Steve Aoki–famous for rafting over ravers and throwing cake in people’s faces–is the recent subject of the Netflix documentary, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Loud Life of Steve Aoki”. The doc trails Aoki’s rise to DJ stardom, from hustling in a dingy Los Angeles apartment, to closing down the main stage of Tomorrowland–one of the biggest music festivals in the world.
I won’t lie: I was a little skeptical of Aoki when I sat down to watch the documentary. As a former DJ myself, I had perceptions of Aoki as being generic–a sellout. Several of my perspectives on Aoki changed while watching the film. I’m happy to share these takeaways from the new Steve Aoki documentary, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”.
1. People hate on success, often without reason
Let me paint a scene: A rising-star in the DJ world shared the documentary on his Facebook timeline. He praised it for being inspiring and applauded Aoki for his hard work. Immediately, a bitter, unsuccessful, unheard of DJ commented, “When your family is loaded, you can do anything.”
The problem is: Aoki didn’t get any family money. He was broke, just like you.
Rocky Aoki, Steve’s father, founded Benihana’s, and brought Japanese hibachi to the United States. He was a multimillionaire with a taste for speed, heights, and all that was extravagant.
When embarking on his musical journey, Steve Aoki received no financial support from his father. He built his record label Dim Mak from the ground up from a trashed apartment in Los Angeles. He was cash-poor and time-rich, with an unstoppable energy to hustle like his father.
When people see someone with success, it’s common to make excuses for why they are at the top. These excuses aren’t to diminish their success. These excuses make ourselves feel better by saying that we are different. “It’s not that I don’t work hard enough, I just don’t have family money like him.” “It’s not that I am not talented, but that girl’s only playing that show because she’s hot.”
So when you find yourself hating on someone with more success, find out how they got it. Chances are, they started at a point just like you, and got up and did something with their lives, instead of bitching on the sidelines.
2. Hustle is unparalleled
It is impossible to argue that Aoki’s successful music career is not because of the hard work he has put in. The man never stops.
To place it in perspective, there’s a part in the documentary where Aoki’s manager, Matt Colon reviews the schedule for the next 4 days. Aoki is flying internationally 2 times, playing at least 2 shows a day, and is doing over seven radio interviews to promote his new album.
Steve Aoki looks at his manager and asks, “When the f*ck will I sleep?” The DJ has played 300 shows in 365 days, and is by the Guinness World Book of Records, the most travelled musician to ever–clocking in more flight miles than anyone to come before him.
It’s hard to ignore this hustle, and claim that Aoki had the world handed to him. It’s also impossible to not make the connection that doing the hard work will bring the results.
You can see a transformation in Aoki’s career as he climbs the ladder. It’s not the overnight sprinting success that you might expect, but rather a marathon, starting from punk bands in his teenage years, to playing for free wherever he could, even if it costed him to get there. The unsexy work needs to be done in order to enjoy the glamor.
3. Distribution is the game
Aoki, in preparation for his album release, went ahead and did every form of press he could. Aoki is on the PR hustle–appearing on talk-shows, radio, and even playing a free block party for the citizens of LA. Aoki was constantly building his platform by borrowing other’s, being featured as a guest for wherever would take him.
Gary Vaynerchuk a similar thing. Paraphrasing, Vaynerchuk said that he would rather accept every interview offer than hold out for the big ones. It didn’t matter to him if someone had 10 followers or 10 million followers. It was the same to him. If a platform is small, there is still someone in that audience who can be impacted by your words. Your next biggest fan could be 1 of 200 subscribers on someone’s YouTube, or one of 73 who follow a Twitter account. So, don’t be snobby about who you lend your publicity to. Instead, focus on giving value to the platform owner, and to the audience.
4. There’s a dark side of ambition
Having an ultra-driven, ultra-successful father definitely played an impact on Aoki’s drive. The darker side of ambition, living up to someone else’s standards, plays out quietly on the screen.
Steve’s father, Rocky Aoki, died a few years before the filming of the documentary. To pay respects to his father, Steve Aoki sets out to play the most prestigious venue in his father’s city–Madison Square Garden. When the time for the show comes, the DJ tears up, saying that he knows his dad would be proud of what he was doing–how famous and influential he had become.
I wondered at this moment if success would ever be enough for Aoki. With his father gone, would he always be trying to impress a man who could never say, “You’ve done enough. I’m proud of you already.”
I looked inward to my own life to see what darkness was driving my ambition, and came to the conclusion I didn’t have enough of it. It’s said that pain drives change, and my slothfulness happens at the expense of being comfortable.
So how much do I want to hack into that darkness? How much pain should I pull out in order to get where I want to go? I’m not sure of this, at all.
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