From her debut album, 2010’s Midnight Menu, to her latest project, Oasis Nocturno, released March 20, TOKiMONSTA, 32, has found comfort in flourishes. Her ambitions meet her principles halfway on Nocturno, a seamless blend of hip-hop, EDM, and pop channeling “the moods from dusk till dawn.”
Take “Fried for the Night,” featuring Atlanta playboys EarthGang, which snaps to life with skittering drums and strobing synths mutating from second to second. The album ends with “For My Eternal, Oh Dream My Treasure,” a meditative suite of echoing guitars clashing against metallic clangs.
“Sometimes people want to make things from scratch, but I had a bunch of beats ready for EarthGang during our sessions,” TOKi tells me. “When we got into the studio together, they took the beat, and I’d have my laptop on me, so if I needed to rearrange the beat, I’d be able to do so. It just becomes a vibe at that point.”
Yet, by herself, TOKi, born Jennifer Lee in Los Angeles, California, is undeniable. Having a near-death experience, of course, can reshape your worldview in profound ways.
“If tomorrow didn’t exist, would I be happy with my output? I almost died, and it was not chill,” she says, referencing her recovery from multiple brain surgeries in 2016 to remedy the effects of moyamoya disease.
She continues: ”I had to write a will; I had to decide where all my stuff goes. No one’s living today and thinking about the possibility that they might die soon. Sometimes we do see it coming, and when you think about everything you’ve done in your life, the regrets start to settle in. I made it through, and after recovering, I thought about what tomorrow brings. You can’t predict what comes next. Make every day count.”
With that, the beauty of TOKiMONSTA’s music comes from her willingness to continue expanding her sound.
“I can’t make the same things I made 10 years ago,” she concludes. “Fortunately, I feel like my evolution has been natural. Every album is a little further down the road from the last one.”
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Growing up, what was your first experience with rap music?
TOKiMONSTA: The very first piece of music I purchased was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” which I bought as a single. I could’ve bought the album, but I guess I didn’t understand how purchasing music worked. I bought it at the same time I bought “Waterfalls” by TLC; those were the first two music purchases I ever made. Just imagine a very small Asian girl walking into Tower Records and buying those [singles]. And for whatever reason, I bought them on cassette. I carried them with me later on in life and remember asking myself why I bought the single version since it only had one song on it. Shortly after that, I started learning how to make mixtapes, so then it was cool. My mom and my sister bought me a boom box with a CD player and space for two cassettes. That’s when I started recording Westside Connection off the radio. But it was all thanks to Coolio; I’ve gotta thank him.
You’re classically trained in piano. How does that training translate to your beat making?
It had a pretty big impact in a unique way, especially considering the beat scene we had in LA during the 2010s era. Most of us, myself included, were making loops, so there were no transitions. The beat would play, and then the drums would come in, and that’s what we would play for each other. Because I had this classical background, I felt I needed to elaborate on it and turn it from just a beat to a song. It was important for me to not only have a beat looping; I wanted to sequence everything and arrange it like it was telling a story. To this day, it’s still an important part of my process. I want these songs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end with something to follow. I don’t want the beginning of the song to sound just like the end of the song.
What’s the difference between creating songs in the studio with artists like EarthGang and creating instrumental arrangements by yourself? Which do you prefer?
They’re so different. Sometimes people want to make things from scratch, but I had a bunch of beats ready for EarthGang during our sessions. When we got into the studio together, they took the beat, and I’d have my laptop on me, so if I needed to rearrange the beat, I’d be able to do so. It just becomes a vibe at that point; I worked with them on what the song should be about and what the energy should be. What I like about working with other artists in the studio is sharing creative energy. It’s always a lesson, which is something you can’t recreate by yourself.
But when you’re by yourself, you’re uninhibited, and it’s just you creatively driving this train. You’re finding all these cool ideas from your exploration of your creativity. That’s also special because if someone’s in the room with you, your thoughts can’t always manifest in the ways you want them to. They’re two different approaches that are both special in their ways.
As a producer, how do you approach utilizing artist vocals? Do you prefer if the artist’s lyrics match with the overall theme of your album, or is their voice just another instrument?
It depends on who the song is for. It’s hard to say. I don’t want to impede on any artist’s creativity, but if it’s for my album, then I’d like to have more of a say. If it were mine, the song would have to have some thread running through that’s consistent with all the songs. For the most part, when I’m working on a song with an artist for my album, I don’t want to impose too many restrictions. I want to be there as support. I want others to ask me if they think what they’re doing is a good idea, and I’ll use my sense of my album to say if it’ll fit or not. No idea is a bad idea, but some ideas are better, and I like to be encouraging and work with them through the writing process to make the best song possible.
Your music sits snugly in between the worlds of hip-hop, EDM, and dance music. What inspired you to move toward a more amorphous sound as your career has progressed?
Creative necessity and evolution as an artist. I can’t make the same things I made 10 years ago. Even if I wanted to make Midnight Menu again, I’m not in the same headspace. I’ll listen to that album and be impressed with certain things I did because I don’t think in those ways anymore. I appreciate that era of myself when I wasn’t equipped with the knowledge I have today, but it made me creative in a super-specific way. Now, I have so much knowledge, and I’m a much better engineer and songwriter. Not to say I wasn’t good at things then, but I didn’t know how to work with vocalists at the time. If I make music to satiate the needs of someone who liked my music from a certain era, then I’d be doing myself a disservice. Fortunately, I feel like my evolution has been natural. Every album is a little further down the road from the last one.
It’s been almost five years since your moyamoya diagnosis and subsequent surgeries. How have you been holding up since then? What about your life as a producer has changed post-moyamoya?
It almost goes back to what I was saying before. If tomorrow didn’t exist, would I be happy with my output? I almost died, and it was not chill. I had to write a will; I had to decide where all my stuff goes. No one’s living today and thinking about the possibility that they might die soon. Sometimes we do see it coming, and when you think about everything you’ve done in your life, the regrets start to settle in. I made it through, and after recovering, I thought about what tomorrow brings. You can’t predict what comes next. Make every day count.
On March 16, you tweeted, “Music isn’t canceled.” How, if at all, has your music creation process been altered by the spread of COVID-19?
COVID-19 has stifled touring, which is the primary bread and butter for many artists in this age where you don’t make much money off of the actual music. I don’t feel like my creativity is being stifled. Staying at home makes me feel like I need to use my time; there’s only so much Netflix you can watch. The time goes by so much more quickly when you’re creating, especially when you’re motivating. It’s been nice to reenter a cycle of creativity and planning my day around sitting myself in front of the computer and seeing what happens.
I’ve been creating what would be the live renditions of the songs on [Oasis Nocturno]. When I do a live set, I love to present the songs people know in a completely different way. If you want to hear the song the way it sounds on Spotify, you should just listen to it on Spotify. I’ve been remixing my songs, some old ones, ones from the new album. I find it to be an interesting challenge, like, “Hey, you made this song, now make it again.” It’s kinda like a puzzle.