While most know Steve Aoki for his high-octane EDM shows and cake-throwing antics, the deejay has a famous family — and a complicated relationship with his late father, which he stayed mum about for years.
The new Netflix documentary I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead chronicles Aoki’s journey from painful childhood to megaproducer.
“This documentary is different for me. I’m okay to share a lot of my life, but then I opened up about this other side of my life that I very rarely talk about, even personally,” Aoki, 38, tells PEOPLE.
Indeed, the movie — filmed over the past three years — delves into the pressures Aoki has put on himself for years to measure up to his father’s success. His dad, Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, moved from Japan to the U.S., where he went on to become a nationally revered wrestler (in 1995, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame) and founded the popular teppanyaki chain Benihana in 1964 before dying at the age of 69 in 2008.
“It was almost like a therapy session,” Aoki — who only saw the movie once, in April — says of talking about his sometimes strained relationship with his father. “I think it’s maybe good for me to watch it again, just to go through the process of living up to the expectations my father had. It’s a difficult time to go through, [re-]watching him [onscreen up until] when he died.”
Even so, the musician was nervous to share the documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, on such a public platform.
“When I realized that that side of my life was going to be completely exposed, I started freaking out,” he says. “The day before it dropped, I couldn’t sleep: I was having a panic attack. I almost didn’t want it to come out.”
Today, though, Aoki has no regrets sharing his family’s story.
“That parallel, that father-son story, is a story that doesn’t really get talked about too much, and it’s difficult to talk about, especially when you have a father that passed away before they could see something happen,” he says. “Just to be able to have given an homage to my dad and share his incredible story of coming to this country and having difficult times — being Asian in America and climbing through and beating the system.”
Unofficially dubbed the hardest-working deejay in the industry, Aoki is keeping busy today, and it’s safe to say his father would be proud of his efforts: This year, he ranked No. 5 on Forbes‘ list of highest-grossing electronic artists, and he holds residencies at Las Vegas clubs Hakkasan, Omnia and Wet Republic.
Though his father hasn’t been able to see the legacy Aoki’s built for himself, the producer believes his dad would have seen his first major festival set as a career turning point.
“For me, it was when I played Coachella in 2007,” he says. “I was the first deejay to play the stage, and it was half-full. But to me, I was like, ‘I’m onstage! This is Coachella!’ That was a really big moment from me: I went from playing little clubs — sometimes there’s only 45 people there, or less — and to go on that stage? It was pretty epic.”
With tens to hundreds of engagements expected in the next year, the I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead subject has one other milestone to celebrate in the coming months: His one-year anniversary with wife Tiernan Cowling, 25, whom he married last December.
As for starting a family of his own?
“Yeah, at some point,” Aoki says. “I’m in no rush right now. I’ve got some time.”