How TOKiMONSTA Learned to Make Music All Over Again

Published May 15, 2020

Photo by John Michael Fulton.

Jennifer Lee, the Los Angeles-based DJ and producer known as TOKiMONSTA, has a story she can’t get away from. Five years ago, Lee was diagnosed with Moyamoya disease, a rare condition that necessitated immediate brain surgery. The aftermath left her unable to comprehend language or music, but Lee has come a long way. During recovery, she released Lune Rouge, a masterfully produced album that produced tracks like “Bibimbap,” a gorgeously layered song that displays her music’s signature control, pacing, and ecstasy. Then, at the end of March, Lee released Oasis Nocturnoan electric album that featured vocals from artists like Rosehardt and Dumbfounded. Also featured on the album was EARTHGANG, the beloved Atlanta-based hip-hop duo. On quarantine day-something, Johnny Venus, also known as Olu from EARTHGANG, got on the phone with Lee for some mentorship as he navigates the intense pressure to create a nonstop flood of musical content. A confident veteran of the music industry, she had some advice for him. For her, of course, making music was nothing short of a lifesaver. —SHANTI ESCALANTE

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JOHNNY VENUS: You been working on music?

TOKIMONSTA: I’ve been taking my new album and remixing it myself and just trying to figure out when I can go back on tour, how I can make the songs different for live. Stuff like that. And then I have some remixes I got to do, one for some crazy samurai video game that’s coming out on SONY.

VENUS: Lit. We’re working on our Spillage Village album.

TOKIMONSTA: Yes! You guys make so much music.

VENUS: I feel like it’s never enough.

TOKIMONSTA: You got to keep doing it, right? It’s like a compulsion. 

VENUS: Yeah, I feel that way a lot of times, but sometimes I feel obligated. Now, with how easy it is and how quickly you can make music, I just feel it’s like the obligation of the artist to make ten songs a day. Just like how everybody’s always on social media doing TikToks—it’s all about output, output, output, output, output. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t feel like you give yourself enough time to be reflective enough to give something. It used to be that an indie artist could just disappear and then come back with what they’ve been working on, hibernating and incubating. And then everybody is like, “Oh, this is so dense and full. There’s so much content, and it’s so deep.” And it’s like, yeah, they had time to actually do it.

TOKIMONSTA: It’s almost like a luxury if you were an artist that hit it big before a certain time. Anyone who’s coming out now, they have to be on everything. But also, we’re the architects of our life. We are truly our own bosses of how we want to live our lives. We can make those decisions. It’s just the fear of missing out, the scarcity. Like, “Oh, shit, well, if I don’t put out a song next week, everyone’s going to forget me,” or, “If I don’t do this TikTok Megan Thee Stallion dance, someone’s going to forget me. I got to do that to be relevant.” 

But the reality is, if we are actually proud of the artists that we are and we believe that we are good, maybe we don’t have to feel as obligated with that kind of pressure. When you have the most shine on you, that’s when you feel like you need to take advantage of it the most. 

VENUS: That’s so true, man. I’ve literally been going crazy. I’m going to have to take a social media break. I feel it. Even though this is the time to be doing live shows, and interact, I’m like, yo, I really have to make the most of this reflective time. This is the time where we’re being forced to be still, but spiritually we’re not being still.

TOKIMONSTA: Yeah, we’re not going anywhere, but we’ve got to do a lot. I feel that too because I’ve had to do so many of these live streams, DJing for one digital online streaming festival, and another one, and maybe another one I have to do for a fashion brand, and then there’s going to be another one after that. I don’t usually do that. People are out there doing it several times a week. And I’m just tired. I’m at home, but I’m still tired.

VENUS: I feel you. I’ve been sleeping so crazy lately. 

TOKIMONSTA: Good crazy or bad crazy?

VENUS: Good. I like to stay up at night, but I’m just like, “Aye, bruh, I’m going to just try this again tomorrow, man. I’m going to just get my rest, wake up tomorrow, try this again.” And I’ve been really not forcing anything. My musical output is a little slow anyway. I’ll probably make like four songs a week. But, like, Lil Wayne—he say he made 52 songs a night.

TOKIMONSTA: I mean, but how good are the songs?

VENUS: That’s my first thought. It’s like, how many of them shits are jams?

TOKIMONSTA: How many thoughts are in those 52? I always thought of the music industry as being really wasteful, where people don’t work on songs anymore. They’re just like, “I’m going to make it. If it works, it works. If it’s not, let’s trash it.” That’s a really common thing. And I feel like tons of songs are really solid tracks, but maybe they just need notes, or maybe they just need another round. But especially in a world where people are pitching songs to other people, pitching beats or pre-written songs for a pop star, if they hear it and the intro’s off, it’s an immediate pass. 

VENUS: So as a hip-hop artist, we get sent beats, and we get sent probably like 60 to 100 beats a day. And I just don’t have the mental capacity to go through all of those, right? I’ve gotten to the point where I’m learning how to play the piano and the guitar—that’s how I’ll start the music. If I’m starting a song without a beat or something, I’ll start from scratch. An acoustic guitar or a regular piano, and then build it from there. It’s a whole lot more kinetic. Don’t get me wrong. I still like those beats and stuff, and that shit’s fire. But it’s different. It’s like playing with clay, you know?

TOKIMONSTA: Yeah. And you’re also making the songs that you would want to hear from someone else. If you’re listening to beats, you would just want the beats to sound like what you’re trying to make anyway. You can cut the middleman and just be like, “Why am I trying to look for someone else that might make a beat that I might like when I can just go and play it and make a beat that I like?”

VENUS: I was watching this Prince documentary last night. Everybody knows him as such a virtuoso who could really do anything, but back then, they was like, you made a song in a day? That was crazy. Nowadays, if they make a song a day, “That’s it? You just made one song?” And sometimes he still would send the music off to get arrangements and all of those things. And this was at a time where you couldn’t FaceTime somebody and hear what they doing. You’ll just have to wait til they send it back. 

TOKIMONSTA: That’s such a wild concept, especially back then. Making a lot of music was hard because you were on an 8-track tape or something. They didn’t have Ableton or whatever people are using now. I think back then, people were really committed to the songs that they were making. They were like, “Everything I have has to go onto this song right now because I can’t change it.”

VENUS: It has to work.

TOKIMONSTA: And they’re going to make it work because they’re like, “I can’t go in and scrap it. This was like thousands of dollars in the studio with this engineer to make this track. Let’s just fix it.” 

VENUS: I want to know about the Low End Theory. I was reading about this artist named Exuma, The Obeah Man. He’s a folk artist from the Bahamas, and he performed a lot during the ’70s and the ’80s, and they were talking about how he performed at the Low End Theory too. So please tell me everything you know about the Low End Theory.

TOKIMONSTA: Every Wednesday there was a Low End Theory night at The Airliner in Lincoln Heights. It’s right by Chinatown in L.A. It was basically a safe space for musicians making weird music in any genre. The thing there was the more unique you are, the doper you were perceived by everyone else. So you had rappers performing. You had electronic producers. You had bands play. And there were artists from one era, like you have The Mars Volta playing at Low End Theory, but you also have some like Flying Lotus coming from there. Or Omar from Mars Volta would come up and play with his side project. Erykah Badu has come there to DJ, to hang out. James Blake, Thom Yorke from Radiohead. And that was just them coming to play at Low End Theory because of the hype and the energy around that place.

It was really eye-opening and really energizing to be there because people were there for the music but also having a good time. The security was really lax. You could go outside and smoke weed whenever you wanted to. I’m happy to say that’s where I came from, and it was a big part of why I became the kind of musician that I’ve become.

VENUS: Is it a small place?

TOKIMONSTA: Yeah, it’s super small, so once it started getting really hyped up, there would be lines around the block, and the city would come. The neighbors would shut it down. Eventually the press started writing about it, and more people started coming. During the last part of its years alive before they shut it down, there was just constantly a line outside and it was really hard to get inside. 

VENUS: That kind of reminds me of places in Atlanta where we used to perform at as far like Apache Café or little small spots where people just came to see pure talent. How many times did you perform there?

TOKIMONSTA: A lot, so many times. In the really, really early days, I remember going there with a CD full of beats and handing it to [the DJ] Daddy Kev. I was like, “Please let me play one of your beat invitationals. I got beats. Here they are.” I’d beg him to let me play.

VENUS: I feel you. We did that so much in Atlanta. It was crazy. 

TOKIMONSTA: It’s hustle, right? Someone needs to pay attention to you for you to be able to perform. You have to be like, “Please listen to my music. Please let me play your club.”

VENUS: This is a promise: This shit is fire. Have there been moments of pushback in your career that you weren’t expecting?

TOKIMONSTA: I mean, I think a lot of artists will say some level of pushback. For me, the biggest situation where I’d feel any pushback is usually opening for someone else, like on a tour, or playing before someone else at a festival, where their fans are not having it. You’re starting off, you’re opening for a really big act. Everyone at this venue is there for that act. They’re not there for you.

VENUS: They’re there for them only.

TOKIMONSTA: And they’re just checking their phone, looking around, waiting for you to get off just so they can see the person that they really went there to see. But it’s all good. You take it in stride. I think it really humbles you as an artist to know that it can be tough too.

VENUS: Hell yeah. Damn, that’s fire. We haven’t opened for a tour in a while. We’ve all had openers. We did our first three headlining tours. It’s different, knowing that everybody’s there for you. The energy is so high, and they singing the words. And people can’t wait to see you. But those moments really make you become intimate with the fans that you’re trying to reach. 

TOKIMONSTA: Live shows are a crazy concept, because it is a shared experience with all these people. This group of people that are coming to see you perform, they don’t know each other. They have different backgrounds. They can come from different parts of the city, different age groups. And yet when you perform, that’s the common denominator. I haven’t had to open for someone in a while either, but in those moments it’s humbling because that group of people that’s there, they’re not there to see you, and their shared expression is with the artist that they came to see. But you hope that when you open for an artist, that you gain some of their audience. Maybe even if 90 percent of them don’t really like your music or they don’t understand it, there’ll be 10 percent of them that’ll be like, “Hey, I really trust this. I like this opener. Now I’m going to follow this artist for the rest of their career.” But I’ve seen before with openers I’ve had where the audience can be super sweet to you but kind of no chill to your opener. And it’s kind of sad, but I know what it feels like too.

VENUS: On our last three tours, we made a point to shout out our openers and most of the time bring them out on stage, and after the show  encourage them to come out and sign autographs with us too. It’s like, “Yo, come out. Say, ‘What’s up?’ to these people and make these connections,” because just coming to see somebody that you never heard of is very impersonal. And so we like to give them that chance. 

TOKIMONSTA: One hundred.

VENUS: Can you tell us more about creating your album after your brain surgery and after your… it’s not even hearing loss. You said you forgot how to speak and everything.

TOKIMONSTA: Yeah.

VENUS: You are a miracle. That is so fire.

TOKIMONSTA: Yeah, being alive is fire.

VENUS: That’s so amazing.

TOKIMONSTA: I had been diagnosed with this disease called Moyamoya, and then in order for me not to die from that disease, I had to get brain surgery really soon after my diagnosis. And the side effect of the surgery is that I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t understand speech. I lost a lot of motor skills on my left side, kind of like a stroke patient. And then I couldn’t understand any music. 

The surgery was successful in negating and kind of rerouting the issues around the disease that I have. But the side effects were really severe. Because I just woke up one day, I looked around at my sister, and I couldn’t say anything to her. But I could look at her, and knew I wanted to communicate stuff, but I couldn’t verbalize anything. And yet I was still able to have thoughts. I was cognitive. I was aware that couldn’t do the things that I should do. 

When you’re that close to dying and when you’ve had so much of what makes you happy taken away from you, you want to make sure that you make art that really matters because if it were all to end tomorrow, would I be happy with the art that I’ve created today? And if you’re making music that isn’t true to you, and you’re making music that you feel forced to do, if you’re making music that the audience expects from you, you’re not doing a service to yourself, you’re doing a service to them, and when you die, in that inevitable moment when that happens, you would’ve done all this work not visualizing and accomplishing your vision but someone else’s vision. So with this new album, like the last one, it was all about making my vision.People can say whatever they want about the music. Whether it’s positive or negative, I’ll still be happy because I made the art that I wanted to make.