The place to find and share independent music. From hip-hop to pop, dubstep to drum n bass; Beatnik is your filter.
words Ali Raymond / photography Fabrice Bourgelle Pyres
Born and raised in the legendary South Bay area of Los Angles, TOKiMONSTA dipped her toes in beat making when she was just 19. The music making began as a much needed distraction from studying an international studies degree at University of California, and not even TOKi herself could have predicted her skyrocket levitation to worldwide fame years later.
TOKi, at that point known as Jennifer Lee to most, is a second generation Korean-American — her moniker often has her mistaken as Japanese — who first fell in love with hip-hop. Beginning as a full-fledged b-girl, she soon found a similar love for electronic music, and with boom bap still in her veins she decided to delve deeper into experimental noise. Utilizing live instruments, percussion, digital manipulation and dusty vinyl she has managed to bridge the gap between the two often distant genres, making some of the most dazzling, bling-tastic art since the ’72 Impala lowrider with rims on it!
Now Toki is recognized and praised as one of the very best in avant-garde hip hop and electronica worldwide, and has become a leading figure in the soon-to-be legendary crew Brainfeeder.
“I was so sorry I wasn’t on skype earlier,” she apologetically relays at the start of our late internet meeting, causing me to add humility and charisma to my character description. It’s 2am in LA as we go through general niceties, but before you think I’ve tried to catch her in her pj’s with a cup of coco, it should be added that TOKi is a late night grafter. Fusing vintage sounds with progressive styles under the cover of darkness and solitude, she often works till sunrise.
“I woke up like 4pm and even though it’s 2am I probably won’t go to sleep till 6 or 7am. All my music is made dead into the night and early hours,” she explains. “So a lot of the time I produce after coming back from somewhere or seeing something and I’d be put in a certain mood. It ends up coming out the way it does”
We continue to exchange general chatter for a minute drifting between her favourite artist right now — Dam-Funk — and other creative interests. “Funk is so awesome. I wish I had the performance mentality Dam has. No one has the encyclopaedia knowledge he has of boogie funk. It’s on so many levels of awesome, but such a humble guy.
“I’m a big appreciator of visuals and aesthetics too. I paint and draw so I really like to be creative. In the future I’m looking forward to doing my own artwork and incorporating live visuals in my set. Maybe next year.”
The petite Toki is also big on food.
“I remember coming home and watching cooking shows when I was like 8. I love sushi. I’ve been into food since before it was cool, like before people started posting their dinner on Facebook, ha!”
Then we settle at the two main topics of conversation: Brainfeeder and their now renowned hang out, a small club called the Low End Theory.
For those who don’t know, Brainfeeder is a collective of producers and DJ’s that collaborates with various singers and rappers that have been breaking new ground in electronic music. Now a label spearheaded by the celebrated Flying Lotus, the team stems from the hazy melting pot of the LA music scene, with all the talented pioneers involved sharing common interests in early hip hop, soul and funk but equally intrigued by electronic beauty and experimentation.
Since the crew’s formation, they have individually pioneered their own micro-genres while creating an overall cosmic sound under their name, one that is still to be classified. From Nosaj Thing to Gaslamp Killer to Flying Lotus and TOKi herself, you are guaranteed a different sound. As the only female producer in the crew, I wonder if it’s difficult for TOKi to be amongst a bunch of such brothers.
“Yeah I guess I’m the only lady producer on the label, of course there are affiliated singers but It’s really cool. Obviously we grew our own genre and scene but we are all hip hop heads first. Just being around hip hop myself I was always the only girl anyway, and no body every treated me different. I suppose at some point I worked my way through the ladder. I’ve been there in the beginning when nobody ever gave me respect. Now I’m just one of the homes. I feel pretty well respected.”
Whenever Brainfeeder perform, apart from the tickets evaporating like water one other thing is certain — there’s a real sense of community between the billed artists. “We are all friends and it’s nice. Me being a part of Brainfeeder is just another natural progression of being in LA and hanging out with these people.
“All this music is coming out now but it was a family first and foremost. A crew with an idea.”
Whether they bombard your ears in a grimy, abandoned warehouse in Germany or a classy establishment like the Tate museum in London, quality is always guaranteed. But then again there is no place like home, and the crew’s home is the now freshest spot in LA – Low End Theory. The place to be if you have a thirst for pioneering and exciting music, TOKi is quick to explain its appeal, comparing it to her favourite spot this side of the water.
“Especially someone who’s from London I would compare it to a place like Plastic People. It’s kinda of the similar vibe were it has that great sound system but isn’t the nicest place, ha! They have a downstairs bar where they play a lot of independent movies and also an outside area for people who smoke. That used to be were we would perform back in the day. It’s probably the best area to perform but due to fire hazards we no longer can.”
“It’s a really interesting mixture,” she says as she continues to describe the typical crowd. “You’ll see hipsters, graffiti looking kids, baseball caps and t-shirts and every now and then, but not too many, people from work in suits. There isn’t a prerequisite of the kind of person you have to be in order to enjoy this music. It’s really a kind of sound that attracts people from all backgrounds. Low End is a really cool place.”
Buzzing off the local heroes and building friendships, It’s a place where TOKi, like many of her peers, used to come as a fan before she became a regular resident. It’s also the place Brainfeeder was formed.
“It’s really interesting when you go there ‘cause everyone’s really positive. I’ve never seen fights break out. We call Low End Theory our home base. Any day of the week you can come back form tour and just hang out with friends, with a beer, and know anyone who’s dj-ing is one of those friends too. It’s quite a nice and embracing kind of atmosphere.
“The extra special thing about Low End Theory is that the place strips you of your ego in a sense, there is no green room or backstage. No where like that allows the artist to interact with the crowd.
“If you want to you can ask questions and hang out with you’re favourite producers. In both aspects it’s really humbling weather artist or fan.Even now I get to see some artists playing and I’ll get freak out and become this fan girl ‘oh my god I listen to you’re music for like ten years.” TOKi pauses as she remembers a particular, funny moment.
“Yeah I did that to EL-P the other week which I think kind of freaked him out , but I think it was ok I’d been drinking quite a bit so I hope he doesn’t remember ha”
TOKiMONSTA’s music is often chilled, pensive and reflective, but she also has a monstrous side. Once in a while, she’ll wake you from the dream with a ridiculous stomping blast of the unreal.
“If I listen to upbeat and happy music for too long I get bored. Then I want really gritty, abrasive and loud. I tend to really bounce between the two.”
It’s no wonder, then, that she named herself TOKiMONSTA, or rabbit monster for those who don’t speak Korean. A sort of oxymoron that represents her dual passion to shock and move.
“I try to figure myself out sometimes but it’s really a hard”
So how did the hip hop girl turn her biggest influences into her own unique style?
“With me trip hop is a huge influence on my music too. I like that head nod stuff that makes you want to break your neck. When you listen to the old Wu Tang, West Coast or stuff like Dilla it has that thing you just want to vibe to it. I guess when you open your horizons and listen to electronic music it has that same idea. I think in general it’s just a natural progression.”
“Its kind of funny and I can’t speak for everyone, maybe in a sense, but in LA we have always had beat battles and showcases. The thing is always to one up each other. And for the ones keen on opting something new you’d bring something fresh to the table that would blow people away. So in little ways I think there is an adaption of styles from one another, if you pay attention to our music we are, and aren’t, all that similar though.”
“It was unintentional that it became like this.” Toki pauses to ponder how she helped create a scene. “It’s kinda hard to quantitative say why, but certainly one thing lend to another to the music becoming what it is now”
To see strong genres like hip hop, which came from many other brackets like jazz, soul and disco, itself being a principle proprietor in moulding a new breed of music is something quite special. And more than that, very exciting.
“It’s about the way you flip it. That’s a real hip hop mentality. Everyone can take the same sample but the one who flips it’s the best is the dopest sound, right”
Midnight Menu is out now. Buy it here.