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Tokimonsta Making Her Mark in the Electronic Music Scene

On her latest record, L.A. DJ and beatmaker Jennifer Lee, a.k.a. TOKiMONSTA, urges us to do just that. It’s a strategy that’s worked for her so far.

by EUGENE YI
photo by NIKKO LAMERE

On an unseasonably warm, early spring night in Brooklyn, a fight broke out before the TOKiMONSTA show—one of those elaborate displays of competitive temerity that took 20 minutes to, finally, ignite. It started with a photographer trying to sneak in a bottle of wine, leading to the predictable pas de deux, and ending with a bottle of water being thrown from a passing car at the bouncer. There is no rage like bouncer rage, and as I watched him dash to his car, rev his engine and sear skid marks onto the pavement, I wondered aloud how any show could possibly follow what had just happened.

“No, you can’t go. TOKiMONSTA is sooo good,” said a blonde-bobbed woman behind me, dressed in what could be described as post-hipster understated Americana. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was mere coincidence that a female fan would happen to be doing the exhorting outside a performance by TOKiMONSTA, née Jennifer Lee, from Torrance, Calif., an Asian female DJ/music producer in the largely non-Asian, decidedly male world of L.A.’s beat scene, and electronic dance music at large.

This, of course, raises the usual questions that have framed the majority of the press coverage about TOKiMONSTA. It’s all about the music, and race and gender shouldn’t matter, except, of course, when they do. No one wants to be just a Korean American musician, or just a female musician. But in the reams of coverage she’s garnered over the years, the most common questions have been about the toki(it’s the Korean word for rabbit), and “how does it feel to be a female,” she said during a recent phone interview. There was a hint of weariness when answering the old questions about gender and race—which is completely understandable.

“In the beginning, I wanted to avoid placing emphasis on my gender and my ethnicity because I didn’t want it to be a gimmicky thing. Like I’m trying to attract people to my music with these other non-related aspects of who I am,” Lee said. When she was starting out, as one of the only woman showing up to Project Blowed’s Beat Cypher nights for amateur producers in South Los Angeles, the last thing she wanted to receive was acceptance because she happened to be a she. In early press stills, a rabbit mask obscured her face. The mask is a common tic in the electronic music world (think deadmau5 or Daft Punk), but on Lee, it seemed to emphasize a point. Just listen to the music. 

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As Lee’s career has progressed, she’s been an interesting case study. She’s an artist with a very specific identity, who never sought to play her gender up, nor did she ever seek out a specifically Asian American audience. What she is, of course, is a Korean American woman from Los Angeles, one of the few places in the world where one isn’t forced to be either a faceless beat-making humanoid, or the deterministic product of a pair of XX chromosomes and a Korean upbringing.  But to the rest of the world, her identity became the lens through which to view her. Despite that, she’s been an artist who has strived to see herself as a whole, while the world has sought to impose its notions of Korean-ness and femininity upon her. But over time, her views have evolved.

“Now I want to show my identity and who I am because I feel as though my music can help other females or Asian Americans who are trying to do music,” she said. “It’s kind of unavoidable. I am what I am.”

In a sense, her new outlook is the result of her success.  By going from being a novelty to being a fixture, she’s put herself in a position where her accomplishments can no longer really be threatened by the particulars of her biology.

Just a few years ago, the Low End Theory night at the Airliner, in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, burst onto the consciousness of electronic music fans through the attention of tastemaking BBC DJ Mary Ann Hobbs, who declared it “the most exciting electronic music scene on the planet.” The scene, a close-knit collective of beat eccentrics, suddenly became a Scene. TOKiMONSTA, as the lone female, defaulted into titles like “the Queen of the L.A. Beat Scene” and “the First Lady of Brainfeeder,” the label associated with Flying Lotus, the scene’s brightest star.

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Since that time—an eternity in the electronic music world—the crowds at the Airliner have gotten bigger, and a stable’s worth of heretofore unknown artists have become known quantities, an unexpected development for musicians whose work, to the uninitiated, can seem dense, forbidding and perplexing. During that time, TOKiMONSTA has established herself, living the life of a working musician, filling up her SoundCloud page, touring and, as she puts it, “slowly succeeding.” She just released a new album—not on Brainfeeder, but Ultra, a dance-focused label that has greater resources to promote her album, the symphonic Half Shadows, inspired by Haruki Murakami’s moody novel Kafka on the ShoreLee also toured last year with some of the biggest stars of electronic music, including mainstream tastemaker Diplo, dubstep kingpin Skrillex and the electronic singer-songwriter Grimes.

In that time, Lee has seen plenty of the flipside of pigeonholing: identity-based fandom, with people interested in her solely because of her demographic particulars. Modern technology has incentivized fandom in peculiar ways; the expectation of closeness and relatability to artists has never been higher. It can lead to awkward interactions with fellow Korean Americans, who, speaking for myself, are some of my most and least favorite people.

“People talk to me in Korean, and it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, cool,’” she said, laughing. “[They’ll] say, ‘You’re Korean, I’m Korean, too.’ So it’s like, ‘Bravo,’” she added, equal parts salt and sweet, encapsulating the conundrum for many an artist of color.

Back on her home turf, though, as a Korean American from Los Angeles, she’s part of another scene as well. Los Angeles is one of the places where a creative community of Korean Americans can actually exist. It seems that, for TOKiMONSTA, the time she’s spent grinding away, “first lady” appellations and all, have allowed her to embrace her identity without it limiting her. In other words, she can just be her damn self. Which makes it natural that she would hold the release party for her new album at Kogi Truck creator Roy Choi’s A-Frame restaurant, with a menu curated by the Korean American chef himself.

“Everyone is kind of aware of everyone else. Korean Americans, especially. It’s not a big group of people,” said Lee.

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The two had several friends in common, including the rapper Dumbfoundead, who seems to be able to play the role of an Asian American Kevin Bacon in the six degrees game.  Choi and Lee expressed mutual respect for each other’s work, and when it came time to host a release party for her new album, she imagined what she termed a “social experiment.”

“It’s a dinner party … pairing music with food directly, without one being the backdrop to the other,” she said. “It’s not like eating a pizzawhile you’re [listening to] Jay-Z. Or it’s not like going to a five-star restaurant where they’re playing a little bit of music in the background. [It’s] letting both shine equally.”

Lee said she gave Choi no direction, and the new album allowed him to stretch a bit in creating Korean America’s first dinner party be-in. The album is more sonically diverse than her past work, four movements reflecting her growing ambition.  “The first part of the album is a little more strange and a little more aggressive, and then transferred to a little more upbeat, then sweet and a little more spacey toward the end,” she said.

For the first course (strange/aggressive), Choi covered the tables with paper, upon which the servers threw pickles, ribs and shrimp. It was “kind of like a Jackson Pollock painting.  It was almost his interpretation of my music through food. And it was really amazing,” said Lee.

A customized cocktail accompanied each course, so the DJ admits her recollection of the last couple of courses is a little bit blurrier. One imagines that by the time the last song, the ethereal “Moon Rise,” wobbled out of the speakers, with vocalist Jesse Boykins III moaning like a heartbroken, hyperarticulate Sade over woozy synths layered over everything from bird tweets, crickets and ominous clanking of some distant machine, the churros and gummy bears might’ve gone unnoticed.

“It’s one of the songs I like the most, and I wanted it to end with this really beautiful track. When [Boykins] sent me the vocals for it, I almost shed a tear. It was really beautiful,” said Lee.

Back at the Brooklyn show, two openers warmed the crowd up with their own sets, accompanied by the expected trippy visuals, their names occasionally flashing on the screen, helping to serve as identifiers until the main course, so to speak.

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TOKiMONSTA emerged at last, and it was immediately apparent that she was in a different league. She’s gotten her reps in, it seems. The stuttering video behind her with “TOKiMONSTA” writ large seemed less to identify her than to affirm her stature, with shades of Elvis performing in front of his own name. There’s no way to know if she’d be any less famous if she weren’t female, or if she weren’t Korean American. I’ve spoken to some who became fans for those reasons, and many who were surprised to find out they were bobbing their heads to a Korean American woman’s music.  But everyone who remained fans, everyone who was there at the show, stayed for the music. And as the crowd went crazy during a fast-moving set that climaxed with a remix of Miguel’s “Adorn,” nothing else seemed to matter.

At one point, she cut the music suddenly. “Shout out to my mom and dad in the crowd,” she said, to knowing chortles.  “Now suhnoosheet.”

The music returned. Then cut again.

“I mean, ‘Some new sh-t,’” she said. “I can’t speak English.”

Music. Cut.

“I mean Engrish.”

Music.

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This article was published in the June 2013 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the ”Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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Thursday's Link Attack: Toby Dawson, SNL Korea, Tokimonsta

Skier returns to his roots
Korea Herald

Olympic bronze medalist Toby Dawson has only been the coach for the Korean national men’s freestyle skiing team for a short time but he’s already received a shock.

A month has passed since he settled in Korea, and Toby Dawson, a U.S. Olympic bronze medalist skier, has just found out his real birth date.

“I had a fake birth date from the orphanage, which was Nov. 30 in 1978. But two days ago my dad in Busan told me I was born on May 4 in 1979,” Dawson said Wednesday.

Dawson, a Korea-born adoptee, came to Korea last month after being named freestyle ski coach for the national team. And after his official appointment last week, the 32-year-old sat in a caf in Gangnam, southern Seoul, to speak about his plans here.

“I’m just starting to learn so much now, and I’m very excited,” he said with a big smile on his face.

Seoul Patch vs. Reform Club Pop-Up Battle Royale
SF Weekly

San Francisco-based Korean American chef Eric Ehler will be mashing up his two pop-up kitchens this Sunday.

Some of the menu highlights include seared rock cod with braised kimchi beans, ham hock, and ginger, and salted caramel ice cream with black sesame rice cake and persimmon. To take the evening to the next level, they’ll play K-Pop and a Korean Dramedy on the projector screen. Bang!

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Official Says U.S. Needs Time to Assess Aid to North Korea
New York Times

The United States needs more time to decide on possible aid for North Korea because it is not sure humanitarian assistance would reach the people in need, the top American aid official said on Thursday.

Rajiv Shah, the head of the United States Agency for International Development, made the comment amid growing appeals from American and United Nations relief agencies, which have recently called for urgent aid for the most vulnerable of the North Korean population, especially its children.

REVIEW: Dia Frampton – Red
Entertainment Weekly

With Red, [Frampton] pledges allegiance to no single genre, flitting confidently from Blondie-style disco-pop (”Billy the Kid”) and floaty acoustic folk (”The Broken Ones”) to the kind of big-chorus country proffered by her Voice coach Blake Shelton, who turns up for a duet on ”I Will.” The result feels like a farewell to life on the Warped Tour. B

REVIEW: Dumbfoundead’s ‘DFD’
The Silver Tongue (blog)

Rising out of the very saturated Los Angeles hip hop scene is Korean-American emcee Dumbfoundead, who has been making quite a name for himself through various viral YouTube videos of his exploits as a battle rapper and his latest venture: a media collective/lifestyle brand known as Knocksteady. All of these efforts have lead up to his latest album titled DFD, which hit the #2 spot on iTunes during it’s week of release last month, shocking many as Dumb is an unsigned act that managed to accomplish this feat with the strong fan base he has built over the years.

DFD’s production is very much in the realm of synthy boom-bap with splashes of alternative rock elements that give off a happy-go-lucky vibe throughout the album. Guest vocalists such as American Idol finalist Andrew Garcia and Breezy Lovejoy along with Dumbfoundead himself provide very catchy melodies and flows that have a lot of crossover appeal while maintaining a genuine everyman atmosphere in the track concepts.

Korean Students Struggle at Ivy League Colleges
Chosun Ilbo

The number of Korean students at Ivy League universities is on the rise, but little more than half complete their courses. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, around 110,000 Korean students were studying in the U.S. as of this year, the largest group of foreign nationals for the fourth year running.

Korean-American academic Samuel Kim, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University’s Teachers College, reviewed data of 1,400 Korean students at 14 top universities such as Harvard, Yale and Cornell between 1985 and 2007 for his doctoral dissertation and found that only 784 or 56 percent graduated while the rest dropped out.

Hillsborough gas station owner shot in leg during robbery
St. Petersburg Times (Florida)

Deputies were searching for two men who robbed a gas station and shot the owner in the leg Wednesday night.

Two men walked into the BP station at 9702 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and demanded money. As the two attempted to take money from Tae Chun Kang, 42, the owner struggled with them and a gun fired, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Kang was taken to the hospital with a non life-threatening injury, deputies said.

Korea Tourism Organization wages war on ‘Engrish’
CNNGo

Looks like Engrish.com — the snarky website showcasing error-riddled English signs in Asia — won’t be getting as many submissions from Korea.

How awesome is this? Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) is offering to reward photographers who submit snaps of muddled signs at tourist spots.

The prize? A gift card of ₩50,000 (approximately US$45) that can be used at any vendor that accepts credit cards — otherwise known as free money.

Live From Seoul! It’s Saturday…Really…
Wall Street Journal

Since 1999, the KBS comedy show called “Gag Concert” on Sunday nights has been required viewing for those wanting to be part of the cultural zeitgeist. It’s often called Korea’s “Saturday Night Live” for its influence, though obviously not its format or time.

Now, cable station tvN, which mainly broadcasts variety shows and entertainment-celebrity news, is starting a weekly comedy program called “Saturday Night Live Korea.”

And it will be both live and on Saturday night. The show starts this Saturday.

It will have a cast of 16, nine men and seven women. A celebrity will host each week and there will also be musical guests, just like the original SNL on NBC in the U.S.

Toyota Gains From U.S.-S. Korea Trade Pact
Bloomberg

The biggest beneficiary of the new trade agreement that will end South Korea’s tariffs on U.S.-made cars may be based in Japan.

Toyota Motor Corp. is looking to profit as it fights a rising yen blamed for an operating loss (7203) in its fiscal first half. Japan’s biggest carmaker began exporting Sienna minivans from Princeton, Indiana, to South Korea this month and may do the same with Camry sedans next year, said spokeswoman Amiko Tomita. The Camry was the third most popular import in South Korea in 2010.

Until this month, the 17 Toyota and Lexus models sold in South Korea were all from Japan. The dollar has declined against the won in the past year while the yen has gained.

“Because of a more favorable dollar-won exchange rate compared with the yen-won rate, Japanese carmakers can shift sourcing to the U.S., allowing them to lower their prices in Korea,” said Christian Yang, an analyst at consultant IHS Automotive. “Japanese imports look to gain market share through more aggressive pricing against domestic competitors.”

K.J. Choi leads Tiger Woods in Chevron World Challenge
Los Angeles Times

Tiger Woods birdied four of the first five holes but a red-hot K.J. Choi did Woods one better with birdies at all five to grab the early lead Thursday in the first round of the Chevron World Challenge.

Choi, a South Korean who won the Players Championship in May, went out with a five-under 31 on the front nine holes of the par-72 Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks.

After a bogey at the par-four ninth hole, Woods carded a three-under 33 and trailed by two shots as he headed to the 10th tee.

Preparation of Steelers’ Hines Ward hasn’t changed
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via Boston Herald

The reality is that Ward has had to accept a reduced role since wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery told him three weeks ago that the Steelers wanted to get others more involved in the passing game.

Ward played just nine snaps in Cincinnati, and he caught one pass for 10 yards. Ward started last Sunday night in Kansas City, but he logged just 16 snaps and caught four passes for 21 yards.

“I didn’t ask why or if I was playing bad or the reason behind it. I’ve never once questioned a coach(ing) decision, how they run game plans,” Ward said following practice yesterday. “That’s all that was told me that we want to get other guys the ball. They don’t owe me anything. I just try to go out and bust my tail and continue being the same player. I think you guys wanted it to be about me, but it’s not about me. I’m a team guy.”

TOKiMONSTA: “Swine And Burgers”
Prefix Magazine

Can I just come out and say that Soundcloud is the f-cking tops? I mean, in just the past 24 hours we have been able to hear previously unreleased gems from Brainfeeder’s Flying Lotus and TOKiMONSTA thanks to their accounts on the social networking/music site. The latter just posted a great never-before-heard tune, “Swine and Burgers,” that stems from some recording sessions back in 2009. Why she chose to leave this bumper of a tune off any of her releases is beyond me, but at least we’re hearing it now, right?

Check out our feature story on Tokimonsta from the October 2011 issue of KoreAm.

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Tokimonsta: The Tracks of the Bunny Monster

Photo credit: Theo Jemison

The Tracks of the Bunny Monster

Los Angeles native Jennifer Lee, a.k.a. Tokimonsta, is already a star in the electronic music world. But will her mother believe it?

by Y. Peter Kang

It’s a windy day at the J.W. Marriott Hotel poolside lounge in downtown Los Angeles where electronic musician Jennifer Lee is performing an afternoon set. Lee, who goes by the nome de Tokimonsta, loops the first two notes of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and then lays down the guitar riff from Dr. Dre’s “Xplosive” with some classic James Brown added in for good measure.

“I like doing fun mash-ups of songs that I know people recognize,” she says.

A friend hands her a plastic cup filled with a shot of Jägermeister. She toasts, drinks, makes a Jägermeister face.  All without missing a beat. Continue reading