Be Thyself: A Conversation with TOKiMONSTA

Making moves in the music game is a challenging process. Jennifer Lee, better known by her stage

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Making moves in the music game is a challenging process. Jennifer Lee, better known by her stage moniker TOKiMONSTA, is certainly one to understands this. Identified as being one of most outstanding producers of the decade by many, the journey to success and recognition is not a walk in the park for the Brainfeeder and Ultra signee. During her stay in Hong Kong for the H&M LOVES MUSIC campaign, we were able to have a candid and sincere conversation with the beatsmith. She revealed to us the difficulties of working in the music industry — especially within the realm of production, such as it being dominated by individuals who do not share the same ethnic, gender or cultural backgrounds as her, and how she might be marginalized as a female Asian producer because of that. We also spoke on her artist Anderson Paak, who was featured on six of the songs on Dr. Dre’s recent album Compton, as well as fellow LA artist Gavin Turek, who TOKi has released the superb collaborative EP You’re Invited. Lighter topics were also visited, such as her side hobbies, passions, upcoming projects, fashion, food, and her desire to work with Young Thug because “he’s amazing.”

Tell us how you first linked up with H&M.

I did something for them in LA. It was with Refinery29. I think I played a show too. And yeah, I guess now, it segwayed to being here in Asia.

So what does this relationship with H&M entail? It’s music-based, performances, but anything else beyond that?

Yeah, definitely shows, which is nice too. It’s like the whole branding campaign that “H&M LOVES MUSIC,” which is great ‘cause I’m music, so I think it’s a nice way for a brand to support artists in a way.

That was a well-curated event, it was a good vibe. Did you like the sound as well?

Oh yeah on stage, the only little issue I had was the monitors weren’t loud enough, and for me, they need to be quite loud to feel like I’m sort of in my experience. If it’s too quiet then I feel like I can hear the room, and then I feel a little bit more self-conscious. But otherwise it was great, from what I can perceive, I wasn’t in the audience. (Laughs)

You have a new EP out, with Gavin Turek. Maybe share a little with us about this?

So the EP with Gavin is called You’re Invited. Basically, I wanted to put out her record, I feel like she’s sort of this entity that’s been around in LA, and I work with her quite frequently, and I just wanted to give her the opportunity to be sort of risen up and like, be given a platform. And so I’m releasing her EP on my album which is fully produced by me. So in a way it’s collaborative, but then I don’t want to take any focus away from her, so the whole goal of this project is to put her forward first even though I’m very much a part of it and I’m doing all the shows with her and I’m in a lot of the artwork and stuff. But yeah, it’s great. And as far as status, I got the masters back today — which I haven’t listened to yet — so, first round of masters are back. The single’s already done, the single will come out probably towards the end of this month.

How would you outline your personal relationship with Gavin? Professionally and privately, because you guys must have a private connection as well.

Yeah, I mean, I’ve known her for so long now. How I found her was from MySpace, you know. It was during the era, that sort of golden era of MySpace musicians and yeah, I literally blindly found her and I was like, “Do you want to work on some music?” And then she came over to my house, she had to call her mom to let her mom know that I wasn’t a psychopath, it was really funny. And then we’ve been collaborating since then. And yeah, I mean, our relationship is very much music-focused I think. Not too much outside of that though, we do enjoy each other’s company. That’s sort of the first reason why I approached her and that’s sort of how we’ve existed until now. She’s like the nicest person, she’s so sweet. And I think she deserves great things and she’s a really good writer and singer.

So that leads to my next question, how do you guys complement each other sonically? Obviously she’s a singer and you provide the music, but how would you describe how you complement each other’s style?

You know it’s interesting because for me, my music is mostly kind of consistent just because I’m a producer, but for her, a different producer gives her a different song and she can still sing it. So her personal style is disco. She sings pretty spot-on disco, disco-funk, and she does all that stuff with Mayer Hawthorne and Tuxedo and stuff. She doesn’t do any of that with me so it’s quite different. For her I think it’s a big change when she collaborates with me and she goes for… or… my production brings out something very specific in her and yeah, what we create together is very different than what we create separately. So it’s a very interesting sort of sonic cooperation. I dunno, it’s these two puzzle pieces that fit together in a very specific way and always has a very certain sound when it comes out. I can’t really say why that is, but when I work with her I want to make certain types of beats, and when she works with me she writes a certain type of way. And yeah, I really like it.

What’s the difference between working on a solo piece and a collaborative project?

With this one, see this is the first time I’ve really done this and had really prioritized her wants and needs and goals for the album. For example the artwork. We’re dressed in white. It’s very white — I never wear white. So then these are like the little compromises I’ve made so far. But you know, even on the tracks though, I did help with the writing also, so I help out with the writing just because, you know, I know the production better and I’m like “maybe we could __ the sound on that note/” So it’s been very hands-on on my side, though it’s still mostly about her. What I’ll do for her though is… even the mixes will be different. For example, this album is for her; the vocals will be a little bit louder, a bit more on top. If I have her on a track of mine, I’ll treat her more like an instrument so her vocals might be a little lower in the mix, which is quite technical, but it’s a big difference. [It’s] like listening to an instrumental track versus listening to like, Young Thug on a record — his voice is super on-top, right. And leaving her a lot more room too. I think as a producer that does a lot of instrumental music you tend to overcompensate for lack of vocals, so it’ll be really busy, so I try to sort of minimize production and really leave a lot of room for her vocals and her background vocals and things like that.

If you would have the opportunity to work with Young Thug how would you approach it?

I would probably have to sit him down in a room and sit there until he finished. First of all, I would do it. I would completely do it ‘cause I think he’s amazing, but there are certain rappers that I think you just have to take this in one take, like you have to be in one room and just get it there. There’s a few artists where I feel like it’d be like that. But I wanna be there. I think I’d wanna witness it and see how he writes, and if he writes at all, I dunno if I’ve actually looked into it.

Sure would be interesting.

Right? I think so! Maybe we could do each other’s nails and hang out and stuff.

You partially already answered this question, but sonically speaking, how different is the EP from your solo albums?

Oh yeah, not too different, actually. I think this EP is more of a continuation of the style that I produced before rather than a period thing. So I think about the tracks that we made together and the ones that are, you know, the people know me well for. Like a lot of my bigger songs are the ones that have her on it, and they’re quite old, they’re from 2011 like the Brainfeeder stuff. So I looked back on that period and what I was thinking and how I was creating music at the time, and translated that to how I produce now. But yeah, I dunno, it’s interesting just to go back and take that and modernize that in a way it’s different than my solo productions, where I’m less focused on the past and more focused on just doing new shit. With her project, I’m like, “let’s try to bring back this nostalgia, this aesthetic that we created at that moment in time.” Yeah, it’s fun though, it’s great. And you forget a lot of things, you forget techniques and sounds and all these great things that you used to do before, because you always try to move forward.

Nice, nice. Yeah, I listened to it and I can see how there are parallels but also how a lot of Gavin’s personality is also playing into it, so it’s interesting. Let’s talk about Young Art Records — how did it start? I don’t think too many people know that you’re actually running a label.

Yeah, I mean, it’s weird, people know, and don’t know. But you know, it’s a label. The artists are more important than me. There are certain things that I don’t feel like I’m fit for, as someone who runs a label, so I actually have a label manager now who’s quite good at all the logistics, like more admin and schedule-oriented things. I do a lot of A&R-ing, and I still participate on other levels as well, but my big thing with this label is I wanna be able to pick acts and put out acts. And with these first few projects, they do have my production on it, it’s like solely my production ‘cause my project was the first thing to come out, then this project with Gavin, the next one is with Anderson .Paak and myself. And then at that point on, I wanna participate less on the production side. I just feel as though if I have a label I should probably put music out on it and draw people into the artists, and then grow from there.

Throughout your career you’ve been a recording artist and now you’re kind of switching positions, like being a label head, label owner; how does your perspective change?

I mean it’s this interesting thing, being an artist and a label head, but at the same time I’ve always been an indie artist, so in a way I’ve always been my own label head and my own A&R and been doing everything on my own. So now, it’s just doing all the things I’ve done for myself but for other people. Like, it’s taking more of an executive role in terms of other people, you know, and what they should be doing… or not what they should be doing, but the ways that we can take their music. And the main goal of this label, or, one thing I wanna make sure I do with this label is give artists their freedom. And I don’t want an A&R being like “Oh this sucks, this isn’t good,” you know, the shitty things that real labels do to people, and let them navigate. And if they want my help in a creative way, I will be there for them to be like “Okay, if you want me to help you pick out tracks, I’ll do that for you.” But I wanna give a lot of artistic freedom with this label like I do for myself, which is actually the same thing, so not too much is very different.

Would you say that label heads should have been artists before in their lives to get a better understanding?

Not always, there are a lot of labels headed by artists that are really, like, not well-run and all crazy, so my goal is to have a label that has an artist perspective in mind, but is well-run. Sometimes you have the artist in mind, but we are not always the most organized, schedule-oriented people. And sometimes certain artists from labels will not pay their artists, but it’s just because the label head is an artist too, and he’s too busy working on his career, or she’s working on her career, so that’s why even though I have to take a bit of a cut, I’d rather hire someone else to make sure it’s run well so that the artists are really happy. I think I’m going on a tangent, but yeah, I dunno. I think there’s some ways where being an artist helps, and in the ways that it doesn’t help, I bring someone else that can really compensate and help.

Let’s talk about Anderson Paak, who’s signed to your label. What can you tell us about him? He has a few interesting projects lined up, Knxwledge, and of course, Dr. Dre. Anything you can share?

I can’t be super specific about it. But yeah, he’s been in the studio with Dre and yeah, he’s on the album. Whenever he’s around Dr. Dre, media sensor, everything. I know other stuff that is secretive that’s really cool, but I’ll just say this, he’s headed for big, gigantic, huge things. And he’s someone who I believe in a lot. He’s also been collaborating with a number of artists, so you’ll see more music with him featured He’ll be featured on a lot of tracks with other producers as well. He’s a true genius. And he’s been around in LA for ages, but then I feel like maybe not if people had that insight to look into him. I mean I’m not gonna say because we had that one track, but that track was pretty amazing. After “Realla” came out and after his project with Knxwledge and his Venice album as well, people finally looked at him and was like “Oh this guy,” and now everyone’s jumping on. And he’s one person where I wanna see him succeed a lot and he’s going to, because he’s that talented. Yeah, and he can write on anything too. The main thing is that he’s an amazing writer. I’ll sit there and be like “I have no idea how you came up with this, melody and lyrics.” And they’re so clever. And effortless.

How did you guys meet?

I met him ages ago because he was friends with Dumbfoundead. So it was all full circle. But I’ve known him for such a long time and then we finally worked on this track. Track came out, and everyone’s like “Eyy, Anderson Paak, this guy!” Yeah, he was called Breezy Lovejoy before, so now everyone just knows him as Anderson.

What would you see is the biggest misconception about you?

There are many. Let’s see… number one thing is I’m not Japanese. I get that a lot. And to clarify, “Toki” is a Korean word. It’s probably a Japanese word too (laughs). But there are a lot of superficial things that are misconceptions. I think musically people get it, but some people think that I don’t speak English — that’s another thing, I speak English. Other things: people think that I’m really small but I’m actually a quite tall, loud person. Everyone thinks I’m like a really meek Asian chick. It’s not true. What other ones are funny? Oh, some people think I have a ghost producer. That one’s less and less because I think i’ve proven myself enough and done enough things, like I’m live in the studio and showing that I’m doing stuff. That’s not as prevalent but that used to be one. I have sung on my records, but some people think that I’m singing when it’s a featured artist, so there’s that. What other ones? I dunno, we’ll start with those. There’s a huge list, most of them are very obnoxious.

These misconceptions, is it because of your Asian heritage or is it gender-related?

Yeah, I mean, I think so, I mean, definitely. All the things I’ve listed are very much based off if you just look at a photo of me and not pay attention to text, or interviews, or things I’ve said. Which is fine, I don’t need anyone to focus on my personality or the things I say, or whatever, I don’t think that’s as important as people listening to the music — as a musician. But as a human being, the other things do bug me a lot. And I’ve learned to be very forgiving ’cause some people just don’t know. Like they mean the best things when they try to come up to me and say “Konichiwa” and I’m like “dammit, I’m sorry, that’s not what I am.” Or like, people come up to me and speak in Korean, but then I’m like “I just speak English, I’m not from there…” There are ways people try to make a concerted effort to be nice, and sometimes I’ll get a little irked by it, but I’ve learned to be a lot more chill than I used to be about it.

How do you feel about being female in the music industry?

I mean, a lot of things have changed ‘cause there are bigger artists now that are coming out that are female, and in electronic music and all of that, but it’s also perception. For example, Grimes. People think Grimes is this indie-pop star but she produces her own stuff. No one focuses on that.

And she draws.

Yeah, her artwork definitely speaks for itself, it’s pretty amazing. But it’s producers in electronic music… female producers in electronic music… there’s a lack of that. There are more now, but it’s about making sure it’s people with quality, because the biggest issue I have with female producers and DJs is that they’re not that skilled, but they’re getting too much attention. And as harsh as it may sound, I feel as though if a woman wants to be able to compete or just show that they’re competent in something like this, [that’s] very male-oriented, you can’t lower the bar for them just because they’re a girl like “Oh, she’s the only female producer, she’s chill, we should show her music,” and then it’s really shit, you know. For me, I mean I say this a lot and it’s redundant, but I would rather be someone’s 20th favorite producer overall than their first favorite female producer. Like I don’t want that separate category to come in. And the only sign that this whole issue will not exist anymore is that I won’t be asked this question, you know. You’re asking me this question because it’s an issue. And once it’s not an issue, it won’t be a question that I’ll be asked.

No, I get it. I see it. Everyday. We curate content on the site, and even the magazine, and it’s really hard. You can really see how there’s not a big supply of female artists in this case.

And that’s the other issue, the systematic, cultural level of teaching where… let’s say specifically with me with music — there’s a lot of female songwriters and musicians, you know, but production is different. Production is very tech-oriented, and there’s this sort of… maybe the women will go and cook in the kitchen, but if you’re gonna set the time on the VCR it’s going to be the dude, the dad’s gonna do it, it’s not the woman that does it. If you can’t figure out your cellphone, you might just hand it to a guy to do it. But it’s not that a woman can’t do it, maybe she’s just used to like, “Oh you’ll figure it out sooner than I can.” And it’s to get that thought process change where once you normalize female producers, it’ll be normal, then women would just be like “Yeah, I’ll set my own shit, I’ll program my phone, I’ll do all these things.” But it’s deeply ingrained in our culture, where certain things are just not things that women do, and certain things are things that men do.

Do you think the solution is just for people, media, just to stop asking this question? Is that a first step?

No, and that’s where it goes back to what I said earlier, it’s really important to ask the question ‘cause you need people to say things, because the general public might not be aware. They don’t know it’s an issue, no one knows it’s not normal. They might not realize… I mean they know that there’s not a lot of female producers, but let’s say with electronic music in general, it’s mostly just white males. So there’s not a lot of diversity even in terms of ethnicity. There aren’t even a lot of other Asian male producers that are big in electronic music. Or black, or Mexican, or whatever, it’s usually white males. Not that that’s a problem, it could be a part of marketability, it could be a part of background, like it’s more likely that those guys will learn how to produce this type of music. But you have to ask the question, but I think it also helps by not drawing too much attention. But let’s say you guys started putting out more content that was more diverse, but without drawing too much attention to it, eventually people will get too used to it.

Exactly. I just think it still needs to be somehow addressed because it’s 2015.

Yeah i know, I think it’s important to talk about it, but I think it’ll be an indicator that the problems been somewhat resolved more — it’s not a question that needs to be asked, you know. I guess it’s like saying like, “What is it like to be a minority athlete?” and that’s almost not an issue, ‘cause most athletes are kind of minorities. Maybe not in like, baseball or, I dunno, something specific, but you know, some people are just better at certain things. Like cricket, whatever the best cricket players may be, someone from ___ or something. But eventually it won’t be an issue. But it’s slow. And it’s worldwide. Little baby steps, you know? And then eventually bigger things will happen. I can already see how it’s changed.

That’s good. one final question then maybe we’d like to bring up more of a fashion angle to it. How do you define your style? How do you decide what you put on? Just so we can peg it on you know, wrap it up with the first two questions and make it sound?

Um… comfort? ‘Cause everytime i wear something that’s more… like when I wear things that are cool, I always end up regretting it if i feel really uncomfortable for the next five hours standing in five inch heels, something like that. A lot of it is comfort and style. I mean lately I’ve been into this sort of weird, like, menswear thing. I mean not menswear, but not wearing overtly feminine things I guess. That’s what I’m into right now, wearing a lot of black. Yeah, it’s a sort of thing about form; form and fashion — it’s a level-of-comfort-while-still-maintaining-my-identity-as-I-could woman? Sounds like weirdly feminist… that’s another thing! I don’t consider myself a feminist, I just live my life like it doesn’t matter, either way. Feminism could also be one of the –

That’s a misconception that you encounter a lot?

Yeah. I mean, not really actually, that’s not… I don’t think people think I’m a feminist either, ‘cause people don’t even think I speak English, so regards to the issue, I think it needs to change, but I take a very different approach than being super preachy about it unless someone asks me about it. But yeah, as far as fashion, sorry for bringing it back, yeah, I dunno! I just sort of like what I like, and I put everything together. I don’t have a lot of logic and weird fashion formulas in my head, I sort of just pull things out.

Yeah, fashion and music is going more and more together.

Yeah, I think so, yeah, most definitely! And you know, I think a lot of art forms are hand in hand. A lot of people are always creative in multiple ways as well, you know, Grimes is an artist, like a visual artist, and a musician. Or people that are into… like Kilo Kish or something — you do music but you also like to do the clothing thing or some people like to cook a lot, and take that into a direction, but also do music. And everything in between, like doing fashion and doing music, or the whole thing.

Do you have another creative outlet?

I do, I draw a lot. I mean it’s always in phases, but then I do like doing visual arts stuff as well. I mean sometimes I’ll post it online, but then I feel as though I’m a stronger musician than a visual artist ‘cause if I compare my visual art to other people I’m like really shit. I’m not bad, I’m like a good doodler, and sometimes I’ll post it on Instagram. But yeah, I like to do that. I’ll paint or I’ll sketch. And then I like to cook a lot. So for me, food is a big element of my life. First of all, you need to eat to live, and then also when you’re on tour, you realize you don’t really get to see the city much, but you’ll always get to experience the city through eating and dining and cooking and all those things. Like, culture and food are very hand-in-hand, so yeah.

 

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