“I want people to feel like they’ve been taken out of their environment and then put back, I want them to be floating in space.” TOKiMONSTA was a student of classical piano until she discovered the underground hip-hop scene in her hometown of Los Angeles. Inspired by everything from rave music, Wu-Tang Clan to Korean rabbit masks and collaborating with Kool Keith, Jennifer Lee creates tender electronic music that combines dusty vinyl with digital soundscapes. From the pages of Issue 29, ACCLAIM chats to the artist about her latest album ‘Half Shadows’, winning over the EDM crowd, distinguishing herself in the primarily male-dominated scene and glimpse her latest photoshoot with Nikko La Mere.
I’ve read that you began creating music through playing the piano, how did you move to beat making music?
Playing piano didn’t quite come naturally, it was something I had to do because of, er, my mother. But growing up, I listened to a lot of music. When I got to college a friend suggested that I tried making my own. Which is something I had thought a lot about before, but I had never really followed through with. I downloaded some software and discovered that I really liked it. But at the time making music was just kind of a hobby for me, like knitting or something. I would just sit at my computer for hours; it was therapeutic. Mostly it began as hip-hop and then I tried incorporating my electronic music influences. It was definitely influenced by a lot of my hip-hop and soul record collection.
Why did your friend suggest it? Were you known for your musical taste?
Well, we used to go to a lot of shows together. Once I was old enough I would go to a lot of concerts but before that, I mean, the internet itself expanded a lot of people’s palettes in music, because it became so easily accessible, but to go out to shows and see people perform live I began to really identify with and the specific friend I used to go with, he used to dabble with production and suggested it to me because we had similar taste in music and he thought it would be fun for me and I think after that, I just took it to the next level.
There is a sense of rediscovering older records in your music – with the Marvin Gaye samples and jazz influence – is that something you look to draw out?
I think so, I mean in general, whether it’s intentional or not, with music a lot of the influences you had whilst growing up become a weird culmination in the music you make. Maybe some people are different, but for me it is this weird baby of all the things I’ve ever listened to from Smashing Pumpkins to Wu-Tang to weird rave music. When I was in high school I used to listen to random techno and things like that. So some of the music I make does revisit the past and I hope that some people can identify with it in that way.
Your music from your first EP Bedtime Lullabies is quite different from the latest tracks you have released, like the harder hitting The Force featuring Kool Keith – how do you think your music has evolved and how did the collaboration happen?
I definitely think my music has evolved and I hope it does for as long as I make it. I don’t want my music to stagnate, I mean sometimes I feel like it hasn’t progressed at all, but The Force definitely is the next generation of the sounds I’ve been making. I don’t think it’s a complete departure from [the music] I’ve been making but I don’t want people to think ‘oh, this is nothing like what she’s made in the past’ but it feels like the next stage of what I’m working on.
As far as the collaboration, I have a friend who is a rapper and he was doing a project with Kool Keith and he just called me up and was like ‘why don’t you bring some beats and come to the studio’ so I was like… er, OK! So I just packed a USB with some beats and drove over to the studio. I played them for him, but I couldn’t really tell what he’d like – I mean he’s rapped over a lot of interesting beats in his day – but I didn’t know if he would like anything I make, whether it was too weird or not weird enough, or something he didn’t respond to.
But he listened to it all and he really was drawn to this one beat and he wrote a verse over it. His writing style is just that he writes the first and last word of each line – so he just wrote this page with just two words on each line and then he recorded it in an instant. It was amazing, I’m not sure there’s too many rappers that work like that. From there, I sat on the track for like two or three years, I didn’t know how to approach it after he’d rapped on it, it had changed the dynamic of the track. Then I finally sat down to finish it and I’m actually quite proud of it. I’m really proud of what it became.
Your debut album Midnight Menu has this late-night personal vibe attached to it – how did it come about?
It was a surprising album, I mean, it came out on a label in another country and I was definitely very surprised by people liking it and responding to it. It came out in 2010 but people still come up to me or tweet at me after discovering it the week before, which is pretty amazing to see that it has caught on with people and they liked it on it’s own merit even though I ever thought I was going to put that album out.
People that aren’t necessarily interested in electronic music I’ve found have responded to your album. Is there an intended audience?
I don’t think I have an audience that I’m intending to reach – I don’t say this is for the hip-hop heads or the indie kids or whatever. I think all of those things have a commonalty that can be found in differing genres and when people hear it in your music… the interesting thing about that album is that there are elements to it that are very hip-hop and some that are very electronic and it’s almost like by having that people can ease their way into a direction they’re not used to. I like having that, being able to widen people’s palates. I mean some kids don’t immediately respond to electronic music – they like indie, or rock, or pop – and they slowly discover that they do like electronic music, they’d just never found a version of it that they like. That contrasts with people that only like electronic music, that through the samples or the 4/4 or grime-y elements in electronic music find that they like other fashions too and find a wider genre they identify with too.
In a more male dominated scene, what was it hard for you to get recognition as a female producer?
I’ve always been surrounded by really encouraging people. I mean generally, a lot of the people that make music are guys, but a lot of people in the music industry are female. They might have a manager whose female or whatever, so there’s a lot of respect that male musicians have for women in the industry and although there aren’t many that are producers, there are a lot who are vocalists that people like to work with. I mean the main thing for me is I didn’t want people to pity me or think that I was good at creating music just because I’m a girl or ‘this is pretty good – for a girl’. I always wanted to compete, not literally, but be as good as all the guys; or so that no one knew that it was a girl making it and in the end, it was as good as theirs.
I think people, my peers, really felt that I was making music that was as good as anyone’s. I wasn’t trying to milk off the idea that people should listen to it because I was a girl. I mean, in the beginning I didn’t even want to know that a girl was behind it, in the early days, the ‘Myspace days’, I was super underground I didn’t have any pictures or a bio which was a bit of a problem for those people that really like to find out about artists when they appreciate their music. There are also downsides to it of course; a lot of people judge you more harshly because you’re a girl, they don’t think you’re a professional because you’re a girl and you’ll hear those criticisms but you just have to ignore it because there are a lot more that you can gain by being an individual.
Do you think there is a reason why that there aren’t more female music producers?
You know, I’m noticing it now, way more than when I started a lot of girls are making music. People are starting to delve into electronic music a lot more because it’s really not that hard to download anything. There’s trial versions of everything; Ableton; Fruity Loops or whatever. I mean, when I started I would watch tutorials, I read manuals, I did everything on my own. Friends would give me pointers and now those are the same pointers I tell people who are younger in the scene than me. I think maybe several years ago, females might have felt more daunted by it, but now… it doesn’t seem to far away. Maybe it was being at a computer all the time, or that people thought it was too technical.
Now though, there are so many young girls sending me their Soundcloud accounts and asking me the basics like ‘what program should I get’. I never experienced that three years ago, but I feel like this year we’ll see a lot more female producers in the electronic – or even not electronic – realms. It’s really interesting how things can just change in an instant. But I think it’s a good change, a positive change.
Do promoters or labels treat you differently because you’re female?
I don’t get booked by clubs in Vegas or some fancy club to play in a bikini top and no one comes to listen to your music so I don’t experience being objectified in that way. That’s not a selling point for me – I’ll never wear skimpy outfits or have sparkles on my face or whatever. I mean I’m not an unapproachable person, but in the scene I come from and the people I associate with don’t try to treat me differently because I’m female. In some ways they can be more chivalrous for you, open doors for you, but I haven’t felt too different. Even now with [my new label] Ultra – they’re very glitzy. Some of their artists are those… you know, Eastern European twins that wear next to nothing and sing on EDM songs. But they don’t treat me like that, they treat me like a musician, like a producer. I’ve felt fortunate so far that no one has really treated me differently – there has been non associated people that do. Like a guy will see me standing at the bar after a show will try and pick me up, but generally they’re assholes anyway.
At your Melbourne show last year, you played lots of soothing lush tracks and then dropped a Wu-Tang track – do you like to keep your audience guessing?
Yes, most definitely. It’s not even just keeping the audience guessing, it gets boring playing night after night and you can get sick of your own music very fast. By keeping the live show interesting, or not even interesting, just making a mix of things, or playing things that are slow and then tracks that are heavier it keeps you engaged in what you’re doing. I’m not performing like dance sets, the BPM are kind of all over the place, but for me it keeps it creative and more of experience. My sets, from beginning to end could be one song or five hundred tracks; you hope that people will understand. They generally do, but some can be quite critical that I’m not doing really smooth transitions.
You did tour quite a bit last year with the Full Flex Express – curated by Skrillex, how was that experience?
I’ve been on tour quite a few times, but not anything that had experienced quite as much attention as that. Generally when I go on tour it can be really fun, I just do spot dates in the US – so fly out for the weekend and then fly back home – when I do Australia three or four weeks – and in Europe a month. It can be pretty exhausting. I couldn’t be like Skrillex and tour three hundred days out of the year; I need to be at home more than that. I would go crazy. But the tour specifically was really fun; it was like school camp. We’d all play music together and go out together.
It was fun, and kind of wholesome like being in college again, also because the line-up was sort of eclectic it was Skrillex and Diplo; Pretty Lights, Grimes and me. You would definitely have a lot of electronic music in there, but like indie, folk and I’m kind of this weird Frankenstein thing. But you felt like you were part of something bigger than just EDM. I mean, you couldn’t win over all of Skrillex’s audience, but just winning over a few of them felt pretty significant. You could help lot of these kids who think electronic music is just Skrillex realise that it goes much further. But you could turn a few heads and help people understand that there’s more out there.
The LA scene seems much more tight knit than a big tour – how do those gigs compare?
At Low End Theory you’re playing in front of three hundred and at the Full Flex tour you’re playing in front of several thousand almost every night, so it’s definitely different. Also people aren’t really there to see you – they’re there to see Skillex and Diplo and the headliners. Versus Low End Theory where you know, I feel like a Skrillex, people really come there to see you in a smaller but really concentrated and meaningful way. You still gain something performing in front of those kids, I mean Low End kids will always know about Brainfeeder and other producers I’m associated with but some of these other kids will never know about me, which is fine. I’m not trying to be famous, but I would like them to know what else is out there for them. That’s why playing in front of thousands of people who probably hate my music, for the ten people that would be like ‘well, I don’t hate this, this is actually pretty interesting’ and those are the ten people I’m playing. I’ll always love playing in LA; they’re like my easy crowd. Even if I play something terrible they’ll like it – they’ve been with me forever and they’re so supportive of the artists that come out of LA. They’re different.
You’re latest album Half Shadows drops on April 9th – what can we expect from it?
It’s like Midnight Menu 2.0; it doesn’t sound like it but it has the same sort of mood. It has melodic tracks and then aggressive tracks so you have this movement. Like Midnight Menu was supposed to be this menu of moods and emotions; this ones is more curated but you still have the element of moods. That’s really important to me, I want people to feel like they’ve been taken out of their environment and then put back, I want them to be floating in space. I want them to feel like they’ve grown as a person after listening to it. I think as long as people keep and open mind it won’t feel too different.
Purchase the Authenticity Issue here.