In 2020, Jennifer Lee was cruising. The producer and DJ better known as TOKiMONSTA was coming off a run of high-wattage tour dates and festival performances, as well as collaborations with some of the world’s most influential artists. She had earned a Grammy nomination a couple years before as well, for Lune Rouge, a mesmerizing prism of a record that built off a decade of creating multi-layered instrumentals alongside luminaries like Flying Lotus.
But then, the world came to a halt. Festivals were canceled, appearances indefinitely postponed. Lee holed up at home like the rest of the world, but she also started exploring new ways to connect with friends and loved ones, while simultaneously exploring new ways to perform and new sources of inspiration.
She began livestreaming sets on a regular basis, and became a fixture of different festivals that had gone fully digital. And like the rest of us, she also started looking for ways to stay remotely connected with her friends and loved ones—which is when she rediscovered her love of video games.
“I haven’t been able to see many friends, and I know everyone else hasn’t either because of the whole state of our life right now,” she says. “But I could connect with them online and play games with them that way… as long as you’re hooked up you can maintain relationships. And even though I’m really bad, I can still participate with my friends.”
Lee’s relationship with video games goes back beyond the emergence of the pandemic; she even worked in the video game industry for a time after graduating from college. She counts influential game soundtracks as a source of initial inspiration for her music. “I would say many people were probably introduced to electronic music via video games, myself included,” she says. “When you start hearing other forms of electronic music outside of video games, you realize it resonates because I’ve already been introduced to that sound from these games.” She’s even worked on remixes of PlayStation game soundtracks and remixes, combining a childhood love with her bleeding edge creativity.
Lee’s road to success hasn’t always been smooth, and there was a time when she wasn’t sure that music was even a viable career. In the late oughts, Lee was living and working in LA, crafting beats and productions in her spare time and enmeshing herself in the city’s creative ferment. She was also a staple at Low End Theory, the legendary club night that incubated some of LA’s most exciting and influential producers like Flying Lotus and Nosaj Thing.
The influence of Low End Theory on today’s musical landscape is hard to overstate, and Lee’s regular gigs and showcases there put her in the middle of a creative ferment that the music industry was slowly awakening to. The kaleidoscopic beats emanating from a small club in East LA were intoxicating, and Lee realized that those deferred dreams of music being the center of her professional life were starting to come back into firm focus.
“The Low End Theory community was very pivotal for me in terms of how it shaped the kind of artist that I would become,” Lee says. “The thing that was cool at Low End Theory was being unusual. It was cool to not follow the norms.” By bucking convention Lee found a community of unapologetic artists and producers who would transform the music scene in LA and beyond. Her 2010 EP Cosmic Intoxication caught the attention of Red Bull Music Academy, and she was invited to play at the London edition. She followed that up as being the first woman to sign to Brainfeeder, Flying Lotus’ hugely influential label and a locus of the boundary pushing production that Lee was famous for.
“2010 was the moment that I knew I could do this for a long time,” she says. “I committed to becoming a musician… I really focused on making this viable for a long time and it took a while for that to happen. I had been making music for a long time before 2010, but I never thought that I could make a career out of it.”
In the years following her big bang, Lee continued pushing the limits of her creativity through sound. She worked with some of the biggest artists in the industry including Anderson .Paak, and ZHU, and continued to build on the momentum she had created out of hustle and skill. But as her career started to crest, Lee faced a new sort of challenge that would alter her relationship with music forever.
Lee had suffered from migraines for years, but it wasn’t until after getting an MRI and MRA—an exam that looks at your body’s blood flow—that her doctors noticed an anomaly in the vascularity of her brain where they noticed an issue. One doctor told her it could be a rare disease called Moyamoya, where issues in the brain’s arterial flow can lead to smaller blood vessels being overloaded and result in a stroke or an aneurysm.
Because Lee wasn’t otherwise symptomatic of Moyamoya following those initial tests, so she was told to keep an eye out for any changes. It wasn’t until 2015, where she lost feeling in her foot during a walk, that she returned for another MRA and found out that the blood flow to her brain had become even more constricted. Her doctors confirmed that she indeed has Moyamoya.
The ensuing years were trying. Getting treatment for a rare disease can be a frustrating experience full of confounding bureaucracy and moving goal posts, but since Lee was dealing with a potential death sentence without treatment there was an added existential pressure to find care. She finally found a specialist at Stanford who suggested she go into surgery as soon as possible; Lee underwent two brain surgeries in January of 2016.
Lee’s road to recovery was long and acutely cruel: Her ability to speak and hear were severely impacted as her body recovered from the dual operations. She had to reform her relationship with creating music, creating new routes to creativity that were unfamiliar and difficult.
But against the odds, Lee thrived. Mere months after her surgery she was back touring, holding thousands in rapture of her psychedelic beats at festivals across the country. The next year, she recorded and released her third album Lune Rouge, a fully-formed vision of Lee’s musical potential that earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. She had found her footing again and then some, even earning a Billboard cover story in 2019.
Those years of perseverance had prepared her for the music industry hitting the pause button during COVID-19, and her ability to adapt, evolve, and find inspiration in everything from video games to the streets of LA has been an invaluable set of tools. Billboard recently sat down with Lee in Los Angeles to talk about video games, music, and how she continues to push her creative limits.