June 15, 2011
It’s a cool night in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. It’s only 9:30 p.m. and TOKiMONSTA won’t be taking the stage at Low End Theory for at least a few hours, but the line outside The Airliner club is already around the block. The excitement of the crowd has begun to foment on the sidewalk.
Every Wednesday in downtown Los Angeles, producers from all world (sometimes even Thom Yorke or Erykah Badu) throw down their best tracks and mixes at Low End Theory—a weekly showcase that highlights up-and-coming artists in electronic music as well as LA Beat Scene “residents,” primarily those from Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label and Alpha Pup records. Low End Theory might not be glamorous—consisting of a few small, grimy, dark rooms that are generally full of sweaty people crowded around a huge, wobbling, sound system—but it sure is wonderful.
TOKiMONSTA, or Jennifer Lee, is the only woman currently in the underground electronic hip-hop movement known as the LA Beat Scene. TOKi’s music is a mix of what late night dreams might sound like if they were composed by ’90s rapper versions of John Coltrane and Nina Simone in the year 3050. Once you’ve heard it, there’s no going back (not that you’d ever want to). A native of Torrance in Southern California, Lee grew up in a Korean household listening to grunge rock before discovering hip-hop and rap. Although she used to work in business entertainment and advertising, today she produces under her dichotomous name—“Toki” being the Korean word for “rabbit” and “monsta” being well, just exactly that. A frequent performer at Low End, she has found her musical home at Brainfeeder. Her premiere EP, Bedtime Lullabies, came out in 2008, and last year she produced her first full-length album, Midnight Menu. Her latest EP, Creature Dreams, which you can hear a sample from on her Soundcloud page, was released on May 16th.
There’s no doubt that TOKi is an incredible producer, both live and in the studio, but her singular female presence in a community of male Beat producers attracts attention. Of course this disparity raises the question of why it exists in the first place. TOKi might currently be the ‘first lady’ of the Beat Scene, but will electronic music culture allow for more women Beat producers as it grows and develops?
Although TOKi’s status as the sole woman who has broken into Beat music with her sick beats adds to her accomplishments (it doesn’t define them), the fact that she’s remarkably and uncommonly open with her fans especially distinguishes her. On her recent “Magical Properties” tour with Shlohmo and Daedelus, she published her blackberry messenger PIN on her twitter account and asked fans to message her. In fact, it was through this common bond of blackberry that I was able to first contact her. I immediately messaged TOKiMONSTA as soon as I realized the opportunity was available, though I didn’t expect her to answer. But lo and behold, a couple of days later in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up to find the red light flashing on my phone and an encouraging request that I email her for further contact.
As a huge fan of the LA Beat movement, a regular at Low End, as well as a longtime fan of TOKi’s, I was specifically interested in her experience as a female producer in a field not necessarily unreceptive to women, but definitely dominated by men. TOKi was kind enough to answer my questions via email:
DH: How did you get into producing music? Was it difficult?
JL: I got into production because of my curiosity and love for music. It all started by downloading production software when I was a 1st year in college and taking it from there. It wasn’t too difficult, but in regard to the technical aspect, you learn gradually. I’m still happily learning new ways to create.
DH: How does it feel to be one of few female producers in this emerging genre of music?
JL: It’s amazing and rewarding, but there’s an immense amount of responsibility, pressure, and criticism as well. I’m extremely grateful for the people have been looking out and supporting me. It’s also a great feeling to know I’m possibly inspiring a new generation of both female and male producers.
DH: What advice would you give to other girls trying to make their way into producing?
JL: I would advise that they just go for it. I know a lot of girls feel daunted by the software and equipment, but everyone has to begin at a starting point. There’s only a few things better than creating sounds that are appreciated by the ears of others.
DH: Who are some of your favorite musicians? Do you have any artistic inspirations, music and otherwise?
JL: Hard question! I have so many. I’d say that my mother inspires me in terms of feeling confident that I can do anything I put my mind to. Musically, Delia Derbyshire was a great inspiration as an innovator of early electronic music.
DH: Do you feel that your heritage has a place in your music?
JL: Definitely. It may not always be sonically or melodically present, but it will always be present in my approach and mentality.
Perhaps what was most surprising about TOKi was her sheer honesty. Instead of brushing away the pressures she may feel as a female producer, she gracefully recognized the criticism that she faces as a woman, as a musician, and as a female musician. For more on TOKiMONSTA, visit her official site: http://www.tokimonsta.com/.
Demetra Hufnagel is a sophomore at Yale College. She is an associate editor for Broad Recognition.