|Breaking through: Tokimonsta
The Los Angeles-based producer doesn't understand the fuss about her city. As RA's Christine Kakaire finds, though, it was the perfect incubator for her psychedelic hip-hop.
The early generation of America's electronic instrumental hip-hop producers—Prefuse 73, Dabrye, Daedelus—succeeded in cleaving off a sub-section of the genre for themselves that was freed from the boom-bap sound aesthetic, and from the lyrical content that binds hip-hop to specific places, conditions and experiences. In their wake, a level playing field emerged that has allowed all manner of unexpected hot spots—Amsterdam, Glasgow, Stockholm—to erupt onto the post-hip-hop landscape.
So when an authoritative voice like Mary Anne Hobbs proclaims that of all these cities, yours, Los Angeles, is responsible for "the most exciting electronic music on the planet," it's easy to understand why you and your small community of like-minded producers are feeling the glare of the spotlight/microscope. "We love Mary Anne, she really makes what we do seem so grand and amazing," says Jennifer Lee, AKA Tokimonsta. "But," she continues, "in terms of how it's looked at by other people, saying, 'Oh I wish I was there,' it's weird to me. We're just like any other small home-knit group."
Lee's home-knit group is Brainfeeder, the LA label/collective conceived by Steven Ellison, AKA Flying Lotus. Following Ellison's second long form masterpiece for Warp Records, Cosmogramma, even more attention has been directed towards Flying Lotus, and his extended musical family (Samiyam, Ras G, Daedelus, Gaslamp Killer) and the new crop of producers being nurtured under the Brainfeeder umbrella—Nosaj Thing, Lorn, Tokimonsta—with noticeable effect. "None of us was traveling," says Lee, "maybe Steve or Daedelus would be the ones who traveled the most. Now, suddenly, every one of us is going on tour."
Lee toured the UK for the first time in November 2009, on interest garnered from her debut EP, Cosmic Intoxication, a fusion of skittering, shuffling hip-hop and otherworldly melodies for London imprint Ramp Recordings. She returned again in March to participate in the London edition of the Red Bull Music Academy, and to play at fabric as part of a Brainfeeder showcase. Perhaps her most memorable performance outside of Los Angeles, though, was her shortest: "Yeah, I only got to play for about 15 minutes," she says, recalling her aborted set at Detroit's Movement Festival earlier this year. "It was pretty cool, at least the potential was really good." Scheduled to play before Francesco Tristano, Lee attracted the early crowd on the festival's final day, but inclement weather brought things to a swift conclusion. "Initially when they told me to stop playing, I told them 'I don't mind the rain, I can play!' But the stage manager looked at me real serious: 'There's thunderstorms. Do you want to get electrocuted?' I said 'see ya!' to the crowd, and got off the stage," she says, laughing.
When touring schedules allow, Brainfeeder personnel will touch base at the folklorish gathering Low End Theory. It's tagged officially as a "psychedelic, glitch, avant-rap, IDM & dubstep" night, but as resident Gaslamp Killer succintly puts it, "it's a fucking beat movement." The Wednesday event, run by Gaslamp and fellow residents Daddy Kev and Nobody has become hallowed turf for local beat fiends and wide-eyed visitors. A frequent attendee and performer, Lee cites the club's griminess and excellent sound quality as part of the appeal, and credits the egalitarian atmosphere—on both sides of the booth—with keeping the local crew grounded.
"It's turned [in]to something that is cool to go to now," she says, "but what we like about it is that it strips you of your ego. It doesn't matter who you are, there's no green room, no backstage, no place to hide from the crowd. You can be an avid fan of this music, be standing right next to someone you really admire. There are no barriers and I think it's humbled a lot of the artists that have played there." It's humbled some of the patrons too. "Once," Lee remembers, "a kid gave me ten bucks. I didn't want to take it but he basically shoved it in my face and said, 'I'm sorry, but I downloaded your music illegally, but that's because I couldn't find it anywhere.' It was odd and awesome at the same time."
The recent release of Tokimonsta's debut album Midnight Menu, for Listen Up, a subsidiary of Japanese indie Art Union, ought to make inaccessibility less of an issue for her admirers. With a name inspired by Lee's habit of only writing music at night, Midnight Menu presents itself as less of a narrative and more as a sample cart of Tokimonsta moods. "I guess," Lee admits, "there is no particular sound- signature." Perhaps not, but from the dusty romance of "Gamble" and "Bready Soul," through to the frothy analogue bubble bath "Look-A-Like," to the densely packed compositions of "So Ma Jung" and "Questing," and the grimy stomping grind of "Cheese Smoothie" and "Lucid Walking," all of the tracks are imbued with Lee's instinct for melodic whimsy.
Interestingly, her official album debut was both unplanned, and unintended. "This is the funny thing," says Lee."When the label manager of Listen Up first approached me it didn't occur to me that it was going to be my first album. They just approached me to do a release." Listen Up had only two releases to its name: One by underground heroes Foreign Exchange, the other by Flying Lotus' own musical hero, avant-garde rapper Carlos Nino. Convinced that Yuji had the label's musical heart in the right place, Lee chose Listen Up as the home for Midnight Menu, a decision that, she says, was "a weird gamble that I probably shouldn't have [taken] in terms of logistics."
Happily, the decision proved serendipitous: It allowed her to showcase her range over an extended format, and develop her production chops outside of the Brainfeeder schema. "I think if it was any other time, I might not have agreed," Lee continues, about the Listen Up release. "But it's working out really well. They worked really hard over there and the exposure in Japan has been immense."
The Japanese connection has been essential for Lee as a producer, but will do little to prevent people from assuming that she is from Japan herself. That's something she says she has to frequently contend with, despite being California-born, and of Korean origin. Her name doesn't help. Tokimonsta unintentionally echoes the prefix-suffix format and cutesy nature of anime and manga characters. But it's meant to simply represent Lee's two distinct musical impulses: Toki, the Korean word for rabbit, is innocuous and playful, while the bastardised monsta speaks for itself.
Toki: Bunny rabbit in Korean; Monsta: No explanation necessary.
The gap between the two is bridged by Lee's melodic signatures, borne of the experience of more than ten years of piano lessons. As a fledgling producer in her college years, the discovery of instrumental beatmakers like Prefuse and DJ Krush, plus the UK sound of trip-hop proved revelatory to Lee, who was less and less enamoured of the results that took place when she handed her beats over to rappers. "My music started compensating for missing vocals," she explains, "and I would do more piano lines or more instrumentation or more noise to kind of cover that layer that was missing."
Growing up in Torrance, a mostly white and Asian upper-middle class beachside city in Los Angeles county, Lee listened to the same rock and pop punk as her peers, but found the homogeneity of Torrance—"The city with a hometown feel!"—stifling. Hip-hop beckoned. "This particular city grew my passion for hip-hop," she says, "because didn't want to be like the kids around here."
Her first record purchase was Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise at age 11, before moving on to the full spectrum of '90s hip-hop: backpacker pin-ups Mos Def and Common, Wu-Tang grit, the hepcat soulfulness of Digable Planets and hometown heroes Snoop Dogg and Westside Connection. Her hip-hop education became literal at times. "In high school we had to take a foreign language course, and I took Japanese," she explains, "and the teacher was the mother of [Visionaries MC and Up Above label owner] KeyKool. So KeyKool and [Visionaries bandmate] Rhettmatic—who is also in Beat Junkies—used to come into class and they would beat box, and do all this crazy stuff. I found it so amazing."
Post-school independence—starting college, getting a car—helped Lee develop a network of like-minded people in Los Angeles whose love for hip-hop was skewed towards the electronic, ambient and experimental. On the encouragement of friends, she started to mess around with writing beats with FruityLoops around classes, and late into the night.
Based on her early works, a friend suggested Lee sign up for the Beat Cipher, a monthly night run by Project Blowed (a collective of hip-hop artists including underground luminaries like Aceyalone and Abstract Rude) where hip-hop producers, musicians and other performers compete early on in the evening, with the crowd favourite performing a 30 minute show at the end. Lee's first Beat Cipher was supposed to be especially for women, but she was the only one, and the rest were the male regulars. "Not a single person there thought I would play anything cool," she recalls, "I had no street cred. I'm this random Asian girl that just walks up into south LA, and they're like 'Whatever. This girl's not gonna do shit'. Obviously I'm nervous. I started doing the beat cipher, and then I started playing it. Then I got my cred." The Beat Cipher afforded Lee some confidence, and around 2007 she began entering more competitive beat battles. "...and I never won a single one," she says, laughing.
"Not a single person there thought
I would play anything cool."
Around the same time Lee met and became friends with Ellison. "Later on I was debating on labels," explains Lee, "because I finally got to a point where I could choose someone who actually wanted to put out my music, Steve just asked me, 'Do you want to put something out on Brainfeeder?' I'm like 'OK. Let's do that.'" Brainfeeder's motley crew accommodates a broad palette, from Gaslamp Killer's Turkish obscurities, Daedelus' leftfield sounds and the stripped-back productions of Nosaj Thing and Lorn. But although Lee's side projects explore different sounds—Analogue Monsta, the soulful collaboration with New York singer/beatsmithSuzi Analogue, tropedelic beats as Mama Toquilla, electro confections as Tokitron—the musical kinship between Tokimonsta and Flying Lotus is clear; both share a fondness for rickety structures and melodic wormholes.
Similarly, Ellison's recent admission that sweltering summer climes allow him to write are echoed in Lee's discovery that her best work only comes after midnight. "[There's] definitely less inhibition at night," she says, "Sometimes the next day when I wake up, I don't really understand how I put it together myself, you know?" Lee recently added a Fender Rhodes to her home studio, adding to her microKorg, SP-404 sampler and coterie of instruments, but she has to keep it in her downstairs living room—with her piano—as both are too heavy to carry up to her studio. "I have to go down, record it into my laptop using Ableton and then I have to export onto my main system. When I think about it now it is kind of a hassle, but so far it's working for me that way."
Rejecting the easy road is something of a running theme for Lee, who aims for her live set to approximate "orchestrating music live," using an APC40, a program that translates MIDI notes sent from the APC for more functionality, a clip launch section, effects and distortion. On the eve of taking her mini hip-hop orchestra further than ever, to extensive tours in Australia and Asia, she's still reeling at her trajectory. "It's mind-boggling. It's humbling to see people that really understand you, because when you put your music out there, it's kind of like your heart you are showing, like exposing yourself in a way. And they are accepting you. I have been feeling really blessed by all of this."