‘You Gook! You Slant Eye!’: Steve Aoki Recounts Struggles Growing Up Asian American
Steve Aoki is hands down one of the most successful DJs in the world. He was ranked 5th on the Forbes 2016 list among the world’s highest paid DJs and raked in $23.6 million in 2015. These are well-deserved accolades for the man once dubbed the “hardest working DJ in the world”, having done up to 300 shows a year.
A fun fact about Aoki is that he’s the son of Rocky Aoki, the former pro wrestler and founder of the Benihana restaurant chain. While some might immediately assume that Steve Aoki was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it’s the opposite that’s true.
Aoki’s father divorced his mom very early on and was rarely around. Aoki would visit his father occasionally, but ultimately, it was his mother who raised him in the suburbs of Newport Beach, CA.
“[My father] was never a person to give me handouts or give me money to find my dream. That’s definitely not his approach,” Aoki told NextShark.
During high school, Aoki struggled with his identity and the lack of Asian peers that made it hard for him to find people to relate to. He constantly endured being called racial slurs in school and would get into fights.
“The two fights that I got in when I was a kid, they were both racially motivated,” Aoki said.
“I’m not one to really keep things inside. I couldn’t really talk to my mom because she would be like, ‘You have to shrug it off,’ and ‘Don’t cause any trouble. Do not cause any trouble. We’re lucky to even be in this community, we don’t want to be ostracized.’”
He tried finding friends through sports and first joined the football team, but wasn’t good enough and was benched most of the time. Eventually, he found some mild success on the badminton court.
“It was the sport where I actually won some games.”
Despite his struggles in school, Aoki says that he’s grateful for his upbringing, including his experience with racism.
“I’m happy that I grew up in this more conservative white upper class society that really bred this ignorance towards other ethnicities, where I was able to find my voice,” Aoki said.
“I had to be able to survive and find my voice in an area where I was lost.”
Aoki’s father was relatively hard on him growing up. He never helped him financially except for his college education, where he paid half and his mother paid the other half. Rocky Aoki instilled the importance of hard work on Steve at an early age.
“His work ethic was nothing like I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“He was always putting that drive into his kids. I think a part of his genius in his restaurant businesses was being a marketing guru. He was doing very out-of-the-ordinary stunts that restaurants normally wouldn’t do, like race hot air balloons or offshore powerboats. He was just a very interesting person to look up to.”
While he always looked up to his father, their relationship was far from perfect. This is a central theme in his new documentary on Netflix “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”. Aoki’s father didn’t support his pursuit of music and felt that he should get a more stable job.
“He left the lane open for me to follow in his footsteps but he didn’t push it at all,” he said.
“I never once had a conversation like, ‘All right, you’re my son I’m going to train you to be the next heir of Benihana.’ The conversation at the end of the day was, ‘Whoever is the most capable to run this company so it sustains itself and it grows as a business is the people that should run it. If it’s not my son then it’s not my son.’”
As Aoki grew older, he was grateful for this struggles because it taught him to be more pragmatic and honest with himself. He says it humbled him and prevented his ego from stopping his growth.
“I’ve hit the pavement and scraped the side of my face 10,000 times, and the only person that could pick myself up was me. So if I didn’t learn how to do that, I don’t think I would have had a business for 19 years with Dim Mak records. No matter how tired I am, the last thing I want to do is complain.”
Aside from his father, Aoki also had another Asian role model growing up — the legendary Bruce Lee.
“Bruce Lee was a huge childhood hero running through my adolescence because he was loved by all communities,” he said.
“There are plenty of Asian people that are in pop culture that are just loved by the Asian community, but he was one of the only ones that was globally loved by everyone. I always looked up to that kind of idea that us Asians have the capacity to actually be part of popular culture and influence outside, not just our own culture.”
With his current successes, there’s no doubt that Aoki is following in the footsteps of his father and Bruce Lee. He owns his own record label, Dim Mak records, and is an investor in a multitude of businesses including restaurants, fashion, and technology. He has fans all over the world and transcends race and ethnicity.
“I’ve never seen this much money before in my life, and I made it all myself, so the best part about it for me is that I can make decisions for where it goes,” he said.
Unfortunately, Aoki’s father passed away in 2008 due to complications with diabetes and Hepatitis C. However, he was able to get the closure he needed with him before he passed:
“I felt that way, I had closure with him before he passed away,” he said.
“I was lucky to be able to show him, ‘Listen I finally did it. I paid off all my debts. I’m not having to stay on your couch anymore. I can pay for my own flights. I’m creating a nest egg all my way to be able to get out of this shitty apartment I’m in and buy a house,’ and without a single handout from him.”