize they were being that way. The what if question for me was always what if I grew up in Irvine, which was like 15 minutes away with a predominant Asian community. My story would be completely different. I wasn’t nurtured in a welcoming community. There was a huge period of time where I was lost. I had a lot of self hatred, I had issues of trying to fit in, not knowing if I could ever fit in because I wasn’t white and not understanding who I was. There was a lot of confusion.
And then you got into music.
Music helped me find a community. Music was a way for me to reclaim my voice. It was a frustrating voice. It was a depressed voice. It was a voice that was confused and trying to emerge through the ignorance. It was an angry voice. The punk hardcore scene really gave me the space to say it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to talk about your identity, we’re here to listen. Other bands were doing just that. It was a breakthrough for me. I dove in entirely and I’m still in it today. [Laughs.] Music is the soul of my operation. It’s my religion.
You founded your own independent label, Dim Mak, when you were a 19-year-old and you would hold shows in your living room, which you called The Pickle Patch.
The Pickle Patch was this next phase of my life after growing up in Newport Beach. The community I had was more sophisticated and educated in Santa Barbara. It was kids becoming adults. The idea of having purpose and meaning started coming to the surface and that was why we started coming together. It was crazy. We would have 20 shows a month in my living room. Everyone wanted to play there. It was like being in a hole-in-a-wall restaurant underneath a gas station, like, everyone’s talking about this spot. It was from the heart. The energy from that environment at that time was really special.
Before you broke big, you were the guy outside clubs handing out flyers trying to get people to come to shows.
I was the kid with a backpack full of flyers like, “Come to this party, we’ve got Interpol DJing tonight!” Slowly, we built a brand without realizing we were building it. Back then, there was no social media. It was just MySpace, and it was prepubescent MySpace. You had to be there. You had to go to a show to hear this music. You couldn’t just find it online. It was a big deal when someone brought a camcorder to a show to film it. There was almost no documentation. You got to experience something that was truly underground.
Los Angeles is filled with creators. They could come and absorb the culture then go back to their studios and pump out the biggest records of the time. will.i.am. and the Black Eyed Peas would religiously come to our parties, go back to the studio with that same energy, and make the sounds that defined that period of time.
You also write a lot about the relationship you had with your father before he passed away in 2008.
It was a cathartic process. It was also therapeutic. When I re-read everything in the book, it was hard for me. It was difficult to go back. There’s a lot of the emotional process that I’m still going through.
He was a tough love kind of father. Growing up, I sometimes didn’t realize what he was trying to teach us. Like, he was clearly wealthy, but I was like “Why am I not getting these things when all my friends are getting these things?” There was a level of resentment, but later on I realized he wanted us to learn how to pick ourselves up. If we were struggling, we had to learn not to just pull on him as a lifeline. Because guess what happens if you do that too many times? You end up living with your parents for the rest of your life, and you can’t handle the weight of the world when it comes down on you because it will eventually.
What qualities do you think you got from your dad?
Being a hard worker, being relentless. One thing he always said was “Work smart but work hard.” You don’t want to work your bones off but not have the foresight to look at what you’re working on. That’s what he always told us. He came to this country as an immigrant, not knowing how to speak English and was able to communicate his ideas to a culture that was having a difficult time accepting a Japanese business owner. Americans weren’t exactly supporting the Japanese in the 1960s after World War II. What he accomplished was so aspirational.
It’s a busy week for you. You also have a song with the Backstreet Boys coming out.
To be able to work with a group I listened to since I was a kid is just phenomenal. The song is about overcoming challenges when you really love someone. We shot a music video with people’s real life stories on how they were able to overcome their own challenges to be with people that they love. It’s really heartwarming. It’ll make the hairs on your arms rise. That’s the thing about music: it can be more powerful than the song itself.
Do you still have a bucket list of artists you want to collaborate with?
Are you kidding me? I’ll put it this way: as many artists as I’ve worked with, I reach out to many, many more artists than that. I don’t box myself into one specific corner. I don’t even box myself into music. I’ll reach out to anyone who inspires me. I’ve been reaching out to Elon Musk to do a song with me for the past year. I love being in the studio with people who have shaken me up and made me think in a new way.
To me, he’s a pioneer. He’s someone who’s going to change our future. He’s taking these broad steps that people are afraid to take. He’s going after how the entire human species is going to survive and how to advance our species altogether. I want to meet all the people that are taking those steps forward. I’m intrigued by people that put their imagination to the test to see how they make it real.
Do you read a lot about these subjects?
Yeah. The best book I read in the last year is Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s about where humans are going from the present to the future. We want to live longer. We want to live healthier. We want to find cures for all the diseases that have been killing us. At the end of the day everyone wants to live longer. We want to live forever. The status quo don’t want to say that because it’s scary but we all want to live forever.
Do you want to live forever?
Yes. Because I want to have the choice to die. I don’t want something to kill me like I will wake up one day with a tumor because I’ve degenerated to that point. Nobody wants that. You don’t want to wake up and just be like I guess that’s a part of life.
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Originally Appeared on GQ