Steve Aoki was not your average college student. Sure, he threw parties in his living room, but the 100 to 200 people who showed up were not just there to drink and have a good time. They came for music — good music.
It was music that most had never heard before, but thanks to Aoki’s parties, would soon top charts around the world.
Even though he is one of the most successful DJs and music promoters in the world today, there is a down to earth vibe about Aoki. This household name doesn’t bat an eye at rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous people in the world, yet he demonstrated humility throughout his conversation with Jay Shetty, where they discussed life, success, and music.
All along, Aoki has dreamed big. Despite his lofty aspirations, however, he has managed expectations. In doing so, he has grown from failure instead of being destroyed by it.
In a recent episode of On Purpose with Jay Shetty, the star shared his story of how pursuing passion, even when times were rocky, brought him to a place of success and influence. As life has been good to him, he in turn has impacted the lives of countless others.
The Love of Music Trumps the Love of Money
When Steve Aoki stood at a crossroads in his life, he couldn’t deny the pull of music. Instead of following the advice of his successful and traditional father, Aoki left the world of academia behind and set out on his own. The fledgling musician was fully aware he would not be rolling in the dough.
“In the music world, I grew up in this culture where you’re not supposed to profit from what you do,” he explained to Jay Shetty. “You’re supposed to give everything and not actually get anything financial in return. It is not a business.“
For years, Aoki worked in the punk scene. While writing for the punk rock magazine, Zen, Aoki started to see emerging stars come across the page. He started holding parties featuring these musicians in his apartment, eventually moving to other venues like small bars. This gave exposure to new bands and encouraged Aoki to start his own label.
Aoki dipped his toes into DJing as well. He started out as the opening act and eventually became more skilled and began to get paid.
“This is also where I learned something really valuable,” Aoki told Jay Shetty. “I learned that every contribution I made to the community was meaningful. So I learned at a very, very young age when I got into hardcore and punk music that the contributions I made to the community were my cool points. They’re the way I got respect.”
That respect paid off as bands he brought to the scene, like The Killers and the Shins, became successful.
“Aoki has helped launch the careers of global acts like the Chainsmokers, Block Party, The Bloody Beetroots, The Gossip, and The Tills, among many others,” explained Jay Shetty.
By using his now well-known name to bring in smaller artists in whom he saw potential, Aoki’s clout gave them airtime and helped them get noticed.
Building a Culture, Not Saving the World
One of Aoki’s biggest strengths is his genuine excitement for new and upcoming artists. His focus is on working for what you love, not for money. This has been the driving force behind how he operates, and ultimately, his success. His passion for good music and new artists stirs such an excitement in him that he can’t help but share.
“That’s where I feel like my strong suit is,” he said to Jay Shetty. “Behind all this stuff. All I care about is sharing things I love. I’m finding ways to monetize that, but if you put money in front, then the ability to share doesn’t have that same feeling, right? So you have to share first, and if they love it, then it’s just part of how it works.” He firmly believes people will pay for what they love, and that’s certainly held true in his life and career.
When asked by Jay Shetty how this excitement and passion for music cultivated a culture of hype and reciprocity, Aoki shared that he believes that excitement and passion is the key foundation for his work.
“When you’re trying to sell stuff you don’t believe in or you just want to sell for the sake of selling, it doesn’t have that effect or impact,” he told Jay Shetty. “Because people can feel it when you genuinely are obsessed with something or excited about it.”
Aim High … Settle for a Little Lower
“You have this really interesting perspective of aiming high but managing your expectations,” Jay Shetty said as they discussed Aoki’s strategies for success.
This area may be one of Aoki’s proudest.
Completely self-made, the musical talent thanks his father for the urge to always strive for more. Nothing was handed to him, and Steve worked for everything that has gotten him to this place today. His successful father did not give his children anything except the confidence and motivation to go out and work for it themselves.
“My dad would not help me because that’s just how it is,” he explained to Jay Shetty. “And I applaud him, and I thank him. He’s passed away, but I thank him so much for that because I learned myself. He was very much that tough love kind of father, and I’m so grateful for that.”
This realistic dreamer mentality meant that Steve tempered his high aspirations with engaging reality. He started out in his living room, but dreamed of holding big events. He envisioned being asked to host shows in bars, but started by paying the tab. He opened for better DJs until he was good enough to be the star act. Steve saw powerhouse musicians and did what he could to be a part of their careers.
Ever heard of M.I.A.?
Aoki was told about the star at the beginning of her career. He did what he could to work with her, not because it would look good on his resume, but in typical Steve Aoki fashion, because he was so excited about the potential he saw in her. He aimed high because he believed he could take her to the next level.
“That’s the soul of what we’re talking about,” he explained to Jay Shetty. “You may not necessarily be the most well-rounded or have the best infrastructure or the most money. It’s more about you having the heart take it to the next level. Aim for that.”
“Obviously, you’ve exceeded and superseded many expectations,” affirmed Jay Shetty.
The Future is Neon
When Steve Aoki creates a new album, he does so with power and intention.
“I want a dynamic experience with the album,” he explained to Jay Shetty. “I want to bring all the different colors to the table, all different personalities. That’s what music is.” In his newest release, Neon Future Four, Aoki takes listeners on a 27-song journey through emotion and feeling.
When Jay Shetty asked what emotions or feelings he was trying to evoke, Steve admitted he didn’t hold back.
“If you listen to the album from front to back, it goes through all these different tempos, arrangements, and moods,” he answered Jay Shetty. “It changes up. Some songs are like extremely blind happiness. Some songs are just dark and visceral, like they should be in a thriller or sci-fi film or something. I really want to take people on that kind of journey.”
The album explores the future, one of Aoki’s favorite subjects. The highlight of the album is a feature by his favorite author, Yuval. That might seem like an unexpected choice, but the beauty of Aoki’s work is that he leaves space for voices that differ from his.
“For every album in the Neon Future series, I’m approaching scientists, authors, and people who have some story where they’re talking about the future,” he told Jay Shetty. That breadth of experience adds to the rich texture of his work. “I’ve definitely allowed for various kinds of voices about what the future looks like that are very different from mine.”
From Science Fiction to Science Fact
With the future ever on his mind, Steve has immersed himself in work that strives to make the world a better place, and not just musically. Aoki has developed The Aoki Foundation with the intention of looking ahead to how science and music can be fused together to make new discoveries for health and wellness.
“Our whole mission is about the human brain,” he told Jay Shetty. “Learning about the brain in every aspect to find cures for degenerative diseases is the main goal.”
He has his sights set not only on playing a role in discovering cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and depression, but also in moving science forward. He explained that so much of what is seen as science fiction today could be the science fact of tomorrow. He believes that pushing the envelope could open doors for greater discovery.
“I love what you said about turning science fiction into science fact,” Jay Shetty said, praising Aoki for the part he is playing in blazing a trail that integrates science, science fiction, and health. “I think it’s brilliant. I think you’re so right that so many of us when we’re watching science fiction — even if it has a message, or powerful storylines, plot or characters — we all go, ‘But that’s fake, right? That’s not real.’ I think you’re so right in that if we can try and push people along the way to show them that it’s actual fact, that it is actually possible, that makes it possible in their own lives.”
Steve is committed to using his music and his foundation to not only focus on advances in this way, but open up these possibilities to a broader audience as they connect with his work.
In many ways, Steve Aoki has always had eyes to see the future and it’s potential. He was able to spot and elevate potential stars in the music world. He commits himself to the future of science and health. His music gives voice to a world to come. “You’re so much more than a DJ, you know,” Shetty affirms Aoki. “I think that’s why what you do is so attractive and so iconic to so many people.”
“Music connects the world. That’s one thing you can’t take away,” said Aoki to Jay Shetty. “That’s one thing that has nothing to do with opinion. It is just language. That’s the thing about music, it’s an emotional language. And depending on the song, it could change your life.”
It’s safe to say Steve Aoki’s commitment to music has changed many lives over the years, and he doesn’t show signs of slowing down. For Aoki and anyone who experiences his music, the future really is bright. You could even say it’s neon.
More from Jay Shetty and Steve Aoki
Listen to the entire On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode with Steve Aoki on “How to Aim High but Manage Expectations & Never Allowing Doubt to Stop You” now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. Follow Jay Shetty on LinkedIn for more inspirational content.