TOKiMONSTA makes story-telling beats. Her own story includes beating a life-threatening disease.
“I've always wanted my live shows to be like one long story that weaves in and out of the songs,” says Jennifer Lee over the phone from a saloon-themed hotel in Tucson, Arizona. “You're kind of on this road together, seeing where it will take you.” The Los Angeles producer, better known as TOKiMONSTA, does indeed tell sweeping sonic tales: listening to her newer work is like being led through a purple-red-hued, cloud-drenched adventure at dusk. Her influences are far-reaching — hip-hop, R&B, experimental electronic, classical, K-pop — from which she conjures striking instrumentals. Her specialty are beats forged from calming drums, floating piano and synth chords, and gentle, almost-tickling string sounds. They're the kinds of songs you want to melt into, or be whisked away by on the dance floor.
For nearly a decade, TOKiMONSTA has been working non-stop. After getting her start making beats in her doom room, Lee released her first project on the Flying Lotus-helmed label Brainfeeder in 2010, released an album with Ultra in 2013, started her own label, Young Art Records, in 2014, and notched up a ton of collaborations with artists including Anderson. Paak — all the while touring and dropping new projects and EPs at a consistent rate. Which is why it came as a surprise to many earlier this month when Lee opened up about her battle with the rare and life-threatening brain disease Moyamoya. A two-part brain surgery was the only option for recovery: Lee took her chances in January 2016 and beat the disease, but faced several months of intense rehabilitation. It was “kind of like riding a bike” she said of her recovery experience. “It's not like I forgot how, I just have to get back on and try it out.”
As soon as she was able, Lee jumped back into making music, but it wasn’t easy. “I'm trying but this sounds like trash beats,” she said of her early attempts. “I just gave myself time and eventually it came back. The next attempts at making music ended up being the first song that ended up on my new album.” That album, entitled Lune Rouge and due out October 6, is comprised entirely of songs created post-surgery. She describes the album as one that is uncompromisingly her, and carries the “zest and brightness” she knew herself to have in her early days as a producer.
Below, TOKiMONSTA dives deep into her musical beginnings, and details her journey from an insular beatmaker to a full-fledged sonic storyteller, who's no stranger to the main stage.
Where did you grow up? What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in Torrance, California which is [part of] the greater L.A. area. Torrance is cool — it's not super exciting, it's definitely a suburb. People raise their kids there. There's not much else there as far as culture — you're so close to Los Angeles that you typically just drive out there.
I was raised by mostly by my mother. She was a really hard-working woman who was a really great provider. She had her own small business that she owned, so for the most part growing up, I was left to my own devices. A lot of my childhood was spent playing with friends, watching TV, and picking up my own hobbies. Pretty humble. Really normal, particularly boring, maybe.
There's not a single person in my family that's into music beyond just casually listening to it. My mom doesn't even listen to music. If I'm ever in the car with her and she has something on the radio it's either a preacher doing a sermon, or news. Not to say at some point in her life she had some interest in music, but she wasn't particularly inclined to be a super music nerd. Neither is my sister, or my extended family. My mom really likes K-pop, but not enough to listen to it — she knows a lot about Korean pop musicians, but I don't know if she really listens to them. My dad passed away when I was about two, and I don't have any particular memories of him, but apparently he was a bit more musical and I have very few relics from him because he passed away when I was so young. I have a harmonica so I'm assuming he knew how to play it, and he left me a lot of really cool records.
When did music enter your sphere? I know you played piano, but were you into music before that began, or outside of that?
I guess my first introduction to music was through piano lessons. I was so young when I started, about 6 years old, and I didn't really know much about music at the time. Through those lessons I learned about classical music, and from there was a big expansion — I learned through the radio, or kids at school telling me about these other bands. Then it became more self-exploration. Piano was definitely more imposed on me, as it is with many kids when you're little. I'm sure there are kids out there who are meant to be classical prodigies and they seek it out, but that definitely wasn't me. But I'm really grateful. I think at the beginning I kind of resented piano lessons because I didn't like to practice, but, I'm glad I can tell my mom “thank you” for that.
What are your earliest musical memories, outside of classical piano lessons?
I was super little, but the kids at my school were really into Green Day, their album Dookie, and really early Blink 182 albums — basically those two bands were my very early introduction to music that was outside of classical and church music. Soon after that was when I got a Walkman or something, and that's when I started discovering rap and hip-hop. My friend's older siblings were also listening to very early versions of K-Pop. Aesthetically, if you listen to Korean pop music versus American pop music, it's very extreme in its own kind of way. Once I hit the AOL vibes, and Napster and shit, I went really heavy into discovery and went searching to find other things that I liked. The early [rap] I remember listening to was mostly west coast. The first things I would hear were more along the lines of Westside Connection, Ice Cube, maybe DJ Quik, things like that. There's also this phase in my discovery of music where I also went back and looked into stuff that I didn't listen to earlier like The Chronic or Wu-Tang or N.W.A., or all these things that I just hadn't discovered yet at that point. The first thing I ever bought was a single for "Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio, and at the same time I bought "Chasing Waterfalls" by TLC, so, that was my first introduction to going and actually seeking it out.
“After going through that surgery, I woke up and realized that I’ve been this musician on this great wonderful journey. I just needed to remind myself that I needed to save myself.” —TOKiMONSTA
How and when did you first start making beats on your own?
I tried once to make beats when I was in high school. I downloaded Reason because someone talked about it, then I looked at it and was like, There's no way I'm going to figure out how this thing works, and then completely uninstalled it. I didn't have access to people to teach me. I can't remember if YouTube was even a thing yet, but they didn't have all those tutorials they have now.
I have this one friend named Chris Chan, who has done a bunch of my artwork actually. He's the one who downloaded Fruity Loops first, and he told me to download it, because we would go to shows together, and he suggested that if he was making beats, I could do it, too. That particular homie is super integral because if he didn't tell me to download Fruity Loops, I don't know if I would have. It just became something I got really into like a hobby — I would just sit in my room in college and make beats all night. This time around, I had access to all of these YouTube tutorials, taught myself how to use it. The format of [Fruity Loops] made a lot more sense to me, and I started making beats all the time. Eventually I started buying things like MIDI controllers, sound cards, better speakers, and continued in that way. With music production in general, there's always something to learn, there are always ways to expand your ability to create. I just stuck with it.
What about this way of making music stuck out to you, over playing piano?
Freedom. The thing with classical music is that you're kind of just this very highly esteemed cover artist. There's room for composition, too, in that realm, but for me, I was always particular about what I liked and what I didn't like. When I was younger, I didn't like playing the entire [piece] because I might like one portion of the piece, and that part felt more fun to play and sounded better to me than the whole thing. Why did I feel obligated to play the entire song if I didn't like it? That was always a constant point of bickering between me and my mom because she'd be like, “You don't finish anything from start to finish,” and my argument was because I didn't like it. It's almost like classical sampling — I just wanna play this loop right now, I don't wanna play the rest of it. In making beats, it's up to me — I have the freedom and I can choose how I want these songs to sound, and since it's coming from me, I can make a song that makes me happy and is joyful in the process of creating as well.
What was your intro to the L.A. beat scene?
The last couple years of college is when I started taking my music and moving outward with it. Up until that point it was a hobby, very inwardly focused and insular. I didn't know any rappers, I'm sure there were tons of people around me who were making beats, but I didn't really know anyone else who made beats at all. Eventually, I met my good friend Mike Gao. He had won one of those Project Blowed beat battles. I started going to Project Blowed, which was kind-of the precursor for Low End Theory. A bunch of people from the Blowed started Low End Theory, like Daddy Kev and Gaslamp. I started going to Low End Theory and stuff around 2007-ish. It was an underground place for electronic-based music and hip-hop, and some psychedelic rock music. Not a lot of people would go on a regular basis. It was on a Wednesday, and usually if you went, you just went there to support another one of your homies who was playing, and maybe the next time you were playing and all of your homies would be there to support you. It was a really small group of people at the time. I would see the people that have blown up like Gaslamp [Killer], Nosaj Thing, or Flying Lotus, or Samiyam, or Jon Wayne It eventually turned itself into a scene — but it wasn't in the beginning. It was just a bunch of people playing beats at a club, and it turned into something more substantial after that.
A lot of beatmakers, they're very private people, you just make beats at home and maybe people might hear them. At that time, it was less common for a bunch of producers to get together. You needed to have a rapper on your beat, or you needed a verse or a singer. I think for us, we reached a point where we realized we didn't need to have rappers on our beats, and we could just appreciate beats on our own, and that's when we started just listening and doing beat battles, and beat invitationals, and these things that didn't involve having to have a vocalist on it.
What kind of equipment and programs do you use now to make music? What about for live shows?
I use Ableton in both instances, when I play live and when I make beats. But when I perform live, I think of myself more as a conductor. I'm bringing in pieces and sections of music and melding them together to create a different experience, so it's not that you're hearing the album like you'd hear it on Spotify; you're hearing it in the live context, and how it can be manipulated and arranged differently. When I'm making beats at home, I'm still using Ableton, but the Arrangement View. The two views in Ableton — you can either use it in Clip View, which is what people mostly use to DJ or to perform in the way that I do, and then if you use the other side that's kind of like the arrangement form, when you use it to sequence the songs. When I make beats I'll use Ableton but I'll be using my other gear too, like my keyboards, my synthesizer, my audio interface speakers, sitting down in my chair. I'll be approaching music in a very formal way. When I'm performing live, all the pieces of all my songs all separated, and I bring them in in different ways, so you'll hear maybe two parts of two different songs and they'll go together, presented more like one, really long song. My live shows, I've always wanted them to be like one long story that kind of weaves in and out of the songs, which for me, makes it more immersive. You're kind of on this road together, and seeing where it will take you. I've always wanted my songs to be like that, too. They’re meant to be like a little story. I guess it's kind of meta, where I'm taking these little stories and making a bigger story with them during the live sets.
What did you learn in making this album?
The most reflective aspect [of this album] is more about me looking back as who I was as an artist when I made my early work, and understanding that zest and that brightness that I had at that time. I think the longer you exist as an artist, sometimes the more directions you can get pulled in. I was starting to feel like I was at that point, too, like maybe you wanna start making tracks for other people? Maybe you want to, — it sounds corny but — do something that's a good business idea? But what about my friends? [Does] my audience want me to make old shit? It was all these ways in which I felt like I was less of my own artist and more getting spread out and becoming someone else for someone else, existing in this realm where I was starting to lose sight of who I am as an artist.
I think after going through that surgery, I woke up and looked back at myself and realized that I've been this musician up until this point, and on this great wonderful journey. I just needed to remind myself that I needed to save myself. I need to feel confident in myself as an artist because that's how I started off when no one knew me. In that way, the songs I made are just songs I wanted to make.
Sound-wise, the album is more in tune with who I am as an individual, but I did look back at the type of artist I was and the sounds I used to use. I came to the realization that I can't make music like that. Not because I'm incapable, but because I'm not in the same place or same headspace that I was in 2011. In that way, I'm almost in awe of myself, like, ow, I made that shit. I've gained this kind of knowledge of music — I think to some degree the more you know the less you know — but I'm just equipped with so many tools now that I can't go back and make music like that anymore. I definitely appreciate [making music] more than I did before this surgery. Because I think in the past, I used to be this artist that would be like, yeah, yeah, yeah, that old stuff I made was cool but it's old. But now I appreciate why people hold onto my old music, and are also moving forward with me. In that regard, my live shows have changed a lot. I used to try to avoid playing too much of my old music, but I found ways of modernizing my old music and still be proud to play it, and still contextualize it with my current work.
What is next for you after the album comes out?
I've always been the kind of artist that's always challenging myself and I want to see how far I can extend my creativity. The album is done so it gives me room to start creating again and working on whatever the next iteration of my music persona will be. I thought about doing a piano album, just classical, doing something that's kind of different than what I'm doing now that might challenge me in an area of music that I don't know, or I've never participated in before. Or to see what it's like to produce for another artist and flex that muscle, too — the songwriting — or seeing what it's like to make a track that's really for someone else. Maybe work on my label and pushing and supporting new artists, or starting a band. I have all these ideas in my head, like maybe I want to start a techno side project. Even if it never works out, I still like the idea of trying. There's nothing specific down the pipeline though, my main focus right now is this album and touring it.
It never came out — she's a busy lady, you know! She's a mom and stuff too, she's so nice. I'd say nothing is impossible, and if there was time given, I would love to go produce and make tracks with her.