Big things sometimes come in small packages. You can’t judge a book by its cover. These overused everyday terms have been and will be used countless times to describe the beautiful petite Asian woman sitting in front of me at Paris Café in West Hollywood. As she sips her tea it is hard to believe that this is the same woman behind some of the biggest beats in the past couple of years. It is fitting that this interview takes place in a neon lit café named for a city in Europe where patrons are more likely to understand you in Korean than in English as she defines originality and professionalizes in breaking the norms.
South Bay born and bred, Jennifer Lee—or to most, Tokimonsta—has become a staple in the Los Angeles beat scene. Graduating from high school in Torrance and moving on to UC Irvine, not even Lee could have foreseen what the future had in store for her. Classically trained in piano, Lee grew up in a pivotal time for music. Internet was evolving from making a really fucking loud sound when you signed on to something you could share and discover music via. While in Irvine she received Fruity Loops from her friend Christopher Chan (who eventually became head of all her art) and started messing around with beats. Little did she know that this would turn into eventually working with Kool fucking Keith and traveling around Canada with arguably the biggest dubstep artists ever—Skrillex.
With the release of her second album, Half Shadow, and a jam packed tour schedule ahead of her, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to sit down with Lee last month before a world wind trip that took her through Austin for SXSW and onto Miami for WMC.
She showed up to the interview looking casually hip with little to no effort. The shy soft-spoken Lee was the first to admit she was not in the best of moods. “I tried to go on this juice cleanse and I only lasted for 24 hours before caving in and eating an egg; word of advice, don’t make an egg the first thing you eat in days,” were the first words to come out of her mouth. Cleanse-failure aside, she had nothing but wonderful things to say about her journey from suburban kid to being one of the biggest artists to spawn from Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint. Urban legends about the city of Irvine, being big in Japan, spots to go “stationary drinking” in Korea town, and her upcoming release on Ultra Music were just some of the things we talked about for the next hour or so.
Oh and for the record, she really wants everyone to know she is not from Japan. “Dazed and Confused once said I was Tokyo born and raised and I have no idea why,” she said wanting to get that small but important fact out of the way first. This confusion does not stem from out of the blue, her eventual debut album Midnight Menu just so happened to be released exclusively in Japan via Listen Up. At the time she had not released anything on Brainfeeder yet and was working with the huge Japanese rapper Shin02 who was a good friend of hers. “He is like the Mos Def in Japan. I do not think he will like me saying that but he really is this sort of underground / positive rapper who got me into doing a tour in Japan,” she said.
What started out as just an EP eventually became a full blown album, “I really did not think about that until some interviewer asked me how it felt to have my debut album released on a Japanese label and at that moment I was like, ‘Oh Fuck I guess it is!’.” Gaining a huge Japanese and anime / cosplay cult following was just one of the unintended consequences early in her career.
The creation of Steven Ellison’s Brainfeeder imprint in 2008 breathed a breath of fresh air into the Los Angles beat scene. From the early Beat Cypher nights she attended to today’s Low End Theory, the Brainfeeder family can be credited for a lot of what got Lee to where she is today. “At first Low End Theory was attended mostly by a lot of local musicians and it is really where I made all of my early connections,” she said.
If Brainfeeder is where she honed her chops, Ultra Music could very well be where she makes her breakthrough. “Brainfeeder never really asked me for an album, it was kind of if you had something to release they would put it out for you,” Lee said describing the inner workings of the label. Originally she turned down the offer from Ultra due to her preconceived creative differences. “The label kept pursuing me and it became clear to me that they would be looking out for my best interests,” she said about her eventual coming around to signing to the massive New York City based imprint.
I mean, you can’t listen to trance music for 24 hours a day.
Creative control was of the upmost importance for Lee, “So far it has been excellent. I approved all of the remixes. I chose all of the music video directors. I chose my friend to do the album artwork. I chose the tracklist. No one ever said I was not techno enough or that we need more naked bikinis on the album cover.” Naked bikinis aside, it is apparent that Ultra will provide a much bigger platform for her music. During the interview I kind of got a sense that she was in between a rock and a hard place. While she loves her relationship with Brainfeeder she is at a point in her career where she needs something more from a label. Ultimately with releases from her, as well as a recent release from MPC master AraabMuzik, it is easy to see that the big-room arena label is attempting to branch out and reach a new fan base.
Half Shadows is one heck of an album on paper and on first listen it takes you through a range of emotions which is exactly what Lee was going for. “I am inspired by everything and nothing at the same time,” Lee said about her creative process. From the pop sounds of MNDR, to the rough rhymes of Kool Keith, Half Shadows has something for everyone.
Boredom makes a lot of great music. Being drunk makes a lot of great music. Being stoned makes a lot of great music. Watching a movie makes a lot of great music. It is the emotions that are present to me at the moment that inspire me
Lee herself was speechless when she got the call to come into the studio and work with Kool Keith. Her true passion for the genre was on full display when talking about him. “My friend Shing02 was in the studio with him and gave me a call and I was like, ‘Oh OMG I am actually going to be doing this!’” she recalled vividly. Lee was so intimidated by his verse that she left it sitting stagnant for three years. Eventually she scraped the beat for a new one but kept his verse, looping his voice over the chorus and creating a completely different song.
The way Kool Keith works is amazing. He does not write down his verse, only the first and last line of each verse and will fill in the rest of it in the moment.
What is clearly evident when talking to her about her productions is her absolute honest passion for the music she creates. More than anything she is a fan first a producer second; her excitement about beat music is what truly makes her so unique. Her voice reaches higher octaves and you can see the genuine excitement in her eyes when talking about her music. Her humility for the genre is riveting and inspirational.
Another solid track from her upcoming album “Go With It” almost did not make the cut. Originally she was not impressed with her beat for the song and humbly explained that it was not one she was too proud of. Lee met MNDR in December and the group wanted Lee to send her over some stuff to work on. “What MNDR was able to do with it was amazing. Amanda Warner brought the song to another level,” Lee said about her collaboration with the electronic group. And good thing Lee changed her mind because the finished product is amazing.
Underneath Lee’s shy demeanor is just another excited passionate kid from suburban Los Angeles. As the interview went on Lee dropped her bearings a bit. Discussing last summers “Full Flex” tour she opened up and became a bit more honest about the scene. “It was basically playing raves which was weird because my music as well as other artists on the tour, do not really fall into the category of ecstasy infused rave music,” she said about the tour. While she would be the first to admit how awesome of a time the tour was, it was easy to see that she was over the idea of playing at raves. Like many artists in the electronic music scene, you could tell her frustration with how people from the outside looking in tend to group all types of electronic music together.
The Full Flex tour was like summer camp. After the shows we would go back into the van and collaborate on new music.
Discussing this tour with her, it was hard for me not to make a connection with another SoCal electronic figurehead—Skrillex. While musically they could not be further from each other, they both share this truly passionate love for their craft. I will be the first to admit to hating Skrillex for the longest time and blaming him for the overall dumbing down of dubstep, but unlike other brostep artists to ride the wave, Sonny Moore turns out to actually be really fucking passionate about his craft. Say what you want about his music, what you can’t say is that he does not believe in it himself 100% and the same could be said about Lee.
Musically Lee gets her inspiration from the night. Each song has its own identity and emotional connection. By pushing her comfort level she believes that as time goes on her music will be able to take on a whole new identity. “Half Shadows to me was just a natural evolution of my craft,” she said.
My advice for artists is to never save old music you did not release because you will get attached to the songs and it will hinder your natural progression.
Visual art is also a passion of hers and ultimately she would like to be able to incorporate that into a full live tour next fall. “Playing a bunch of festivals with a MIDI controller and a laptop is cool and all, but I would like to evolve my live show into something that incorporates more,” she said about what the future had in store for her. She went on to say half-heartedly, “Hopefully my live show will come in a dream.”
A fan of eating more than cooking, a typical day for Lee involves amazing restaurants and taking friends out to drink in Korea Town. Living on the West Side of Los Angeles she recommends Pollo A La Brasa which is an “awesome” rotisserie chicken place. Like her downtempo melodic music, Lee is not exactly a rager. She prefers beer bars over clubs and likes to relax on her time off. “I call it stationary drinking because you sit and you drink and you eat,” she said about her extracurricular activities. It is not surprising that this is the case as her music is who she is—a chill shy girl from Torrance sharing her passion for music with the world. Most would pass her on the streets without even knowing it, but like the bullshit analogy of judging a book by its cover, there is much much more to her than meets the eye.