TOKiMONSTA’s new album, Lune Rouge Remixed, comes on the eve of having brain surgery for a rare condition called Moyamoya.
It’s baffling to think that there was once a point in time that TOKiMONSTA thought she was never going to make music ever again. After being diagnosed with an extremely rare brain condition called Moyamoya, Toki, whose real name is Jennifer Lee, was left with two options: sit with it and possibly die, or take action and undergo brain surgery.
She chose the latter. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Toki decided to keep the life-threatening dilemma hidden from the public eye, only allowing close family and treasured loved ones to suffer with her. While the news of a successful procedure up at Stanford University in Northern California brought major relief to those surrounding her, there was another obstacle to follow: recovery.
Toki wasn’t worried about the fact that she couldn’t walk or talk, she was more stuck on the fact that she couldn’t hear music. Even worse, she couldn’t make music. Three months later, she was back performing live shows at SXSW and Coachella — as if her entire life and career wasn’t on the line.
As a jack-of-all-trades, Lee picked up right where she left off: delivering the hardest, grimiest blend of psychedelic hip-hop and dance in true TOKi fashion. Fast forward to releasing her third studio album Lune Rouge, Jennifer took it one step further by announcing a full-length remix album.
On Tuesday, April 3, TOKiMONSTA held a private album listening for her new project, Lune Rouge Remixed, in the form of a dinner at one of her favorite restaurants in Silverlake. TOKiMONSTA is known for using her platform to provide a voice to both known and unknown artists with that in mind it’s no surprise that proceeds from the night will benefit the Silver Lake Conservatory of music, being true to her nature of giving back to the community.The evening was filled with Kettle Back’s fine cuisine as guests enjoyed the playback of the unreleased project.
Okayplayer: Our theme this month is Faith & Religion. How have these two concepts impacted your life before your brain surgery and helped to sustain you through your recovery?
TOKiMONSTA: For me, the idea of faith is the idea of religion itself. And for me, this idea of knowing that there will be peace in the afterlife essentially is what helps me get through this. Because when you have to face the harsh reality that you may not come out on the other end — which is sobering and very unfortunate — you have to comes to terms with, ‘If I don’t make it out, will I be okay with that?’ And I think most of us live without any… we don’t want to live thinking about the moment we’re gonna die. We don’t do that. But for me, that was a big part. So having faith that no matter what was meant to happen was my plan, was the biggest component. Knowing that faith and religion comforted the people around me — you know, my mom is highly religious. She’s really Christian, and so is my sister. And knowing that whatever your belief system is, there is something that will give you peace at the end of this journey.
OKP: How has it played a part in being a professional and traveling musician?
TM: I don’t know. I guess that’s a bit vaguer to kind of incorporate all that. I guess it’s different because it’s not about how it takes me places, but it’s more about how I observe things. Traveling around and visiting other countries, the greatest way to absorb other cultures is to really look at the religious monuments and the way that people exist in their daily lives. And a lot of that is impacted based by faith, religion, and these belief systems. I get to see what it’s like to go to Bali and everyone is Hindu, where as the rest of Indonesia, people are mostly Muslim. Or there’s like these crazy Greek Orthodox churches — all that stuff and to be able to absorb, even beyond — through these people’s faith and religion — you get to absorb their culture.
OKP: Your newest project, Lune Rouge Remixed, is certainly something that the people are waiting for. Can you talk about the inspiration and concept behind the album?
TM: With this remix album, it is almost less about me and more about everyone else. I made this music and I was fortunate enough to have these super talented people come in and put their spin on my art, essentially. And I can kind of see from how people post — what these songs mean to them and how they can go reimagine things. ‘Cause you know, I’m a big remixer. I remix tons of things and a lot of remixing is how you can flip the original. What can you do to make this really dope song dope in a different kind of way? It’s really cool just to see how it’s reinterpreted, and to also repackage these songs so that people can be like, ‘Okay, I’ve listened to this version of the song from the album 100 times. Now I can hear it with new ears because now it’s being presented a completely different way.’ It’s just cool. I appreciate and love the art of remixing.
OKP: Can you talk about any other obstacles you had to overcome to get the project out?
TM: The first album, the biggest thing was really just be able to make music after my brain surgery. With the remix album, it’s different because there’s no intention behind it. You’re like assembling all these different people who may not know each other to create songs. For me, this remix album represents a lot of how I view music, which is I like a lot of different types of music. I got a lot of different types of producers to re-interpret my tracks, which is cool because you can have some space here, fucked up glitchy kind of shit. And then you have things that are more soulful and… I hate to use the term, but like “future beats.” Then there’s some traditional house stuff, and there’s full-on techno. And it shows that even at the end of the day. these are all different styles of music — that the source material for all of this stuff came from me. That just shows how even if the music is different, it’s kind of related in a way or it can be related in a way.
OKP: You remade “Re-Freak” on this project. The originator, Dam-Funk, is one of the funkiest musicians on the planet. Can you talk about how it was to work with him and what lessons you learned from him that you now apply to your own creations?
TM: One of the greatest things about Dam-Funk, other than his music, is just who he is as a person. He lived his life as an example of what a ‘G’ is. He is the coolest cat I know. The main story I always reference whenever I talk about Dam-Funk is, years ago, I played a show with him in London. And basically me and him were standing on an escalator — I think we’re on our way up, right. And then next to that escalator is the escalator going downward. And as the escalator was going downward, this random person just pointed at him and said, “Man, you’re cool.” And right as we’re passing each other, the first thing that he said back was, “Nah man, you’re cool.” He just kept on… just standing on the escalator. It’s like hilarious though, and awesome at the same time. He doesn’t have any ego. He’s a strong dude with his own values and his own creativity, but he doesn’t impose that on to other people — especially within the realm of lots of urban music where there’s a lot of machismo attitude. He’s a solid ass person. And his music is always authentic. He doesn’t do anything else but Dam-Funk. So the remix that he did for me is classic. Classic Dam-Funk.
OKP: Getting a bit deeper into your brain surgery, it was such a serious and harrowing experience. What concerns did you have going on leading into such an operation? And how did music help to assuage or calm any fears you might of had?
TM: Music was… I think even outside of the surgery, music was always therapy. It’s what we can turn to when we’re feeling sad, when we’re feeling happy, when we are celebrating or we’re about to enter a crazy brain surgery. It’s this thing you can turn to that doesn’t judge. When you listen to music, it’s not talking to you. It’s not giving you advice. It’s helping to remove you from that moment and take you somewhere else. I think when I was facing the surgery, I was so overwhelmed by what I was about to go through — but unconsciously.
While I was going through this, I only had… I mean, I found out a month before I actually had the surgery. I found out and immediately scheduled the surgery and had it. I didn’t have a lot of time to process anything. I was full-on in problem-solver mode. ‘What do I need to do? Who are the doctors I need to speak with? What do I have to do prepare for after the surgeries?’ And I didn’t realize underneath the surface and underneath what I was dealing with on the outside, I had all this built-up anxiety forming. I remember just taking an Uber somewhere and I felt fine. I wasn’t stressed out, just sitting in the Uber going home from maybe a party or something and I just broke into a full-blown panic attack, out of nowhere. I had no idea what I was feeling because there was no trigger at that point. I guess my body just freaked out and was like, ‘You don’t realize it, but you’re stressed the fuck out.’ In moments like that, the only thing to help take me away from that is music and also creating music.
OKP: You’re actually from Los Angeles, born and raised — not very many people can say that. How has the city influenced you, your style and your sound?
TM: I always say the same thing in regards to this: if I didn’t live in the city, I don’t know if I would be making music. It was so many things that came together for me in L.A. that brought me to where I am today. The whole sequence of events, like if I didn’t live in the city, who knows what I would have been doing. It’s in a way that I can’t even narrow it down. It’s the people I’ve met, the things that’s happened to me, the influences. These people who have inspired me growing up in the scene, or just being around and going to shows, all these things had to happen in L.A. And if I was anywhere else, even if I went to similar experiences in other cities it’s just… it wouldn’t have culminated to where I am right now.
OKP: What do you think of all the changes that are happening around the city and across California like gentrification?
TM: Yeah. It’s complicated. You know, these ideas of wealth and success and integration and gentrification, things that are meant to be… when someone moves to a neighborhood because they think it’s cool — because it’s dingy and dirty and has all this culture — they don’t realize that they’re so cool that other people are going to try to come in and buy up that space and change the vibe of the neighborhood. And push people out. I see that right now. I live in Koreatown and I’m staring at one complex being built across the street from me. There are like three complexes being built somewhere behind me, and I know that within this area, there a bunch more. K-town, 10 years ago, you would not even be walking on the street, you know? So I can see it happening, but at the same time, then I see wealth being brought into this neighborhood. And these shops and stuff, they seem to be doing okay. But I don’t know, maybe it’ll get pushed out at some point. Maybe all these high-rises are gonna get built up and all these people with small houses are gonna get bought out. It’s complicated.
OKP: Another dope thing about Los Angeles is the food. As a foodie yourself, can you talk about the love of food and why you chose Kettle Black for your private album listening tonight?
TM: Love for food, man. If I didn’t have food, I’d be dead [laughs]. Straight up. It’s like survival and joy at the same time. So many dope experiences could be had just through eating. You just have something and you’re like, ‘I’ve never eaten anything like this before. It is amazing. It is cool. It is disgusting. It is weird.’ Or ‘there’s flavors in here I’ve never experienced.’ No matter what, there’s always some immersive experience happening when you’re eating. You’re taking a thing and putting it in your body — that’s kind of wild if you think about it. Music is immersive too. You are consuming these sounds through your ears and they’re going inside you — the same way that food nourishes you, music nourishes you too. All food is an adventure. Obviously, the foodie culture can be kind of annoying and I’m well aware that taking pictures of my food and shit at nice restaurants and posting them online or whatever, it’s not for everyone. But I just figure if I’m posting food on my Instagram story, just swipe if you don’t want to see it and for the people who do want to see it, I guess recommend a dope restaurant to a bunch of strangers.
TM: Kettle Black is a really dope spot. I think the vibe is nice in there. The food is really good. This is something where it’s collaborative. And I’ve worked with different people in the past, like I’ve done listening parties with Roy Choi on a couple occasions. And I’m really good friends with the people that own Beer Belly in Koreatown, so I’ve let them shine a bunch of times.
It’s kind of like showing respect for someone else’s art. Whether it’s a painter or a chef, I have so much respect for what they do — I can’t do that. In the same way, you might have some chef that’s like trying to make beats and deejay on the side too. It’s like, “it’s what he does, but it’s not all that he does. Maybe he’s not the best at it. And I can cook, but it’s like a hobby and I’m not gonna be a a cook to these people. In terms of answering your question with Kettle Black, they were down to collaborate and I’m always down to create a new experience with other people.
Also, it’s in Silverlake. That’s kind of my hood in the same way that K-town is. It’s cool to have people out there come out and have a good time.
OKP: Music is your first love, what would you be doing if you weren’t doing music?
TM: I don’t know. [Laughs] I haven’t had to think about that. I haven’t had to think about what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing this. I used to work in video games before I started music full-time. Not making them, but I was basically working on licensing and also helping producers — video game producers. I feel like I would still want to participate in that part of entertainment because video games are tight and people in the industry are really cool. It’s a lot less pretentious than other areas of entertainment like music, acting, and so on. So maybe something there, I just don’t know what I would do. Probably have to start from the bottom.. .again, at this point [laughs].
OKP: What should fans of TOKiMonsta expect from your live show and new album?
TM: My live show is always a journey and I always try to preface that to the audience when we start so that they know that when the show starts it’s not going to be just one sound going on for an hour and a half. You’re going to experience a lot of different quarters of music, a lot of different quarters of my music. And also share moments together that are in celebration of classic tracks that we both know. So the main goal when I’m performing is that the audience is having fun, but so am I.
We’re all kind of learning a little bit about music, learning a little bit about the experience, but also just having fun and letting loose. But also going deep and getting there, and getting a little emotional — all those different kind of feelings. With this new remix album in particular, everyone gets to experience the album from new eyes… not eyes, ears. With a new spin on it. I don’t know. I can’t think of a smart way to say that. It’s Lune Rouge, but it’s not.
If I had collaborated with all these people… I’m really happy with all the tracks and how diverse they are and how well done they are. I really appreciate all these producers that came in and did their thing.
Stream Lune Rouge Remixed below and keep an eye out for when TOKiMONSTA comes to a city near you.