I first discovered Steve Aoki a couple years ago on Instagram and found that he had millions of followers and traveled the world as a DJ. Other than that, all I knew was that his signature move was throwing a sheet of cake into the audience.
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I didn’t think much of him other than he was probably successful, famous, and wealthy. But then, I started watching a couple interviews of the man and learned about his story in the book The Power of Broke by Daymond John. I discovered that he was a man who patiently worked to build his music career and understanding of the industry. That perception was strengthened when I saw him featured on Mic Drop, a music video by BTS, the #1 boy band in the world right now.
Later on, I decided I wanted to study Steve’s life more and rise to success to see if I could take something of value away. I relate to him as an Asian American, and music used to be a strong part of my life as a teenager. The music industry is competitive, so it’s impressive that he’s made such a mark. When I have this feeling, I often check if that person wrote a book. Often, I’m surprised to find they have. Steve just released a book called Blue: The Color of Noise, which is a memoir.
Here are some of the notable insights from the book.
- Despite how flamboyant Steve appears now in his performances, he was a quiet kid who tried to blend in. Growing up in California, he was the only Asian in a sea of white classmates, so he tried to avoid getting noticed. But other kids made fun of him for eating strange food at lunch and looking different, so he didn’t have many friends and he got used to being alone and fighting fire-with-fire using racial insults. He believed girls wouldn’t like him since he looked different.
- Music was Steve’s escape. Singing along with others at concerts or creating music with his band were moments when he felt he belonged since everyone was part of the same community. He gravitated to hard core straight-edge punk because the lyrics spoke of clean living and belonging to a tribe. He loved hip hop but he couldn’t relate to the lyrics.
- Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee became strong influences in his life. Michael’s skill and art still inspires him to this day. He was fortunate to be able to do remix collaborations with the Jackson family later in his life. Bruce Lee was the lone Asian role model in the United States that showed him that you could achieve anything in a world where we still don’t see many Asian stars.
- Steve’s father was the founder of Benihana, a Japanese restaurant chain that became very successful. However, he never got money from his rich father. His father expected him to pave his own way. Plus, his father had a few children with other mistresses so Steve sometimes only saw him on occasion. Steve had to deal with a lot of flak from people who assumed he inherited a lot of money and that’s what drove his success.
- Steve and music went together. He promoted shows at a vegan co-op that grew into a huge venue for big indy bands. He joined a bigger non-profit venue that did something similar at a grander scale. Then, he decided to become a promoter for one of the top indy bands, but admits he wasn’t a good one.
- Steve stumbled upon DJing naturally and unintentionally. Someone asked him if he could help DJ for this small venue. He didn’t know a thing about DJing, but the person offered to teach him. His DJ career grew from there.
- Steve and his manager clawed their way up to success over many years from the bottom. He started as a freelance DJ, charging little, sometimes so little that the transportation cost more. But he built his personal brand, and his manager pushed him to increase his fees — and surprisingly, companies paid.
- Steve loves his crazy career now, which often involves performing in a new country every one or two days. The lifestyle is hectic, and often comes with costs. He had a hard time keeping a healthy, long-term relationship even though it lasted many years. And he ended up divorcing her shortly after he married her.
- September 11th and the Las Vegas shootings were notable moments of his life. He remembers every emotion he felt during those days, wondering why anyone could do something so terrible.
- The DJ is the loneliest person at the party because he’s isolated. But he also controls the experience and vibe. A great DJ plays what the people want, not what he wants.
- Trust your gut. Steve naturally came up with the iconic “caking” move. He brought a cake to his show, not sure what to do with it but knew it was going to be a way to stand out when all DJ’s acted the same. First, he let people dip their finger into the cake and taste a little. But then, one of his fans kept begging him to smash the cake in his face. That set off a demand for caking that became part of his brand. The problem was that businesses and promoters told him they wouldn’t book him if he caked others because it seemed cheesy. Even when he promised to not cake anyone during the show, he still couldn’t resist for certain gigs. He resolved to just follow his gut rather than the whims of people who booked his shows even if it meant missing out on financial opportunities.
I definitely related with Steve on many levels since many Asian Americans have a similar upbringing. I learned a lot from his story and felt entertained the whole way through the book. Frankly, the book was more entertainment and historical profile of his life than a “life lessons” guide.
Most notably, I felt inspired after realizing that his journey to success was a slow, gradual one. A lot of people, like me, probably assume Steve is this world-famous, rich DJ because of his large Instagram following when they stumble across him or work with him. But through the book, it seems like he started at the bottom as a freelance DJ that sometimes got paid little or nothing. But through many years of grinding through that process, building his brand, taking gigs, and slowly upping his rates, he made something of himself.
We all can get impatient for wealth, fame, or success. But just like when I read Bruce Lee’s biography, I realized that the process sometimes involves luck, doing what you love naturally (even if you can’t see how it can turn into money in the short-term), consistency, and patience. That’s easier said than done since I (and others) have many interests and don’t see one clear thing, like DJing, as what’s going to do it for me. But even Steve didn’t know; he started DJing because someone else needed a DJ and taught him.
People may misjudge Steve because his father was rich and his sister is a successful supermodel, but when you dig into his life story, you realize he forged his own path and didn’t get a handout. He started off living in a van and performing while barely making enough to make it by.