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Interviewed by
Martyn Pepperell
Tuesday 2nd July, 2013 9:23AM

Over the last five years, Los Angeles beat architect/live electronic performer TOKiMONSTA (aka Jennifer Lee) has been making substantial headway with her own singular take on beats, hip-hop, RnB and mid-tempo electronic club music.

A lifelong technology enthusiast, Lee's productions and live performances have seen her win acclaim from BBC Radio1, Pitchfork, MTV, Billboard and numerous other outlets. Along the way she's been connected with key contemporary electronic camps situated in both the underground (Brainfeeder Records) and the mainstream (Ultra Records) and toured the world.

This week Lee will make her New Zealand debut through two shows in Auckland and Wellington with support from locals Kamandi and Suren Unka.

In light of this I spoke with her on the phone from Australia on Monday to talk about making the transition from hobbyist to professional musician, and perhaps more crucially, jumping from the underground clubs of Los Angeles to the big room mainstream rave circuit without losing sight of who you are creatively, and ultimately, the continuum your music exists within.

First of all, I gotta ask you, how young were you when you first became interested in technology?

Technology in general? Not just related to music?


Probably when I was around six. That was when I got my first Nintendo Gameboy. That was the first piece of personal technology I had, my big grey Nintendo Gameboy. I liked to play games on it. I progressed from there to a Super Nintendo and next I got my own computer when I was about nine. From there I just got more and more. I suppose we all rely on technology quite a bit now huh?

At what point did music technology become part of the equation for you?

Music technology? I would say, I suppose when you are really young you get your first CD player or boombox or something like that, which is your first introduction to any kind of music related to technology. That was how it started for me. I got my first boombox. I could play CDs and record cassette tapes, record off the radio, things like that. In terms of production, I suppose it was more so in my first year of University. So when I was eighteen or so I discovered I could make music through music production. Then I delved into music technology like software, hardware, samplers and these sorts of things.

What was your entry point into the world of music production. How did that become a concern for you?

Music production for me was a hobby. That was how I looked at it, something that I did for fun. It was something I did while other people played video games, or drew pictures, or knitted; and things like that.

How did you go from being a hobbyist to pursuing music as a serious profession?

I suppose it was after I got laid off from two different jobs? After I graduated from college the economy started tanking. I never thought I would be able to do music for a living so I got a regular job like all the other graduates. Then after I got laid off from two different jobs my music was kind of picking up. At the time the LA Beat scene was getting a little bit more attention and my music was getting played on things like the BBC. I thought, I have enough money saved, I'll give myself one year to try and push music as something that I can do full-time. If it doesn't work out I'll try and go hustle my way back into another job. I guess it took a bit of strife for me to actually pursue it. I guess I always just assumed that music was too impractical for me to pursue as a real profession. It seems to have worked out a bit now though. I think I have been full-time for five years now. That is quite an achievement as far as I'm concerned.

How did you become part of the whole Brainfeeder, Low End Theory, Los Angeles beat music world?

I guess I started off going to beat invitational's at Project Blowed. Project Blowed was the precursor to Low End Theory. It is a very longstanding hip-hop night in South Central, LA. Before then it was called The Good Life Cafe. They've have these invites. You'd go along and put your CD in and listen to your beats while bobbing your head. That is where I met people like Ras G and Dibia$e.

From there I started going to Low End Theory. I met Flying Lotus through Ras G. It was very casual, because at the time not a lot of people were going to Low End Theory yet. It was just a friend introducing a friend to another friend. Obviously you and these people had shared interests so you'd hang out and talk or chat online. There was a point at which I wanted to release some music. Flying Lotus asked me if I wanted to release on Brainfeeder and I said yes. It was a really simple, non complicated process. It was over iChat.

Project Blowed is interesting to me because it seems that all the current generation of rising Los Angeles stars were in the audience at those shows. Thoughts?

Exactly. Even some of the rappers were as well, and some of the younger cats who are coming up now and doing things. It's interesting. I think it just goes to show that that is where we still had hip-hop in Los Angeles. Everyone knew their history. Everyone knew who the really dope producers were from back in the day. You really got an education in music when you went to Project Blowed.

I guess one of the key connective threads here is Daddy Kev?

Of course. Daddy Kev came out of that school of thought. He's the father of everything we are doing right now. He is still very active in it and plays a big role in a lot of people's music, especially with Low End Theory.

How do you make the jump from that world to going to the next level up with Ultra Records?

It is quite different and obviously something that I had to think about a lot. At first when Ultra approached me I told them no. There is no way in hell, I have no interest in working with your label. The owner of Ultra Records was also the owner of Payday Records, who put out a lot of quintessential New York rap like Gang Starr, just a number of very notable rappers from the 90s, in New York. The owner himself really made it clear that he wanted to expand his label beyond just dance music.

I took it as an opportunity to show people that there is more to electronic music than the artists on this label. Ultra Records has a very strong following as well, so I thought if they released some of my music, some of their listeners might be keen to explore some other genres of music as well.

You're a Trojan horse?

Kind of. It kind of worked I suppose, but not all of my guys have gotten out of the horse yet. I was trying to break the majority hold EDM has on people while still doing my thing. If I put this album out on any other label it would still sound exactly the same as it does now. I wouldn't have changed anything. It isn't like because I released on Ultra the album came out differently.

Now, what sort of importance has having an overseas audience had to your career over the last five years?

Really important. Now that we are in the technological age of the internet, the world has shrunken to a very small size. I might talk with someone who lives halfway across the world more than I do with someone who lives right next to me. It is important to be able to be accepting of all people, and be able to communicate with all people. If I post at tweet at a certain time of the day, everyone in LA will be asleep, but people in the UK will be awake. We're living in a world that is much smaller than it used to be, and you really have to be able to understand everyone from a world perspective.

Just for me as a person, if I have an opportunity to play somewhere that I have never been able to go before, even if only five people show up, I want to go, just to have that life experience and just to meet that handful of people in an obscure random country. I've played in Poland and Romania and Russia. It's really surprising how far your music can reach, and it is really important to let that soak in without becoming overconfident about how powerful your music is. You have to take it in your stride and learn more from the kind of humanity that we live in.

I think when you play a show somewhere, all the people that listen to your music have a shared mentality. They all kind of behave in the same shared capacity. All the people that like your music also listen to the same kind of music you do, or know some of your friends. To listen to something as obscure as my music speaks to the kind of person that they are anyway.

So essentially it's a signifier?



TOKiMONSTA New Zealand Tour

Wednesday 3rd July, Whammy Bar, Auckland (note change of venue from Bacco Room)
Thursday 4th July, San Francisco Bath House, Wellington

Click here for tickets to either show.


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