“I'm, like, sitting here peeling skin off my lips, rambling,” Jennifer Lee says. “I'm a disgusting person today.”
It is 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon at a coffee shop in Koreatown, and Lee, known as DJ/producer/Low End Theory pillar Tokimonsta, is in the first 24 hours of a cleanse that involves lemon water and no food. She hasn't eaten since last night.
“If I'm rambling,” she says over green tea, “it's because I'm super fucking hungry.”
Lee isn't easy to read. She seems to possess the hyper-awareness of the massively intelligent and the cool reserve of the, well, very cool. Considering her status as the resident queen of the L.A. beat scene, royalty alongside producers (and friends) like Flying Lotus, Teebs, Daedelus and Gaslamp Killer, that sounds about right.
See also: TOKiMONSTA's Half Shadow Release Party
Case in point: A few nights ago, friends and press assembled at restaurant A-Frame in Culver City for a multicourse meal inspired by Lee's upcoming LP Half Shadows (out April 9). For the soiree, Roy Choi — the eatery's celebrity chef, who kicked off the American food-truck revolution — threw jumbo shrimp, popcorn, ribs and pickled vegetables onto tabletops as the frenetic opening tracks of the album boomed from the tricked-out speaker system.
Lee and Choi became fast buddies through Twitter. He's a fan of her music, and his meal was designed to complement tracks from the new album. (Hard to say if that was achieved, but the food was top-notch and the music hit right.) Lee herself got a nice buzz that night and then went out for more drinks afterward, and since then has been lying on her Koreatown couch. “My body hates me so much.”
Thus, the detox. Today, she's wearing an “Obey” T-shirt with a beaded detachable collar, cardigan and wide-brimmed black hat. Her round-framed sunglasses have tiny little visors on them. She's in her late 20s but declines to give her exact age. Her skin is perfect — she is in no way disgusting.
When we meet again in Austin a few days later, during SXSW, the bottom chunk of her long hair will be green and she will have given up on the cleanse.
But Lee's career is proceeding apace. Half Shadows is her second full-length LP and first on dance-music label Ultra, whose roster includes David Guetta, Deadmau5 and Calvin Harris. These are, perhaps, strange bedfellows for an elite member of L.A.'s electronic underground; indeed, she initially rebuffed offers from the EDM mega-label. She eventually relented, however, when Ultra “convinced me that they cared.”
“Nothing is overbearing,” she says of the deal. “They're not trying to put scantily clad girls all over my album.”
This major-label release brings Tokimon-sta to audiences far beyond the Low End scene. At least, she hopes it does. “Everyone wants to go beyond the beat scene,” Lee says. “If they don't say it publicly, they're thinking it.”
While she is in a prime position for such transcendence, bringing her cerebral dreamscape beats to Ultra's world stage won't be seamless. Peep the comments under her videos on Ultra's YouTube page. “What is this garbage?” someone asks under the clip for “I Am a Force,” a spacey mélange of experimental beats with Kool Keith on vocals.
“Those comments make you want to pull your eyeballs out,” she says. “If all I listened to was Tiësto, I would probably think my stuff is weird, too.
“It's hard to get people to understand what I'm doing,” she adds, “but at the same time, it's almost the reason I'm releasing with [Ultra].”
Lee's trajectory began four years ago when she was laid off from an advertising job in the video game industry. Having dabbled in beat-making after picking up production skills while a student at UC Irvine, she decided to focus on music as a career. She spent the first year of the venture broke and living at home with her mom in Torrance, where she grew up. Her work gained traction via play on BBC Radio, and she capitalized on the momentum with a self-coordinated European tour, hitting up promoters and the like via social media and ultimately playing dates in England, Greece, Ireland, Switzerland and Belgium. “For me that was an adventure. I came back with maybe an extra $200.”
Her 2009 debut EP, Cosmic Intoxication, came out via London's Ramp Recording, and the following year Japanese imprint Listen Up released Midnight Menu. Shortly thereafter, Steven Ellison (that's Flying Lotus) asked her on iChat if she wanted to release something on Brainfeeder, which she did with her 2011 debut LP, Creature Dreams.
Lee's work fit squarely in the spacey, experimental electronic music defining the Brainfeeder ethos. Lee's music possessed a certain surrealist quality, stemming at least partially from her nocturnal tendencies. “I like creating at night the most,” she says. “No one is bothering you. You're less distracted, and maybe your brain just switches to another thinking pattern because your body thinks it should be asleep.” During the making of Creature Dreams, she went to bed at 8 a.m.; now, it's more like 4.
During waking hours, she sends emails, reads, draws, cooks and watches a lot of The Simpsons. Various hobbies come and go — there was a brief period during which she made stuffed animals. “I'll read, like, 10 books in three weeks, and then I won't read for years. My friends think it's an addictive quality, but it's just a short attention span.”
From this start-stop creative process comes the music. “Now that it's sort of a career,” she says, “there are blocks where I don't feel as creative anymore. I feel like that happens to me more now than it did when it was just a hobby.”
Half Shadows' lead single, “Go With It,” a bright, hooky collaboration with New York City–based singer MNDR, is more accessible than much of Lee's previous work. “I like the fact that more people can understand it,” she says of the album as a whole, “but not in the way that I'm trying to make my music too easy for people, either.”
Initially, Lee didn't even want audiences to know she was female, hoping not to be fetishized as a function of her gender or for being Korean.
But Lee's online presence is a window to her world; her social media pages have a compelling balance between femininity and goofiness. The Instagram account she set up for her cat (“Isn't that embarrassing?”) has nearly 600 followers. Also in the mix are pictures of her and Ellison, or her and the Gaslamp Killer, smiling and laughing.
“We don't talk about music together, to be honest,” Lee says of her “beyond a label” Brainfeeder family, “but you'll be excited if someone puts out an album. We'll get stoned and barbecue and have a pool party.”
Still, she's well aware that if she is to keep expanding, the time to leave the nest is now. “It's kind of growing up,” she says of Half Shadows. “You have to progress.”
Despite the big-league effort, Lee's long-term goals remain pragmatic. “I just want to be able to feed myself, listen to music and not have to wake up at 7 in the morning. I'll never be able to do that.”
See also: TOKiMONSTA's Half Shadow Release Party