Steve Aoki has a lot to celebrate lately: After an acclaimed world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, his new documentary I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead debuted on Netflix last week, and his iconic music label Dim Mak turns 20 this year.
And how does Aoki choose to commemorate such momentous occasions? Fresh ink.
“2 a.m., bro,” Aoki says as he lifts up chest-length, bone straight hair to reveal the words “I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD” scrawled onto the back of his neck less than 24 hours ago. “We were like, ‘we gotta find a tattoo shop that’s open right now!’”
Aoki is on the last leg of his New York City press blitz where the mantra that’s now forever emblazoned on his nape is in full effect. Aoki has chiseled his work ethic into something of an anomaly–the amount of hours in the day don’t equate to his output. When Aoki isn’t logging tens of hours in the studio, he’s jet-setting across the world for 300-some-odd shows a year, developing a clothing line, and supporting brain preservation and research through his philanthropic fund.
In I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, that relentless pulse of Aoki’s life is intertwined with the emotional thread of what it’s been like living up to his father’s colossal legacy. Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, world-class wrestler and creator of Japanese steakhouse chain Benihana, was, by all counts, the throwback version of Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World. He raced boats. He flew hot air balloons. He did whatever he damn well pleased–and did it well. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead gives insight into Steve’s personal journey of how he’s managed to circumvent the already established “Aoki” name and create his own identity within the music world. And Aoki’s rise as one of the most preeminent producers and EDM DJs on the scene today started in an ultra cramped two-bedroom apartment in Isla Vista, California.
As a student at University of California, Santa Barbara, Aoki and his friends created The Pickle Patch, a makeshift venue for punk rock acts.
“That little town Isla Vista was a perfect place to do it because it’s a town run by students and all they did was party. Every house there was drunken shit happening and we were the only apartment that was straight-edge,” Aoki says. “But it was a perfect disguise to do what we wanted to do: Every other day there were, like, four bands making clanging, loud, disruptive music, screaming and yelling and doing fucking really cool punk shit–and no one would complain.”
The Pickle Patch may have been as scrappy of an endeavor as they come, but it worked: More than 450 bands ripped through the space in just a few years. Despite its popularity in the punk scene, The Pickle Patch never found more acreage, which was Aoki’s intention all along.
“It was the kind of thing where that’s all it was ever going to be. We weren’t trying to build a bigger space. We were just gonna always do it there and make it a consistent thing,” Aoki says. “With anything, people want to work with brands that are consistently saying something they agree with, or representing a part of the culture that’s consistent and solid and stable.”
It sounds like the battlecry for any startup looking to gain traction, but that was never on Aoki’s mind. The Pickle Patch’s beauty was in its complete autonomy and homespun design. There was no city permit for an apartment venue, no marketing campaign or overall strategy other than giving new acts a space to perform. The Pickle Patch was top-down DIY, and that mentality has been the throughline for Aoki’s entire career.
“I was never traditionally taught in anything. I was never traditionally taught in how to start a business. I was never traditionally taught how to DJ. I was never traditionally taught how to play guitar or sing or produce electronic music. I have it in front of me and I figure out this does that and that does this, and I do it over and over again,” Aoki says. “That fluidity to be able to pick something up, that concept is very much a DIY philosophy. You have to do with what you have in front of you and there’s no instruction manual. And you don’t need to do it the way every one else has done it–you do it in whatever way is suitable to you.”
The Pickle Patch segued into the Dim Mak record label which led to what’s largely considered to be one of the the precursors to the EDM explosion: Dim Mak Tuesdays.
In 2003, Aoki launched his weekly party in Hollywood, which became a stop for a host of acts like Daft Punk and Lady Gaga. Dim Mak Tuesdays settled into its own niche among the crowded L.A. scene, creating a culture of electronic music that had otherwise been on the fringe, at best. Aoki’s rager spanned 10 years and effectively catapulted Aoki’s career. However, much like The Pickle Patch, Aoki wanted to construct a space where the music came first.
“You don’t even think of it as a brand. The term brand doesn’t even come into play–it’s a community,” Aoki says. “It’s a genuine passion and interest to fill this ecosystem with important shit.”
That’s what resonates the strongest from Aoki–the passion for what he does. He’s hand-built his name on the foundation of doing what he loves, even if had to bypass traditional routes to get there. What I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead shows to great effect is that Aoki reached his prolific status in his way, on his terms, with zero assistance from his father outside of that DIY spirit he’s clearly inherited. No matter how high Steve’s status continues to elevate, he remains grounded to that scrappy attitude that is Dim Mak’s tagline and, of course, a tattoo on his right arm: “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.” Aoki’s hustle hasn’t abated since amassing such global success because in his eyes, there’s no such thing as feeling you’ve “made it.”
“It’s a delusion if you think like that because it’s not really real,” Aoki says. “The most important thing is am I still connecting with people? Is my music still relatable? Is it still part of what people want to hear? Are they affected by it? And I get a first-hand sense of that when I play.”