Jennifer Lee has been making music out of LA under the name TOKiMONSTA after emerging as one of the premier artists of the Los Angeles beat scene with her first release in 2010. As a staple of The Low End Theory, a weekly experimental hip-hop/electronic music show, she came up with the likes of Flying Lotus, Shlohmo, and The Gaslamp Killer. After releasing projects on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder and electronic giant Ultra Records, and touring with the likes of Skrillex and Grimes, she released her newest album, Desiderium on her own label Young Art. We caught up with TOKiMONSTA on her latest US tour at her show at T.T. The Bear’s and spent way too much time talking to her about Young Thug and Game of Thrones.
You put Desiderium out on your own label, Young Art, what was the idea behind that?
For me, I’ve released on so many labels over the years. I’m an independent artist I’ve never been locked down. And I’ve been able to release on so many eclectic labels all over the world, some Japanese labels, some British labels, some American labels, and I just thought it was my time to do something independently because I feel like at this point in music I don’t know how much a label benefits me and now I have my own resources, I just thought it’d be like a little social experiment to see what it’s like to release my own music and create a platform for other artists.
How did the process of starting it go?
Very fast. I was just like, “I wanna release music.” And me and my manager were talking, and he’s one of my best friends we were like, “yeah, let’s try doing it on our own,” and we toyed with the idea of making it an imprint for a slightly larger label and I was approached by other labels to release this record like A-Trak was like, “hey do you wanna release with me?” And then Skrillex asked if I wanted to release on OWSLA and I was like, “well, I want to try my hand at doing it myself,” so I did Young Art and it’s not terribly hard to have your own label, it’s just a vehicle to put out music.
And you started out with Brainfeeder in LA, what was starting at Low End Theory when that was just getting started like?
Early days of Low End Theory was very different than it is now. It was very chill, it was artists coming out to see other artists and then the next week you would be performing and those artists would be watching you and it’s amazing to see how far everyone’s come. That’s where I met Flying Lotus in the beginning. I met him through Ras G who I met at Project Blowed, which was like a predecessor to Low End Theory and I’ve seen other people come up like Shlohmo, Jon Wayne, all of them. It was such an open environment, everyone wanted you to do something different and it was very supportive.
Did that open and supportive environment make it easier to come up as a female DJ in such a male-dominated genre?
I mean, I guess yes. I never thought of myself as “the female” I think that’s why everyone was okay with respecting me, because it was more a critique of the art form and not critiquing me because I’m a female. That’s the last thing people want to do is point you out and be like, “oh your beats are dope because you’re a girl,” they know that’s offensive. And everyone’s smart enough to know it’s colorless. Like there are Asians in the scene and and black people and white and Hispanic people and all we care about is the music.
So was it easy to transition from a bedroom producer to a DJ in such a tight-knit, close scene?
No, they’re two very different things. I started off as a producer and I didn’t know how to DJ. I was a shit DJ. Most producers are shit DJs if they start off as producers. Some people start off as DJs and become producers like Hudson Mohawke. They’re very different art forms. What you started with heavily affects the other part. How I produce heavily affects how I perform live. I approach my live shows like an hour long song. Someone who starts off DJing, they know what it’s like to mix music together and how it’s like in a live performance so they’re going to make music so that it’s easy to perform live so it’ll transition in a way they’re familiar with.
Is your live setup the same as your production setup then?
I’m mostly on Ableton. I’m using an APC-40, which is a really useful sequencer.
And it’s pretty much been the same since you started out?
Yeah, pretty much. I think I started at the very beginning with like a Korg pad controller but I’ve been using the 40 for a very long time. I’ve gone through a few of them now.
What kind of hardware/software synths are you using to produce?
I use a whole bunch of different things. I really like using analog synths. The ones I use the most are my Sub Phatty which is pure analog from Moog. I use my Microkorg XL which is analog modeling so technically it’s digital. And then a bunch of VSTs in the software like Absynth. I use a lot of Native Instrument synths, I’m a big fan of them.
And the vocal recordings on your album, did you do that yourself?
Yeah, I recorded those myself except for Arama’s because she lives in St. Louis so she sent me hers and we worked on that track online. But everyone else recorded at my place.
And you mixed the vocals yourself?
Yes, always. I mix everything myself the only thing I leave to an engineer is mastering.
That’s really cool. Where do you see your next project going, obviously the tour is your main focus right now but do you produce on the road?
Yeah, I do usually. This one is a little different because I’m a little more distracted because I have more people with me so [music] is kind of off to the side but yeah, Desiderium is like a two part project and it’s a very small album so I’m planning to come out with a second part. A two part mini album series. The second part will have a different name but I’d say by next year I’ll have a follow-up before I do another full length album again. I have a project with Kelly Rowland that’s coming out. And it’s collaborative, we’re doing something together and I want to be able to produce records for artists I really believe in so I’ll be working on music with Anderson Pak and I want to put out a full project with Gavin Turek who’s done quite a few significant songs with me. Yeah, so I’m trying to keep busy.
So who’s your dream collaboration?
Missy Elliott, and Bjork. I don’t know, in terms of current artists I really like Young Thug. I think he’s amazing I think he’s a genius.
Yeah, in the most polite way I almost call it savant-rap because it doesn’t come off as being as intelligent as it really is and it’s effortless.
Thug is at such a crucial point in his career where he could either keep being weird or get with Birdman and become more like Lil Wayne. He just needs to put out a proper studio album that’s all him and Metro Boomin. I want to see Thug and Makonnen together.
That’d be really interesting! I just read that Fader article on Makonnen how he unintentionally shot somebody? I didn’t know about that.
And look at him now, he’s with OVO, which could also go either way.
There’s a lot of pressure for artists on labels that big too. But for Thug I hope he doesn’t get pushed in a different direction. He’s special and in the way that Wayne was special when he first came out too, but different.
Like in ’05-’06 when Wayne was everywhere and ran the mixtape circuit
Exactly, he was on every song and Young Thug too, he’s getting featured on a lot of different songs I just hope they don’t push him to do anything that’s not him. Did you see the video he just put out for Danny Glover?
Yes! With the hands, and he’s dressed like Austin Powers?
Yeah, it’s like almost Warhol-esque. I don’t know what to call it, it’s kind of crazy but it’s amazing.
Watch the video for The B Language where he’s wearing Uggs and these leggings
Oh yeah he really likes that like sun dresses and stuff. I like that too. He just doesn’t care like he gets manicures but he’s not trying to be any sort of way. He’s special.
Okay, last question. Everyone knows Grimes is the Khaleesi, who are you in Game of Thrones?
Shit, I don’t know. I could be like Arya Stark but she’s not my favorite character per se. I gotta think about this. Maybe Arya.
The thing is that almost everyone has a dark side so it’s hard to commit to a person
Yeah, that’s true. I think I’m more curious about what’s gonna happen with Bran it’s getting all mystical with the skeletons and the children.
I’m glad that progressed though because he’s been chasing the raven for three seasons now
Yeah, I’m over it like come on. But now he found it and there’s these crazy little children. But there aren’t a lot of significant female characters in Thrones and the ones that are there are very strong.
And nobody would pick Cersei
No, like Cersei and Sansa, nobody wants to be the bad ones so I gotta be Arya.
Photos by McCall Bliss