DJ Steve Aoki takes a pass on academia to pursue passion for music

Steve Aoki is one of the most revered and successful DJs in the world — a status made possible by his mother, he says. She taught him how to be authentic and daring.

“My mom gave me the freedom to be able to explore creatively,” says Aoki, 33, who spins tonight at Surrender nightclub and Monday at XS.

“When I was 13, that’s when I was introduced to punk and hardcore music. That really was the start of all my crazy feelings for music.”

He didn’t need money or music lessons, since the punk and hardcore communities are do-it-yourself movements.

“I learned how to play all the instruments by the time I was 16 with no traditional teaching,” he says. “I just liked playing with my friends.”

At age 15, he started his first music ‘zine out of a Kinkos.

In high school, he began organizing and marketing concerts for touring bands.

At 19, he started his own record label Dim Mak (a Bruce Lee reference) with $400.

And yet, when he went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, his goal wasn’t a music career. He wanted to be a lifelong academic.

So he earned degrees in women’s studies and sociology. After that, he was accepted into two Ph.D. programs.

But he ditched his doctoral plans after he listened to demos of his college bands and realized: I’ve never believed in anything as much as music.

“It changed my career path to say, ‘(Screw) it, I’m gonna do this label, even though I’m absolutely not making any money, because eventually I will. I’m willing to risk everything.’ ”

Over the next decade, Aoki became a worldwide elite DJ.

When he’s in the music studio, he doesn’t much use his college education.

“If you gave me time, I could write a thesis between feminist theory and music theory,” he says and laughs. “But I’m not gonna do that.”

However, you better believe he uses his knowledge of sociology and women’s studies to move a crowd when he’s spinning from the DJ booth.

It’s like this, he says: The whole idea of a DJ set is to create a flowing narrative that fans can follow excitedly.

He builds up each DJ set, part by part: a heavy metal electro section; a transitional section; a vocal progressive house section.

A full 90 percent of his sets are his own songs, and the rest are other DJs’ tracks from his Dim Mak record label.

“But they’re all sequenced in a certain order so it all makes sense as a story,” he says.

“The idea is you want to make sure the crowd follows you all the way to the end. It’s very much a sociological perspective.”

He also uses his collegiate wisdom as an entrepreneur — running his music label, a clothing line, a music event company and other business interests.

“I’m an economist and sociologist at heart. I’m constantly looking at how things affect people,” he says.

“It’s all about people, and how people react to marketing, and what works for them — why they buy certain things and why they don’t.”

Success is also about authenticity, “the most important trait you can have,” he says.

“If people don’t believe you, or if people don’t think you’re genuine, they’ll turn away from you.”

Besides, he asks, what’s the point of doing anything if you’re not being honest?

“When I finish a track, I believe it, and I want everyone in the world to feel that same way.”

You could say Aoki benefited genetically: His dad started the Benihana restaurant chain. But more than that, he just worked very hard at what he loved.

There have been pitfalls. Aoki’s big brain didn’t make him immune to the party atmosphere of DJing.

“I was getting drunk all the time. I could barely make my flights,” he says. “I was pretty much drunk 80 percent of the year.”

He didn’t even enjoy his boozing.

“I always drank to get drunk,” he says. “I hate vodka, so I would just swill it and skull it until I was drunk and couldn’t taste it anymore.

“Then I’d be like, ‘Holy (crap), I drank half the bottle in an hour while I was DJing.’ I’d be blackout drunk in the corner of someone’s room not knowing what was going on in my life.”

For the past couple of years, he’s been back to his “straight-ish days to keep my head clear.” He switched to green tea. Everything is working out better.

“All I care about now is stamina. I just want to stay in the game, stay busy, keep working, keep putting out music that people care about, keep putting on shows that inspire people and inspire myself, and not get too (messed up).

“I’m the turtle in the race. I’d rather just keep going and take everything slowly as it comes.”

Doug Elfman’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Email him at He blogs at

Tim Burton's imaginative artwork coming to Las Vegas
Tim Burton's imaginative artwork coming to Las Vegas (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Holiday poultry with Tim and Chemaine Jensen of Village Meat & Wine
Tim and Chemaine Jensen of Village Meat & Wine explain the different types of poultry available for the holidays. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Spring Preserve kicks off its Holiday Express
Springs Preserve hosts its Holiday Express, which includes a train ride, visits with Santa, SNOW, and a village winter wonderland.
Artists from Cirque du Soleil contribute art to Las Vegas art exhibit
Artists from Cirque du Soleil contribute art to Las Vegas gallery exhibit
Red Plate on the Las Vegas Strip serves a cocktail made with blooming jasmine tea
Red Plate on the Las Vegas Strip serves a cocktail made with jasmine tea
Benny the Ice Skating Dog
Benny is a Las Vegas Labrador who was rescued by former pro skater Cheryl Del Sanyo, and trained to ice skate. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Nevada State Museum
The Nevada State Museum of Las Vegas, located at the Springs Preserve, covers all eras of the state, from prehistoric to today.
Throw a better dinner party
Cash appears at Baseball Winter Meetings
Lights FC mascot Cash plays the electronic drums at the EZ Inflatables’ booth on Tuesday at the Baseball Winter Meetings trade show at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
5 albums to soundtrack your holiday gatherings in style
1. Various Artists, “Holidays Rule," with Rufus Wainwright, The Shins, Calexico and more. 2. Various Artists, “We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year," with Lemmy Kilmister, Alice Cooper, Chuck Billy and others. 3. Various Artists, “Christmas on Death Row," featuring Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg to name but a few. 4. Bright Eyes, “A Christmas Album.” 5. Various Artists, "The Motown Christmas Album." (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Inside the kitchen at Springs Preserve
The staff of Divine Events do party preparation in the kitchen at Divine Cafe at Springs Preserve. With nine parties the following day, this is a particularly busy time for the crew. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
WinterFest in Henderson.
Miss Rodeo America Fashion Show
The 28 women contestants of Miss Rodeo America compete in a fashion show at the Tropicana on Dec. 7, 2018.
Tournament Of Kings Holiday Show
Wizards and warriors are ready for the holidays at Excalibur's Tournament of Kings Holiday Dinner Show.
Take a dive with the Silverton mermaids
A visit to the Silverton Casino Hotel is not complete without taking in the popular, and very unique, mermaid show.
Cowboys and western aficionados can buy virtually anything at Cowboy Christmas
Vegas Golden Knights Christmas Display
In the Las Vegas Valley, the chances of getting a white Christmas are slim. But this year, you can have a “Knight” Christmas. A Henderson resident has a Christmas lights display that is synchronized to the entrance music for the Golden Knights. GG Misa’s Knights light show is played every 30 minutes from 5 to 10 nightly. His light show consists of two songs: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and the entrance music, “Le Castle Vania,” from the movie “John Wick.” The display is located at 730 Bollons Island St. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Reivew-Journal)
Holiday Hooch At El Cortez is Just in Time For Repeal Day And Christmas
Holiday Hooch At El Cortez Is Just In Time For Repeal Day And Christmas. Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal
TV's LGBT superheroes
Green Valley Ranch's Winter's Village
The Mob Museum
Best Friend Menu Reveal Wednesday
Chef Roy Choi tells us what to expect from Wednesday’s Facebook Live Menu Reveal for his new Park MGM restaurant Best Friend. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Quick Chat With Criss Angel
James D. Gish and Susan Anton rehearse
Susan Anton will be special guest at James D. Gish’s holiday concerts Dec. 7 at Summerlin Library and Dec. 9 at Clark County Library. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bellagio Winter Wonderland
"Majestic Holiday Magic" at the Bellagio Conservatory.
Underwater Santa At The Silverton
Santa takes a dive Sunday, December 2, at the Silverton Casino Hotel. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Cowabunga Bay Christmas Town
Las Vegas Natural History Museum
Las Vegas Natural History Museum, which opened in 1991, has exhibits of mechanical dinosaurs and taxidermied animals, along with live snakes, fish and sharks. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Magical Forest Lights
Cirque Du Soleil Performers Team Up For New Show "Kinekt"
Through dance, acrobatics and aerial arts, “Kinekt” tells a story all too familiar to modern families: how to maintain a human connection in the digital age. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
News Headlines
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like