Sir Roderick David Stewart, CBE (born 10 January 1945) is a British rock singer and songwriter. Born and raised in London, he is of Scottish and English ancestry. Stewart is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold over 120 million records worldwide. He has had nine number-one albums in the UK Albums Chart and his tally of 62 UK hit singles includes 31 that reached the top ten, six of which gained the #1 position. Stewart has had 16 top ten singles in the US, with four reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. He was knighted in the 2016 Birthday Honours for services to music and charity.
With his distinctive raspy singing voice, Stewart came to prominence in the late 1960s and the early 1970s with The Jeff Beck Group, and then with Faces, though his music career had begun in 1962 when he took up busking with a harmonica. In October 1963, he joined The Dimensions as a harmonica player and part-time vocalist. In 1964, Stewart joined Long John Baldry and the All Stars, and in August, Stewart signed a solo contract, releasing his first single, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl“, in October. He maintained a solo career alongside a group career, releasing his debut solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down in 1969. Stewart’s early albums were a fusion of rock, folk music, soul music, and R&B.
From the late 1970s through the 1990s, Stewart’s music often took on a new wave or soft rock/middle-of-the-road quality, and in the early 2000s, he released a series of successful albums interpreting the Great American Songbook. In 1994, Stewart staged the largest free rock concert in history when he performed in front of 3.5 million people in Rio de Janeiro.
In 2008, Billboard magazine ranked him the 17th most successful artist on the “Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Artists”. A Grammy and Brit Award recipient, he was voted at #33 in Q Magazine‘s list of the Top 100 Greatest Singers of all time, and #59 on Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Singers of all time. As a solo artist, Stewart was inducted into the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2006, and was inducted a second time into the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 as a member of Faces.
The family were also great fans of the singer Al Jolson and would sing and play his hits. Stewart collected his records and saw his films, read books about him, and was influenced by his performing style and attitude towards his audience. His introduction to rock and roll was hearing Little Richard‘s 1956 hit “The Girl Can’t Help It“, and seeing Bill Haley & His Comets in concert. His father bought him a guitar in January 1959; the first song he learned was the folk tune “It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song”; the first record he bought was Eddie Cochran‘s “C’mon Everybody“. In 1960, he joined a skiffle group with schoolfriends called the Kool Kats, playing Lonnie Donegan and Chas McDevitt hits.
Stewart left school at age 15 and worked briefly as a silk screen printer. Spurred on by his father, his ambition was to become a professional footballer. In summer 1960, he went for trials at Brentford F.C., a Third Division club at the time. Contrary to some longstanding accounts, Stewart states in his 2012 autobiography that he was never signed to the club and that the club never called him back after his trials.[nb 2] In any case, regarding possible career options, Stewart concluded, “Well, a musician’s life is a lot easier and I can also get drunk and make music, and I can’t do that and play football. I plumped for music … They’re the only two things I can do actually: play football and sing.”
1961–1963: Early work and The Dimensions
Stewart worked in the family shop and as a newspaper delivery boy. He then worked briefly as a labourer for Highgate Cemetery, which became another part of his biographical lore.[nb 3] He worked in a North Finchley funeral parlour and as a fence erector and sign writer. In 1961 he went to Denmark Street with The Raiders and got a singing audition with well-known record producer Joe Meek, but Meek stopped the session with a rude sound. Stewart began listening to British and American topical folk artists such as Ewan MacColl, Alex Campbell, Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and especially Derroll Adams and the debut album of Bob Dylan.
Stewart became attracted to beatnik attitudes and left-wing politics, living for a while in a beatnik houseboat at Shoreham-by-Sea. He was an active supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at this time, joining the annual Aldermaston Marches from 1961 to 1963 and being arrested on three occasions when he took part in sit-ins at Trafalgar Square and Whitehall for the cause. He also used the marches as a way to meet and bed girls. In 1962 he had his first serious relationship, with London art student Suzannah Boffey (a friend of future model and actress Chrissie Shrimpton); he moved to a bed-sit in Muswell Hill to be near her. She became pregnant, but neither Rod nor his family wanted him to enter marriage; the baby girl was given up for adoption and Rod and Suzannah’s relationship ended.
In 1962, Stewart began hanging around folk singer Wizz Jones, busking at Leicester Square and other London spots. Stewart took up playing the then-fashionable harmonica. On several trips over the next 18 months Jones and Stewart took their act to Brighton and then to Paris, sleeping under bridges over the River Seine, and then finally to Barcelona. Eventually, this resulted in Stewart being rounded up and deported from Spain for vagrancy during 1963. At this time, Stewart, who had been at William Grimshaw School with three of their members, was briefly considered as singer for the embryonic Kinks.
In 1963, Stewart adopted the Mod lifestyle and look, and began fashioning the spiky rooster hairstyle that would become his trademark. (It was made possible with sugar water or large amounts of his sisters’ hair lacquer, backcombing, and his hands holding it in place to protect it from the winds of the Highgate Underground station.) Disillusioned by rock and roll, he saw Otis Redding perform in concert and began listening to Sam Cooke records; he became fascinated by rhythm and blues and soul music.
After returning to London, Stewart joined a rhythm and blues group, the Dimensions, in October 1963 as a harmonica player and part-time vocalist. It was his first professional job as a musician, although Stewart was still living at home and working in his brother’s painting and picture frame shop. A somewhat more established singer from Birmingham, Jimmy Powell, then hired the group a few weeks later, and it became known as Jimmy Powell & the Five Dimensions, with Stewart being relegated to harmonica player. The group performed weekly at the famed Studio 51 club on Great Newport Street in London, where The Rolling Stones often headlined; this was Stewart’s entrée into the thriving London R & B scene, and his harmonica playing improved in part from watching Mick Jagger on stage. Relations soon broke down between Powell and Stewart over roles within the group and Stewart departed. Contrary to popular legend, during this time Stewart likely did not play harmonica on Millie Small‘s 1964 hit “My Boy Lollipop“. That was probably Peter Hogman of the Dimensions, although Powell has also claimed credit. Powell did record and release a single during this period, though Stewart did not appear on it.
1964–67: Steampacket and “Rod the Mod” image
In January 1964,[nb 4] while Stewart was waiting at Twickenham railway station after having seen Long John Baldry and the All Stars at Eel Pie Island, Baldry heard him playing “Smokestack Lightnin’” on his harmonica, and invited him to sit in with the group (which passed into his hands and was renamed the Hoochie Coochie Men when Cyril Davies died of endocarditis on 7 January); when Baldry discovered Stewart was a singer as well, he offered him a job for £35 a week, after securing the approval of Stewart’s mother. Quitting his day job at the age of nineteen, Stewart gradually overcame his shyness and nerves and became a visible enough part of the act that he was sometimes added to the billing as “Rod the Mod” Stewart, the nickname coming from his dandyish style of grooming and dress. Baldry touted Stewart’s abilities to Melody Maker magazine and the group enjoyed a weekly residence at London’s fabled Marquee Club. In June 1964, Stewart made his recording début (without label credit) on “Up Above My Head“, the B-side to a Baldry and Hoochie Coochie Men single. While still with Baldry, Stewart embarked on a simultaneous solo career. He made some demo recordings,[nb 5] was scouted by Decca Records at the Marquee Club, and signed to a solo contract in August 1964. He appeared on several regional television shows around the country and recorded his first single in September 1964.
Turning down Decca’s recommended material as too commercial, Stewart insisted that the experienced session musicians he was given, including John Paul Jones, learn a couple of Sonny Boy Williamson songs he had just heard. The resulting single, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl“, was recorded released in October 1964; despite Stewart performing it on the popular television show Ready Steady Go!, it failed to enter the charts. Also in October Stewart left the Hoochie Coochie Men after having a row with Baldry.
Stewart played some dates on his own in late 1964 and early 1965, sometimes backed by the Southampton R & B outfit The Soul Agents. The Hoochie Coochie Men broke up, Baldry and Stewart patched up their differences (and indeed became lifelong friends), and legendary impresario Giorgio Gomelsky put together Steampacket, which featured Baldry, Stewart, Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll, Micky Waller, Vic Briggs and Ricky Fenson; their first appearance was in support of The Rolling Stones in July 1965. The group was conceived as a white soul revue, analogous to The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, with multiple vocalists and styles ranging from jazz to R & B to blues. Steampacket toured with the Stones and The Walker Brothers that summer, ending in the London Palladium; seeing the audience react to the Stones gave Stewart his first exposure to crowd hysteria. Stewart, who had been included in the group upon Baldry’s insistence, ended up with most of the male vocal parts. Steampacket was unable to enter the studio to record any material due to its members all belonging to different labels and managers, although Gomelsky did record one of their Marquee Club rehearsals.[nb 6]
Stewart’s “Rod the Mod” image gained wider visibility in November 1965, when he was the subject of a 30-minute Rediffusion, London television documentary titled “An Easter with Rod” that portrayed the Mod scene. His parallel solo career attempts continued on EMI‘s Columbia label with the November 1965 release of “The Day Will Come”, a more heavily arranged pop attempt, and the April 1966 release of his take on Sam Cooke‘s “Shake“, with the Brian Auger Trinity. Both failed commercially and neither gained positive notices. Stewart had spent the better part of two years listening mostly to Cooke; he later said, “I didn’t sound like anybody at all … but I knew I sounded a bit like Sam Cooke, so I listened to Sam Cooke.” This recording solidified that singer’s position as Stewart’s idol and most enduring influence; he called it a “crossing of the water.”
Stewart departed from Steampacket in March 1966, with Stewart saying he had been sacked and Auger saying he had quit. Stewart then joined a somewhat similar outfit, Shotgun Express, in May 1966 as co-lead vocalist with Beryl Marsden. The other members included Mick Fleetwood and Peter Green (who would go on to form Fleetwood Mac), and Peter Bardens. Shotgun Express released one unsuccessful single in October 1966, the orchestra-heavy “I Could Feel The Whole World Turn Round”, before disbanding. Stewart later disparaged Shotgun Express as a poor imitation of Steampacket, and said “I was still getting this terrible feeling of doing other people’s music. I think you can only start finding yourself when you write your own material.” By now, Stewart had bounced around without achieving much success, with little to distinguish himself among other aspiring London singers other than the emerging rasp in his voice.
1967–69: Jeff Beck Group period
Guitarist Jeff Beck recruited Stewart for his new post-Yardbirds venture, and in February 1967, Stewart joined the Jeff Beck Group as vocalist and sometime songwriter. This would become the big break of his early career. There he first played with Ronnie Wood whom he had first met in a London pub in 1964; the two soon became fast friends. During its first year, the group experienced frequent changes of drummers and conflicts involving manager Mickie Most wanting to reduce Stewart’s role; they toured the UK, and released a couple of singles that featured Stewart on their B-sides. Stewart’s sputtering solo career also continued, with the March 1968 release of non-hit “Little Miss Understood” on Immediate Records.
The Jeff Beck Group toured Western Europe in spring 1968, recorded, and were nearly destitute; then assistant manager Peter Grant booked them on a six-week tour of the United States starting in June 1968 with the Fillmore East in New York. Stewart, on his first trip to America, suffered terrible stage fright during the opening show and hid behind the amplifier banks while singing; only a quick shot of brandy brought him out front. Nevertheless, the show and the tour were a big success, with Robert Shelton of The New York Times calling the group exciting and praising “the interaction of Mr. Beck’s wild and visionary guitar against the hoarse and insistent shouting of Rod Stewart,” and New Musical Express reporting that the group was receiving standing ovations and pulling receipts equal to those of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.
In August 1968, their first album Truth was released; by October it had risen to number 15 on the US albums chart but failed to chart in the UK. The album featured Beck’s masterly guitar technique and manipulated sounds as Stewart’s dramatic vocalising tackled the group’s varied repertoire of blues, folk, rock, and proto-heavy metal. Stewart also co-wrote three of the songs, and credited the record for helping to develop his vocal abilities and the sandpaper quality in his voice. The group toured America again at the end of the year to a very strong reception, then suffered from more personnel upheaval (something that would continue throughout Beck’s career). In July 1969, Stewart left, following his friend Wood’s departure. Stewart later recalled: “It was a great band to sing with but I couldn’t take all the aggravation and unfriendliness that developed…. In the two and a half years I was with Beck I never once looked him in the eye – I always looked at his shirt or something like that.”
The group’s second album, Beck-Ola, was released in June 1969 in the US and September 1969 in the UK, bracketing the time the group was dissolving; it also made number 15 in the US albums chart and placed to number 39 in the UK albums chart. During his time with the group, Stewart initially felt overmatched by Beck’s presence, and his style was still developing; but later Stewart felt the two developed a strong musical, if not personal, rapport. Much of Stewart’s sense of phrasing was developed during his time with the Jeff Beck Group. Beck sought to form a new supergroup with Carmine Appice and Tim Bogert (of the similarly just-breaking-up Vanilla Fudge) joining him and Stewart, but Stewart had other plans.
1969–75: Solo career established and Faces albums
Mercury Records A&R man Lou Reizner had seen Stewart perform with Beck, and on 8 October 1968 signed him to a solo contract; but contractual complexities delayed Stewart’s recording for him until July 1969. Meanwhile, in May 1969, guitarist and singer Steve Marriott left English band The Small Faces. Ron Wood was announced as the replacement guitarist in June and on 18 October 1969, Stewart followed his friend and was announced as their new singer. The two joined existing members Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan, and Kenney Jones, who soon decided to call the new line-up Faces.
An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down became Stewart’s first solo album in 1969 (it was known as The Rod Stewart Album in the US). It established the template for his solo sound: a heartfelt mixture of folk, rock, and country blues, inclusive of a British working-class sensibility, with both original material (“Cindy’s Lament” and the title song) and cover versions (Ewan MacColl‘s “Dirty Old Town” and Mike d’Abo‘s “Handbags and Gladrags“). The backing band on the album included Wood, Waller and McLagan, plus Keith Emerson and guitarists Martin Pugh (of Steamhammer, and later Armageddon and 7th Order) and Martin Quittenton (also from Steamhammer).
Faces released their début album First Step in early 1970 with a rock and roll style similar to the Rolling Stones. While the album did better in the UK than in the US, the Faces quickly earned a strong live following. Stewart released his second album, Gasoline Alley that autumn. Stewart’s approach was similar to his first album and mandolin was introduced into the sound. He then launched a US tour with the Faces. Stewart sang guest vocals for the Australian group Python Lee Jackson on “In a Broken Dream”, recorded in April 1969 but not released until 1970. His payment was a set of seat covers for his car. It was re-released in 1972 to become a worldwide hit.
Stewart’s 1971 solo album Every Picture Tells a Story made him a household name when the B-side of his minor hit “Reason to Believe”, “Maggie May”, (co-written with Martin Quittenton) started receiving radio play. The album and the single occupied number one in both the US and the UK simultaneously, a chart first, in September. Set off by a striking mandolin part (by Ray Jackson of Lindisfarne), “Maggie May” was also named in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, one of three songs by him to appear on that list. The rest of the album was equally strong, with “Mandolin Wind” again showcasing that instrument; “(I Know) I’m Losing You” adding hard-edged soul to the mix; and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, a cover of a Bob Dylan song. But the ultimate manifestation of the early Stewart solo style was the Stewart-Wood-penned “Every Picture Tells a Story” itself: powered by Mick Waller’s drumming, Pete Sears’s piano and Wood’s guitar work in a largely acoustic arrangement; it is a song relating to the picaresque adventures of the singer.
The second Faces album, Long Player, was released in early 1971 and enjoyed greater chart success than First Step. Faces also got their only US Top 40 hit with “Stay With Me” from their third album A Nod Is as Good as a Wink…To a Blind Horse released in late 1971. This album reached the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic on the back of the success of Every Picture Tells A Story. Steve Jones from The Sex Pistols regarded the Faces very highly and named them as a main influence on the British punk rock movement.
The Faces toured extensively in 1972 with growing tension in the band over Stewart’s solo career enjoying more success than the band’s. Stewart released Never a Dull Moment in the same year. Repeating the Every Picture formula, for the most part, it reached number two on the US album charts and number one in the UK, and enjoyed further good notices from reviewers. “You Wear It Well” was a hit single that reached number 13 in the US and went to number one in the UK, while “Twisting the Night Away” made explicit Stewart’s debt to Sam Cooke.
For the body of his early solo work Stewart earned tremendous critical praise. Rolling Stone’s 1980 Illustrated History of Rock & Roll includes this in its Stewart entry:
Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely. Once the most compassionate presence in music, he has become a bilious self-parody – and sells more records than ever [… A] writer who offered profound lyricism and fabulous self-deprecating humour, teller of tall tales and honest heartbreaker, he had an unmatched eye for the tiny details around which lives turn, shatter, and reform […] and a voice to make those details indelible. [… His solo albums] were defined by two special qualities: warmth, which was redemptive, and modesty, which was liberating. If ever any rocker chose the role of everyman and lived up to it, it was Rod Stewart.
The Faces released their final album Ooh La La, which reached number one in the UK and number 21 in the US in 1973. During the recording of the album, the rift between Stewart and the rest of the Faces grew further, as (according to Ian McLagan), Stewart didn’t participate until two weeks into the sessions, “and then complained that some songs were in the wrong key for him. So we recorded them again and waited a week for him to come back. We cut the track for ‘Ooh La La’ three times before he eventually passed on it, leaving it for Woody to sing. […] The week the album came out he did all he could to scuttle it and told anyone who would listen how useless it was.”. The band toured Australasia, Japan, Europe and the UK in 1974 to support the album and the single “Pool Hall Richard”.
In late 1974, Stewart released his Smiler album. In Britain, it reached number one, and the single “Farewell” number seven, but only number 13 on the Billboard pop album charts and the single “Mine for Me” only number 91 on the Billboard pop singles charts. It was his last original album for Mercury Records. After the release of the double album compilation The Best of Rod Stewart he switched to Warner Bros. Records and remained with them throughout the vast majority of his career (Faces were signed to Warner Bros., and Stewart’s solo releases in the UK appeared on the Riva label until 1981). In 1975, Faces toured the US twice (with Ronnie Wood joining The Rolling Stones‘ US tour in between) before Stewart announced the Faces’ break-up at the end of the year.
1975–88: Height of fame and critical reaction
In 1975, Stewart moved to Los Angeles. He released the Atlantic Crossing album for his new record company, using producer Tom Dowd and a different sound based on the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Atlantic Crossing marked both a return to form and a return to the Top 10 of the Billboard album charts. The first single, a cover of the Sutherland Brothers song “Sailing“, was a number-one hit in the UK, but it only reached the Top 60 of the US charts. The single returned to the UK Top 10 a year later when used as the theme music for a BBC documentary series about HMS Ark Royal. Having been a hit twice over, “Sailing” became, and remains, Stewart’s biggest-selling single in the UK. His Holland-Dozier-Holland cover “This Old Heart of Mine” was also a Top 100 hit in 1976. In 1976 Stewart covered The Beatles‘ song “Get Back” for the musical documentary All This and World War II.
Later in 1976, Stewart topped the US Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks and the Australian ARIA chart with the ballad “Tonight’s the Night“, with an accompanying music video featuring actress Britt Ekland. It came from the A Night on the Town album, which went to number two on the Billboard album charts and was Stewart’s first album to go platinum. By explicitly marking the album as having a “fast side” and a “slow side”, Stewart continued the trend started by Atlantic Crossing. “The First Cut Is the Deepest“, a cover of a Cat Stevens song, went number one in the UK in 1977, and top 30 in the US. “The Killing of Georgie (Part 1 and 2)”, about the murder of a gay man, was also a Top 40 hit for Stewart during 1977.
Foot Loose & Fancy Free (1977) featured Stewart’s own band, the original Rod Stewart Group that featured Carmine Appice, Phil Chen, Jim Cregan, Billy Peek, Gary Grainger and John Jarvis. It continued Stewart’s run of chart success, reaching number two. “You’re in my Heart” was the hit single, reaching number four in the US.
“Hot Legs” achieved a lot of radio airplay as did the confessional “I Was Only Joking“. In appearance, Stewart’s look had evolved to include a glam element, including make-up and spandex clothes. Stewart scored another UK number one and US number one single with “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?“, which was a crossover hit reaching number five on the Billboard black charts due to its disco sound. This was the lead single from 1978’s Blondes Have More Fun, which went to number one on the Billboard album charts and sold 3 million albums.
In May 2000, Stewart was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, for which he underwent surgery in the same month. It had been previously reported he suffered from a benign vocal cord nodule. Besides being a major health scare, the resulting surgery also threatened his voice, and he had to re-learn how to sing. Since then he has been active in raising funds for The City of Hope Foundation charity to find cures for all forms of cancer, especially those affecting children. In September 2019, Stewart revealed that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2017, and has been given the all-clear after treatment.
Before returning to the UK, Stewart played for his LA Exiles team made up of mostly English expatriates plus a few celebrities, including Billy Duffy of The Cult, in a senior soccer league in Palos Verdes, California.
Despite his father being a supporter of Hibernian, Stewart is a supporter of Celtic, which he mentions in “You’re in My Heart“. He supports the Scotland national team and follows Manchester United as his English side, and he explains his love affair with both Celtic and Manchester United in Frank Worrall’s book, Celtic United. Stewart clarifies this more in his 2012 book (pp 163–64), Rod: The Autobiography, mentioning he “only had an attachment to Manchester United in the 1970s, but that was because they had so many great Scottish players in the 1970s, including Denis Law … When I did eventually click with a team, it was Celtic”. He presented Celtic with the trophy after they won the 2015 Scottish League Cup Final.
Stewart is a model railway enthusiast. His 23 ft × 124 ft (7.0 m × 37.8 m) HO scale layout in his Los Angeles home is modelled after the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads during the 1940s. Called the Three Rivers City, the layout was featured in the cover story of the December 2007, December 2010, February 2014, and June 2017 issues of Model Railroader magazine. In the 2007 article, Stewart said that it meant more to him to be in a model railroad magazine than a music magazine. The layout, which has a mainline run of 900 ft (270 m), uses code 70 flextrack and a Digital Command Control (DCC) system made by Digitrax. Stewart has a second, smaller layout at his UK home, based on Britain’s East Coast Main Line. In a sidebar to the 2014 Model Railroader article, Stewart admitted (in an anecdote about his having unwittingly mixed red scenery texturing material into a “turf” mix he used around the bases of buildings) that he is colour-blind.
A car collector, Stewart owns one of the 400 Ferrari Enzos. In 1982, Stewart was car-jacked on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard while he was parking his $50,000 Porsche. The car was subsequently recovered.
In September 2002, Stewart’s son, Sean, was sentenced to three months in jail for attacking a man outside a restaurant in Los Angeles. Sean Stewart was also required to pay compensation and to attend anger management, drug and alcohol treatment courses.
Rod Stewart was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2007 New Year Honours for services to music. Collecting it in July 2007 at Buckingham Palace, Stewart commented: “It’s a marvellous occasion. We’re the only country in the world to honour the common man.” He was knighted in the 2016 Birthday Honours for “services to music and charity”.
Deep inside a hilltop hideaway on the outskirts of Las Vegas, an elusive engine of perpetual motion thrums to a beat: not in mechanical form, but in the person of Steve Aoki. The 41-year-old DJ has just returned to his high-desert lair after a gig in Houston, one of 200-plus shows he’s played over the past year. Aoki celebrates being home by diving into a pit full of blue foam cubes in his basement for a moment—but only a moment—before heading back to his studio.
“As long as my train is moving and the momentum is going, I’m good,” Aoki says. “And because I know that, I don’t stop. Because the second I do this and I’m like, ‘I’m just going to chill,’ someone else is going to jump on my train and start driving.”
Thanks to his insatiable appetite for performing—as well as his music and fashion ventures, plus endorsements with Samsung, Diesel and the airline ANA—Aoki ranks No. 4 on Forbes’ annual list of highest-paid DJs, pulling in $30 million pretax over the past 12 months. He has built an empire on more than just cash earnings: Aoki’s realm includes the record label Dim Mak; a museum-level collection of art in his home, including works by Kaws and Banksy; investments in clothing (Vision Street Wear) and esports (Rogue); and stakes in companies from Uber to SpaceX.
As his career took off in the early aughts, Aoki found himself spending only 50 days a year at his $1.1 million, 3,000-square-foot-home in the Hollywood Hills. So at the end of 2013, around the time he inked a residency deal at Hakkasan in Las Vegas, he made the move to Sin City. Aoki bought his current, 16,000-square-foot mansion for $2.8 million in an all-cash short sale—though it would take more than that to complete his dream house.
“It wasn’t like a custom home where I could just step in and I’m like, ‘Okay, everything’s here, I don’t need to worry about anything.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have a choice, I have to, so let’s get crazy,’” he says—and he shelled out $5 million to remake the property to his exact specifications. Now? “It’s like my brain is this house.”
Welcome to Aoki’s Playhouse—welcome to his brain.
Long before he became an electronic cash king, Aoki spent a summer as a teenager peeling onions at Benihana in Dallas—his father, Rocky Aoki, founded the restaurant chain in 1964. Though the younger Aoki soon realized that his passion lay in music, his experience provided a valuable entrepreneurial foundation.
“You can’t just go from zero to 100 just because your dad owns the business. You’re going to ruin the whole business,” he says. “The very important lesson for me is that you have to have the discipline to learn all the different facets.”
When Aoki founded Dim Mak in 1996, he did exactly that, involving himself in everything from visiting vinyl pressing houses and negotiating with distributors to keeping the books and spending time in the studio with his artists. He went on to boost acts like the Kills and Bloc Party before releasing his solo debut, Wonderland, in 2012, just in time to catch the electronic dance music (EDM) wave as it washed across the United States.
“Before then, people were just going into these clubs, the DJ was hidden in the back corner,” Aoki recalls. “But when that shift happened where you went to the club to see the DJ … that was a critical change
Steve Aoki’s very first job had nothing to do with Dim Mak or Benihana: as a 10-year-old he sold hats at a Southern California flea market on weekends. “I only worked there one day,” he says. “I was awful selling hats. [My boss] just was like, ‘Here’s 20 bucks—get out of here.’”
For his next gig, Aoki worked at a video game arcade—a passion that lingers to this day. A self-proclaimed Street Fighter junkie before graduating to three-dimensional games, Aoki was a founding partner of the esports team Rogue in 2016 before selling a chunk of his stake to industry giant ReKTGlobal last year (neither Aoki nor the company would discuss figures).
His investment also proved to be an incredible cheat code for new games that capture his attention. “I invite team Rogue over here so they can help beat very difficult bosses,” he says.
Rogue is one of many business ventures into which Aoki has plowed the fruits of his musical labor—$155 million before taxes over the past seven years, by Forbes’ estimate. He also boasts an expansive portfolio of startups and has poured additional resources into his clothing brand, which shares the name of his record label. Launched in 2014, Dim Mak is equal parts Los Angeles skater punk and high fashion, with a touch of kung fu tossed in: Its namesake is the signature move of Bruce Lee, a childhood hero of Aoki.
One of the first things you see when you walk into Aoki’s Playhouse is his giant Banksy installation: a python, perhaps a dozen feet long, that appears to have swallowed Mickey Mouse whole. The piece debuted at Banksy’s Dismaland, a dystopian theme park exhibition staged in the United Kingdom four years ago, before Aoki purchased it and brought it to his living room. It’s part of a vast collection that’s easily worth millions, though some pieces, like the two-headed monster mural by Los Angeles artist Neck Face isn’t exactly a liquid asset. No matter: “I’m not moving,” he says. “This is my home.”
Behind the Banksy in his living room, floor-to-ceiling windows open up onto a golf course far below—and beyond that, the shimmer of the Las Vegas skyline—which Aoki will soon soar over in a helicopter en route to his headlining set at Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), the annual EDM festival attended by nearly 500,000 people this year. He’s still one of the biggest attractions in a lineup that includes dozens of DJs, including twentysomething stars like Alesso and Martin Garrix.
“Steve’s longevity is a function of being to adapt to changing tastes while broadening out his demos,” says Randy Phillips, chief of the EDM festival company LiveStyle. “He also has that star personality which resonates well in the age of social media.”
The morning after EDC, Aoki rolls into the convention center at Planet Hollywood on the Vegas Strip, right on time for a comic book signing. Never mind that he didn’t get home until well after three o’clock in the morning—and promptly went back into his studio to work on more music—there’s a bionic sort of energy to him. “I’m not sure how much sleep he’s on right now,” says his manager, Dougie Bohay. “But it’s not a lot.”
And he’s already focusing on his next big project—early next year, Aoki will release his next album, Neon Future IV. Not that he needs the money.
“At the end of the day, besides having whatever I have in the bank or whatever great investments I’ve worked, the things I create and that I offer to people, that is where I feel the most appreciation about my purpose of life,” Aoki says. “I want to have the appreciation. I’m always yearning for it.”
Photographs by Jamel Toppin for Forbes
As technology moves the world at ever greater speeds and artificial intelligence becomes the electricity of the twenty first century, engineers are revered, and STEM subjects encouraged. At times, this comes at the cost of art and the human element. A computer science graduate is currently guaranteed to find a well-paying job, whereas a liberal arts graduate may find it harder.
Yet the most interesting people I know have diverse tastes and are Renaissance men and women. In the Renaissance, it was a mark of prestige to have an understanding of the arts, and the sciences, to speak several languages and have creative pursuits. As well as beheading his wives and periodically invading France, Henry VIII also wrote sonnets.
The arts, whether visual, theatre or music, give us an understanding of the human condition, which is universal and eternal. While the way we communicate has changed, what we want to say has not. The child of an egotistic parent will recognize King Lear’s selfishness and anyone who has ever been in love will identify with the tenderness of Rodin’s The Kiss.
The end user of every product is human, whether that product is software, a dress or a book. A narrow focus on product or financial metrics, which dismisses the human element, is unlikely to create something lasting.
Noble.AI, a California-based company which makes artificial intelligence to enable faster and cheaper research and development for the likes of Boeing, is predictably full of engineers. Less predictable is the fact that around a quarter of its staff are artists and designers. Dr Matthew Levy, CEO and founder of Noble.AI, says that his emphasis on aesthetics means that the products they make have to be beautiful and pleasing to use, as well as technologically advanced. “I don’t think our products could be successful if we didn’t think about how people would be interacting with them. The people who use our products are human and they have a wide range of interests, so it is important not to have a narrow focus.”
Levy says that it takes a conscious effort to bring diverse viewpoints together and avoid the risk of sitting in your own bubble. As recent events have shown us, it is easy to submerge oneself into an echo-chamber of reinforcing beliefs. Levy is inspired by Steve Jobs, who revered artists and put beautiful design at the heart of Apple.
Levy suggests that if you want to be a first-rate engineer, focus on engineering, but if you want to be an entrepreneur, develop your wider interests. “Allow yourself time to dive into that interest. I guarantee there will be connections you’ve never anticipated when you started out on that journey.”
In fact, this is how Levy and I met. We were both at the beginning of our entrepreneurial journeys and were working from Second Home, a workspace known for its creative approach. Spanish architects SelgasCano designed an environment so beautiful and unique, that it inevitably drew companies to whom aesthetics were important. I run a fashion tech company, so this was a simple choice for me, but I was surprised by how much design mattered to my frontier technology innovating neighbors.
An artistic interest also engages the brain in a way that day to day business does not. Marianne Moore, paints as a balance to running her company. Moore’s consultancy, Justice Studio, advises charities, NGOs and governments on how to bring social equality into their work. She travels the world advising on some of the world’s toughest issues, which is an inevitably stressful job. Moore sees her painting as a counterweight to this work because it is indulgence in beauty for beauty’s sake.
Moore says creating art and creating a company are extensions of the same trait: seeing an idea in your head and then making it come to life. Yet, despite painting since her teens, Moore only recently opened up about her combined life as an artist and an entrepreneur. “People want to put you in a box and if you are straddling different things, they find it hard to define you. Society now tells you to be one thing or the other thing.” Today, Moore says she is a “creatrix of art and companies”. For those unfamiliar with the term creatrix, it is the feminine of creator.