Posted October 4, 2017 by Jeff in Tunes

TOKiMONSTA: Intentionally Unintentional

TOKiMONSTA, photo by John Michael Fulton
TOKiMONSTA, photo by John Michael Fulton

For the past decade, Jennifer Lee has toured and recorded as TOKiMONSTA. Released on Brainfeeder, the label run by forward-thinking electronic artist Flying Lotus, her 2010 debut album Midnight Menu captured the sound of the West Coast beat scene. Her latest effort, Lune Rouge, features the single “Don’t Call Me.” With some help from the song’s guest vocalist, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna, the track shows how easily Lee can navigate the pop world. Alternately, “No Way,” a tune that features guest spots by Isaiah Rashad, Joey Purp and Ambré, pays homage to ’90s hip-hop. Sitting in a tour bus looking at the back of a building. “I’m not sure exactly where I am,” she says. “I think I’m in San Francisco, staring at a Prius. It seems like a San Francisco alleyway.”

You originally learned to play piano. Talk about that experience.
Parents will do their best to impose these extracurricular activities on you, whether it’s piano or soccer. I took piano for a long time. I took it for about ten years. I liked it but I didn’t like the lessons. I didn’t like playing other people’s works either. In the classical music world, people aren’t composing their own work. You’re basically a wonderful cover artist. I really enjoyed playing it and it helped me to become the composer that I am. It was a love-hate relationship. Because I didn’t get to do it voluntarily I resented it in some ways, but I somehow ended up here.

How’d you wind up gravitating toward hip-hop and electronic music? Was it mostly hip-hop or mostly electronic music that you began listening to?
It’s a very fair marriage of hip-hop and electronic music. I wouldn’t say EDM. That’s a further strain from what I think that I am. Learning piano was great because I was introduced to all these great composers, and it was the first type of music I listened to. Then, I started listening to the radio. I started discovering West Coast rap stuff and being introduced to East Coast hip-hop. I really thought Wu-Tang was the shit. It wasn’t like what I had heard before. There was that big delve into more music from there. I grew up with the internet being there for most of my life, so I got into the Napster thing. That was a great way for someone like me to discover music I would have never discovered any other way. That’s how I discovered hip-hop before my generation. For me as a musician, I’m a result of all those things.

I’m the result of all the music I love.

EDM is the rage now but electronic music has a long history.
I see it as the difference between European and American music. European electronic music has been normalized for a long time if you think about acts such as Massive Attack, Portishead or Giorgio Moroder—he’s a longstanding staple in that disco, electronic-turned-house scene. It took EDM for people to see electronic music on a bigger scale. EDM can be the gateway to discover new electronic dance music. I would say I was heavily influenced by DJ Shadow. His music was just really, really different. It was hip-hop, but it’s not. Something else was happening. At the time, I thought it was more hip-hop than electronic. I aspired for my music to be his nice marriage of both.

How’d you wind up signing to Brainfeeder?
At the time I got signed to Brainfeeder, I don’t think anyone knew what kind of an impact the label would make on the scene. We were just all friends. Flying Lotus was a good friend. He hit me up on iChat and asked if I wanted to release something. It was a bunch of friends who wanted to make music and at the time Flying Lotus was making a big impact. He had the means to push his friends forward. So many great musicians have come out of that scene. We’re just a group of kids playing beats.

Are you part of the L.A. scene?
I’m always up and in the mix. I’m excited by new music. I sometimes have peers who don’t like change or don’t like the new music they hear on Soundcloud or don’t like indie rappers. I’ve always liked music and new music. There are artists I don’t like from emerging scenes but I have a few I do like, whether it’s an emerging rap scene from Florida or these new guys from L.A. I’m excited by all of it. L.A. specifically is interesting. Over the years, it’s become this breeding ground for collaborations. People are sharing libraries with each other. The hater aspect that hip-hop has had in the past isn’t as strong as it once was.

What did you want to do differently with Lune Rouge?
I didn’t go with any strong intentions or expectations. I went through an eye-opening ordeal. When everything is about to be taken away from you, you learn to value what is important to you as a musician. To go with too many intentions is going to lead to disappointment. When I went in with this album, I went in with no intentions. I wanted to make a lot of songs I wanted to make. I didn’t want to create under any pressure. I just wanted to make songs that make me happy and allow me to celebrate the fact that I can still make art. I look at it as an anthology. Each song is its own story. I guess that does vaguely answer your question.

Talk about the guests on “No Way.” How do you know them?
How I know them is separate even though they’ve all met each other now. Isaiah Rashad had a producer who sampled one of my songs in his mixtape. I think his song is called “Menthol.” When I heard it, I was getting tagged in these messages. I didn’t know about it, but I listened to it and I thought it was really cool, and I thought it would be cool to work directly with each other. That’s how that song came to be. It’s a few different beats. He has his preferences. I’m not going to make someone try to rap over something they don’t like. Joey Purp is a friend of mine for several years. I’ve had festival gigs in Chicago and I would bring him out. He wasn’t as known then. I’ve always believed in Joey Purp and I always thought he was a great rapper. He’s my favorite out of the whole Savemoney crew. I asked him to be on the track, and he was super down. His verses are so good. Ambré is amazing. She opened for me on tour. I didn’t know her before then. I feel in love with her. I think she’s headed for a huge gigantic big thing. I know that one day everyone will know her music. I am so glad she’s on the track and that I gave her shine and allowed to be on track with other acts too. It’s a hodgepodge of people I like.

What was it like to work with Yuna on “Don’t Call Me”?
Our meeting was formal-ish. Our managers thought it would be good for us to work together. That sounds like an industry thing, but I’m a huge Yuna fan anyway. I was surprised to find out that she was a fan of mine. We initially worked over email and then worked in the studio a bunch. She’s the kind of person that I can text her, and she’ll text me back. We’re both really proud of the song we made together.

My favorite is your remix of Beck’s “Wow.”
I love Beck and felt really honored to be able to do that remix. He’s a well-respected and big act. I love him a lot and he influences me in terms of how he has his career. His music is must his music and doesn’t fit any specific direction. It allowed me to make an interesting remix that I felt like I could use my freedom with. I just made a wild ass song. I had so much fun with it. It’s kind of an insane song, but I really like it.

What is the live show be like?
It’s me. But the live show has been different than in the past. It’s a lot of orchestration. If you imagine all my songs being separated into different pieces and that I can bring them together and orchestrate them, that’s the live set. And there’s a visual show too that I have tied in as well.

Photo: John Michael Fulton


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].