Inside Steve Aoki’s Quest for EDM Immortality
Steve Aoki knows exactly what will happen when he dies. His corpse will come under the care of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, an organization with a fleet of cryonic cylinders in Arizona. Alcor promises to preserve Aoki's earthly form at a sufficiently low temperature so that – should technology ever advance to the point that Aoki hopes it will – he can be reanimated and/or his consciousness can be uploaded to a computer, granting him something like digital immortality. Aoki, who's 38, set this plan into motion after reading the work of famed futurist Ray Kurzweil, who speculates on the imminence of such scenarios becoming scientific fact. Under his contract with Alcor, Aoki will pay roughly $220,000. This price tag could have been much less if he'd opted to freeze his head alone – "The CEO of the company is only doing his head," he says. But Steve Aoki is ready to take his chances on coming back head to toe, "maybe 200 years from now," because Steve Aoki is nothing if not one seriously optimistic dude.
His optimism is there in the titles of his most recent albums, Neon Future I and II, which weave Kurzweilian motifs through brightly hued, intensely throbbing EDM. It's on display at the gigs that have made him one of the highest-paid DJs alive, earning more than $23 million annually. He plays as many as 300 shows in a given year, mixing everything from Calvin Harris to Jimi Hendrix to Daft Punk to the Backstreet Boys to Future to, no joke, Celine Dion. His is a relentlessly upbeat, urgently inclusive, there-is-no-such-thing-as-bad-taste brand of dance-floor euphoria epitomized by his trademark onstage move: hurling a heavily frosted cake into one lucky fan's face.
Aoki's positivity – and his preposterously crammed calendar – are also at the center of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, a new Netflix documentary that charts his transformation from a straight-edge kid who played in hardcore bands in his hometown Newport Beach, California, to twentysomething hipster-whisperer, running an indie label, spinning records and helping introduce American kids to acts like Bloc Party and Justice, to CDJ-twirling Ibiza demigod.
Aoki just landed in Las Vegas from a gig in Croatia, and is making his way to the 11,000-square-foot home he owns in the high-end suburb of MacDonald Heights. A notary has been waiting an hour and a half so that she can fingerprint him at his kitchen island, a hunk of creamy white marble. "What's this for?" Aoki asks his assistant, Eliza, as the notary inks up his digits. Eliza isn't certain; something to the effect of renewing the liquor license for a restaurant he co-owns in Manhattan. "Be careful with the ink," he instructs the notary. "This marble is expensive." Expensive stuff abounds: Over his shoulder is an enormous Banksy sculpture of a snake that appears to have swallowed Mickey Mouse. Off on the horizon is the Vegas Strip, where Aoki DJs so often that getting a house here made sense.
He paid $2.5 million for this place and spent at least $3 million more gutting and remodeling it. Highlights include a Chinese tea bar ("I collect teas when I'm overseas – I'll spend hours just, like, trying different teas"); a wardrobe room where every surface is covered in mirrors, in tribute to the climactic fight in Enter the Dragon ("I fucking love Bruce Lee"); a two-story gym where he can leap from a treadmill into a pit of foam cubes after a workout; and a home studio where everything from the ceiling to the mixing desk to the swivel chairs is gleaming white or shrieking blue ("It's the exact same blue as the Audi I8, one of my favorite cars"). Aoki has recorded a bunch of music here likely destined for his next album, Neon Future III, where his aim is to meet an array of unlikely collaborators halfway, rather than wedge them into EDM formulas intended for easy use in DJ sets. He's working on one song with Blink-182 and another with, hard as it is to imagine, Grammy-winning country stars Lady Antebellum. "They sent me a vocal, and it's great," he says. "It's gonna be a bridge between their world and my world."
Aoki calls himself "a frugal person," but it's clear he inherited a penchant toward ostentation from his father: Benihana founder Rocky Aoki, who cultivated an outsize image as a speedboat-racing playboy in the Seventies and Eighties. Rocky died of cancer in 2008, and Steve's interest in life-extension technologies stems directly from his death. It revealed "that he was human," he says, despite having been a larger-than-life character who once boasted to an interviewer, "I'm gonna live forever!" Steve recalls, of his father's illness, "He had tubes all in him, but he'd grip my hand tight. He was still there, fighting. His brain was not ready to die."
Rocky's shadow looms large over Steve in other ways, as I'll Sleep When I'm Dead explores in detail. He was never the most present dad and was skeptical of Steve's devotion to music – "He was like, 'I don't want you to be a bartender and be in a band for the rest of your life.' " Aside from some help with college tuition, Aoki says, "my dad never gave me a dime." Rather than feeling resentment or anger toward Rocky, Steve vowed to make him proud. As a kid, Aoki tried to fit in with football players and other members of the in-crowd. "I wanted to be cool, and it wasn't easy," he says. A self-described "small Asian kid trying to hang out," he was the target of racism. Kids pulled at the corners of their eyes mockingly, others threw rocks. Things improved when he fell in with skaters and punks, who introduced him to all-ages hardcore shows. "I shaved my head, had straight-edge X's on my hand, learned how to play guitar. I found purpose." At college, he took women's-studies courses and became an activist, living in a vegan co-op, staging sit-ins against the administration and protesting on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
But he also nursed a burning ambitiousness and business savvy that can be traced, in large part, to his desire to prove his worth to his dad. With Benihana, Rocky Aoki made millions by turning Japanese cuisine into theater and by carrying himself as a front-and-center showman, his flashy lifestyle inextricable from the brand. Steve approaches electronic music in a similar way, crowd-surfing and head-banging in the booth with rock-star swagger. Whereas his idols in Daft Punk are literally faceless, Aoki turned his goateed visage into a logo that adorns T-shirts, posters and a quadricopter drone fans can buy. In his house, I count six different enormous paintings of his face rendered in nouveau-pop-art styles.
A few hours after the liquor-license fingerprinting session, Aoki is onstage at Hakkasan, one of the Strip's premier clubs, leading the packed crowd in a chant of "Steve Aoki!" His logo, rendered in something like shiny fiberglass, hangs from the rafters in duplicate. He plays some Nirvana, some Drake, some Daft Punk. Soon enough, he straps two smoke-machine cannons to his wrists and climbs on top of the DJ booth to let them rip – an EDM cyborg priest, opening his arms to his congregation. I ask if it feels strange, as a onetime outcast, to hold court in such tony environments, populated with such alphas, the sorts of football-player types who once scorned him. "Maybe in the beginning," he says. "But what I learned was, music is not exclusive. That type of guy might have been racist to me when I was a kid, but I don't even wanna exclude him. The more you can bring positive energy to all people? That's the goal."