TOKiMONSTA didn’t ask for her doctor’s permission to play Coachella. Just four months prior, she had undergone brain surgery and, yes, she had received the OK to exercise and be around loud noises. But she hadn’t explicitly mentioned her plans to play the world’s premier music festival. When the day -- April 17, 2016 -- arrived, the electronic producer was feeling healthy and ready, and so was the 20,000-strong crowd. “If that was the last thing I could do before I died,” she says, “I wanted to make sure I did it.”
The artist born Jennifer Lee hasn’t always possessed such a carefree attitude. But in the three years since her surgery for moyamoya -- a rare disease caused by blocked arteries at the base of the brain -- many elements of Lee’s world, and her outlook, have evolved. Once reticent to share anything about herself with fans and the media, thinking it was cooler to be mysterious, the critical darling and dance world entrepreneur is now open and forthright, exuding the calm wisdom of a person who has spent a lot of time in contemplation and figured a few things out.
“The year after my recovery, I did all these things to push myself forward in this heroic leap,” she says. “But I didn’t address anything I went through. I didn’t want to think about it. It wasn’t until I started talking about my experience that I looked back and was proud of how I propelled myself.” What could have killed her career -- could have killed her -- instead inspired 2017’s Lune Rouge, her fifth studio album and her most successful to date, earning a 2019 Grammy nomination for best dance/electronic album. Released on her own Young Art Records label, the music is simultaneously soft and sturdy, complex and sophisticated, but not so self-serious that you can’t dance to it.
Lee’s career began at her mother’s house in Torrance, Calif., where she worked on beats in her bedroom. In time, she ventured into Los Angeles’ fabled Beat Scene, playing underground club night Low End Theory alongside L.A. heroes like Flying Lotus and Daedelus.
“It was this cross-section of hip-hop and electronic music that was extra male -- like extra, extra male,” she says. “To be the token female among all these men, I didn’t want to use that as a crutch or a gimmick. It’s easy to use ‘the only female producer’ as my tagline. That wasn’t what I was going for. I just wanted to make music that was at the caliber of my peers. That was undeniably good.”
At a 2010 beat battle, her music caught the attention of Lewis Kunstler, who at the time was a fledgling manager also involved in the Beat Scene. “It was her and four other guys,” says Kunstler, “and she just dropped something I’d never heard before. I knew she was super special.”
The two linked up, and Kunstler helped guide Lee’s career from the grimy East L.A. bar where Low End was held every Wednesday to Half Shadows, her 2013 major-label debut on Ultra Records; to festival lineups -- Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, Sasquatch, Lightning in a Bottle, Sonar and many more; and, ultimately, to the Grammys red carpet.
In 2014, Lee and Kunstler launched Young Art to release her music along with that of artists she champions, like L.A. singer Gavin Turek and producer CRi. The goal is to release a project every year, with the label offering Toki the freedom to make music on her own schedule. (“I can’t be like, a nine-to-fiver-in-the-studio kind of person,” she says.)
Working on her next album, Toki says she has been returning to her older music, thinking about who she was when she made it. “I was so much more free then. I didn’t have a lot of outside influence,” she says. “I was just making music at Mom’s house.”
While this new music will pay tribute to that earlier version of herself, the artist also clarifies that the TOKiMONSTA of 2019 is nothing like the one of 2010. She couldn’t be: She has a platform now, and a willingness to use it and to let other women, particularly women of color (she is Korean-American), know that if she can do it, so can they. Maybe this is the kind of evolution that happens when you face down death and instead end up onstage in the Sahara Tent.
“It’s a constant thing I have to think about, and it will be constant until the day I die because I still have this disease,” she says. “But I don’t feel fearful of it because I’ve been able to share it.
“And at the same time,” she adds, “Lune Rouge is not my best work. My best work is yet to come.”
Changing the Equation: “I like women empowering each other, but all-female lineups are alienating. Primavera [in Spain] is doing the 50/50 male/female lineup, and that’s a good step. I will say for every amazing male artist, there is an equally amazing female artist that is not being booked.”