A Night with TOKiMONSTA at Red Bull Studios LA
There was a big party to celebrate TOKiMONSTA's 'Desiderium.' Skrillex and Kelly Rowland were there.
TOKiMONSTA is sipping from a red Solo cup in the kitchen of Red Bull Studios LA.
Her good friend Roy Choi, who says he will “do anything for her,” is manning his famous Kogi Korean BBQ truck outside. In less than an hour, she’ll perform much of her just-released mini-album, 'Desiderium,' accompanied by some of its vocalists and backed by Strangeloop’s tripped-out visuals, which he’s also designed for Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus. But she’s been at the studio since 3 o’clock. She’s hot and has already gotten stressed out about the sound.
“I can’t do 360 shows a year. I’ll fall apart,” the 20-something producer says. “I’m a very brittle human being. I’m not made very well.”
But she looks built to last. Her bleached blond hair is pulled taut and twisted into a topknot, and a chunky silver and rope necklace functions as a sort of breastplate. Her septum is pierced and “Dimepiece” is emblazoned on her shirt. The only delicate things about her are the cats prancing across her socks.
As the “First Lady of Brainfeeder,” Flying Lotus’ progressive and acclaimed record label, TOKiMONSTA has proven she’s not easily breakable. In the mid-aughts, the LA native ventured where few females had gone before: the city’s beat scene. Playing with the boys at the now-world famous Low End Theory, she caught the fellas’ ears more than their eyes, and experimental rapper/producer FlyLo recruited her for his crew.
She released her first album, 'Midnight Menu,' in 2010, and that same year, she was invited to the Red Bull Music Academy in London. Last year, her sophomore album, 'Half Shadows,' dropped on mammoth electronic music label, Ultra Records.
Now, she’s created her own imprint, Young Art Records, on which she’s releasing 'Desiderium,' and she’s working with former Destiny’s Child member and R&B diva Kelly Rowland. Oh, and before she returns to perform at Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo this October, she’s setting off on a month-long whirlwind tour.
Frailty, thy name is not TOKiMONSTA.
Born Jennifer Lee, TOKiMONSTA grew up with a single mother in Torrance, CA. She played classical piano, but she also was “pretty hyper, a little bit of a tomboy” and much more interested in the cartoons she watched constantly.
“[My mother] is very traditional, she’s Korean,” Lee says. “She was definitely one of those parents who was telling me ever since I was a kid, ‘You know you wanna become a doctor.’”
The career pep talks didn’t stick. While Lee did major in business at UC Irvine, she also began making music for fun and frequenting Project Blowed, in Leimert Park. “People at Project Blowed were snickering at me, but [when I started playing], they were blown away,” she says.
Around that time, however, Blowed was losing steam. So she began going to a weekly night called Low End Theory, which had just started bubbling. Still, she didn’t have aspirations of being a professional musician.
After graduating, she took a job as a business development coordinator for a video game publisher. She liked the work despite it being 9-to-5, but she was laid off. Her profile as a musician was rising, yet she still didn’t consider doing it full-time. Instead, she accepted a job in advertising. She hated it so much that when she was laid off in 2009, she decided she couldn’t bear another “normal” gig.
“I decided to just not work. I said, 'I'm going to work on my music. I'll figure it out,'” she says. “That was the first time in my life where I just really ignored the social prejudice. My family’s always like, ‘Oh, you should be this or this or this.’ I don't work well when people force me to do things. I have to do them because I want to.”
A year later, she had released her first album and gone abroad with Brainfeeder. By 2013, she had burst out of LA’s beat scene, capturing the attention of dance music label Ultra, which houses Calvin Harris and Kaskade. The gamble had been worth it.
A couple weeks ago, Dictionary.com made “desiderium” the Word of the Day. It’s defined as “an ardent longing, as for something lost,” and was accompanied by a quote from Jonathan Swift: “I think as seldom as I can of what I loved or esteemed in it, to avoid the desiderium which of all things makes life most uneasy.”
Why TOKiMONSTA chose that as the title for her mini-album, which veers from tweaky and bright to darkly seductive, is not quite so dramatic. “I wanted to revisit my first steps as a producer, and that’s when I was doing beat battles. They’re very simple and straight to the point but there’s an artistry and love of nuance that comes with stripping things away,” she says. “[This album] wasn’t as texturally complicated as some of my previous works, where I just had layers and layers and layers of pads and sounds. With a lot of music now, there’s so much you can do on a computer, there’s so much being put into music.”
That attraction to a more simplified sound is reflected in the artists she’s currently drawn to. She loves YG and wants to remix a Young Thug song. “I feel like there’s some sort of [idiot] savant quality to the music. I don’t mean that in any kind of offensive way. It doesn’t come off as really smart, when you read it, but there’s a very effortlessly intelligent way the song was made. He’s really good,” she continues.
TOKi has always had a friendly relationship with rap -- Kool Keith guested on one of the tracks from last year’s 'Half Shadows' -- but in the mid-aughts, beat makers slipped away to throw their own party. As Tokimonsta told me in a 2011 interview, “We were all just kids who were making beats for rappers, and then thinking, 'We don't need rappers. We can just play beats amongst ourselves.' "
Happily, beat music is mixing and mingling again. Skrillex has worked with A$AP Rocky. Flying Lotus just premiered 'Never Catch Me,' his song featuring Kendrick Lamar, on LA’s biggest hip-hop station. And TOKiMONSTA herself is in the midst of a collaborative project with Kelly Rowland.
“Music, in the past, has been so focused on the vocalists. Then [producers] were like, we’re just gonna do our thing sans that or just when we want to. Then they married again,” she says. “’Beat music’ is everywhere. I was watching a Garnier Fructis commercial, like, ‘This is some beat shit!’”
When she finally steps behind the turntables at Red Bull Studios, TOKiMONSTA springs to life. With a huge smile spread across her face, she’s such a force that even Strangeloop’s visuals can’t tear your eyes away. Skrillex is bobbing his head nearby, Groundislava and Rowland are also in attendance, and the crowd sways, transfixed. Suddenly, TOKi leans into the microphone.
“If you’re gonna stare at me, please dance,” she says in a tone that’s sweet but not at all feeble.
And they dance.